(This story contains names and images of deceased indigenous persons)
Sydney’s acclaimed Bangarra Dance Theatre have based their acclaimed new work, “SandSong”, on Ningali Lawford-Wolf’s metaphorical knowledge dilly bag which contains the songs and stories of her country, the East Kimberley.
Ningali was an award winning stage and screen actress. She starred in Phillip Noyce’s movie “The Rabbit-Proof Fence” and the stage and film version of “Bran Nue Dae.”
She tragically passed away in 2019 while on tour in Edinburgh with the stage production of “The Secret River.”
I am looking at a photo of Ningali and my heart fills with love for her. What a woman. I first came into her orbit when I saw her one-woman show at the Sydney Opera House. I had never seen anything like her before – this skinny, cocky, young black woman who owned the stage and who let us into her world. It was magical and transformative.
We floated out into the cold night afterwards and there she was, hands in pockets, chatting to us theatre goers. I had no idea then that Ningali would play such a pivotal role in the making of the movie, “Rabbit-Proof Fence”. This tells the true story of three girls taken from Jigalong, a depot on the rabbit-proof fence, and transported to a “native settlement” outside of Perth. The girls, led by Molly the eldest, run away and make their way back home by following the fence which runs the whole length of Australia.
Years later and Ningali has been cast as Maude, the mother of Molly and Ningali’s mother, Mayarn.
As producer I’m talking to the Jigalong mob who are involved in the filming. Molly, 82, and Daisy, 76, her youngest sister, still live in Jigalong. The Jigalong mob are concerned about only one thing – that the language spoken in the film be their common language (they have about 5 languages) – that is, Wangkatjunka.
I ring Ningali, “Hey Nings, what language do you speak?”
“Wangkatjunka” comes the reply!!! So Ningali and her mother Mayarn and a small mob of women join us from Fitzroy Crossing for the filming. Their presence infuses the filming and grounds it. Makes it real.
There is a scene in “Rabbit-Proof Fence” where Maude is collecting her rations at the Jigalong depot. The Superintendent of the depot has told her that Mr Neville is interested in Molly.
Maude cracks a joke. “You tell that Mr Devil,” she says, “that if he wants a black kid he should make his own.”
The expression on Maude’s face is one of pure delight. She is a strong woman and the joke is a good one. Moments later she hears the sound of the policeman’s car. She sees the car and knows in an instant what is up. She lets out a scream. “Run you kids!”
That scream went through all of us that day on the set. It was the end of the day and we finished filming there. But that scream was a portent of what was to come.
The next day we filmed the “taking” scene. Maude (Ningali’s) scream should have warned us but it didn’t. We film the running, the car, the policeman grabbing the kids, Maude’s frantic attempts to save her kids, “my own”, Mayarn’s head bashing in grief.
At the end of it we are completely devastated. The Aboriginal extras have all crept up to watch. The camel wrangler man has gone to hide in a ditch – he had been “stolen”. Ningali’s dad was taken. It was as if, only now, that we realised what taking a child was. What stealing a child was. Only now we learned that every aboriginal cast member, crew and extra had had someone stolen from their family.
Just as David Gulpilil as the Tracker guides those kids home – or at least allows them to get home, so Ningali and Mayarn guide those kids home, all the way. Do you remember that look on Maude’s face when the fence man tells her, “Hey Maude your kids have gone. They’ve run away.” She knows that they will make it back and she and Mayarn sing them home.
So, Ningali, my heartfelt thanks to you and your mob. This will always be your film. Such a presence, such strength. Such an honour to know you.
Writer/Producer, “Rabbit Proof Fence”
(first screened in 2002)