Director Naina Sen embeds with the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir as they prepare a repertoire of Baroque hymns, taught by 19th-century Lutheran missionaries, and take it back to amazed audiences in Germany.
Screened as part of NZIFF 2018
In Australia’s Central Desert, west of Alice Springs, a 140-year musical legacy of ancient Aboriginal languages and German Baroque chorales is being preserved by four generations of women who form the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir. The Lutheran hymns they sing were brought by missionaries who translated them into the local Arrarnta and Pitjantjatjara tongues. The rich choral harmonics of these 16th-century hymns feel innately sacred a world away from their origins, and no lover of the repertoire will want to miss this movie.
The men in the communities have, for the most part, long defected from the missionary legacy which, several of the women here attest, disrupted traditional culture to protect women and children. Though it’s the arrival of a charismatic male conductor from outside that galvanises the choir into taking a tour of Germany, filmmaker and installation artist Naina Sen’s film feels like privileged admission into an enclave of indigenous women.
Sen spent three years alongside the Women’s Choir where, she reports, “nothing happens without long-term thought and consensus.” Earthed in the colourful landscapes and traditions of Central Australia, her camera follows the women to the small Lutheran churches of Germany, where they sing to amazed German congregations.
The choir’s joy is palpable (and the fun they have on the road is infectious). There's no simple takeaway from this cross-cultural exchange, but its complexity is underscored by the most uplifting language of all: human song.