Mparntwe/Alice Springs-based filmmaker and Kaytetye man DYLAN RIVER comes from a long line of First Nations storytellers, writes curator Kelli Cole, Warumungu/Luritja peoples.
Storytelling is at the core of First Nations’ existence. Just as Country is essential to our identities, so is telling a story. In fact, story is inseparable from Country. It is how we know Country, how we respect it, care for it and pass it on as rich, embodied knowledge for the next generation.
The story is an act of belonging, rich with relationships, connections and lore. It is also an act of resistance and of truth-telling.
Filmmaker Dylan River agrees: “My parents drummed into me the idea that if you’re going to do something, do it with importance, so if you’re going to tell a story, make it important,” he says. “Storytelling has been in our culture for thousands of years — it’s very present in Aboriginal culture, the oral history and the rich storytelling. I loved taking photos because photography was something that was always encouraged by my parents. My grandmother was a photographer and my dad was a cinematographer, so storytelling has always been in my family. Moving to cinematography was just a natural progression for me.”
If the eyes really are the window to our soul, then Dylan’s films can be seen as monuments of Country and messages from our Ancestors. Onscreen, the artist, cinematographer and director (who happens to also be my nephew by marriage) captures intimate moments of cultural significance, stories of the past, important stories that need to be retold.
Dylan describes his work as a form of activism for his people: “There have been a lot of filmmakers before me … fighting for First Nations people’s voices. It is up to me and this other wave of filmmakers to keep that and keep fighting for it. We still have a long way to go for the country to be as proud of our Indigenous heritage, but filmmaking is one way to do that.”
For the 4th National Indigenous Art Triennial: Ceremony, Dylan is developing a new work that explores and celebrates his profound connection to Country through macro photography. The work features extreme close-ups of his Kaytetye homeland north of Mparntwe/Alice Springs, as seen through Dylan’s eyes. It is a technically ambitious work, with Dylan using a specialist camera with a macro lens.
Born and partially raised in Mparntwe, Dylan hails from a remarkable family lineage and is no stranger to the arts. At the heart is his grandmother Freda Glynn, who co-founded the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA), Australia’s largest Indigenous broadcaster, in 1980 to promote First Nations music and culture. During the 1988 Bicentenary, while non-Indigenous people were celebrating 200 years of colonisation, CAAMA Productions was established so First Nations people could have a voice in their own language in film and television. This extended to 8KIN FM, the first Aboriginal radio station in Australia.
CAAMA has since become a breeding ground for boundary-pushing filmmakers, directors, producers, cinematographers, sound engineers and all-round First Nations storytellers. Actress Deborah Mailman credits “Aunty Freda” with helping provide the training that allowed Aboriginal people to “sustain the culture and languages of Central Australia”.
The first wave of CAAMA filmmakers included a veritable family tree: Dylan’s aunty and Kaytetye woman Erica Glynn, his father, Kaytetye man and director Warwick Thornton, Rachel Perkins, Arrernte/Kalkadoon peoples, who is the director sister of Hetti Perkins (curator of the Ceremony exhibition), and my cousin Beck Cole, Warumungu/Luritja, who is the mother of Warwick Thornton’s daughter Luka May Glynn-Cole. It also included my sister Danielle MacLean, Warumungu/Luritja peoples and her production partner, writer, director and producer Steven McGregor, and writer-director David Tranter, Alyawarra people. Dylan’s cousin Tanith Glynn-Maloney, Kaytetye/Luritja peoples, joined CAAMA in 2002 as a trainee. Years later she she went onto work on Erica’s 2018 documentary about Aunty Freda, She Who Must Be Loved.
Most of the family have worked on one another’s projects in various capacities, including Dylan, who has won many awards and accolades for his direction and cinematography. Dylan was second unit director on his father’s acclaimed feature Sweet Country — which won six AACTA awards including Best Film in 2018 — and on the TV series The Beach and Mystery Road. Dylan also wrote and directed the web series Robbie Hood, a black comedy about a precocious teenager growing up in Mparntwe/Alice Springs, which won Dylan and his cousin Tanith, who produced the show, the 2019 AACTA Award for Best Online Comedy or Drama.
Black comedy is a way in which First Nations people make light of subjects that are too hard to discuss; it strengthens the morale of the oppressed and undermines the morale of the oppressors. We make fun of ourselves and take ownership of it as Blackfellas, and series like Robbie Hood are a way of responding to this.
Despite growing up surrounded by people in the industry, as a child Dylan was indifferent when his family spoke about their work as filmmakers. Although born in Mparntwe, Dylan grew up off Country in Djubuguli/Sydney cove with his mother and his sister Rona Glynn-Mcdonald. Rona is now CEO of the First Nations-led not-for-profit Common Ground, which promotes and elevates First Nations people through a digital platform. Dylan sits alongside his sister on the Common Ground board and the siblings are among the new generation leading the way with truth-telling for First Nations people.
But Dylan was born with sand and adrenaline pumping through his veins and he returned as a teenager to Mparntwe. There, he spent his formative years at the foothills of the Tjoritja/MacDonnell Ranges, chasing the dream of the Finke Desert Race, an off-road, multi-terrain two-day bike, car and buggy race that begins in Mparntwe and continues throughout the desert to the Aputula/Finke community.
It became the subject of Dylan’s documentary Finke: There & Back, a fast-paced tale centred on the iconic race and its motorcycle enthusiasts. There are myriad characters and it is a wonderful, emotional personal insight into a sport and the participants — including Dylan, who has raced eight times. The title references the act of racing: you just have to get there and back and survive.
Dylan makes films with a timeless nature that pulsate with connection to his family and Country; there is a beauty and interconnectedness within his pictures. As well as his work for the Ceremony exhibition, Dylan has been working on numerous solo projects. His work as a cinematographer fills most of his time and motivates him to stay behind the camera, telling stories close to home, combining life and work as one.
It is filmmakers such as Dylan and his family who have embraced technology and exponentially transformed the way in which First Nations people have been documented and recorded. From capturing our child’s first steps to recording the stories of our Elders — many of whom spent their adult life not wanting to talk about their hardships — our songlines and our stories are important, are being told and are finally being heard.
Kelli Cole is Curator, Special Projects, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the National Gallery and is part of the curatorial team working on Ceremony. This article is from the October 2021 issue of Artonview, the National Gallery’s magazine for Members. Become a Member today.