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Thomson of Arnhem Land
Directed by John Moore
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film stillIn 1933, a state of panic erupted in Darwin, Australia, after Aboriginal clansmen killed five Japanese fishermen and 3 white men on the east coast of Arnhem Land. Donald Thomson, a young anthropologist, volunteered to go to Arnhem Land to try to prevent the race war that people feared.

Thomson knew the Aboriginal clans were simply resisting invasions of their land, and acting in self-defense, while understanding that the official policy of 'protection' for the Aboriginals had failed. He proposed a scientific study of the Yolngu culture, to enable the development of intelligent, just policies.

For two years he lived with the Aboriginal people, learning their language and customs. He came to an understanding with the great Yolngu leader, Wonggu, and promised him that the government would respect the Aboriginal traditions, if the clans kept the peace.

Thomson's 1937 report to the Australian government argued for the recognition and protection of Aboriginal culture, and outlined a plan for land rights. He focused on the importance of the Aboriginal relationships to the land, and their complex social, cultural and economic structures.

Thomson emphasized the need to regulate the impact white culture had on this increasingly fragile civilization. But his opinions won few supporters, and his report was ignored.

After World War II, which he spent organizing the Aboriginal Reconnaissance Unit to protect against Japanese invasion, Thomson continued his life long fight for Aboriginal rights - through the Prime Minister Menzie era, through increasing isolation from the anthropological establishment, until his death in 1970.

His legacy is a collection of over 10,000 photographs and 7,000 artifacts that document traditional Aboriginal life in extraordinary detail. The Thomson Collection, housed in the Museum Victoria in Melbourne, is considered one of the most significant ethnographic collections in the world.

© 2011 National Film and Sound Archive of Australia

"An engaging biographical look into the relationships and work of Donald Thomson. Well-told and documented. As a resource for teachers, [this film] could be used in anthropology classrooms as the catalysts for discussions about the history and policy implications of ethnographic knowledge. Furthermore, [it] encourages students to consider the ways in which larger national political agendas affect the research of individual scholars and vice versa."—Visual Anthropology Review

"Highly Recommended! Wonderfully done... The viewer gets a picture of a great anthropologist, along with a better understanding of the native peoples of Australia. This film would be an asset to any general college anthropology collection."—Educational Media Reviews Online

"This exceptional video-story of his legacy offers lessons for still-shaping policies that affect indigenous cultures and peoples around the world."—Dr. Cynthia Pon, Editor, Teaching Tolerance

"Does a splendid job of portraying the man, his times and his tribulations."—Anthropology Review Database

2001 Award of Commendation, Society for Visual Anthropology
2001 American Anthropological Association Film Festival
2001 FIPA: International Audiovisual Programmes Festival
Commendation, Media Peace Awards 2000 (Australia)
Best Editing, 2000 AFI Awards
Winner, 2000 Magnolia Awards
2000 Astra Film Festival
2000 New Zealand Film Festival
2000 International Festival of Ethnographic Film (RAI)

55 minutes / Color
Release: 2001
Copyright: 2000

Study guide available

Subject areas:
Anthropology, Australia, Cultural Anthropology, Ethnography, Indigenous Peoples, Native People

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