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Australia, 1994 (MIFF 1994, Documentaries)

Director: Trevor Graham

On December 1,1942, a US airforce bomber crashed in the south-east corner of the Gulf of Carpenteria after a bombing raid over New Guinea. Four of the crew survived and, thinking they were near Cairns, naively set off on foot. Their story later made world headlines, but as it was playing out, as they wandered the Gulf coast, another version was being written not very far away, but in a very different language.

The Yanyuwa aboriginal community had seen the bomber (Little Eva) coming down and had set off to find it. They searched for days, but the only planes they saw were the Tiger Moths sent out by the Yanks to find the missing aircraft. However, they did return with something else - The Aeroplane Dance, a spectacular corroboree that retold the story of the search. The Aeroplane Dance passed the event down into local folklore and, eventually, back into white culture.

Today the Yanyuwa men and women who searched for the American airmen are old. The Aeroplane Dance is rarely performed now, and each performance may well be the last. Yanyuwa, the only extant language with both male and female dialects, is spoken by fewer and fewer people.

Trevor Graham's fascinating film weaves together four key elements of the story in an effortless manner; the historical retelling of the incident through white eyes, the ethnographic account of the surviving Yanyuwa, the filming of The Aeroplane Dance itself and a daring but very effective dramatisation of the lost airmen's wanderings (shot in a deliberately cheesy 40s B-movie style). With a telling coda as to the threatened survival of the Yanyuwa language and culture, Graham has created a complex but highly accessible documentary that directly, or otherwise, addresses a whole range of issues of white contact with the land and its indigenous cultures.

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