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Karrabing Film Collective
They pretending not to see us...
28.4. – 18.6.2023

Karrabing Film Collective, They pretending not to see us.., Ausstellungsansicht, Secession 2023, Foto: Iris Ranzinger

The Karrabing Film Collective is an intergenerational grassroots media group of around thirty Indigenous filmmakers and Elizabeth Povinelli, who has known and worked with Karrabing members and their parents and grandparents for almost forty years. Karrabing lands stretch along the coast from across the Darwin harbor to Anson Bay, Northern Territory. Karrabing’s films reflect their multidimensional relationships with each other, their land, their ancestors, and human and more-than-human life. They tell stories of their fraught relations with the Australian government, the lingering effects of white settler capitalism, repression by the police and authorities, and white Australians’ failure to recognize Indigenous ways of life.


In Emmiyangal, one of the traditional languages of Karrabing members, “karrabing” means “low tide turning.” When the tide is out, reefs, coves, and mangroves are accessible for collecting seafoods and many of the group’s sea-based totems are visible. “Karrabing” is thus a word that refers to one condition of the tide but also a concept. It points to the ancestral and ecological interconnections among their lands and the violence of Western forms of property as boundaries. Filmmaking serves several functions for Karrabing. On the one hand, it is a way to seize the initiative and agency and tell the filmmakers’ own stories. On the other hand, it is a “school” for the group’s children—filmmaking lets them transmit knowledge across generations, and traveling to exhibitions and screenings, they get to know the world. Last but not least, the films meet quite pragmatic needs: they are occasions to come together, strengthen the group’s vision, and travel the land. And as they travel to make their films, the group follow the tracks laid down by their human and more-than-human ancestors. This form of care—visiting totemic ancestors—keeps them from becoming “jealous,” feeling disregarded. To know their land is to “sweat into the land.” To belong to a place is to be in its presence.




This artistic manifesto describes the collective’s technique and approach to filmmaking. Working in the tradition of an oral history, the group develops the ideas for its films in a communal and conversational process; most of the footage is recorded on iPhones. Over the years, the Karrabing Film Collective has developed a characteristic film language in which layering and superimposition suggest the multidimensional interweaving of plot strands and reflect the simultaneity of temporal registers in their everyday lives. Just as the “ancestors” are not gone, racism and colonialism, for the Indigenous population, are not in the past.


At the Secession’s Graphic Cabinet, the Karrabing Film Collective premières its most recent film, Night Fishing with Ancestors (2023, 24 min 37 sec). “The film asks what other history could have been possible if the Europeans had never invaded and Indigenous people and Macassans had continued to trade foods, stories, and other things. We think that would have been a great history. Unfortunately, the Europeans came and they just keep coming, disaster after disaster. Makes your hair stand on end just thinking about it.”(1)


Divided into six chapters with a total running time of just under twenty-five minutes, the film traces an arc from the era before European colonization, illustrated by the amicable exchange with the neighboring Macassans, across Captain Cook’s arrival in 1770 and the traumatic experiences of the Indigenous population brought on by the ensuing colonialism such as massacres, epidemics, and forced displacement, to past gold and diamond rushes and today’s excessive mining and, in the final scenes, the noticeable effects of climate change.


In the staircase leading up to the gallery, sprawling collages of images and writings in Karrabing’s characteristic layering technique spotlight central challenges that Indigenous peoples have confronted since the dawn of colonialism and still confront today. Historic photographs and maps, video stills and texts blend into one another, speaking to historic and present-day injustices, to colonial power relations and the quest for self-determination and independence. The messages could not be any more explicit: “They pretend not to see us,” “white people only want what is valuable in their eyes,” “then they tried to massacre us so we wouldnt be there,” “another history still exists in the sands.”


1. Natasha Bigfoot, Katrina Lewis-Bigfoot, Rex Edmunds, Cecilia Lewis, Elizabeth A. Povinelli in conversation in the book published in conjunction with the exhibition.


In the book accompanying the exhibition, the group’s members provide insight into the genesis and context of their most recent film. A collage of images and writings introduces us to fish traps built by the ancestors, the bonds between people and their land, and their efforts—which include their films—to pass down their traditions and myths to their children. An extensive essay by the anthropologist, filmmaker, and activist Massimiliano Mollona discusses Karrabing Film Collective’s work with reference to Third Cinema and positions it within Indigenous or Fourth Cinema, which, as an instrument of decolonization, points the way toward “unlearning imperialism.”


Karrabing Film Collective. No Storyboard, No Script, photo: Iris Ranzinger

Karrabing Film Collective
Programmiert vom Vorstand der Secession

Kuratiert von
Bettina Spörr

Vereinigung bildender Künstler*innen Wiener Secession
Friedrichstraße 12
1010 Vienna
Tel. +43-1-587 53 07