People of the Australian Western Desert

Ian Dunlop

Australia’s pioneering documentary film-maker embarked on a visit to the Western Desert in 1965. The 19 films that resulted in the People of the Australian Western Desert series are a landmark in the history of the documentary. More material about Ian Dunlop and his work will shortly be published on this website. Set out below are a section of some notes prepared by Dunlop in 2002.

Ian Dunlop
Ian Dunlop with Spencer (Nuni) Banaga, son of Djagamarra and Gadabi, from the first part of ‘Desert People’, filmed in 1965.

The Film 

Ian Dunlop writes:

These notes have been prepared to supplement the film material shot in 1965 and 1967.

They supply background information and are not intended as a study guide. They replace earlier notes I wrote in 1960s/70s.

The term “Western Desert” is used in Australia to denote a cultural and linguistic, rather than topographical, region. It covers an area of over 1.3 million square kilometres, embracing a large part of central Western Australia and extending into the Northern Territory and South Australia. The Aboriginal people of this area  share a common language (with important and group-defining dialectal variations) and culture.

Once European settlement began around the fringes of the Western Desert, there was a gradual movement of desert dwellers away from their traditional lands and their nomadic hunter/food-gatherer life. They began to congregate in and around the cattle stations, church missions, government settlements and towns situated on the fringes of the desert.

In the 1960s, this exodus from the desert was accelerated when a few basic dirt roads  (such as the Gun-barrel Highway) were built through the heart of the desert as part of the infrastructure for the Weapons Research Establishment’s Woomera Rocket Range, which lay far to the south-east in South Australia. These roads enabled Government patrols to rapidly enter this huge area and offer transport to the remaining desert dwellers so that they could join their kin already on settlements.

Today, this nomadic way of life has gone, but the desert people retain considerable mobility, travelling large distances around and beyond the desert to visit kin, attend funerals, and participate in ritual activities. The social and religious aspects of Western Desert culture remain strong in the many communities now based in Aboriginal townships and smaller outstations in the Western Desert.

In 1965, following a proposal by me, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS), now the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, agreed to sponsor a film project in the Western Desert. The Commonwealth Film Unit (CFU) for whom I worked agreed to produce this.

My objective was to try to film the daily life of some of the last Aboriginal families still living a nomadic life in the Western Desert. There were, as far as I knew, only a handful of families still living this life-style somewhere in the heart of the desert, somewhere in an area of about a half a million square kilometres.

If I was unsuccessful in finding a group, then I hoped to find a family that had been living on a mission or settlement for only a short time, and was willing to go back to its own country to re-enact for the camera aspects of its former hunting and gathering life.


On 30th April 1965, I set out from Alice Springs with Richard Tucker, a very talented  cameraman, (and, as I soon discovered, a brilliant bush mechanic) and Bob Tonkinson, who was then a postgraduate student carrying out fieldwork at Jigalong Mission on the western fringe of the Western Desert (and who was, later, to become Professor of Anthropology at the University of Western Australia).

Bob was the only person I knew who spoke any Western Desert dialect. He was to be linguist, anthropological adviser and general production assistant. We enlisted the help of various guides from Warburton Mission, but by far the most important one was Paul Porter Djarurru.

Approximately 25,000 feet of 35mm black and white film was shot. I cut this into ten record films, PEOPLE OF THE AUSTRALIAN WESTERN DESERT Parts 1-10, with a total running time of approximately 3 hours. These fall into three clear sections

(i) Parts 1 and 2 – Djagamarra and his family whom we met in the desert;
(ii) Part 3 – restricted material; and
(iii) Parts 4 to 10 – Minma and his family, who were then living at Warburton Mission and agreed to return to their own country for filming.

From this material I also made a more interpretive “day in the life of” film, DESERT PEOPLE, using footage from the daily life sequences in the other films. Two years later, in 1967, a Native Affairs Officer from the Weapons Research Establishment, Bob Verburgt, told me hehad met three families living a nomadic hunter/food-gatherer life some 180 kilometres northwest of our 1965 filming location.

Following this information I submitted a further film proposal to the CFU and the AIAS along the lines of the 1965 proposal. This was accepted and I mounted a second expedition again with Richard Tucker as cameraman, Paul Porter Djarurru as guide, and with Chris McGill as production assistant.

A further nine films, PEOPLE OF THE AUSTRALIAN WESTERN DESERT Parts 11-19, were made from material filmed on this trip.  Like the earlier films, these were all 35mm black and white (except Part 19, which was shot in colour). Part 12 of this second series, AT PATANTJA CLAYPAN, is a general daily life film (equivalent to DESERT PEOPLE from the 1965 trip).

Over each of the nineteen films (or parts) I give a sparse factual commentary. Not having location synchronous sound  I added no other sound except some singing and storytelling (recorded on location) over the film titles.


Australia, First series     

Direction, editing and commentary: Ian Dunlop

Director of Photography: Richard  Howe Tucker ACS. Studio sound: Frank White,Gordon Wraxall,  Anthropological Advisor: Robert Tonkinson. Producer: John Martin-Jones.

Production   Commonwealth Film Unit for the  Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Second Series

Direction, editing and commentary: Ian Dunlop

Director of Photography: Richard  Howe Tucker ACS. Studio sound: Frank White, Julian Ellingworth, Producer:John Martin-Jones

Production   Commonwealth Film Unit for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.