Visual Ethnography Competition 2020 Film Winner: Love Letter to the North by Mardi Reardon-Smith


Love Letter to the North


Mardi Reardon-Smith


The work is a medium-length ethnographic film (38 minutes). It was made in 2018-2019 during my PhD fieldwork in south-east Cape York on Lama Lama, Kuku Thaypan, Olkola and Guugu Yimithirr country. I worked with non-Indigenous cattle station families, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service rangers, the Lama Lama land trust rangers, and Rinyirru Aboriginal Corporation rangers and their families. The film depicts a variety of land-management activities including cattle work and fire-management, and day-to-day life in Cape York. It includes music by Brisbane duo Richard&Linda and Sydney band G2G.

Artist’s Notes:

This experimental ethnographic film is a visual essay to accompany my doctoral research about ethical connections to land in Cape York Peninsula, far north-east Australia. It is equal parts an ode to the people and landscapes of that place – the homemade biscuits, stoic cattle, salt pans, red dirt, bushfire sunsets and hard-talking locals – and to the slow work of ethnographic research. Using the non-narrative style of sensory ethnography, this film explores some of the ways that people use and care for landscapes through the two recurring themes of cattle and fire. Cattle and fire are both non-human agents who shape and mediate all-too-human relationships, as well as relationships between people and landscapes. In some ways they point to the complicated histories of intercultural relationships in Cape York, and to the contested visions for the future of the region.

By staying with slow moments – a station woman slowly slicing up part of a cow carcass, the gradual trickle of a controlled burn through the savanna, the tussle for power between stock-workers on quad bikes and unruly cattle – rather than relying on narration or dialogue, the film asks the viewer to pay attention to the everyday investments of time, labour, knowledge and resources that are required to build meaningful relationships between humans and the more-than-human.

Before leaving Sydney, where I live, to go to Cape York, I read ‘I swear I saw this’ by Michael Taussig. His meditation on the value of different kinds of visual data – mostly drawings – opened up to me the question of what counts as data and what kinds of things, feelings, sensations might we only be able to capture through the visual. I started filming without too much of a plan – just recording things that seemed strange or beautiful or idiosyncratic. And because fieldwork develops its own sort of rhythm and pace, so too did the footage. This film is a bit raw and rough and ready, a bit anti-aesthetic, but I hope that it does give people a sense of the specifics of this place. I love how Chantal Ackermann has said she wants people watching her films to really feel the time they spend in the cinema. She’s not an anthropologist but many of her films achieve what ethnography ought to – a feeling. The way she draws moments out, to invite the viewer to notice, was something I very much tried to emulate in making this film. In doing that, I was also reminding myself to keep noticing, to continue to pay attention to people, to interactions, to relationships, to cattle. My camera reminded me to keep watching closely, even as my life in Cape York started to feel more and more normal.