[A shorter version of this text was printed to accompany an installation in The Box, a video exhibition space at the Wexner Center for the Arts in May 2012.]

Karrabing! Low Tide Turning (Liza Johnson and Elizabeth A. Povinelli, 2012)

With the exception of a handful of personal, artisanal artists, filmmaking has historically been a collaborative art form. This makes it all the more remarkable that the collaboration at the heart of Karrabing! Low Tide Turning feels so exciting and extraordinary. The video was written and performed by the Karrabing Indigenous Corporation (KIC), an innovative group committed to maintaining the way of life of indigenous Australians within the context of the modern world. In conjunction with one of their founding members, Elizabeth A. Povinelli, an author and professor of anthropology and gender studies at Columbia University, they selected American filmmaker Liza Johnson to help them realize this unique work.

Johnson, an Ohio native currently living in Brooklyn and a professor of art at Williams College, caught the attention of KIC and Povinelli with two previous short videos featuring non-professional actors performing fictional scenarios (based on their lives and circumstances) in documentary environments. South of Ten (2007) is a wordless portrait of New Orleans residents performing mundane-but-heightened tasks in makeshift post-Hurricane Katrina landscapes. Johnson’s next video, In the Air (2009), saw her return to her hometown of Portsmouth, Ohio, to collaborate with students at the town’s Cirque D’Art circus school in creating this portrait of escape and promise against a backdrop devoid of hope. Those two works have both screened in The Box in recent years, so we’re particularly pleased to be able to present Karrabing! this month, rounding out a trilogy of Johnson’s collaborative fusions of narrative and documentary. [The Wexner Center’s Film/Video Studio Program also provided support for the creation and completion of In the Air and Karrabing!.]

The first shots of Karrabing! gently introduce viewers into the living space of an extended indigenous family during the torpor of a midafternoon nap. Without the eyes of her relatives upon her, one of the women in the family slips out the door, strolling toward parts unknown. A knock on the door from a housing inspector rouses the slumberous clan, who are then faced with the urgent task of locating the household’s peregrinating matriarch before they lose their government housing. This opening scene sets up the rhythms of Karrabing!, which presumably mirrors the rhythms of the lives of the community that it portrays. The tightly knit family – and the film itself – constantly and suddenly shifts from states of calm inactivity, moments of existence where little interrupts the pure existence of being, to frenzied flurries of motion and banter. Over the course of Karrabing!’s marvelously modulated and tightly packed 14 minutes (it’s a great talent to be able to create such a fully realized world in such a short period of time – these are indelible characters that you want to linger with longer), the filmmakers explore these antipodal tempos. But, as should be the case with any successful work of art, things are more complex than that binary simplification. One of the video’s finest grace notes occurs when a number of family members are tightly packing into a truck searching for the errant Gigi. Amidst the din of the family’s arguments about what their agenda and search route should be, one of the children in the back seat stretches out to turn up the radio. The voices recede a bit to the background and, by adding more din to an already chaotic atmosphere, for a brief moment in the back seat the kids are able to revel in a exhilarating space created by a cocoon of family and motion. In this endearingly genial mileu, even a glorious ruckus can induce a delight in the pure existence of being.

This passage to the purposeless within a purposeful moment seems to stem from the state of poverty that Karrabing!’s family lives under. This tenuous existence on the margins of modern society, without much of a safety net, means that the simplest issue – a missing family member, the lack of phone reception – can throw the family’s trajectory out of orbit. But such disruptions also allow for moments of improvisation, resulting in strengthened bonds, taking pleasure in the world around them, and an entirely different experience of the world than one dictated by routine. (The improvisational nature of the video – and the other works in Liza Johnson’s trilogy – feels harmonious with the existences of the subjects.) Speaking of routine, the extended family at the heart of Karrabing! is clearly drawn to their traditions, the lure of the bush is too great to resist, even in a time of crisis. But they’ve found a way to stay open to the modern world without losing their heritage. Folk songs can exist alongside Nelly. There’s a way to read this as a culture’s legacy being lost increasingly with each younger generation but, as portrayed in the film, it comes across as a representation of a maintaining of traditions alongside an existence in the modern world. Rather than a cloistered existence, this community has found a way to keep its identity by placing it in dialogue with contemporary existence. (When we meet the grande dame of the family, it’s a bit of a surprise to see her wearing a t-shirt of the Australian contemporary country singer Lee Kernaghan.)

But, as the video does, let’s return to and end with the peripatetic Gigi who, like a female version of a Bruce Springsteen character, “went out for a ride and never went back.” Her character is a beautiful enigma. But it’s productive to think of her in relation to the two Saramaccan travelers in Ben Russell’s Let Each One Go Where He May (2009). Gigi is shown viewing the options around her, and she chooses to just keep walking. Unlike in Russell’s Amazon journey, she doesn’t seem to be rejecting the things she’s leaving behind. Instead, she’s searching for a way to create her own space. She ends at the beach at low tide. An extraordinarily long shadow trails behind her as she surveys the usually submerged landscape in front of her. New possibilities lie in front of her. Perhaps they were there all along, but they required the force of her will and hungry heart to seek them out.

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Liza Johnson and Elizabeth A. Povinelli
Karrabing! Low Tide Turning, 2012
(14 mins., video)

© The Ohio State University/Wexner Center for the Arts. Reproduced by permission.

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 Karrabing! Low Tide Turning