Naming the dead

This weekend I went to the cinema to see the film Under The Skin. Much to my surprise it was sold out. This film has been out here for several weeks already and, despite the presence of Scarlett Johansson, isn’t exactly a summer blockbuster. Forced to decide between just going back home and choosing another film, I looked at the other dozen or so films on offer. I wanted to see Boyhood but that was already half an hour into its showing, and the only other possibility was Tracks. It wasn’t high on my “to see” list, but it was on it, so that’s what I went for.

It tells the story of Robyn Davidson, who trekked alone across 2000 miles of Australian desert with a few camels in 1977. It’s a beautifully shot story of a woman who just wants to be alone in the wilderness, and how hard that proves to be. There are also some interesting insights into both Australian and Aboriginal society, but to be honest the most fascinating part came before the opening credits. An onscreen caption warned “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers should exercise caution when watching this film as it may contain images and voices of deceased persons.”

Afterwards I looked this up online and found that indeed many Aboriginal tribes prefer not to name or publish images of the recently deceased as they feel that it would disturb their spirit in the afterlife. During this period (which may last between one and a few years) a generic name like ‘Kumantjayi’ is used to refer to the deceased. But it also leads to some problems, as noted on wikipedia:

“This presents some challenges to indigenous people. In traditional society, people lived together in small bands of extended family. Name duplication was less common. Today, as people have moved into larger centres, with 300 to 600 people, the logistics of name avoidance have become increasingly challenging.

Exotic and rare names have therefore become very common, particularly in Central Australia and desert communities, to deal with this new challenge.”

There’s also a bizarre anecdote on this website about how names given to Aborigines by white settlers were affected.

The one thing that remains unclear to me is to whom, in this specific case, are they referring? I mean, if the real deceased person is portrayed onscreen by an actor, does that still count? Or is it because someone who acted in the film died after filming was completed? I guess they probably mean the post-credits scene where we see photos of the real Robyn Davidson and the Aboriginal elder Mr Eddy. Davidson is still alive and attended the film’s première, but I imagine Mr Eddy is long gone by now. Which is a shame because he was one of my favourite parts of the film. It’s worth watching if you get the chance.

But I still hope to see that Scarlett Johansson film some day soon.