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.


7 thoughts on “Naming the dead

  1. Erik R. July 22, 2014 / 9:26 am

    As I often opine, movies where one actor is in almost every frame always impress me. Castaway, 127 Hours and Moon (2009) are the three that come most readily to mind. The protagonist of such films is almost never an actress, so this was a nice change. Mia W. nailed it! She’s got a bright cinematic future, I think.

    Under The Skin looks very bizarre. I’m probably going to watch it, but I have a suspicion that I may hate it.


    • simonlitton July 22, 2014 / 9:29 am

      I do wonder how many people went/go to see Under The Skin thinking “Alien sex vamp film! Cool, just like Species and Lifeforce!”.


    • simonlitton July 23, 2014 / 1:16 pm

      In my experience camel movies are generally better than horse movies.


  2. J July 27, 2014 / 11:10 pm

    I’m stuck thinking about your horse/camel movie comment. I adore horses, and camels are kind of strange, so my first reaction is, WHAT? Then, to be honest, I stopped and thought about it. I think you’re right. Have you seen “The Story of the Weeping Camel”? It’s wonderful. “The Black Stallion” was pretty good, as a horse movie, but I think “Weeping Camel” is still better.

    I’ve never heard of any of the films you mentioned, actually, except “Boyhood”, which we saw yesterday and LOVED.


  3. AllisonI. July 29, 2014 / 6:56 pm

    ^Ha, your comments box says “Your opinion is important to us.” Promise?

    I appreciate this post. I haven’t heard of the film but it seems fascinating based on your review.

    I have some issues with Under the Skin, but overall I think it’s quite good. Boyhood, damn. It’s more than just a film. It really is THAT powerful. Have you seen Ida? It’s another must.


    • simonlitton July 29, 2014 / 7:09 pm

      Well of course *your* opinion is important, Allison.
      All of those films are on my list. Hoping to make some progress over the next few weeks.
      Although obviously Guardians of the Galaxy will have to take priority when that comes out.


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