New doco series Stingray Sisters looks at NT Traditional Owners fight against oil giants

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Stingray Sisters
Three-part film series
Directed By Katrina Channells
Released on August 9
Watch at www.stingraysisters.com

Stingray Sisters is a deeply moving three-part documentary highlighting the story of three Aboriginal sisters, Noni, Alice and Grace Eather, and their return to Maningrida in the Northern Territory, from schooling in Brisbane.

The sisters find themselves involved in a growing struggle within their Arnhem Land community against plans by oil companies to drill for oil and gas both on land and offshore.

The series filmmakers, Katrina Channells and Bridget O'Shea, said: “We're releasing Stingray Sisters in the lead up to the Northern Territory election [on August 27].

“Fracking is the number one election issue this year and a strong theme in our documentary, so it's perfect timing.”

Whether the issue of hydraulic fracturing for coal seam gas mining remains the primary issue in the elections, in light of the scandal of human rights abuses against Aboriginal youth in NT juvenile detention centres, is now debatable.

But undoubtedly, the issue of fracking — and the broader question of the campaign by Aboriginal communities to defend their traditional land and sea rights against big mining and gas companies threatening their sacred sites and the environment — will be key.

The campaign website, ProtectArnhemLand.org, said that Paltar Petroleum has applied for an exploration lease covering over 1500km of Arnhem Land coastline. The area under claim runs from the Coburg Peninsula in the west to the Sir Edward Pellew Island Group in the south-east. The claim extends up rivers and estuaries, up to the high water mark.

The proposal has no requirement for separate approval for mines to develop into full mining production. The mining company does not need to produce an environment impact statement for exploration.

It is not required to spell out the environmental risks of mining exploration, nor is it required to explain how it will manage any environmental risk, nor restore the environment when any mines are disbanded.

In the series, Alice says: “People keep asking us what we think about exploring for oil and gas in Arnhem Land waters, and all we keep saying is 'no', 'yakka', 'goma', 'no'.

“We're going to raise our voices to fight for our country.”

Episode 1 of the series begins by setting the scene for the sisters' complex but heartwarming story. It introduces their mother, Helen, “Kikka” (pronounced Gikka), and their father, Michael Eather, “Babba”, a Tasmanian-born artist who arrived in Maningrida in the 1980s. Helen and Michael soon fell in love and the three sisters were born.

Helen is a highly respected Traditional Owner and elder of the Maningrida community. The youngest sister, Grace says: “She does so much for us, and for the people. She is on so many boards and is passionate about the community.”

At schooling age, Michael and the three girls moved away to Brisbane, where the sisters gained a good education in the Balanda (white) system. “I didn't want family to forget who we were here, I didn't want them to think we were just the three girls who moved to Brisbane and never came back,” says Grace. “It was painful at times.”

However, after graduating from school, the sisters were drawn back to their Maningrida homeland.

This moving segment of the story underlines the tension between two starkly different worlds, Indigenous Maningrida and urban Brisbane. But it also highlights the creative ability of the sisters to move between the two and use their contrasting experiences to contribute to both societies.

At one point, the sisters are worried about their mother's health when she has to go into hospital in Darwin with heart and respiratory problems. “Mum is that rock for us,” Alice says. “The day we have to say goodbye to mum, that's it, we're going to have to work even harder.”

They are a close-knit family, but the sisters are each doing their own thing as well. Alice is studying to become the first Ndjebbana-speaking teacher in the country; Noni is a child welfare worker in the local community; while Grace is also studying.

The third episode of the series sees Alice travel to Sydney as part of an Indigenous delegation, supported by environment groups, to challenge the Paltar company at their headquarters in Martin Place. For some of the younger members of the delegation, it is their first time out of Maningrida.

“We've got friends in the city,” Alice says. “We can join together to fight this gas mining.

“Hydraulic fracking fractures the earth with toxic chemicals. We have come as messengers, representing the mob. We want the government to ban all drilling for oil and gas in the Territory.”

Stingray Sisters is a testament to the struggle of the Aboriginal people of the NT for genuine land and sea rights, and against destructive mining on their traditional homelands. The series is a compelling story about family, sisterhood, community and fighting to protect your home.

But the series also provides a powerful story of the other side of Aboriginal life in the NT: the strength of community in defending their rights, and traditional land and culture against the threat of big mining corporations invading and pillaging their land and sea.

Finally, it is an emotional tribute to the strength of three sisters and their parents. They are overcoming the divisions between white and Black societies to help build a better, more just and co-operative society in which the human spirit triumphs over racism and exploitation.

The series is beautifully filmed and captures the wonderful characters that exist within a remote community.

The series is launched online with a video on demand service on August 9. Produced with a micro-crew by Yarn, a Melbourne-based documentary production company, and funded by crowd-funding campaigns and grants, this is a labour of love for Yarn founders.

It was directed by Channells, a childhood friend of the Eather sisters, and produced by O'Shea.

“We wanted to go find our audience where they already are,” O'Shea said. “It was important to tell this story to the biggest audience possible. And to do that, you have to engage with people on their phones and laptops.”

By teaming with a number of affiliates, including Lock the Gate Alliance, Yarn has found like-minded partners who can help the story have the greatest impact.

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