skip to content
Ronin Films

Shop for a film


Year: 1974

Classification: Exempt - Ronin Recommends: PG

Runtime: 53 min

Produced In: Australia

Directed By: Curtis Levy

Produced By: Curtis Levy

Language: English narration and Tiwi language with English subtitles

price includes GST and postage

Vimeo on demand

Because of work commitments and the influence of Christian Missions, traditional mourning ceremonies among the Tiwi people of Melville Island were becoming rare at the time of making this film (1974). The full, elaborate ceremony, called the Pukumani ceremony, lasted several days and involved large numbers of people in ritual roles. It was performed here with full awareness that this may be one of the last times such a ceremony would be staged in the traditional way.

The ceremony was prepared by the Mangatopi family of Snake Bay after the death of a 35-year old family member killed by his wife. The dead man's father, Geoffrey Mangatopi, and his family requested this film to be made as a public record of a disappearing tradition. Unique to the Tiwi people of Melville and Bathurst islands, the Pukumani ceremony was not only performed to safe-guard the passage of the dead person into the spirit world, but to re-affirm kinship relationships and traditional Tiwi culture.

In 1974, about 1500 Tiwi people lived in European-administered communities on Melville and Bathurst islands. Being geographically isolated, the Tiwi were less subject to other Indigenous cultural influences. Although resistant to white settlement at first, they subsequently adapted to the presence of Europeans. Yet for many Tiwi, Christian funerals failed to ensure the ritual journey of the dead to the spirit world, and failed to provide the emotional release that the Pukumani ceremony offered.

Traditionally, women participated in all aspects of the ceremony (unlike women in many mainland tribal ceremonies). Elaborately decorated burial poles were prepared and were the focal point of the ceremony. Food taboos and other restrictions on behavior were intended to control the approach of supernatural forces. Body painting, dancing, re-enactment of past events, feasting and ritual cleansing were all essential parts of the ceremony, designed to ease the path of the spirit. Each kin group has their own dance, rehearsed and performed over several days, defining relationships and re-affirming them.

Shot in classic observational style, with great attention to detail, and often humorous, the film became widely seen in anthropology studies, and was screened publicly in many venues around the world.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCE: the DVD includes a short interview with director,
Curtis Levy (recorded in July 2013), about the making of the film.

Director and Producer Curtis Levy
Photography Oscar Scherl
Narrator John Gaden
Editor Ronda MacGregor
Field liaison Richard Miller Mangatopi
Anthropologist advisor Maria Brandl
Sound Rick James
Linguistic advisor Charles Osborne

An AIAS Film Unit production - 1974 - English narration and Tiwi language with English subtitles

Ronin Films wishes to advise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that this film may contain images and voices of deceased persons.