The Song Keepers (PG)
Rating: 5 / 5
Good films have a profound effect on the human psyche and great films stop you in your tracks and claim your total attention. When they finish, you are left wanting more.
That’s the effect the documentary film The Song Keepers had on the preview audience I attended.
Director Naina Sen took four years to make this remarkable film about the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir and its quest to take its extraordinary voice on a tour of Germany.
In the 19th and 20th centuries Lutheran pastors brought their traditional hymn tunes to Indigenous communities in central Australia, and those communities absorbed this musical heritage into their 60,000-year-old culture, which has led to the unique sound of this superb choir.
According to the women in the film, many of the Lutheran missionaries at communities such as Hermannsburg learned the local languages. The old lyrics were then translated into Arranta and Pitjantjatjara languages, which kept the tunes alive.
This film is a story of cultural survival and celebration, and it becomes a truly cross-cultural celebration as we follow the women on their journey.
The linchpin of it all is choir director Morris Stuart, who describes himself as a black man born in Guyana who moved to Britain as a young man, fell in love with his Australian wife, and who has been working with choirs for many years.
It’s Stuart’s drive, together with sterling administrative backup from Lutheran pastor Robert Borgas, that compels him to visit several outback communities near Alice Springs, searching out the small choirs still existing, and bringing them together to create the touring choir.
This means Stuart is negotiating communication in two different Indigenous languages, and dealing with some women who communicate mostly in their own language, so at times there is a lot of translation needed.
But the spirit of joy and goodwill is the overriding quality here, and with that, communication difficulties are overcome.
Taking older women who have never had a passport or been overseas, and who often don’t have birth certificates, is a huge undertaking, but the film shows that with determination much can be achieved and everyone wins.
We are often bombarded in the media with negative Indigenous stories; however, this documentary is a journey of joy and positivity. It’s so easy to fall in love with these joyful women, who have quite a few natural comedians in their midst.
A special scene shows the choir performing at the home village of Pastor Carl Strehlow, who was a revered missionary at Hermannsburg. An added joy for the choir was the presence of Strehlow’s grandson, but everywhere they performed in Germany they sang to rapt audiences who were delighted to hear the old Lutheran tunes reinterpreted by the choir.
Morris Stuart is a charismatic choir conductor, but it’s obvious that he and the choir are a team, and as they learn from each other, the result is an outpouring of passionate joy about music and life. This is a documentary not to be missed.
Highlight: The inspirational joy of the film’s subjects
Red flag: None