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Preserving Aboriginal Culture: Dylan River

Tales by Light was a very personal journey for cinematographer Dylan River, who comes from a family of Aboriginal storytellers. His parents are film makers and his grandmother co-founded CAAMA, the first Aboriginal broadcasting organisation in Australia.

Inspired by the broadcast work of his pioneering grandmother, River wanted to continue her legacy and learn more about her life, documenting some of the surviving Aboriginal cultures of the Northern Territory of Australia.

River’s Tales by Light journey begins in Alice Springs, as he visits people and communities to offer them a chance to record the ceremonies and way of life that they want preserved.

photo of Dylan River

“Storytelling has been in our culture for thousands of years, it’s very present in Aboriginal culture, the oral history, and the rich storytelling.  I was born in the desert, but we moved to Sydney when I was a child. Growing up in Sydney is a long way from the desert, but also it’s a long way from my Aboriginal heritage,” River said.

“When I was invited to take part in Tales by Light, the conversation was open about what I wanted to do and, for me, it was about not taking something from someone else, it was about giving back.”

Dylan River

For River, a love of photography began very early. One of his first memories was his parents giving him cameras for his birthday. By the age of five he was using disposable cameras before he began taking photos with reusable cameras.

“I just loved taking photos, because photography was something that was always encouraged by my parents. My grandmother was a photographer and my dad was a cinematographer, so story telling has always been in my family. Moving to cinematography was just a natural progression for me. My love was always the camera side of life.”

Dylan River photographing a Wardaman person

Dylan’s Tales by Light journey took him from the remote river country of the Wardaman people to the coast of Arnhem Land where the traditional salt water customs are still practiced.

The crew spent several days with the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land. The connection that the Yolngu have with the ocean and the coastline in which they live is said to be incredible. Cutting spears out of the forest, shaping them in the fire and then ultimately catching fish to eat was something the Tales by Light team felt very special to witness.

photo of the Wardaman people, image from Dylan River

Those days culminated with a very special Bungal (crocodile) ceremony. The men spent many hours preparing and painting themselves before beginning the Bungal just on sunset.

“I initially proposed the idea of going back to places I’d been before, places that I have special connections and relationships with. My parents both drummed into me the idea that if you’re going to do something, do it with importance, tell a story that’s important. I’m just so very happy to be a part of this,” River said.

portrait of the Wardaman people before a Bungar ceremony, image by Dylan River

Dylan sees film as a powerful way to preserve history for both the traditional owners and Australia as a whole.

“My wish is for people to get a unique insight into Aboriginal culture, to feel a sense of ideology, the connection to the land, the peacefulness. That’s very important for me to feel that people take something special from this episode.”

Dylan River

“I hope I’ll have other opportunities to keep going out to film Aboriginal culture, it’s an obligation, being Aboriginal and having the skills to make something important, document something that will be preserved forever.”

With both of River’s parents being filmmakers he feels quite a huge pressure.

“I feel like I’m still just a big kid that’s making stuff to take home to show my parents and hope it makes them proud. With my other films and all the other things I work on, I don’t really care what other people think as long as my parents are happy about what I’m doing and are proud of me.”

Tales By Light is now showing on Channel 10, Sunday 12:30pm.