Trust, relevance and a small rock-wallaby: interview with Saving Warru filmmaker Dan Clarke

Artist interview: documentary filmmaker Dan Clarke 

Dan Clarke and Amy Pysden are the filmmakers behind Ninti Media. I asked Dan a few questions about their film Saving Warru that’s appearing at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival.

For those readers who don’t know what the APY Lands are can you tell us a little bit about where you work?

The Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands is a beautiful 103,000 square kilometre sparsely populated area located in the far northwest of South Australia. It is an Aboriginal-run local government area that is home to about 2300 people living in small desert communities. My partner Amy Pysden and I lived in the tiny community of Pipalyatjara for three years, which is located close to the 3-way border of Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory. Home to about 200 people, it is a stunning red desert location, situated between some beautiful rocky ranges where a small population of warru still live, somehow surviving amidst the threat of feral animals such as cats and foxes. 

And what is warru?

Warru is the Anangu word for black-footed rock-wallaby; one of South Australia's most endangered mammals. Once common across the rocky ranges of central Australia, there has been a dramatic reduction in their distribution and abundance.

This small nocturnal wallaby is found amid rocky outcrops and the soles of its feet are highly textured to prevent slipping on rocky outcrops. It is generally greyish-brown with a paler belly and chest, a dark stripe running from its head down its spine, and it has a dark tail and feet.


What was the first spark that led you to tell this story?

We first heard about the project to save the warru when we arrived in Pipalyatjara in the APY Lands in 2013. As a former environment journalist, I was immediately drawn to this project and I joined some indigenous rangers from APY Land Management on an annual trapping exercise in the nearby ranges. I fell in love with the animals as soon as I saw their faces and witnessed their incredible agility when bounding across massive boulders and up cliffs. Their speed and balance is truly incredible and we hope the film shows people how special these creatures are. I knew from that moment that we needed to make a documentary about the warru; a film that could also focus on the incredible efforts of local indigenous rangers and ecologists that work in such remote areas to save these types of species. 

You’ve got a lot of partners on board for Saving Warru, has that been a help or a hinderance for the creative process?

We initially received a grant from the Community Broadcasting Foundation to make the film but were lucky enough to pick up extra funding during production from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. We also worked in cooperation with APY Land Management and other local organisations. It was important for us to work hand-in-hand with Anangu and other conservation stakeholders because of their decade-long investment in the project and the fact we were being granted exclusive access to the field trips. To their credit, none of these organisations burdened us with creative interference. We had full creative license and were able to tell the story in the way we wanted to. Spending a year in production, it helped that these organisations could see we had the right intentions and they were willing to assist however they could, which was especially important in such a remote location. I doubt other productions with multiple partners would be given such freedom but we benefited from the trust we had built up with the local people during our three years living in the APY Lands. 



Did you have a large crew with you for production?

Due to the remoteness of the locations we kept our crew to a minimum. Cost and travel time is a major factor in the APY Lands. Field trips required camping in -3 degree weather for 6 straight days. Often it was just myself shooting guerilla style with one or two cameras. Luckily enough, Ethan Dagg - one of the indigenous Warru Rangers - is also a very talented videographer/photographer. His cultural advice, skilled video work and enthusiasm for making the film was invaluable in producing the final product.  


How long were you shooting on location for?

We shot the film over 12 months with numerous week-long trips from Adelaide to the APY Lands (a 2-day drive). It was important for us to spend a year documenting the development of the project and this timeline enabled us to capture the climactic reintroduction of the warru back into the wild. 


You have some spectacular aerial footage in the film. Has the development of drone technology changed the way you tell a screen story?

Yes, this was the first film in which we incorporated drone footage into our production and we haven't looked back since. For a story about an animal that lives on desert mountains, we wanted to show the vastness of the land, the incomparable beauty of the rocky ranges and the remoteness of the environment in which the warru live. Aerial videography was vital to convey the sheer size of the area that the Warru Rangers work in, and our partnership with environment organisations allowed us to utilise their drones that also doubled as a research tool for their work. Drone footage has allowed us to bring a more cinematic quality to our films, which has become all the more important for modern-day documentary making. 


How important was it to you to get locals involved in the production?

We train and/or employ indigenous crew in all productions that tell an aboriginal story. We respect the fact that we are filming on Anangu land and want local voices to be heard in the filmmaking process. Saving Warru is about the plight of an endangered species but perhaps more importantly it is a tribute to the work of indigenous rangers, their love and respect of the land, as well as their cultural connection to the black-footed rock-wallaby. We would not have made this film without their vital input into the production. Many of the rangers pushed for certain scenes to be filmed and included in the documentary and were extremely enthusiastic about spreading their conservation message. We utilised Anangu for sound crew, camera work, translation and cultural advice. Their confidence and openness in front of the camera was vital to the success of the film.  


How do you think the film industry can better enable indigenous stories to be told?

It was our connection and intimate understanding of the people and places in the APY Lands that made this film a success. I think the film industry can often be guilty of focusing on stories or people that are easily accessed. Despite the growing popularity of indigenous documentaries, stories about those living in the most remote areas are often ignored because of their perceived lack of relevance to a city audience, and issues with access. In our experience, even the most shy of Anangu are keen to tell stories if they trust the film crew. This requires patience, understanding and a level of knowledge that a "fly-in" crew just can't obtain. We would like to see more indigenous/whitefella co-productions that combine local knowledge with contemporary story-telling techniques. Saving Warru is in many ways another great example of reconciliation and there are a myriad of these stories that are waiting to be told. 


I noticed you used a lot of indigenous artists for the music in the film. Was that a matter of convenience or design?

We always endevour to use music from local indigenous artists in our films. We were lucky to have close relationships with many of the bands in the APY Lands and some of the whitefella producers who record their music. We feel the music provides an authenticity of indigenous ownership of the production. The local musicians also get a massive kick out of seeing their tracks used in films such as this. 

It seems like the perfect time to tell this story as we are reminded every day of species becoming endangered or going extinct. Do you think Saving Warru has lessons for other people working in conservation?

The reintroduction of warru to the wild for the first time after 10 years of work to grow their numbers was a remarkable feat of success in conservation terms. Wild reintroductions are most often unsuccessful because of risks associated with feral predators in uncontained areas. This was a project that was carefully planned and thought through by Australia's leading ecologists and local indigenous rangers. It shows clearly how scientific research and cultural knowledge can be used in unison to bring about a solution to save our precious wildlife. Too often these projects are run without this level of cooperation and mutual understanding. Once again, the level of patience is vital to seeing through such an ambitious and costly plan. A decade of dedicated work led to this positive outcome for an iconic Australian animal. It is this kind of commitment and investment from government and conservation groups that is going to be needed to battle our looming environmental crisis. 


What is the most important thing that you hope audiences take away from Saving Warru?

Most people have no idea of the amazing work indigenous rangers around Australia do to protect our nation's wildlife. I hope Saving Warru is a shining example of the kind of positive social and environmental impacts aboriginal rangers can have when working on country. I also believe the film highlights the rising threat of feral cats and foxes. What shocked me the most during filming was learning how many feral cats live in the APY Lands, one of the most remote locations in the country. It shows that feral cats are a problem in every corner of Australia and their spread and threat to rare and endangered mammals is at catastrophic levels. 


Do you know what audiences are most strongly responding to in the film?

Without doubt, audiences have responded to the incredibly deep connection Anangu have with the warru and their country. It has also acted as an eye-opener to the commitment of ecologists to save species in some of the most remote and at times dangerous locations in Australia. Feedback has also revealed that the images of the stunning landscape has had a profound impact on viewers. Many people think this part of the country is a flat red desert with nothing on the horizon. The film shows just how varied and beautiful the central desert is and how important it is for this part of the world to be protected from invasive plant and animal species. 


What else do you have on your slate at the moment?

We are just completing our first documentary television series called Saving the Sanctuary. It is a family friendly 4-part series that reveals the fascinating history and remarkable rehabilitation of the world-famous Warrawong Wildlife Sanctuary in the Adelaide Hills after its closure in 2013. We also continue to make documentaries about indigenous identities for NITV's Our Stories series. We have some major conservation feature film projects in development that we are hoping to find funding for in the coming year. 

Find out more about Saving Warru on the Ninti Media website or see the film for yourself at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival.