In early 2019, we looked to western New South Wales, watching one million fish turn up dead in Menindee Lakes and Baaka (the Darling River).
The story of the floating Murray cod was difficult to comprehend. There was a cold snap and the rapid decomposition of blue-green algae which suffocated the fish. There was the contentious draining of a massive lake system, which might have otherwise had enough water to stabilise.
Of course, there was another story underlying all of it. The growth of a cotton industry in the northern Basin over the past few decades. The theft of water from First Nations people before that. Changes in our laws and our lives that turned the river into a commodity.
The film When the River Runs Dry sets out to explore how the tragic fish kills took place and how they resonated through the communities that live along the river.
We recently hosted an online screening of When the River Runs Dry followed by a discussion with Peter Yates, the film’s researcher and writer, and Aunty Steff Armstrong who was featured in the film. She is a Gamilaraay woman from Northern NSW but currently lives and works in Victoria. She is a mother, sister, aunty and proud nana of one.
Our discussion is available to listen here as an audio file.
The film is available to view for a limited time on SBS On Demand.
This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
Tyler Rotche: I really like the story of how the film came into being. You’ve talked about seeing the footage of the Murray cod after the Menindee fish kills and, from what it sounds like, pretty much just getting into the car with your son Rory, the director of the film.
Could you talk about when you knew that this project would be a film? What story were you looking to capture that you felt other media was missing?
Peter Yates: Well, yeah, we were sitting here, these days living in Maldon, and saw that video from Tolarno Station, Rob McBride and Dick Arnold in the river picking up dead cod and this was just harrowing stuff. We were looking at that and seeing that we just need to do something different.
I said, ‘We just need to go get in the car. Let’s just go and document this.’ Rory is a filmmaker, he’s got all the gear, and I’m an anthropologist and I just had a real sense that the media was telling us about the dead fish. They were not telling us about the impact of this killer event on the First Nations people who live along that river.
Within an hour, we’d packed the car and we were gone. And, you know, the mere seven or eight hour drive up to Menindee to start chasing down the story and filming — a process that then took many, many weeks to finish, and I’m sure we can be up there even now.
Tyler: There’s an interesting movement to the documentary and, in a lot of ways, I think it mirrors the experience of trying to understand what’s happening in the Basin. The film starts with a dry riverbed, talking about the power of the river, what it means, the sustenance that it provides and the gravity of the theft of the river.
Then maybe 15 minutes in, we get all the terms, with gigalitres, sustainable diversion limit, efficiency measures and all the rest.
I’m interested in how you and Rory navigated through the jargon. What questions were guiding your story and how did you keep your bearings, wading through all the complexity and detail?
Peter: To some degree, we didn’t keep our bearings. We did our best. But yes, it was incredibly complicated.
We headed out there and we started talking to people, hearing this jargon that we really weren’t familiar with. The brain’s going nineteen to the dozen, trying to make sense of it. And all the while, I’m thinking, there’s people hurting and those are the First Nations people — and their story needs to be told.
Yet all the while, you can hear this other stuff, the stuff of governments, the stuff of bureaucrats, the stuff of irrigators, this other language. You can see right from the word go that First Nations people have no access to this language. It’s so specialised, it’s so alienating that there’s no way that your average person in Brewarrina is going to get their head around this talk.
Gradually we built up a picture from those conversations. Really just talking to people about how this affected them or what was going on. And what was very clear is the whitefellas all had a really complicated story about why it had to be this way. And the Aboriginal side, they knew that something had been stolen from them. This was up and down the river. So you start to see that at a cultural level, you have a complete disjuncture, there’s no communication going on.
Aunty Steff Armstrong: Yeah, and I suppose because you’re just surviving and you’re fighting for just the right to live in some of those places.
It’s again politicians and bureaucrats that make it difficult for us to wade through. And relationships are really important for Aboriginal people, you know. That’s the core of the whole thing.
We trust people would do the right thing. But time and time again we’ve seen that frustration of being left out of conversations and, you know, pushed into a corner. So we try to find our way through that.
Then once you get corruption, when money is put into place, then we miss out.
Peter: One of the things that I was shocked about was the amount of money involved in this. We have a cotton industry worth in the order of $2 billion a year and we’ve got investors in water and in cotton to whom $100 million is just nothing.
And then you have First Nations people who have nothing. The disparities along the river are shocking. This is all made possible by the theft of that water.
We had to take the river from them in order to turn it into mega wealth for a few. I’m still staggered by that.
Aunty Steff: Well, it’s again this same thing, isn’t it? We all spoke about what you value. I was at a discussion last week with people in the Kimberley, fighting for their river up there. And we heard of New Zealand where the river has been given the value which it is, which is a living thing, you know. It has its own rights.
It’s been here and a part of the way that we think these tens of thousands of years. And yet again, someone can come in and put a different value on it.
Across the world, we use water in a whole range of nations, in a whole range of rituals. Water is used in whatever form that you see and is appreciated in that sort of instance. And we understand we can sing to water. Do you know what I mean? That the song that lies within water is precious.
If you look at meditation, there’s a whole range of people just listening to water run. So if water is used to heal us, we should be healing water as well. It’s a reciprocal thing.
We’re only part of this world, you know, we’re here for a very short time. And so in that reciprocity of things, we should be looking after and caring for the river just as it cares for us.
Tyler: One of the things the film centres for me is that the Basin Plan, in lot of ways, misses some of the key truths of the river. And you see it especially when it talks about the Menindee Lakes, which have been a meeting place for twenty three thousand years. And there’s discussion of emptying it out quickly so that less water evaporates, so that more water can be captured upstream.
In missing those truths, I think it calls on a lot of us to be students, in some respect, of this other way of understanding our relationship to water and to the river system. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on that as an educator, Aunty Steff. What’s the attitude for being a good student? And what are those conditions that make for good learning?
Aunty Steff: It’s like anything, isn’t it? It’s a sense of listening. Those who have the capability to listen well and take time, we know that those people who are the best listers in our world that have spent all their lives in this presence of listening to others with humility are the people that we look for as far as humanity and being humble and being able to, you know, bring people along.
Your greatest gift is listening. And the ability to listen to country deeply. There are people like Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, you know, who speak of deep listening. And the river has its own voice.
Like I say, it tells you things and it knows things that we don’t know because we have only been here a short time. It’s been here all that time. What grows and what forms on the floodplains is special. Those insects, those birds, those plants have all seen things long before us.
So if the first thing we did was sit and listen, and somehow we have to get those that are in power to to actually have some humility about that. They don’t understand and I think that’s one of the major problems. They believe they have the answers to fix this. And so they look at it as a problem rather than coming and listening to us, rather than giving us any sort of respect in this space.