Rainmakers of the Outback 3 - please don''t use
Tom "Putuparri" Lawford [Al Jazeera]

Australia: Rainmakers of the Outback

Putuparri is inspired to fight for his indigenous land when he experiences a rainmaking ritual in the Australian desert.

Editor’s note: This film has been removed from online.

Over the course of 20 years, Tom “Putuparri” Lawford, navigated the deep chasm between his Western upbringing and traditional Aboriginal culture as he transformed from a rebellious young man into an inspirational leader.

His grandfather “Spider” taught Putuparri bush knowledge and the Aboriginal Dreamtime myths. For more than 40,000 years, their ancestors lived a nomadic life, knowing they could always retreat to their sacred waterholes when times were hard.

A process of cultural awakening begins when Putuparri returns to his homeland in the desert with Spider and is shocked to learn that the Dreamtime myths are not just stories.

Spurred into action by what he experiences, Putuparri dedicates himself to reclaiming the land taken from his ancestors and battling bureaucracy and political apathy. He is also under immense pressure to preserve an age-old culture while coming to terms with his own turbulent past.


By Nicole Ma

My first experience of the Kimberley was in 2001, landing on a red dirt runway and thinking, “Where am I?”

I had never met an Aboriginal person and was here to address the assembled elders at Fitzroy Crossing about participating in a documentary I was making. It was on how communities around the world use dance and music to enter ecstatic states.

I was looking for an Australian component, and I wanted to find out if Aboriginal culture practised going into trance states.

My pitch did not go down well. Instead, they told me that I could go with them on an upcoming desert trip for the “old people” – the people who were born on their country and had lived a traditional nomadic existence – and that I could film that.

Putuparri is a man who straddles the two worlds of traditional cultural law and today's reality of Fitzroy Crossing.

by Nicole Ma, director

After the trip, anthropologist Daniel Vachon gave me his thesis about rainmakers in the Great Sandy Desert. He cited Kurtal as a main ceremonial waterhole where rainmaking rituals were conducted and told me Spider was one of the custodians.

Vachon also gave me a VHS tape of the old people’s first trip to Kurtal in 1994. I didn’t look at it, thinking, “I’ve been there, shot that, I don’t need ugly VHS footage” and put it away in a drawer.

Spider at Kurtal in 1994 [Karen Dayman]
Spider at Kurtal in 1994 [Karen Dayman]

I continued to return to Fitzroy Crossing over the years, working with various Aboriginal NGOs and befriended many of the old women – in particular, Dolly Snell, who took me under her wing.

Dolly understood that film was a way to preserve their culture for future generations and that I could facilitate that, so she asked me to go to significant events. She instructed me on the Aboriginal culture and the complex relationships that exist in it between humans, “Country” and spirit, which I was struggling to understand.

Several years after my first visit I was preparing for a shoot, and I found the old VHS tape.

I had recently met the young Aboriginal man who had shot it. His name was Putuparri. It was an amazing experience watching the tape for the first time as it showed the entirety of a rainmaking ceremony involving a mythical snake spirit and ending with a dramatic thunderstorm.

The “old people” are a vast storehouse of traditional cultural law and Dreamtime stories. Most of them recall their traditional life in the desert with a mixture of joy and sadness.

While there are major issues in Fitzroy Crossing – isolation, a lack of meaningful work, alcohol and drug use, dependence on government funding – I experienced an Aboriginal culture embedded in song and dance, as well as the people’s unique connection to Country.

Dolly Snell, Putuparri's grandmother, instructed Nicole Ma on Aboriginal culture [Paul Elliott]
Dolly Snell, Putuparri’s grandmother, instructed Nicole Ma on Aboriginal culture [Paul Elliott]

Aboriginal people have a profound spiritual connection to Country. Aboriginal law and spirituality are intertwined with the land, the people and creation – and this informs their culture and sovereignty.

The health of land and water is central to their culture. The land is their mother. It is steeped in their culture but also gives them the responsibility to care for it. Country is family, culture, identity. Country is Self.

Putuparri is a man who straddles the two worlds of traditional cultural law and today’s reality of Fitzroy Crossing.

Brought up by the old people on a cattle station on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert, he moved to Fitzroy Crossing as a young man and succumbed to the vagaries of alcohol and domestic violence.

Putuparri’s grandparents, Spider and Dolly, believe in him and, despite his setbacks, Putuparri continues his traditional training.

He works as a cultural officer for the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre, supervising a sacred ritual during “lawtime”, the time of year when boys are initiated, and the singing and dancing during festivals.These responsibilities ensure his continued development as a cultural leader.

At the heart of the film is Putuparri’s story – the story of a man caught between two worlds who finds redemption through the discovery of his traditional culture and the acceptance of his responsibility for passing it on.

The underlying cultural philosophy – “if you take care of Country, it will take care of you” – is made manifest through the rituals and ceremonies that Spider performs. These ceremonies are intended to influence the weather through a complex belief system about the spiritual inhabitants of the landscape, one that interweaves family, ancestors and the environment into a holistic cosmology.

As town life takes precedence over traditional life for the young people of Putuparri’s community, the passing away of the old people further undermines the transmission of their culture.

For his culture to survive, Putuparri must learn to take care of Country and pass this knowledge on to the next generation.