IF, AS George Santayana once wrote, ''those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it'', then we should give thanks to David Batty and Francis Jupurrurla Kelly for their documentary Coniston. The story is confronting and horrific. The tragedy is how few Australians had any notion of its occurrence before this gripping retelling.
"It does surprise me," Batty says. "Most people in central Australia - Aboriginal people and white people - who've been there for a while will know about it. But across Australia, given that it was a massacre of such major proportions, and that the prime minister of the day called for an inquiry, and that it was so recent, it is surprising nobody has heard of it. Your average Australian knows nothing about it."
Coniston was Australia's last known massacre of indigenous people. The documentary that takes its name gives voice to the descendants of the 100 or more Aborigines slaughtered in central Australia in 1928. Using what they describe as a hybrid docudrama approach, Batty and Kelly combine testimony from the families of those who were there with dramatic
re-creations cast entirely from descendants of the real victims, plus footage of the making of the re-creations. The result is captivating and deeply moving.
The facts are these. In August 1928, after the killing of dingo trapper Fred Brooks by Bullfrog, a Warlpiri man who caught Brooks taking liberties with his wife, punitive expeditions set out to conduct revenge killings of innocent people across the traditional lands of the Warlpiri and their neighbours. The official records state that 31 people were killed but Randall Stafford, the owner of Coniston cattle station, was the first of many to claim the death toll was much higher, and Batty agrees.
"The figure of 31 is highly contentious," he says. "The number's refuted by various sides and parties. I would say absolutely minimum of around 100, I'd say close to 150 people. It could have been up to 200 people died as a result of those revenge killings for sure.
"What you have to take into account as well is that the drought was so severe and people just scattered. We didn't go into it a big deal in the film, but people went north and they just perished - whole families perished because they were so frightened. They just took off into the desert and then there was no water, there was nothing.
''So there's a lot of people who would have died as a result of those killings and attacks as well."
For Batty, the decision to make Coniston was not easy. "When [Kelly] first rang me and asked me to come and help him make the film, I thought, 'Oh no, you know, it's more misery and death and dying, and do you really need to go back there?' Then I thought it's an important story to be told and that it may somehow try to inform the present from what's occurred in the past."
The importance of the subject matter and the lack of public awareness placed added pressure on Batty.
"It's going to shape people's ideas of what happened,'' he states matter of factly. ''The children, the next generation - from here on in, it
will be the definitive story of
''I did feel it was a big responsibility. But I took that very seriously. It was like this huge jigsaw puzzle. It really took two years to piece it together. In the end, I think that what's there is as close a representation of what really happened as possible."
Completing the jigsaw first required Batty to find all the pieces. "I read everything that was written," he says, but that was only the beginning of his research. "Given it's an oral history, no Aboriginal people have written it down, so everyone has heard the story from their grandparents, parents, uncles. So it was really a matter of just taking the average of people's accounts of what happened, and applying logic and reading a lot of material from the day to get a sense of the social and political landscape of the time, to really get a handle on what really could have happened, and what really did happen, according to the oral history and the written history."
This led to complications where accounts diverged. Batty's solution was to offer broad brushstrokes of some aspects of the story. He says his film is "just indicative at a few moments of what did happen, because we don't really know. We didn't get anyone telling the same story twice about the method of Brooks's death, for example. Some said he was bludgeoned with an axe, some said, 'Oh, he got two spears,' somebody said he had his throat cut." As such, the act occurs off-screen in a tent.
Batty isn't surprised at the diverging tales. "The way I looked at it, if we were cousins and both of our uncles fought in the First World War and came back, and your father told you all these stories about the war and who he killed, and my father told me all these stories, and then we sat down, I don't think we'd be telling the same stories."
There is a clear effort to ensure balance in the tale, not to demonise individuals or simplify matters into victims and villains. "My personal opinion was that Brooks wasn't such a bad guy - he was just a victim of circumstance in many ways. There were other people who were absolute villainous dogs. It's not like everyone was lovely gentleman-like characters, but I didn't want to paint Fred Brooks as a nasty person because I don't think he was.
''The other thing you have to remember is in 1928 there were only two white women in Alice Springs. There were just these guys everywhere. They were forging these new frontiers. It was a Wild West frontier. It was a really wild place, central Australia."
On top of his dedication to the story, Batty was conscious he needed to "make stuff that will maintain an audience for television. When you're making historical documentaries, you can't just have endless talking heads."
He turned to re-creation, a device often used in documentaries, but with a twist. The people playing the key roles were not actors. "They were the direct descendants of Bullfrog, so there was no casting. When it came down to it, we didn't have a choice who we used, it was just who was the most appropriate to play those roles purely based on family line - nothing to do with physical characteristics. We were just lucky Harry Jones and his son and his daughter-in-law were such good talent."
All of which serves to emphasise how much Batty, while making the documentary, was careful not to make it his story. "We intentionally didn't interview any white historians or academics or anyone like that - it was those people out there's turn to tell their story," he says.
"I hope a lot of people watch it, and if they watch it, they'll know about that story. I think it's important for the country to know some of the terrible things that did happen to Aboriginal people. So the children and grandchildren coming along will know that story, and they'll never forget.
''A bit like Gallipoli, lest we forget. For them, that was their Gallipoli."
Coniston, ABC1, Sunday, January 20, 9.30pm