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Ian Dunlop, pioneering filmmaker, dies at 94

Ian Dunlop with Spencer (Nuni) Banaga  from ‘Desert People’  1965
Ian Dunlop in 1965 with Spencer (Nuni) Banaga from the film 'Desert People’ 


NOOSA – The Australian documentary filmmaker and author, Ian Dunlop OAM, has died in Canberra at the age of 94.

Dunlop began making films for the Commonwealth Film Unit in the late 1950s and is probably best known for his international award-winning series, People of the Western Desert.

This was begun in 1965 and comprises 19 films considered a landmark in documentary filmmaking.

“Up to this point the Commonwealth Film Unit had used images of Aboriginal people as curiosities,” says archivist Michael Leigh.

“They were regarded as just another wonder of nature like the platypus. Ian Dunlop changed all this.”

In 1963, he filmed Along the Sepik, set in the Upper Sepik River and following the exploits of Patrol Officer Barry Downes as he investigated a murder in an area only recently brought under colonial Administration control.

As well as a record of the role of kiaps and the rugged conditions in which they operated, the film provides insights into tribal culture and the impact of western law.

Downes’ investigation led to the murderer being caught and tried by an Australian magistrate in a jungle courthouse alongside the Sepik River.

Ian Dunlop in 2006

PNG Attitude reader Gabi Duigu says Dunlop was “a filmmaker extraordinaire”.

“I once had the enormous pleasure of seeing his tall lanky figure striding across the University of PNG campus next to French anthropologist Maurice Godelier, followed by a group of very small Baruya Highlanders, better known to us as the fierce and feared Kukukus,” recalled Gabi, who now lives in Sydney.

Dunlop’s friend and fellow filmmaker, Trevor Graham, said “Ian’s films will live on, and he will be greatly missed.

“I had the good fortune to meet him in the corridors of Film Australia in the mid-1990s when I was directing Mabo Life of an Island Man.

“Some of his work was going to the National Archives and some to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

“We became good friends. My wife Rose Hesp and I shared many meals at Ian and Roey’s place on the edge of the bush in Gordon.

“Their beautiful mid-20th century minimalist wood and glass home housed a treasure trove of art works from Papua New Guinea and north-east Arnhem land. We also shared with Ian and Roey a passion for Italian red wines.”

 “In 1965 Ian travelled to a harsh and inhospitable part of the Western Desert to film a group of nomadic Martu Indigenous people who were still living on their own land, as they had done for millennia,” says Tristan Cole, general manager of Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa.

“Ian was always very generous with his film and his time. He met with Martu elders and younger workers who were keen to hear about the Martu families Ian had filmed and about his time in the desert.

“Ian felt that it was important that the films be watched by younger generations of Martu to strengthen cultural practice and protect the desert environment.”

With thanks to Gabi Duigu, Michael Leigh, Tristan Cole, Trevor Graham & Rose Hesp


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