Representations in film and text

Representations in film and text

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fire management practices are represented in a range of formats including text, film and video, digital technology, photographs, images and maps. Each approach uses different techniques to create context and to influence the audience.

Contemporary Aboriginal fire management practices

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have used fire to manage country for over 60,000 years. European colonisation caused disruption of some traditional practices, but many groups have maintained their knowledge and continue to use it today. Fire is used in land management to maintain biodiversity and habitat, promote the growth of fire-dependent species, protect fire sensitive species, and prevent severe hot-season bushfires1. Fire also has a range of social, cultural, and spiritual uses. There are various words in all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages describing different types of fire, its behaviour and effects. Family groups have responsibilities to specific areas of country, and this includes the use of fire. Permission to burn needs to be sought from those responsible for that part of country, especially senior traditional owners2.

Fire management is a key activity undertaken by many of more than 120 Aboriginal ranger groups that currently exist across Australia. Rangers recognise the value of a two-way approach to fire management, making use of both Aboriginal traditional knowledge and  contemporary knowledge. The former includes seasonal and geographically specific knowledge about plants, animals, landscape changes, stars, weather, and the relations between them at different times of the year3, The latter could include the use of satellite technology and fire-scar mapping4.

Case study: Martu fire practices

Martu people’s country covers approximately 10% of Western Australia,5 extending east of the Pilbara and overlapping the Great Sandy, Little Sandy and Gibson deserts6.

Martu have different words that describe the landscape at different stages in the fire cycle, and various methods for burning when hunting particular animals. For example, Martu will use a small burn when hunting a skink, but a long burn is more appropriate for a hill kangaroo, and a round burn for a mala7Nyurnma is newly burned ground that is ripe for hunting goanna; Nyukura identifies the period after a burn when plants are fruiting and seeding; Manguu is when the spinifex is ready to burn again; and kunarka describes the thick clumps of advanced spinifex that limit diversity and can carry hot and destructive bushfires8. some Martu paintings represent this type of ecological knowledge.

The way that Martu travel on country has changed due to colonisation, which has impacted on the environment. For example, hot season fires are occurring more frequently and at greater intensities, creating concerns that important places like cemeteries and old trees could be burnt9. The Aboriginal ranger program aims to address this by using four-wheel drives and helicopters to reach remote sites, and undertake fire management during the cooler months. Rangers carry out patch burns that help break up country and protect it from the hot fires that destroy the delicate mosaic of healthy environments.

Representations of fire practices in film and text

In the article Country needs people10 Kim Mahood uses a range of narrative, argumentative and visual devices to discuss contemporary Indigenous ecological knowledge. She opens the article with a quote from social media which she describes as ‘unashamedly racist’. The quote attacks the idea that traditional burning was a method of caring for the environment. Mahood demonstrates the false assumptions underpinning this argument, and provides a corrective through the use of robust evidence. One way she does this is through her investigation of how Martu ecological knowledge is embedded in the painting Yarrkalpa – Hunting Ground, Parnngurr Area 2013. The painting, which is reproduced at the beginning of the article, is a collective work made by eight Martu women. Mahood undertook an extensive process of consultation with the artists and shows that the canvass is a repository for a vast amount of traditional knowledge, including in relation to fire. For example, the painting shows many significant landscape features such as ranges, dunes, sand plains and rock holes, which are represented in different stages of the seasonal fire cycle, such as Nyurnma11. It also includes a depiction of the Seven Sisters, a seasonal star constellation and sacred narrative that indicates that the country is dry, reminding Martu to burn with care.

The film Waru, kuka, mirrka wankarringu-lampaju – Burning, bushfoods and biodiversity is a collaborative film produced with Martu. The film is presented in both English and Martu languageswith subtitles in English where necessary. It shows Martu undertaking fire management, and includes interviews and conversations with elders and rangers. These conversations demonstrate the importance of contemporary fire management practices for the health of the environment and health and wellbeing of Martu people and culture. The film explains how strengthening links to country and providing opportunities for young Martu to learn from senior Martu are culturally appropriate ways help Martu maintain identity and culture. It also shows how ranger jobs provide employment pathways and opportunities to build two-way skills and knowledge.

The medium of film represents Martu fire management through the use of documentary and narrative styles, and enables the audience to hear Martu languageIt also provides an opportunity for the audience to observe fire management practices as they occur on country, to help contextualise the importance and scale of land management practices in remote locations.

Classroom activity - English Year 9

In these classroom activities, students will examine the way Aboriginal fire management practices are represented in the article ‘Country needs people’ by Kim Mahood, and in the film ‘Waru, kuka, mirrka wankarringu-lampaju – Burning, bushfoods and biodiversity.’ Students will identify and summarise the way authors have used different representational techniques to influence an audience. Students will observe and discuss what the medium of film contributes to the representation of contemporary Martu fire management practices.

Curriculum connections

This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:

  • Analyse how the construction and interpretation of texts, including media texts, can be influenced by cultural perspectives and other texts (ACELY1739)
  • Use comprehension strategies to interpret and analyse texts, comparing and evaluating representations of an event, issue, situation or character in different texts (ACELY1744)
  • Explore and explain the combinations of language and visual choices that authors make to present information, opinions and perspectives in different texts (ACELY1745)

This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Year 9 in English:

  • analyse and explain how images, vocabulary choices and language features distinguish the work of individual authors
  • evaluate and integrate ideas and information from texts to form their own interpretations
  • listen for ways texts position an audience

Inquiry based learning questions

Consider the different representations of Martu fire practices in the film ‘Waru, kuka, mirrka wankarringu-lampaju – Burning, bushfoods and biodiversity12, and the article ‘Country needs people’ by Kim Mahood13. Identify the social location of the narrator/s or author. Consider and discuss how the context and identity of the narrator or author influences what is represented.

Consider the way colonisation has disrupted traditional burning practices. What are the effects on Martu and the environment? Consider the phrase ‘country needs people’ in your reflection.

In the film ‘Waru, kuka, mirrka wankarringu-lampaju – Burning, bushfoods and biodiversity’ at approximately the 25 minute mark a map is displayed. It first shows the patches of cool season burns for one year, and then the patches of hot season burns for one year. What do you notice about the differences?

Activity 1 – Aboriginal burning practices represented in painting

Suggested timing for activity: one lesson

Required resources: digital or print version of The Monthly article ‘Country needs people’ by Kim Mahood, writing materials and notebook

Students to read the article ‘Country needs people’ by Kim Mahood14

Students should compare the article’s opening quotation, which the author has taken from social media, with the photograph of the painting Yarrkalpa – Hunting Ground, Parnngurr Area 2013 and the author’s discussion of it in the text. Students will examine these two examples and evaluate the different representations of traditional ecological knowledge contained in each. Students will then write a paragraph summarising how Mahood’s contrasting use of the painting and the quotation work together to influence their understanding of Martu burning practices.

Activity 2 – Contemporary Aboriginal fire management represented in film

Suggested timing for activity: 60 minutes

Required resources: computer with internet connection and projector (or smart TV), writing materials and notebook.

Students to watch the film ‘Waru, kuka, mirrka wankarringu-lampaju – Burning, bushfoods and biodiversity’ (40 minutes)15

While watching, students are encouraged to make notes about the context and the objectives of the film, who speaks during the film, and what language is used and when. Students will identify the main reasons people in the film support and value contemporary fire management practices, paying attention to both social and environmental benefits. After watching the film, in small groups or as a whole class, students will share their responses and the information they recorded while watching the film. Students will then discuss what the medium of film is able to convey and why it might be important for Martu to tell the story of fire management using this technique.


1 Mahood, K (2017). Country needs people. The Monthly. July. Retrieved from:

2 Walsh, F (director and producer). (2013) Waru, kuka, mirrka wankarringu-lampaju – Burning, bushfoods and biodiversity. CSIRO and Kanyirninpa Jukurrpakj: Australia. Retrieved from:

3 O’Connor, M.H. and Prober, S.M. (2010). A calendar of Ngadju seasonal knowledge. A report to Ngadju Community and Working Group. CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Floreat, WA. Retrieved from:

4 Mahood, op. cit.

5 Eastwood, K (2010). Living the traditional Aboriginal life. Australian Geographic. December. Retrieved from:

6 Mahood, op. cit.

7 Walsh, op. cit.

8 Mahood, op. cit.

9 Walsh, op. cit.

10 Mahood, op. cit.

11 Mahood, op. cit.

12 Walsh, F (director and producer). (2013) Waru, kuka, mirrka wankarringu-lampaju – Burning, bushfoods and biodiversity. CSIRO and Kanyirninpa Jukurrpakj: Australia. Retrieved from:

13 Mahood, K (2017). Country needs people. The Monthly. July. Retrieved from:

14 Mahood, K (2017). Country needs people. The Monthly. July. Retrieved from:

15 Walsh, F (director and producer). (2013) Waru, kuka, mirrka wankarringu-lampaju – Burning, bushfoods and biodiversity. CSIRO and Kanyirninpa Jukurrpakj: Australia. Retrieved from:

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.