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Audrey Napanangka tells the inspiring story of an Indigenous matriarch

Audrey Napanangka (front row, third from R), the subject of the new documentary, and her family.

Audrey Napanangka (front row, third from R), the subject of the new documentary, and her family. Photo: SBS

Audrey Napanangka, a new SBS documentary premiering on Sunday, takes watchers into the life of an Indigenous matriarch and her family.

Warlpiri woman Audrey Napanangka lives in Alice Springs, where she estimates she has raised between 32 and 34 children with her Sicilian partner Santo.

Director Penny McDonald said she first met Napanangka 40 years ago when she was living in the remote community of Lajamanu.

“She was living there and I was working there, and she was working for the town council operating the phones,” she said.

“She was just resilient and so good-humoured about things that happened to her that I used to think if I was her, I don’t think I’d be able to go forward the way she does.”

Napanangka worries about who will care for the children if something ever happens to her.

McDonald said it is a privilege to be a friend of Audrey’s for so many years.

“Most people won’t have a relationship with someone like her,” she said.

“This will give us an opportunity to come into her life.”

Making the documentary

The documentary was a finalist in the Sydney Film Festival and was selected for the Brisbane International Film Festival, the Adelaide Film Festival and the Darwin International Film Festival in 2022.

McDonald said filming it over 10 years created certain challenges.

“The children were wonderful to film with when they were younger, but when they became teenagers they were a bit less keen to be on camera,” she said.

“We filmed in hospitals and schools and prisons, it’s a bit complicated, but we were very blessed that there was enthusiasm in the community for what we were doing.”

The Warlpiri people’s country is located around the Tanami Desert, northwest of Alice Springs.

Alice springs fire child dies

There is a strong Warlpiri community in Alice Springs. Photo: AAP

McDonald said capturing Warlpiri language and culture was an important aspect of the documentary.

“We film a ceremony when women go out and teach the younger women song and dance,” she said.

“It’s very cultural and a really rich experience.”

The 2021 Census found 2,592 people speaking Warlpiri in Australia, and McDonald said it is “still a living language.”

“I understand quite a lot of Warlpiri language,” she said.

“Without that relationship, a documentary like this wouldn’t be possible.”

Napanangka isn’t the only matriarch in Central Australia whose story is full of humour as well as some sadness, according to McDonald.

“There are many other matriarchs like Audrey who look after an extended family,” she said.

“Families are complicated and I think it gets that across.”

An ‘opportunity’

Both McDonald and Napanangka live in Alice Springs and continue to maintain their friendship.

McDonald, who co-produced and wrote the documentary, said she hopes many Australians see the documentary because it has the potential to “stimulate discussion and conversation.”

“It’s really important now to have films and stories like this,” she said.

“I hope everybody takes the opportunity to watch it.”

The NITV premiere of Aubrey Napanangka is on Sunday, November 12 at 8.30pm. The documentary will also be available to watch on SBS On Demand.

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