Rare footage of Aborigines meeting white men for the first time

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It is an arresting, surreal image: a group of Aborigines emerge slowly from the desert, walking over a red sand dune, tall, black, semi-naked silhouettes seen through the barren spinifex bushes in the middle of Western Australia.

It is September, 1964 — the Beatles had just finished their first sell-out tour of North America and Goldfinger had just opened in UK cinemas — and yet across the other side of the world these desert-dwelling indigenous Australians were about to see a white man for the first time and make their first contact with modern civilisation.

The group — eight women and 12 children — walk towards the "whitefellas" who had been searching the Great Sandy Desert for Aborigines to warn them about an impending rocket launch over their homeland by the British and Australian governments.

Their incredible meeting was captured on film by Walter MacDougall, a patrol officer appointed by the government to clear the indigenous people out of the areas in central Australia which had been mapped out to be used as part of the rocket-testing range.

The rare colour footage of that first meeting is featured in a new documentary, Contact, which premieres at the Sydney Film Festival on Thursday night. The film, by British-born, Australia-based documentary maker Martin Butler and his colleague Bentley Dean, is based on the book Cleared Out: First Contact in the Western Desert, by Sue Davenport, Peter Johnson, and Yuwali.

The footage, taken by Mr MacDougall, was left to gather dust in the home of a missionary until about six years ago when he handed it to an indigenous archive centre, who in turn handed it on to Ms Davenport, who was researching her book at the time.

It gives an extraordinary account of an extreme clash of cultures which form the backbone of Australia’s history. While the British and Australian governments were trying to test space rockets, members of the nomadic indigenous population were still living off the land, surviving in extreme conditions, unaware that there was a modern society beyond the 141,000 square miles of desert they called home.

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