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‘We were the real cowboys’: Indigenous spaghetti western premieres at Tarnanthi

It has all the ingredients of a classic western: a dastardly gold heist; the villain’s face on a wanted poster; three shootouts; and two mobility scooters.

The mobility scooters are a necessary addition. Many of the stars of Never Stop Riding, a 10-minute spaghetti western shot over one day at Wellborn Station near Indulkana – an Indigenous community in the APY lands about 360km south of Alice Springs – are well past the age of 70.

The film was the brainchild of three senior Yankunytjatjara men – Peter Mungkuri, Jimmy Pompey, and Alec Baker – who wanted to get young men in their community interested in horseriding and stock work as a way to keep them occupied and encourage them not to drink alcohol.

On Thursday they watch as it plays on a loop at the Art Gallery of South Australia, ahead of the opening night of the Tarnanthi festival of Indigenous art.

All three men worked as stockmen from the 1940s to the late 1960s, before settling in Indulkana. They are now senior artists but still wear the well-worn akubras of their station days, the felt hardened with time and sun and darkened with sweat.

Baker was seven years old when he came to Granite Downs station in South Australia, and saw a white person for the first time. Mungkuri was 12. Both settled into station life.

“I never learned no school,” Baker tells Guardian Australia. “I learned horses, that’s all. Riding horses.”

Mungkuri, who surprised and slightly alarmed Iwantja Arts centre staff by vaulting onto a horse when they arrived at the station earlier this year, and chasing them to get their speed up, says he could ride for hours – days – without getting tired.

“I never got sick of it,” he says. “I just stayed all the time.

“We learned about riding, breaking, training brumbies, branding horses, branding cattle … we lived before with a good thing. No drink and none of any of that. Just horses, riding, going out, putting up a fence – it was all a good thing.”

When they came back into town they would get called “cowboys”, Mungkuri says. They would watch films starring Clint Eastwood and John Wayne and scoff. “We were the real cowboys.”

Patuway Mungkuri, Johnny Doolan, Peter Mungkuri, Vincent Namatjira, Michael Drover, and Kunmanara Andy star in Never Stop Riding.
Patuway Mungkuri, Johnny Doolan, Peter Mungkuri, Vincent Namatjira, Michael Drover, and Kunmanara Andy star in Never Stop Riding. Photograph: Jackson Lee

Their own film has a slightly less complicated plot than The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but is considerably more fun.

Told across seven acts, it opens with a shot of wanted posters for Vincent “the wild” Namatjira – the great grandson of Albert, also an artist. It’s followed by several scenes of co-conspirators in the great gold theft triumphantly holding their prizes aloft.

The gold, the audience is told, belonged to Andy. A man named Johnny stole it.

There follows three shootouts: the classic one-on-one at high noon (Andy’s man wins), followed by a two-on-one (Andy’s man wins again), and an inexplicable six-on-one, in which Andy’s man again emerges victorious.

In between the first and second shootout is a brief interlude featuring Baker and another man on mobility scooters taking pot shots at the younger men, who attempt to ride away on horseback. The final act is a dance number, a feature that is tragically omitted from many westerns.

Mungkuri is sitting cross-legged on the bench in front of the film as it plays in the art gallery, laughing merrily.

They were famous cowboys when they were younger, he says in the introduction to the film. For the three months that the film is played at the gallery, they will be famous once again.

Fifteen men from Indulkana took part in the project. They camped overnight at Wellborn Station in June and spent the first day teaching the younger men to ride. Most had never sat on a horse before.

“He said, ‘jump on!’ and the horse took off,” Eric Barney, one of the younger men, tells Guardian Australia.

The senior men plan to repeat the trip with school-aged boys from the community.

“Young people: we got to put them in school, but they’ve got to be taught hunting, ceremony and all that,” Mungkuri says. “He got to be learning our culture too, that’s why he’s making trouble and he drinks the grog – he doesn’t learn culture.”

This article titled "‘We were the real cowboys’: Indigenous spaghetti western premieres at Tarnanthi" was written by Calla Wahlquist, for theguardian.com on Thursday 12 October 2017 11.13pm

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