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New documentary showcases collaborative efforts to heal from Barka fish kills

As communities continue to grieve the loss of more than 30 million fish in the Barka (Darling River) earlier this year, a new documentary showcases a remarkable collaboration interweaving art, science and ancient knowledges to care for communities, and reshape how we relate to our waterways.

Premiered in October, More than a Fish Kill explores how the interdisciplinary collaboration turned ecological disaster into an opportunity for connection and revival.

Involving the National Museum of Australia, the Cad Factory, Barkindji Elders, the NSW Department of Fisheries and the Clontarf Academy, the project behind the documentary is all about finding ways to heal from these devastating and increasingly common events. Otis Filley Studios joined the team to share the story as a film.

National Museum of Australia James O Fairfax Senior Fellow Dr Kirsten Wehner said the project was not just about coping with the impacts of the fish kills, but also acknowledging that these events are something that we’ll need to cope with into the future.

“The documentary showcases what's happening, which is a consequence of the illness of the whole river system. We need to rethink our relationship with it,” she said.

“It’s about the need to stop thinking about the river as a scientific problem, and start thinking about the river as it relates to people, including First Nations relationships with the river – a perspective that is central to this work.

“At its core, it’s about how to bring together these different areas of practice to create spaces where people from different perspectives can respond to this overwhelming trauma.”

Wehner said there are lots of projects where science and art come together, but they often focus on art as a way of translating or explaining scientific knowledge.

“That’s an interesting approach. But we did something different here. It wasn’t about art explaining science, it’s about what art practice offers us that other bodies of knowledge don’t.

It’s about expressing things we don't have words for,” she said.

“The whole project is about creating a space where people can express and start to come to terms with the trauma of what has happened, and what is happening along these rivers.”

People of the river

Barkindji custodian Barbara Quayle said the 2023 Barka fish kill was not an isolated event, with issues along the river system becoming increasingly dire since 2019.

“Barka means river, indji means people. This means the Barkindji people belong to the river.

We do a lot of caring for Country. There's lots of sites out around Menindee that we work on,” she said.

“​​Back in 2009, the river went completely dry. There was a disconnection to land and to people. We had animals dying, trees falling – it was very heartbreaking. It got to the stage where they needed to truck water into the community so people could cook food and drink. We had fish struggling within the system back then.”

And with the most recent and intense fish kill in 2023 following other fish kill events in 2019, Quayle said the time to put a spotlight on the problem is overdue.

“It's very heart-wrenching for our people to see this happening to our Barka. We are the people of the river; without the river, there is no us. There's a disconnection to our culture and to each other,” she said.

“​​We've been trying to advocate for Country by sharing what we've seen and how we’ve been taught by our Elders. Anybody can see that what's happening is wrong. It’s time to show the world what’s going on.”

Caring for Country

The artistic work behind the documentary was informed by a process that began back in 2019, which involves working alongside fishery scientists to rescue sick Murray cod and work towards a breeding program with Indigenous youth.

“The NSW Department of Fisheries were tasked to rescue some of the cod that were alive, but still sick, and to breed new fish to restock the river,” Cad Factory Artistic Director Vic McEwan said.

“We bumped into one of the chief scientists who led the effort the day after he got back. He was traumatised by the whole experience.

“Elders and community members were on the banks of the river as a team were trying to rescue the cod. The community members were distraught over the state of the river. They were all in support of the intervention, but grieving for their river system.”

Every Thursday, Cad Factory would go with Wiradjuri boys from the Clontarf Foundation and learn about the processes of healing, breeding and monitoring the fish.

“When new fish were bred, we took the boys up to Barka Country to hand the fish back to the Barkindji Elders. They then released the fish to the Barka,” McEwan said.

“We realised at that point that there's so much conflict around parts of our river systems and we don't have many mechanisms to explore that conflict or to understand people's connections to them in a deeper way.

“But we also thought we’d never get the same opportunity again. We didn’t think we’d have another event like the one in 2019 – one million fish killed. But then in 2023 we had an event 30 times worse.

“When it happened, we contacted everybody. We knew we needed to do something to care for the community. And on that same day, everyone agreed to offer up time and resources. Before we knew it, we were all planning a trip up to Menindee.”

Sitting with difference

McEwan said the artistic approach is all about exploring the role art can play in helping us think through and respond to big and complex issues.

“It requires a big shift in thinking to value the arts in this kind of way. It's a bit hard for people to grasp because it requires a lot of open-endedness,” he said.

“One thing I think the arts can do is sit with conflict or differences of opinion. It can develop processes to say: there is no dominant knowledge system here. We are sharing this story so people see and understand the impact of what’s happening.

“The fish are being cleared up, but the trauma is not gone.

“I'm also hoping that people see that we can come together with different perspectives on river management. It’s up to us. We are the only ones that can do it.”

Recalling the day the boys came to Barka Country to release the newly bred fish, Quayle said the occasion was a hopeful one, but the fight for the Barka is not over.

“It showed the boys about the process of taking care. When it was time to release the fish, the river was healthier and more connected. The boys brought out the fish and my Mum was one of the Elders that received the fish,” she said.

“We’d done a smoking ceremony and a welcome home for the fish and the boys. After the boys released the fish, my mum said to them: ‘jump into the river now and help those fish on their leg’.

“We are the voice and we are the caretakers of this Country. And if we don't take care of the Country, we're going to have nothing for our future generations.”

Learn more about More than A Fish Kill, including information about future screenings, here.