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‘The trees are disappearing slowly and people often don’t know what they are’

Paula Towers
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Published: 1 February 2022

Last updated: 4 March 2024

Scar trees’ refers to trees whose bark has been removed to make canoes and artefacts; Paula Towers reports on a doco at the Antenna film fest that chronicles a white-indigenous collaboration to protect them

THE LAKE OF SCARS is the only Australian film selected to compete for best feature in this year’s Antenna documentary film festival in Sydney.

The title takes its name from the Aboriginal expression “scar tree” or “scarred tree”, which refers to a tree whose bark has been removed to create canoes, shelters, shields, tools, ladders or other artefacts.

Usually over 200 years old, these trees are found all over Victoria, often along major rivers, in and around lakes and on flood plains; with Lake Boort a site of particular significance.

“What you’ve got at Lake Boort is Australia’s biggest collection of scar trees,” the film’s director Bill Code tells The Jewish Independent. “They’re disappearing slowly because of age, sometimes vandalism, and people often don’t know what they are. I would really love to have tangible evidence of this long-standing culture recognised by all.”

Code’s landmark documentary will hopefully go some way towards achieving this. The trees’ plight is the springboard of the film, entwined with other important themes. The Lake of Scars details the relationship between an ageing white farmer and members of Victoria’s Yung Balug clan of the Dja Dja Wurrung, as they seek to showcase and protect Australia’s largest collection of scarred trees.

Close up of a 'scar tree'
Close up of a 'scar tree'

Some major Aboriginal figures feature prominently in the unfolding of this story. It’s led by Dja Dja Wurrung elder and Victorian icon Uncle Jack Charles, as narrator/presenter as well as co-writer, who was specifically requested by local clan elders and the film's co-producers. This unique role sees Jack guide viewers through the film from the front row of Melbourne’s Lido cinema.

Then there’s Paul Haw – a white former sheep farmer, horticulturist, Vietnam veteran and self-published historian who lives on the edge of Lake Boort.

Haw has become increasingly obsessed with documenting and caring for the scarred trees, and other items of Indigenous significance found in and around the lake, convincing white townsfolk of the lake’s cultural and environmental value.

There hasn’t been a great deal of public awareness raised about them and, as the process developed, it became a film about environment.

The Indigenous scarred trees and artefacts found here are at risk. But an unlikely intergenerational partnership offers real hope of saving the site for future generations. Jida Gulpilil, son of the acclaimed late actor David Gulpilil, who is Yung Balug on his mother’s side and conducts cultural tours at the lake and trees, sharing cultural knowledge received from his mother.

“He’s extremely passionate, extremely driven and, coincidentally to the making of this film, also the son of perhaps this country’s greatest actor. So we were fortunate,” observes Code.

Aerial view of Lake Boort
Aerial view of Lake Boort

The Lake of Scars also tells a story of cultural rebirth and environmentalism. “That’s how the title came to me one day; a lake full of these scars… but the fact also that this lake is prone to rebirth every few years,” Code explains.

On the edge of the Victorian Mallee, Boort is known as an ephemeral lake – one that may lie empty for years, then fill up with water for short periods when wildlife return, including birds and frogs. It’s “a beautiful sight”, he observes.

Though starting as a short film in 2014, the significance and interest in the material propelled it into a feature length, Code’s first. “I’d travelled to Lake Boort to film a story about repatriation of ancestral remains from one of the museums back to country and I was struck by the relationship between the people there.

“Just before I was leaving town to go back to Sydney, Paul Haw took me out on the lake to show me the many scar trees, which I wasn’t familiar with at the time, and they blew my mind: the history, and the tangible connection to country that they show.

“My background is I’ve done a lot of shorts – for Al Jazeera and the BBC – so that was my natural process but the more people I spoke to, the more I realised that scar trees were particular,” Code explains.

“There hasn’t been a great deal of public awareness raised about them and, as the process developed, it became a film about environment. Eventually, it dawned on me that it was also a story of reconciliation and a story of [recent buzzword] allyship. With so many sub-narratives and themes to fit in, a feature-length film was the obvious answer.”

Code collaborated closely with members of the Yung Balug in the making, working with Gary Wyrker Milloo Murray as executive producer, Ngarra Murray as cultural advisor, and Gulpilil, supported by renowned composer David Bridie in making the film’s score, heavy with Dja Dja Wurrung language.

Eventually, it dawned on me that it was also a story of reconciliation and a story of allyship.

Authenticity was uppermost for Code. “We had worked extremely closely with the clan but, as I’m not Aboriginal, and my co-producer is non-Aboriginal, we wanted to make sure that the members of that clan had that agency.

“We asked the group of people that we worked with for many years, who would you like? And they said: ‘We’d like Uncle Jack Charles to be that role.’”

Uncle Jack got involved around a year ago, following a final rough cut – when Code wanted to give more of a final say to the elders. The creative team also wanted a device to link the story in a meaningful way.

“We had this idea that it shouldn’t be him [Uncle Jack] reading this script and telling us about the film. He should watch the film with you as if you’re in the cinema, giving him free rein to comment on how he saw the film.

“I think it gives The Lake of Scars a different edge.”

The Jewish Independent is sponsoring The Lake of Scars which will be screened on February 5 at Dendy Newtown and on February 13 at Palace Verona. Director Bill Code and Producer Christian Pazzaglia will participate in an in-person Q&A following the February 5 screening.

View the trailer


Photo: ‘Scar trees’ on Lake Boort in Victoria

About the author

Paula Towers

Paula Towers is a writer and editor, and has also worked as a political speechwriter and researcher. Currently, Paula is a presenter and producer on the Arts Thursday show at Sydney's Eastside Radio as well as a freelance writer for print publications and a travel web site.

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