Wash My Soul in the River's Flow
Focusing on Australian icons Ruby Hunter and Archie Roach, this moving and masterful concert film and documentary explores their love, music, history and connection to Country.
March 10, 2022
A silent hero and a rowdy troublemaker. That's what Ruby Hunter calls Archie Roach, her partner in life and sometimes music, then characterises herself. She offers those words casually, as if she's merely breathing, with an accompanying smile and a glint in her eyes as she talks. They aren't the only thoughts uttered in Wash My Soul in the River's Flow, which intersperses concert and rehearsal clips with chats with Hunter and Roach, plus snippets of biographical details from and recollections about their lives as intertitles, and then majestic footage of the winding Murray River in Ngarrindjeri Country, where Hunter was born, too. Still, even before those two-word descriptions are mentioned, the film shows how they resonate within couple's relationship. Watching their dynamic, which had ebbed and flowed over three-plus decades when the movie's footage was shot in 2004, it's plain to see how these two icons of Australian music are dissimilar in personality and yet intertwine harmoniously.
Every relationship is perched upon interlocking personalities: how well they complement each other, where their differences blend seamlessly and how their opposing traits spark challenges in the best possible ways. Every song, too, is a balance of disparate but coordinated pieces. And, every ecosystem on the planet also fits the bill. With Hunter and Roach as its focus, Wash My Soul in the River's Flow contemplates all three — love, music and Country — all through 2004 concert Kura Tungar — Songs from the River. Recorded for the documentary at Melbourne's Hamer Hall, that gig series interlaced additional parts, thanks to a collaboration with Paul Grabowsky's 22-piece Australian Art Orchestra — and the movie that producer-turned-writer/director Philippa Bateman makes of it, and about two Indigenous stars, their experience as members of Australia's Stolen Generations, their ties to Country and their love, is equally, gloriously and mesmerisingly multifaceted.
When is a concert film more than a concert film? When it's Wash My Soul in the River's Flow, clearly, which is named for one of Kura Tungar's tracks. Bateman could've just used her recordings of the legendary show, which won the 2005 Helpmann Award for Best Australian Contemporary Concert, and given everyone who wasn't there the chance to enjoy an historic event — and to bask in the now-late Hunter's on-stage glories more than a decade after her 2010 passing — but that was clearly just the starting point for her movie. With Roach as a producer, the documentary presents each of its songs as a combination of five key elements, all weaved together like the feather flower-dotted, brightly coloured headpiece that Hunter wears during the performance. With each tune, the film repeats the pattern but the emotion that comes with it inherently evolves, with the result akin to cycling through the earth's four seasons.
First, a title appears on-screen, overlaid across breathtakingly beautiful images of the Murray and its surroundings, and instantly steeping every song in a spectacular place. From there, the Kura Tungar rendition of each tune segues into practice sessions with Grabowsky and the AAO of the same track, plus both text and on-the-couch chatter between Hunter and Roach that speaks to the context of, meaning behind and memories tied to each piece. Hunter's 'Daisy Chains, String Games and Knuckle Bones', which springs from her childhood, gets that treatment. Roach's unforgettable 'Took the Children Away' does, too. 'Down City Streets', as written by Hunter and recorded by Roach, also joins the lineup. The list goes on, and the power that each song possesses alone — which, given the talent and topics involved, is immense — only grows when packaged in such a layered manner.
What a story this symphony of tunes and its entwined materials tells, spanning Hunter's recollections about being taken from her family under the guise of a trip to the circus; the coin flip that saw Roach head to South Australia from Mildura after a season spent grape-picking, where he'd meet Hunter when both were teenagers; and Hunter's certainty before that, when she spied Roach on television as a kid, that she'd marry him. The Ngarrindjeri, Kokatha and Pitjantjatjara woman's way with words continues throughout the film, including when she explains how that stroke of fate that brought Roach to Adelaide's People's Palace when they were both homeless adolescents saw her stop "her gambler from his rambling". For the Gunditjmara and Bundjalung man, he shares snippets of his own past alongside his overflowing love for Hunter. Indeed, when he marvels about how she can remember everything in her life, the Murray River's pelicans and the Dreamtime among them, it's a statement of pure and joyous affection.
Along the way, Bateman ensures that her documentary tackles a dark chapter of the country's history head on, because it's impossible to relay Hunter and Roach's tales without exploring the nation's Stolen Generations. Her film is a tribute to her subjects and their work first and foremost — a tribute from Roach to Hunter overwhelmingly, too — but the resilience and fortitude that it's taken to weather everything that the government policy sent their way shines just as vividly. Both of Wash My Soul in the River's Flow's main figures are candid although, true to her own self-description, Hunter repeatedly takes the lead. Still, Roach's striking admission that, until the pair met, he thought it was just him and his siblings that'd been forcibly removed from their home, is nothing short of heartbreaking.
Also intensely affecting: getting the chance to spend an intimate 90 minutes in Hunter and Roach's company, especially the former, the first Aboriginal woman to be signed to a major record label, following her death; and those awe-inspiring shots of Ngarrindjeri Country, as shot by cinematographer Bonnie Elliott (The Furnace), that keep returning with each soulful song. Combined with the movie's music, plus its dedication to unflinchingly diving into the problematic past, Wash My Soul in the River's Flow becomes a quintessential portrait of Australia. Championing two First Nations icons, their culture and their connection to Country; exploring the injustice they've endured at the hands of the government, and how they've ultimately thrived and healed together and through their talents; and showcasing the art they've made and the land they love — this moving movie couldn't ask for anything more. Letting it wash over you, and its silent hero and rowdy troublemaker with it, is simply inescapable.