TV or not TV? That is the question

Australian novelist Tim Winton, a four-time winner of the Miles Franklin Award, recently had his own Hamlet-esque moment. Echoing Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’, his own passion for the Western Australia coastline was a perfect fit for his involvement in 'Ningaloo Nyinggulu', the recent ABC documentary series.


By David Halliday, editor of Jesuit Communication’s publication, ‘Eureka Street’

I still have a copy of Tim Winton’s letter, dated from twenty years ago. The letterhead bore his name in caps beneath a printed etching of a blue groper. In the early oughts, I wrote to Tim while I was an undergraduate Literature major with some precocious comments about Cloudstreet, his 1991 novel. I can’t remember what I said; I was writing a thesis on Australian literature at the time. In his reply, the most important thing to remember about studying literature, he wrote, was that it “doesn’t destroy the magic of civilian reading when you’re done”.

In the Australian literary sphere, Winton has been a commanding presence for over four decades. When I started reading Australian literature, Tim Winton had been publishing for nearly two decades and already his name was etched into the stone of our national storytelling as deeply as Patrick White. Winton, if you’re unfamiliar, has a knack for coaxing profound spiritual sentiment from the seemingly ordinary. He takes the familiar — the rugged WA coast, the sand, the rush of the ocean — and transforms them into meditations on the human condition. In a country where larrikinism is a badge of honour, our living patron saint of literature is a surfer-philosopher, a contemplative explorer of holy mysteries hidden in the world around us.

Recently, Winton added another string to his bow, a pivot towards the Attenborough-esque celebration of nature on film in ABC’s Ningaloo Nyinggulu, a move that seemed consistent with the spirit of Winton’s work. The shift seems an organic extension of a man whose career has been linked with the defence of WA’s pristine coastline. 

When I saw that he’d finished working on Ningaloo Nyinggulu for ABC, I contacted his agent, who said Tim Winton loved Eureka Street and would be happy to talk to us. His replies were generous and thoughtful. I asked him, why a doco and not a novel?

“I did it out of a sense of duty. I felt I had to. It’s not something I’d have embarked upon without prompting. Not just because I’m a lone wolf and film production is a team sport, but also because I honestly didn’t know what I was doing. It was really daunting. I’ve never written natural history for TV. It’s a very specialised form of writing. You have to condense science into tiny, coherent bits of language. And in my case, because of my instincts, try to make those little gobbets of language beautiful. 

“I felt I had to step up for the sake of the place itself. I guess I’d call it an expression of patriotism. True patriotism is the honouring and defence of home and family — the soil beneath your feet, the air you breathe, the water you drink and swim in. True patriots need not wear khaki and carry a gun. Defending territory is one thing. Defending country is another.”

Advocacy, particularly environmental, isn’t a newfound passion for Winton but a lifelong pursuit born from his deep connection with the WA coast. His dedication to this cause has only deepened in recent years as political activism has escalated. “Activism can’t just be leading people away from something. It’s also leading them to something. And for me, that thing is the miracle and gift of life and this unlikely world we’re gifted.” 

Yet some advocacy and activism has been getting a mixed rap in recent years with new legislation in some Australian states governing what is considered acceptable forms of protest, as a response to disruptive climate groups like Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion. But towards the young people who feel drawn to those groups, he’s sympathetic. “The (climate) anxiety is warranted. Anxiety and rage are the only logical responses to the emergency that’s now upon us because of the nihilistic greed and immorality of corporations and governments.”

Tim Winton

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Tim Winton swimming with manta ray at Coral Bay. Photo: Violeta J Brosig, Artemis Media

And he’s quick to point out the victories ordinary people actively trying to defend these places against corporate greed have won along the way. I noted that in Ningaloo Nyinggulu, Winton shares a number of close encounters with megafauna – manta rays, humpbacks, whale sharks. “It’s a moment of grace,” he said. “But it’s worth remembering it’s a political outcome. Thirty years ago, it would probably not have been possible. Whales are back in numbers, blowing our minds and filling our hearts because a generation ago, activists lit a fire in the community and applied it to the feet of our political leaders.

“This is love in action, hope made real by folks taking collective action for the common good. We are responsible for the Anthropocene and responsible to creation, which is our gift and our home. Yes, in the series there are lots of encounters like this that remind us of these marvels and gifts; but also of our responsibility and the opportunity to honour and protect them and the ecosystems that produce them. An ecosystem is a locus of creativity, a reminder of the divine impulse.”

An ecosystem as a reminder of the divine impulse – you have to love that. Winton’s approach to spirituality, salvation and conservation all seemed wrapped up in the same idea; a sort of living embodiment of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si. From Winton’s work, nature exists at a nexus of the wild and the holy; a sacred space that holds the power to humble and heal, to reveal and conceal, to test and teach. “I think many of my characters feel an instinctive, often inchoate mystical connection to the non-human world,” Winton said.

This belief translated into this recent venture, where he transposes his reverence for nature from the written word to moving image, and our need, as a species, to course-correct. “Yes, it’s our home — and our only home. But there’s a long human history of defiling home, betraying family. St Paul says that creation was subject to vanity, that it cries out in travail, as those we traduce and overlook cry out in anguish. I think most of us yearn for connection to wild places and creatures, as we yearn for connection to others of our own species. We’re not meant to be denatured in this way. It’s not good for our souls or our bodies.”

There was something about that statement that felt inherently right, that acknowledgement that we do desire — and even need — that connection to unadulterated spaces on this planet to feel whole, and with that co-dependence comes a solemn responsibility to preserve them.

For me, Ningaloo was Winton transposing his reverence for nature from written word to moving image. As an author, he created narratives that transported us to the wilderness, allowed us to feel the sand beneath our feet, the rush of ocean surf. Now, as a filmmaker, he is narrating an urgent story that invites us to be inspired and nurtured by these spaces that inspired and nurtured his work. It reminds us of the divine sanctity of the wild and the need for its preservation.

I asked Winton what he hoped viewers would take away from his documentary, which to me, wasn’t just about Ningaloo, but about all our wild places. Winton painted a picture of hope amid crisis: “This is a turning point in human history. In the next decade, we have an opportunity to show what we are, as custodians of this gift … We have the opportunity to show our wisdom, our love, our genius, our character. Our fealty. That’s called agency. I’m hoping we’ll turn from our folly, take the hard narrow road — in a hurry — and earn our place in God’s creation, which is a very big and undervalued chunk of our salvation.”

I didn’t mention the letter. But I found myself reflecting on the wisdom of the younger Winton imparted two decades ago. It was a reminder that awe and gratitude, and a sense of collective responsibility are inextricably linked. Recognising the responsibility we have for those spaces and creatures is a direct response to experiencing the enchantment of those wild places. And I was glad for his time, and for the opportunity to explore Tim’s connection to the ocean and its untamed surrounds hinted at by the fish letterhead. Like a rare meeting with a humpback, it was a moment of grace.

Read David Halliday’s original interview with Tim Winton, published in Eureka Street.

Watch the trailer and all three episodse of Ningaloo Nyinggulu on ABC iview.

Feature photo by K B on Unsplash.