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US actor Steve Martin backs Australian film on Indigenous art movement

US actor, comedian and keen Indigenous art collector Steve Martin has been announced as an executive producer of a new feature film that charts the origins of the Western Desert art movement.

Martin, who is one of the world’s top collectors of Aboriginal Australian art, has also been involved in the script development for Honey Ant Dreamers, set to be filmed in 2024 around Papunya, the MacDonnell Ranges and Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.

“I am honoured to be a part of this exciting and valuable project,” said the Father of the Bride star, whose passion for Aboriginal art was sparked in 2015 after he attended the New York solo show of Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri. “It presents a little known yet powerful story to a waiting world.”

Honey Ant Dreamers will be co-executive produced by Warumpi Band founder Sammy Butcher, who resides in Papunya, a small community 260km north-west of Alice Springs.

The Northern Territory government’s Screen Territory Production Attraction Incentive Program has injected $450,000 into the project, which marks the feature film debut for writer, director and executive producer Michael Cordell (known for SBS series Go Back to Where You Came From) and co-writer and co-director, Pitjantjara, Luritja and Warlpiri woman Anyupa Emily Napangarti Butcher.

The film portrays the story of Geoffrey Bardon, a Sydney teacher who taught at the Papunya primary school in 1971, where he encouraged adults in the community to paint a mural of their honey ant dreaming. The mural’s principal artist, the entrepreneur and traditional elder Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, became instrumental in spawning an art movement that saw sacred stories that had been painted in the sand and on bodies move to canvases.

“Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art was pioneered because of the innovative, radical, and entrepreneurial thinking of the Painting Men in Papunya who wanted to keep their culture alive in the era of assimilation,” Anyupa Butcher said.

“This story is both ancient and current. Local and global. Our art started in the sand, the rocks, the very formation of Australia.

“These painters shared a vision of maintaining cultural laws while sharing our unique collectives of cultures from Papunya to the world.”

Jennie Hughes, the director of Screen Territory, said filming Honey Ant Dreamers in central Australia would “generate significant benefits for the local community”.

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“This production will not only showcase the Northern Territory as a vibrant and enticing destination globally but also highlight the talent and innovation of the Papunya art movement.”

Savage Films, an Australian-based production company helmed by Maggie Miles (High Ground, Paper Planes), will produce the film.

Martin described himself as a “cheerleader and kibitzer” for Honey Ant Dreamers.

The Grammy-winning actor has said he went down an internet “rabbit hole” after purchasing his first Indigenous artwork in 2015 and began buying works online.

“I met the right people who helped me … This was harder to research, and it’s more complicated to understand,” he said in an interview with ArtNews in 2022. “There’s an Indigenous element that is very specific – dreaming contexts – that is almost inaccessible [to outsiders]. And it goes back thousands and thousands of years.”

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