Study guide: Satellite Boy
Satellite Boy is about a boy whose grandfather says to him, ‘You are always running away – who are you?’ It is a metaphor for a boy who is like a satellite moving through the stars. At the end of the film he knows where he is from. He knows his place in the Milky Way.
Set in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, Satellite Boy tells the story of Pete (Cameron Wallaby) who lives in an abandoned drive-in with his grandfather Jagamarra (David Gulpilil), whom Pete calls Jubbi. Jagamarra is determined to pass on knowledge and culture to his grandson, but Pete is a reluctant learner. However, when Pete and his friend Kalmain get lost in the remote country of the Bungle Bungles, their survival depends on the lessons Pete’s grandfather has taught him.
Year levels: 7 & 8
Curriculum: Intercultural understanding, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures, English and Media
This is a story about country and about place.
- Explore the significance and concept of country by looking at a map of Indigenous Australia.
- Discover the language of your area with the Gambay languages map.
In Satellite Boy, Pete and his friend Kalmain set out from Wyndham in West Australia and head to Kununurra. They end up travelling across country and lose their way.
If you zoom in on the map of Indigenous Australia, you can locate the two points of the boys’ intended journey, and discover how far out of their way they travel.
Satellite Boy is the first feature filmed in the region of the Bungle Bungles in Purnululu National Park.
- Find out more about this World Heritage Site and its significance to its traditional custodians.
Jagamarra tells Pete that Wyndham, the place where they are living, is not their country. Jagamarra comes from Yolngu country – and the language he speaks is one of the Yolngu Matha languages of northeast Arnhem Land.
- Find Yolngu country on your map and note its distance from the country where the film is set.
Connection to Country
Find out more about connection to country.
Uncle Bob Randall explains the connection to country as “oneness” He says, “If you’re alive, you connect to everything else that is alive.”
- Watch the clip below. Discuss with a partner, or as a group, and note down the significant ideas communicated.
Connection to country is interrelated with what has become described in English as the Dreaming. Rachel Perkins introduces the Dreaming at the start of her documentary The First Australians.
- After watching the clip below, discuss how film language adds to the storytelling process.
Culture and Knowledge
Satellite Boy director Catriona McKenzie highlights respect for Elders in her discussion of the film’s purpose:
I wanted to say:
"listen up kids, because this knowledge won’t be around forever"
- Why are stories so important?
- What is communicated through stories?
- What kinds of stories do Elders from all cultures have to share with the generations that follow?
- What is lost when these stories are not passed on or are forgotten?
- Reflect on the passing on of stories in families and communities.
- In groups, share stories that are significant to you and explain to others in the group why they are so important.
Share your responses
- As a class share and compare immediate responses to the film - single word answers are fine.
- In pairs, identify the main themes of the film. Share these with the class as a whole.
Catriona McKenzie has described Satellite Boy as an allegory. An allegory is a story with a wider meaning, a message that readers or viewers can learn from.
- In what ways could Satellite Boy be considered an allegory?
- In pairs, discuss the main message of the film. With your partner, write a single sentence that you feel communicates the message.
- As a class, compile the responses on the whiteboard. Discuss as a group and see if you can decide on a description of the film message that you all agree with. Don’t worry if you can’t. Interesting and complex texts are rarely ‘summed up’ in a few words. However, this activity is a great way to start building your own interpretation of the film.
Allegories are often used to teach but also to make people think.
- As a class share what you learnt from Satellite Boy.
- What does Pete learn during the narrative and how does this add to our knowledge and understanding as viewers?
- Focus on the scene in which Pete decides to go back to Jagamarra. Are you surprised he decides to return to his grandfather rather than head to the city? What has he learned by this point in the narrative? What have we viewers learned as a result of following his journey. What is being communicated when Pete draws circles in the dust and then rubs them out again? Explain.
When the end of a film refers back to the beginning, it is called bookending. The storytelling technique of bookending is used to highlight what has changed between the opening of the film and the end.
- Watch the beginning and the ending of Satellite Boy. Join together in groups and think about what has changed by the end– not only in the lives of the characters but in our own understanding as viewers.
- What are some of the storytelling/film techniques used to communicate this change?
A thoughtful approach to storytelling
- How is Satellite Boy different from other films you have seen?
- Draw a timeline and mark out the events of the narrative.
- How does the simple linear shape of the story affect your response to the film?
Story as sculpture
McKenzie’s original script was much more action-packed, but she decided to throw this away and begin again with the story of Pete and his grandfather. She decided to create a simpler story that gave viewers the space to think and see:
Satellite Boy is a sculpture, à la Brancusi, a bird in flight. It’s the essence of a thing. It needs to be viewed with space around it - so familiar, yet with enough surrounding space to allow it to take on the highest stakes possible. It needs to be familiar, yet simple so we can feel!
- As a class, look at some images of Brancusi’s Bird in Flight sculptures.
- How would you explain McKenzie’s sense that the Satellite Boy story can be compared to a Brancusi sculpture?
- As well as the simple and uncluttered storyline, are there particular techniques, images, scenes, or characters that could be used to explain/illustrate this idea?
- You can read more about McKenzie's approach here.
This film is about stories and storytelling as a way of understanding the world.
- What are some of the stories that Jagamarra shares with Pete?
- Many of these stories are told in Language. Why has McKenzie chosen to include so much Language in this film? What point is she making?
- Stories are not only communicated through words but are shared in many other ways as well – what is important is knowing how to read them.
- What are some of the other forms of storytelling we (and Pete) learn about in the course of Satellite Boy?
How does the visual language of the film communicate important elements of the story?
- In your response, consider elements such as:
- the use of the dissolve at the beginning and the end
- time lapse after Pete connects with Jagamarra via the stars
- the shots of the stars
- the framing of natural and manmade objects and landmarks.
- What do the wide shots communicate about the characters and the landscape?
- When Pete arrives in the town of Kununurra, the wide shots are replaced by much tighter framing (where there is little space around the character or object).
- What is the effect of this way of filming?
- What is it telling us about Pete?
- How does this way of filming prepare us for Pete’s decision to return to Jagamarra?
- Listen carefully to the soundscape of the film. What do you hear?
- How does it relate to what you see?
- How important is the sound design to the experience of the film?
- How does it add to the story being told?
- Focus on a particular scene and track the use of sound effects, silence, voice and music. To highlight the significance of the soundtrack, listen to the scene without video. What is being communicated through the soundtrack?
- At significant points in the film narrative, sound and image combine to give a particular moment particular significance.
- In groups, make a list of the moments where what we see is given greater meaning because they connect with Jagamarra’s voice (for instance, the night sky, the power lines, the rock paintings).
- What is being communicated in these moments?
The plot (story details) is simple in Satellite Boy but the story it tells is layered and filled with meaning. We are asked to think more deeply about the message of the film is through the use of symbols. Symbols express big ideas and complex meanings that can’t always be put into words.
The drive-in screen, projection booth and satellite dish stand out as strange objects in the landscape. They are a bit like Brancusi’s sculptures -- the space around them makes us wonder why they are there and what they mean.
- Why do you think McKenzie chose to set the story in the abandoned drive-in?
- How did you respond to it as a viewer?
- What did it make you think about?
- Think about the projection booth and its depiction as Pete’s home.
- Describe the way the outside of the booth is shot and what this communicates to viewers.
- What about the inside of the projection booth – what does it look like? Consider lighting, décor, the way it is shot, the way Pete is framed within the space. What is being communicated about this space, its meaning for Pete and its meaning within the story?
The satellite dish emerging out of the remote Kimberley landscape is so strange that we are forced to think about what is being communicated by its appearance at this moment in the story. It also draws attention to the title of the film and makes us wonder about its meaning.
- Share ideas about the presence and role of the satellite in the film narrative.
- What about the title of the film?
- What does it mean?
- What does it add to your understanding of the story being told?
The filming techniques used in Satellite Boy communicate an enormous amount about country and its connection to the people who inhabit it.
- Describe the various locations in the film and their role in the story.
Satellite Boy is the first feature film to be shot “on the ground” in the Bungle Bungle Range in the Purnululu National Park in the Kimberley.
- How important is this setting to the story?
- What is communicated through this landscape?
- Other films have featured this landscape but have filmed from above. Why do you think McKenzie considered it important that the central section of her film should take place on the ground in country?
We never see Jagamarra’s country but at the end of the film narrative, we see Jagamarra and Pete going back to country.
- How has the importance of country been communicated throughout the film narrative? Provide examples of key moments.
Many stories feature a main character who learns more about themself as they grow to meet life's challenges. This kind of story might be described as a ‘coming-of-age’ story.
- How does Pete ‘come of age’?
- Use the worksheet (below) to track the development of Pete’s character.
- Join together as a class to discuss and extend your ideas about how Pete has changed and what he has learned.