New Alice film: Kindness triumphs over misery



Two friends, one white, one black. Two film makers, one white, one black. A couple more than 30 years together, one white, one black.

Audrey Napanangka and Santo Giardina

Signs of hope for Alice Springs at a time when there isn’t much.

The film maker is Penny McDonald and her co-producer is Audrey Napanangka, who also gives the new movie her name.

She is its star and one of the town’s outstanding Good Samaritans: She and partner Santo Giardina “grew up” nine children, none of them theirs.

How did the Warlpiri woman meet the Sicilian man?

“You’ll have to watch the movie,” says Ms McDonald. The premiere will be in Alice Springs on May 23.

Several of the children the couple cared for were from terrible backgrounds.

A horrendous example was the fate of Jenny (not her real name), as the Alice Springs News reported in its edition of November 20, 1996. The headline was “Girl, 2, a grog ticket”.

Born to a 13-year-old she was used by her mother as a way of getting welfare money which she spent on alcohol while the child went hungry and got sick.

Jason (Audrey’s nephew), Santo, Audrey and Juliette (her niece) in the 1980s. The couple cared for the children from ages four and seven, respectively.

On several occasions Ms Napanangka, an internationally known artist, and Mr Giardina took the infant to their home in Gillen, or to the hospital, restored her health, only for the mother’s family to claim her again. Authorities failed to act.

“We grew her up,” Ms Napanangka recalls now. “Really skinny one. Her mother was drinking all the time.”

The full 1996 story, which drew fire from Media Watch, typical for the national media response to troubles in The Centre, is republished at the end of this report.

The program’s then host, Stuart Littlemore, snidely asserted this sort of reporting is clearly “de rigueur” in the Northern Territory. We made no apologies for drawing public attention to the little girl’s tragic conditions, and to the kindness of her two carers.

Ms Napanangka’s heart is still with young people although as a group some are currently more in the spotlight than she is – for all the wrong reasons.

Society should “take them to bush and teach them. On country,” she says.

“They can use the Mt Theo programs [near Yuendumu – her home country].

Above: A scene from the documentary (screen capture).

“They’ve got a house, dormitories for boys and girls.

“They take them separately, women for the girls, with the ladies, and men with the boys. They take them around [in the country],” says Ms Napanangka.

“They cook damper with them, meat, and they get happy.

“They hear stories about early days, when the people were staying in the bush. They drink a lot of water from the soaks.

“In the olden days they were taking the little kids in coolamons. That’s a way to learn [teach] them kids, to learn more about the old ways.”

Ms Napanangka says this would make their minds strong. They were kept at Mt Theo for seven weeks or more.

Her family cares for kids in similar ways: “We take the kids and work with them. We tell them about bush tucker, bush medicine, and you’ve got to keep them in mind.

“In the film, I was teaching my granddaughter Leanorah. I told her this is a story about your grandfathers and grandmothers. We take them to the place of their great-grandfather.”

Mr Giardina’s views are more robust: “The town is getting ruined by kids, running around till three or four o’clock in the morning, smashing windows from the banks, from the shops, smashing windows, one after the other.

“I was walking into a bank one day, and a big rock – bang – went through the office window.

“They should go to court, some of these young kids, and they should be locked up for so long, and then they learn the lesson.”

Ms Napanangka had two children before meeting Mr Giardina. One died and the other one “was stolen, a long time ago. Disappeared from the hospital,” she recounts with great sadness, having never seen the child again.

The movie is a product of 10 years of the friendship between Ms McDonald and Ms Napanangka, during which Ms McDonald often carried her camera with her, “a small one that would fit in my handbag,” ready to record her mate’s rich life.

Will Sheridan (sound), Ms McDonald and Dylan River (camera).

She describes Audrey as someone who likes to laugh and to act, “to perform for the camera. She is not frightened of the camera.”

This confidence has resulted in Ms Napanangka getting a lot of small roles in Australian films such as Rabbit Proof Fence, Samson and Delila, Nulla Nulla, Greenbush and Kings in Grass Castles.

Ms McDonald has an extensive film making record over 40 years. Her first, in 1985, Kamira: Pina Yanirlipa Ngurrarakurra, was made in collaboration with another Warlpiri family from Lajamanu, to the north of the Tanami Desert. Lajamanu is where she and Ms Napanangka first met, 40 years ago.


Here is the full Alice Springs News report of November 20, 1996:

This two-year old girl is worth seven wine casks or five cartons of beer a fortnight.

The $128.60 social security payment she attracts every two weeks has turned Jenny (not her real name) into an asset for her alcoholic family: She’s little more than a grog ticket.

This is the claim of her sometime foster parents, Santo Giardina and his wife, Audrey, an internationally known painter. Santo says Jenny was born to a 13-year-old girl living mainly in “the river” with her booze ravaged family.

In August last year the child was “given” to Santo and Audrey, they say, and she spent some weeks in hospital.

Audrey and Santo say they took turns assisting medical staff with her treatment for malnutrition and scabies, including washing her several times a day with saline solution.

When she was discharged she looked well nourished and the sores that had covered her body were cleared up.

This is when her immediate family, including her teenage mother, demanded the child back.

This included an incident in Todd Street when the grandmothers allegedly threatened to stab Audrey.

Santos says he thought he and Audrey had been given legal custody – but an enquiry by the Alice Springs News with an NT Health official revealed that this had not taken place.

Jenny was taken back to the drinking camps, including one near The Gap, between the Bloomfield flats complex and the Telegraph Terrace drain, amidst piles of rubbish: The camp, with barely any shade, consists of soiled blankets, and is strewn with empty beer cans and wine casks.

“They took the baby away,” Audrey said.

“She is dirty and hungry. Her mother gives her wine in a milk bottle.”

Audrey and Santo have a house in Gillen and apart from looking after a child of their own they foster a 10-year-old slightly retarded boy.

[This was followed by “Jenny” and her family going to a dry outstation, but returning to town and getting back on the grog, and a spokeswoman for then Health Minister Denis Burke telling the Alice Springs News that “a full and thorough investigation” into the child’s condition is under way.]


  1. This is the way most good people of Alice Springs used to be, just Aussies and mates.
    Before all this policical correct rubbish came in and starting ruling our lives.

  2. In total agreement with you, Kathy. Alice is now under the thumb of bureaucrats, and paper workers! Our heart and good will are not good enough anymore.
    But I believe it is the same all across the world: Artificial intelligence and narrow minded people are taking control.

  3. I agree with the comments by Kathy and Evelyne.
    Governments are so busy playing the racist racial tag games.
    Governments are not spending the money needed to ensure those taking wrong paths can be assisted to learn, to abide to protecting their children.
    Governments instead of making needed legislation changes, they are not supporting their own staff, nor at risk children, with politicians apparently preferring to keep the workers filling in often meaningless paperwork, so busy not able to be out there really protecting all endangered children.


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