It's the size of a shipping container, a demountable painted with desert scenes that might once have been a project manager's office or a temporary classroom. Here, in Larapinta Valley Town Camp, Alice Springs, it's a cinema, albeit a tiny one. There are only 16 pink plastic chairs inside.
Loretta Banks is our usher – and a filmmaker. As we take our seats and the door closes, bringing darkness, Banks introduces the short films we're about to see, all made in this Aboriginal community, where she lives. Then she opens her laptop, connected to a projector aimed at a white wall, and hits "play".
Little Dingi is up first, a stop-motion animated short with English subtitles directed by Banks and featuring quirky "bush doll" characters made at the camp. It's "about kids getting in trouble with police, and taking them kids and giving them culture," she says. It's amazing. Original, creative, moving – and real. Others are like skits from ABC TV's Black Comedy, but they all deal with social and health issues affecting the community.
There are 18 town camps on the outskirts of Alice Springs. They sprang up when people from all over Central Australia were forced off their land to make way for a town they call Mparntwe. Although they're called camps, they're more like suburbs of single-storey houses, managed by the Aboriginal-owned and -run Tangentyere Council, which provides essential services to the 2000 residents, including several arts programs.
Yarrenyty Arltere Artists is one of these, a not-for-profit social enterprise set up in Larapinta Valley, one of the largest town camps, in 2008.
"There were problems here then," says art co-ordinator Sophie Wallace, whom we meet on our visit. "Petrol sniffing, substance abuse, kids not going to school."
Art came to the rescue. But you won't find dot paintings or boomerangs here. Instead, the artists use textiles, film and print-making in innovative ways to express what life is like in the camps.
"This art is not a relic from a long distant past," said Hetti Perkins, a curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and daughter of Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins, when she visited for ABC TV in 2014. "It's about the here and now, about the daily lives, the cares and concerns we all share and about making a difference."
And it has made a difference. All the children now go to school and 15 women sell their award-winning "bush dolls" and other creations all over Australia and internationally (a men's arts program is also in the pipeline), with all proceeds going back to the community. "What is most special about this arts centre is the healing that has come from it," says Wallace. "The community here has changed in so many ways. People are developing a unique identity through their art, there's increased pride and confidence, a sense of social inclusion, employment. And it's a place where they can learn and have positive experiences together and do meaningful and culturally appropriate work."
Emerging from the cinema into the bright Central Australian light, we meet Elvena Hayes, another resident, who shows how she dyes old blankets sourced from second-hand shops in Melbourne. First, leaves, flowers and bark are gathered from the bush. These natural materials, along with objects such as bicycle chains and car parts that might make interesting patterns, are then wrapped in the blanket and the whole bundle tied with twine and left to soak in hot water for up to a week.
The finished fabric goes to the studio, our last stop, where it's made into fantastic "soft sculptures" decorated with embroidery, beading, even plastic bottle tops. I ask Trudy Inkamala if the animal she's sewing is a dog. "No!" she laughs. "It's a kangaroo!"
The kangaroo theme continues outside. While our World Expeditions guides prepare a barbecue lunch for everyone, we chat with the mostly Arrernte women (13 languages are spoken at the camp). I talk with Banks about movies – she named her dog Sandy after Olivia Newton-John's character in Grease and her favourite actor is Jackie Chan, she says – as she pokes two kangaroo tails roasting on a fire. Wondering if someone shot the 'roos or if they're roadkill, I ask where they came from. "Just from the IGA," Banks says.
Living in a big city, it's not every day you get to share a meal with a bunch of Aboriginal women at a long table under a shade-cloth with views of the West MacDonnell Ranges. "From this small community we are sending our artworks out into the world, giving audiences a glimpse into life here," Wallace says. Visiting the community lets you zoom in on that glimpse, and it's a shining highlight of my week in and around Alice Springs.
Qantas flies direct to Alice Springs from Sydney, Melbourne and other capital cities. See qantas.com
Larapinta Valley Town Camp is in Alice Springs, Central Australia. World Expeditions is the only tour operator that visits regularly, on some of its Larapinta Trail trips, see worldexpeditions.com.au. For more about the work of Yarrenyty Arltere Artists, see www.yarrenytyarltereartists.com
Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of World Expeditions and Tourism NT.