Mourning For Mangatopi


Because of work commitments and the influence of Christian missions, traditional mourning ceremonies among the Tiwi people of Melville Island were becoming rare at the time of making this film (1974). The full, elaborate ceremony, called the Pukumani ceremony, lasted several days and involved large numbers of people in ritual roles. It was performed here with full awareness that this may be one of the last times such a ceremony would be staged in the traditional way.

The ceremony was prepared by the Mangatopi family of Snake Bay after the death of a 35-year old family member killed by his wife. The dead man’s father, Geoffrey Mangatopi, and his family requested this film to be made as a public record of a disappearing tradition. Unique to the Tiwi people of Melville and Bathurst islands, the Pukumani ceremony was not only performed to safe-guard the passage of the dead person into the spirit world, but to re-affirm kinship relationships and traditional Tiwi culture.

In 1974, about 1,500 Tiwi people lived in European-administered communities on Melville and Bathurst islands. Being geographically isolated, the Tiwi were less subject to other Aboriginal cultural influences. Although resistant to white settlement at first, they subsequently adapted to the presence of Europeans. Yet for many Tiwi, Christian funerals failed to ensure the ritual journey of the dead to the spirit world, and failed to provide the emotional release that the Pukumani ceremony offered.

Traditionally, women participated in all aspects of the ceremony (unlike women in many mainland tribal ceremonies). Elaborately decorated burial poles were prepared and were the focal point of the ceremony. Food taboos and other restrictions on behaviour were intended to control the approach of supernatural forces. Body painting, dancing, re-enactment of past events, feasting and ritual cleansing were all essential parts of the ceremony, designed to ease the path of the spirit. Each kin group has their own dance, rehearsed and performed over several days, defining relationships and re-affirming them.

Shot in classic observational style, with great attention to detail, and often humorous, Mourning For Mangatopi became widely seen in anthropology studies, and was screened publicly in many venues around the world.

The DVD includes a short interview with director, Curtis Levy (recorded in July 2013), about the making of the film.


John Gaden - narrator
Release dates
1974 - Australia
Video/DVD release date
November 2013
PG - Parental guidance
Ronin Films

English narration and Tiwi language with English subtitles.

Watch now or find a DVD/BlueRay copy

Powered by JustWatch

Browse a list of Aboriginal film suppliers and distributors

Other films by Curtis Levy

Go exploring!

Use the Aboriginal film timeline to discover films you never heard of.

Take the quiz: Are you an Aboriginal movie buff?

Cite this page

Korff, J 2018, Mourning For Mangatopi, <>, retrieved 25 May 2024

Creative Spirits is a starting point for everyone to learn about Aboriginal culture. Please use primary sources for academic work.

Join thousands of Smart Owls who know more!