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Shared dreamings waiting to be filmed

Dr Mark Byrne

This op-ed appeared in The Australian, 31 May 2005

Think of all the Australian films you've seen. How many of them feature lasting and nurturing relationships between Aboriginal and white Australians? I can think of only two.

Reconciliation between black and white Australians is a cultural and artistic as well as a political process. As director George Miller put it, films in particular are our modern "cultural dreamings".

Films, in other words, are like collective dreams. They bring to light the deeper, often dark and repressed aspects of our culture. But, like dreams, they can also give us glimpses of different futures.

Where race relations are concerned, however, screenwriters and film-makers in Australia have to date been much better at reflecting the often ugly reality than at imagining a different future.

The problem goes back as far as Charles Chauvel's Jedda (1955), continues through English director Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout (1971) and Fred Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), and continues right up to the plethora of films exploring black-white relations in the past decade: Bryan Brown's Dead Heart (1996); Rachel Perkins's One Night the Moon (2001); Phil Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence (2003); and Rolf de Heer's The Tracker (also 2003).

These films share a depressingly familiar landscape of misunderstanding, hostility and resentment between black and white Australians. Perhaps they are only reflecting the dominant history of race relations in this country. But there have been at least two films that show signs of hope.

Henri Safran's Storm Boy (1976) is the first. A young boy, Mike, lives with his widowed father Tom in a shack behind a windswept beach on the Coorong in South Australia. The boy raises an orphaned pelican, Mr Percival, and is befriended by an Aboriginal man, Fingerbone Bill, who seems to live in the bush behind the dunes.

Their idyllic life ends dramatically when hunters shoot Mr Percival and Tom moves into town so Mike can go to school. Fingerbone Bill finds Mr Percival's body, and he takes Tom to the place where he has buried the bird. The film ends on a positive note, with Fingerbone Bill showing Tom a nest of a newly hatched pelicans. "Mr Percival all over again, a bird like him never dies," he assures the boy.

The other film is Paul Goldman's Australian Rules (2002), based on Phillip Gwynne's book Deadly, Unna? Old prejudices surface in a South Australian fishing town when the brilliant Aboriginal player Dumby Red is denied the prize for best-on-ground after the local grand final.

Tensions escalate, resulting in Dumby's death. His white mate Blacky, the accidental hero of the match, is falling in love with Dumby's sister Clarence. Blacky finally stands up to his father, a brutal man who was Dumby's killer (symbolic of patriarchal, racist old Australia?). The film ends with Blacky telling us in voice-over that his father has left town and that he is also going to leave - with Clarence.

What is different about these two films?

In Storm Boy, based on Colin Thiele's children's book of the same name, it is the boy who becomes friends with the Aborigine. His initially suspicious father only later appreciates the value of their relationship for his son's growth. The child is a central character in most of the films mentioned, but only in Storm Boy does a positive, nurturing inter-racial relationship develop. Perhaps in 1976 it took a child to be open to the friendship and wisdom of an Aborigine. And perhaps the bush setting was easier for whites to accept than a city as the natural domain of Aborigines.

By 2002, Australian Rules was able to move the process of developing good race relations on in a couple of ways. The main character is a teenager rather than a child, and is dealing with the usual teenage concerns of forging an identity, separating from parents and discovering the opposite sex. The film is set in a town rather than the bush, and the Aborigines live in their own community, The Point, rather than being isolated and unattached as was Fingerbone Bill. And there is regular interaction between the cultures, on the football field at least.

In other words, Australian Rules is getting closer to the complexities of contemporary reality. And through the new relationship of Blacky and Clarence (explored more fully in Gwynne's next book, Nukkin Ya), it offers some hope for a shared future.

Twenty seven years passed between the release of Storm Boy (about a boy) and Australian Rules (about teenagers). Perhaps as a culture we have been slow to grow up, but can look forward to seeing a film before too long in which black and white Australians not only live in relative harmony as adults but grow old and die together.

Film-makers are storytellers. With more indigenous film-makers and more white fellas making stories involving the inter-racial and inter-ethnic relationships now common in Australian society, we can expect films in the future to show not only the ugly side of Australian racism, but also people of different races and cultures living, loving and dying together.

Reconciliation isn't only the responsibility of film-makers any more than it is of politicians, however. Each of us is a storyteller in our own lives. Each of us has the opportunity to fashion new narratives about our identity and culture while honouring our past.

Dr Mark Byrne is Project and Advocacy Officer at Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre in Sydney.

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