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
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
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
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
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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