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Black and white movies:
The cinema of conflict and reconciliation

Dr Mark Byrne

9 June 2005

A version of this paper appeared in The Australian, 31/5/05

Think of all the Australian films you’ve ever seen. How many of them feature good — that is, lasting, nurturing and mutually satisfying — relationships between Aboriginal and white Australians?

I can think of only three.

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 filmmakers 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), the first Australian film shot in colour and a critical and commercial success. Jedda is an orphaned Aboriginal girl who is raised by a white farming family, only to be abducted by Marbuk, a tribal Aborigine. Chased by the white family and rejected by Marbuk’s tribe for breaking marriage taboos, the deranged and desperate Marbuk clutches Jedda and jumps off a cliff.

Sixteen years later, English director Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) opens with a white boy and girl stranded in the desert after their father’s botched murder-suicide attempt. Lost and thirsty, the children are befriended by an Aboriginal youth famously played by David Gulpilil. He is attracted to the girl and performs what looks like a mating dance in order to woo her. She, however, rejects him. Next morning he is found hanging from a tree.

Fred Schepsi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) (based on Thomas Kenneally’s book of the same name) drew on real events in the late nineteenth century. The film tells the story of Jimmie, a half-caste who is taught the ways of whitefellas by a Methodist minister. Jimmie rejects his tribal past and eventually marries a white girl. Betrayed by her and exploited by his boss, he goes on a killing spree before being shot, captured and hung.

After a lean patch in the 1980s, the past decade has seen a plethora of films exploring black-white relations, beginning with Nick Parsons’ Dead Heart (1996). Set in a remote Central Desert community, this film revolves around the difficulty whites have in understanding Aboriginal law and customs. An Aboriginal teacher’s aide has an affair with the wife of the white schoolteacher, and takes her to a sacred site where they make love. He is later found dead, setting off a chain of events that ends with the whites abandoning the community to the Aborigines.

Set in the Flinders Ranges in the 1930s and also based on real events, Rachel Perkins’ One Night The Moon (2001) begins with a young white girl being entranced by the full moon and wandering into the hills from her family’s isolated farmhouse. The local police sergeant suggests they get a black tracker, Albert, to help search for her. But her father declares,  “No blackfella is to set foot on my land”. The local white men can’t find her, and in desperation the girl’s mother turns to Albert for help. He finds her too late. The film ends with the farmer wandering into the desert to shoot himself after being rejected by his wife.

Phil Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence (2003), based on Doris Pilkington’s eponymous book, doesn’t explore race relations in any new way so much as confirm the impossibility of overcoming the gulf between black and white Australians.

Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (also 2003) turns the historical tables by having a black tracker murder his white tormenter before escaping into the desert to rejoin his own people. But it’s a revenge fantasy that assuages white guilt without any hint of reconciliation other than in a brief moment of complicity between a young white policeman and the tracker.

These films share a depressingly familiar landscape of misunderstanding, hostility and resentment between black and white Australians. Perhaps this reflects the dominant history of race relations in this country. And conflict is certainly central to many dramatic narratives — although the audience often hopes that it can be resolved.

But there have been a few films that show signs of hope.

Henri Safran’s Storm Boy (1976) is about a young boy, Mike, who lives with his widowed father Tom in a shack behind a windswept beach on the Coorong Peninsula 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 Mike to the place where he has buried the bird. The film ends on a positive note, with Fingerbone Bill showing him the nest of a newly hatched pelican. "Mr. Percival all over again, a bird like him never dies," he assures the boy.

Fast forward to 2002 and the release of Ivan Sen’s first feature, Beneath Clouds, which tracks the slowly developing relationship between two teenagers as they hitchhike from the country to Sydney. Lena is part-Aboriginal but rejects this part of her heritage. She wants to escape her “shithole” small town and dysfunctional family and travel to Ireland to meet her real father. Vaughn is an Aboriginal youth who escapes from a low security prison to visit his sick mother. He doesn’t know that Lena is part-Aboriginal, and treats her with the same hostility with which he approaches all whites. However, on the road they slowly get to know each other, with Lena coming to face something of the pain implicit in her Aboriginal heritage, before they go their separate ways: Lena on a train to Sydney, and Vaughn probably back into police custody.

There has been one other recent film that explores race relations without ending in disaster — Paul Goldman’s Australian Rules (also 2002), based on Phillip Gwynne‘s book Deadly, Unna?. Old prejudices surface in a South Australian fishing town after the local AFL grand final. The brilliant Aboriginal player Dumby Red is denied the prize for “Best on Ground”. 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 voiceover that his father has left town and that he is also going to leave — with Clarence.

What is different about these three films?

Storm Boy was 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 their relationship and its role in his son’s growth. The child is a central character in many of the films mentioned, but only in Storm Boy does a positive, nurturing interracial 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, Beneath Clouds was able to move the process of developing good race relations on in a couple of ways. The main characters are teenagers rather than children. Vaughn’s life is cursed by the racism and marginalisation that continue to characterise the lives of Indigenous Australians. Lena is also dealing with her mixed racial heritage, and is able, through the course of the film, to face something of it instead of just running away from it.

In Australian Rules, the main characters are also teenagers, and are dealing with the usual teenage concerns of forging their identity, separating from their 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. There is regular interaction between the cultures, on the football field at least. And through the new relationship of Blacky and Clarence (explored more fully in Gwynne’s next book, Nukkin Ya), there may be hope for a shared future.

Twenty seven years passed between the release of Storm Boy (about a boy) and Beneath Clouds and Australian Rules (about teenagers). Perhaps as a culture we are slowly growing up, and might 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.

But before we can look forward to this, there is another theme in these films that needs more attention: grief.  It is most obvious in a film like Rabbit Proof Fence: the grief of children separated from their mother and their home, and vice versa. It surfaces in the other films discussed, too, but it’s often unresolved. People seldom come out the other side sadder but wiser. Instead we tend to get revenge, bitterness, alienation, denial, or a return to the status quo.

Grief features in Storm Boy, Beneath Clouds and Australian Rules, too, but in different ways. In Storm Boy, Tom is sad when Mr Percival dies, and is heartened when Fingerbone Bill shows him the pelican egg he’s found, but we learn nothing of the grief of the apparently solitary Bill.

Separation and longing permeate Beneath Clouds, and grief surfaces firstly when Lena faces what Vaughn tells her was a massacre of Aboriginal people in country they pass through, and subsequently when Vaughn arrives at his family home too late to see his mother, who has just died. This exposure to grief is the stuff of everyday life, but it is all the more prevalent in Aboriginal Australia because of the history of dispossession and separation, the high rate of Aboriginal incarceration (especially among young men) and their relatively poor health status.

Australian Rules has a pivotal scene where in which the shy, awkward Blacky crosses a road and climbs a fence to turn up to Dumby’s funeral —held among his own people, on Aboriginal land. While white cops watch from a distance, Blacky is initially challenged but is eventually allowed to join in the family’s grieving.

Filmmakers are storytellers. With more indigenous as well as whitefella filmmakers telling stories involving the interracial and interethnic relationships now common in Australian society, we can expect to see on film not only more of 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 filmmakers 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.

How can I, like Mike, find a way through my grief at what has been lost and allow myself to have hope for the future? How can I, like Blacky, summon the courage to cross the road, climb the fence and join those who I have rejected; or to stand up (as Blacky eventually does to his rigid, brutal father) to the forces of oppression? How can I, like Lena, come to accept the parts of my life and myself that are not pretty or neat?

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

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