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,
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
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
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
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
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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