Review: Australia, Directed by Baz Luhrmann, In cinemas nowBaz Luhrmann’s new epic film, Australia, is set in a mythologised Northern Territory in the late 1930s.
The film makes an attempt to deal with the shocking racism directed at the Aboriginal population at the time.
Luhrmann has styled the film as an old-fashioned sweeping Hollywood epic, based on a love story between British aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley and a drover who works driving cattle across thousands of kilometres to sale.
Together they save the outback cattle station she owns from financial ruin, and end up adopting a young Aboriginal boy, Nullah, who lives on the station.
What he has produced is a work of melodrama. The plot is predictable and includes crude stereotypes of Aboriginal people. The only traditional Aboriginal person depicted, “King George”, is presented as a relic from before colonisation, his only real character trait that he has magical powers.
The film is clearly intended to be a contribution towards reconciliation between Aboriginal Australians and the white population.
It presents the pain and suffering that resulted from the stolen generations policy, where the government took Aboriginal children like Nullah from their parents to try to assimilate them into white society.
But it also airbrushes out some of the worst racism of the period. Most of the stockmen who help move the cattle are Aboriginal. But the film does not show the slave labour conditions faced by these workers. In the 1930s most Aboriginal workers received only rations as pay, if they were paid at all. Stockmen often worked twelve hour days, and complained they were treated like dogs. Some are still fighting for compensation for stolen wages.
The film shows the limits of mainstream reconciliation. Australia is an exercise in nationalist mythology, asserting that although there was racism in the past, such problems are now behind us.
Racism against Aboriginal people is presented as the result of individual bigotry. The film’s assertion is that if “good whites” like the drover or Lady Ashley had been listened to the abuses of the past would never have happened.
But this racism is a product of the dispossession of Aboriginal people from their land by white colonisers. The process of European settlement of Australia is based on the theft of Aboriginal land.
Inevitably Aboriginal people have resisted this process—defending their lives and their culture, in which their connection to traditional lands is so important.
From the beginning the colonial state sought to wage war against the indigenous occupants to secure their hold on the new territory. In 1790, Governor Phillip sent troops out to “infuse an universal terror” among local Aborigines who were resisting the theft of their land.
The expansion of European-style farming gave an added impetus to the drive to dispossess Aboriginal people. Wool was one of the most important products of the Australian colonies for markets in Europe. Production grew at a phenomenal rate. In 1820 100,000 pounds of wool were produced, rising to 21 million pounds in 1846, 59 million in 1860, and 550 million pounds by 1916.
The massacres and genocide of Aboriginal societies that form the basis of Australia have to be justified by the settler-state—and racism towards the Aboriginal people is the main way in which this has been done.
Once genocidal violence had secured the conquest of Australia, the government had to deal with the problem of the remaining Aboriginal population. Initially it was hoped they would simply die out. When this did not take place, thy looked for a ways to eradicate resilient Aboriginal societies by forcing assimilation into white society.
The film fits well with the new mainstream narrative about colonisation which is being consolidated under the Rudd government. Having moved on from John Howard’s attempt to deny much of Australia’s racist past, it can now acknowledge that there were past wrongs, but presents them as a product of ignorance. It promotes the idea that Australia today is on the road to reconciliation.
The government’s apology to the stolen generations has been the defining moment in this shift. But the image of racism as a thing of the past is an illusion. The Rudd government is continuing policies aimed at assimilation and dispossession.
This is most stark in the Northern Territory intervention, with its aim of breaking up Aboriginal controlled organisations, driving Aboriginal people off their traditional lands in remote areas and forcing them to compete for jobs in “mainstream” Australia.
By James Supple