A RECENT paramour, a lovely and good-hearted gal, was very keen on a night at the flix, especially if the Westgarth or Sun happened to be showing a documentary purporting to distill the essence of what you might call the Indigenous Experience. Her enthusiasm was a mystery because, if you have seen one such film, you have seen them all. Scatter a few blackfellas and a heavy dollop of white guilt about the screen, chuck in a reverential narrator, and polish the lot to a blinding gloss with a Film Australia grant and Jean-Jaques Rousseau’s old chamois. Why she took such delight in seeing black people pick their unskinned dinners from beds of embers must remain a mystery, but many people do. Give the genre’s directors a chance to punctuate 90 minutes of patronising footage with long, static shots of big, red suns going up or down, usually to an accompaniment of corroboree chanting or frolicking black children, and their genius will be proclaimed all the way from Yarraville to Northcote.
One such film was called White Fella Dreamin’, which tells the story of a white martial artist and roadie who not only befriends David Gulpilil but becomes his “brother.” The narration begins with the white man proclaiming his tribe, skin type and totem and announcing that he is a now a bona fide Aboriginal, at least to his own satisfaction. He and Gulpilil go hunting, their children splash in waterholes and their wives join the menfolk about the campfire, often to watch another of those interminable bloody sunsets.
A forgettable film, despite the awards heaped upon it, it was brought to mind by today’s news that Gulpilil is off to serve five months behind bars for breaking his wife’s arm. These things happen in some relationships, be they black or white, and the purpose of this post is not to heap additional guilt on the convicted. But what of the filmmaker and his guilt, should be let off without censure? As the documentary states, he lived amongst his adopted tribe for as long as a year at a time. Why did the brutality of the Gulpilil household end up on the cutting room floor? Surely the incident that put a bash artist behind bars was not a one-off case. In a film that claims to reveal the essence of aboriginality, one of the most striking aspects – no pun intended – is omitted. The explanation can only be a commitment to mislead.
If the director and others like him had made even a slight effort to present Aborigines as human, to depict just a few of the failings that condition implies, it might be possible to speak openly of grave problems and, just possibly, of solutions. But it seems some delusions are sweeter than Choctops and, when it comes to the noble-savage myths of post-modern preference, far too pleasant not to swallow.