A Footnote on Australia

by Latoya Peterson

Last week, I picked up the new issue of Script Magazine looking for some information on script reviewers . However, what I found was Baz Luhrmann talking about the planning and writing of Australia.

The lengthy article describes the thought process involved in creating a script of epic scope, and reveals that Luhrmann wanted to write a film encompassing the history of Australia. Script explains:

There were a number of issues that Luhrmann knew he wanted to explore, including those related to the continent’s Aboriginal peoples as well as those related to Australia’s to achieve self-determination and self-governance.

After spending six months immersed in research and historical documents, Luhrmann decided to set the film near the beginning of World War II, due to “the transitional period” that it represented in Australia’s history. Also of note:

Another reason Luhrmann chose this time period because it allowed him to shine a light on what he describes as “probably the most heinous and difficult part of our history” – a period that marked a low point in the relationship between Australia’s white majority and the indigenous peoples with whom they share their land. In the time between the two World Wars, so many white Australian cattle stockmen were having relationships with Aboriginal women that the population of mixed-race children was causing a dilemma for those concerned about the country’s racial purity. A government policy was instituted in which mixed race children were taken from their parents, placed in Christian monasteries, and, in Luhrmann’s words, “basically trained to be white. This decimated large sections of the indigenous population – you can imagine the spiritual decimation and the pain. So, it was an extremely dramatic problem that has haunted this nation for a very, very long time and it really began in that period.”

Luhrmann wanted to deal with this issues in his film, not as its primary focus, but woven into the fabric of the piece in much the same way that slavery – while certainly not the main subject of the movie – was an indelible part of the texture of Gone With the Wind.

I find the journalist’s recounting of historical events extremely interesting.

A period that marked a low point in the relationship between Australia’s white majority and the indigenous peoples with whom they share their land[...]

Oh, is that how that went? No discussions of forced removal from ancestral homelands? Or smallpox? So, this was simply like getting a roommate? Informative.

In the time between the two World Wars, so many white Australian cattle stockmen were having relationships with Aboriginal women that the population of mixed-race children was causing a dilemma for those concerned about the country’s racial purity.

This line really jumped out at me when I read it. Relationships? In some cases, there probably were loving relationships between rancher/settlers and some indigenous women. But I think the word they were looking for was relations, as in sexual contact that may or may not have been consensual. I don’t wish to be grim – perhaps I am inserting some of the issues in African American history over on to a different continent. It’s one of those things about colonialism – seeing people as subhuman leads you to treat them as subhuman and rape (of said subhumans) was common. I did a quick search to check my gut feeling, but I pulled up nothing about the relationships between indigenous women and settlers. However, I found two things of interest:

    1. There is little if any analysis of aboriginal men in these relationships. Most of the accounts involve aboriginal women and their mixed race children. So logically…

    2. If this is the case, then where were the white men who fathered these children? Where are their accounts? If they were in “relationships” wouldn’t they have been around to protest?

It is these little omissions that make me think history is being sanitized again.

Hopefully, someone who knows a bit more about Australian history can drop some insight in the comments.

Luhrmann wanted to deal with this issues in his film, not as its primary focus, but woven into the fabric of the piece in much the same way that slavery – while certainly not the main subject of the movie – was an indelible part of the texture of Gone With the Wind.

Where do I even start with this one? Let’s begin by saying Gone with the Wind isn’t really the best comparison this writer could have made. (Though, to be fair, SLB’s review does show that the comparison might be spot-on.) Between lot of interesting criticism of the novel by black women and the unauthorized parody, The Wind Done Gone there has been a massive attempt to describe how many of us do not see the same story when we read Gone with the Wind.

The line quoted above also cuts to the heart of the criticism I hold for a lot of writers (novelists and screenwriters alike) and their treatment of characters of color. Even when we are the main characters, we are treated like an afterthought. We always occupy that space of something-that-exists-as-a-plot-device or a tool of redemption to the other white characters. To illustrate, here is a note on the development of Nicole Kidman’s character:

By the end of [the initial screenplay writing] period, they created a suitably epic tale that Luhrmann describes as follows: “A woman from a far away place by happenstance finds herself in a foreign environment. All she cares about is her physical possessions – she’s tired of spirit and tired of love. She goes on an African Queen-like journey and finds herself with the most unlikely man who she, by status, could never be involved with, or love in any way whatsoever…and with a child who loses his mother. Together they go on an incredible quest and journey and, out of that quest and journey, she is transformed by the landscape and the experience. She finds love for all three of them. The rest of the film is when the world is spinning and changing: War comes and society says you can’t be together.

[...]

[W]ith a desire to enhance Sarah’s “Englishness,” Luhrmann approached Academy Award winning screenwriter, novelist, and playwright Ronald Harwood (The Pianist, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) in February 2006. Initially, Luhrmann asked Harwood to work on the sequence in which Sarah makes her journey to Faraway Downs, but this quickly expanded into the two of them doing a thorough pass thorough pass of the whole script. Luhrmann was thrilled to be able to work with Harwood. “He is one of the grand masters of writing. He has a great sense of the classical and just of storytelling..and had a couple of really cracker ideas [to solve problems]that I had been struggling with for a long, long, time.

There was little discussion of Jackman’s character, who apparently represents Australia. And, for a movie that is “really told from a little child’s perspective,” Nuala’s characterization is also glossed over, save for this note:

The mythological aspect of the script also benefitted from input from a full-time aboriginal script consultant, Sam Lovell, and a number of Aboriginal storytelling and song partners, including Richard Birrinbirrin and Frances Djulibing.

Related:

White Authors, Ethnic Characters
Ballad of the Magical Half-Negro (by Baz Luhrmann)