My life began in a rural Aussie town not unlike “Faraway Downs”, the mythical outpost in the movie “Australia”. My birth town was Mullewa, an Aboriginal word meaning “place of fog”. Mullewa is a dustbowl of a town, hot as hell and as dry as a dead dingo’s donger (to use a crude Aussie euphemism).When I was born in 1968, Mullewa was still swirling in a fog of racial ignorance. I was born in a two bed hospital. The other bed remained empty, while an Aboriginal baby was born in an outside shed. At least that’s how the family legend rumbles around my memory.
The Aboriginal baby was one of the famous Dingo clan. Ernie Dingo is now one of Australia’s most distinguished actors. I would have liked to see him in “Australia”. I like to think that Ernie’s success is an indication that the fog has partially lifted on Australian race relations. The recent apology to the stolen generation by the newly elected Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is another indication of progress and healing.
The myth around my rural birth (my family moved back to the city when I was six months old) has always fired my imagination and a sense of justice. It was my nativity story, except unlike Jesus and his family I was the privileged one. There was ample room at the inn for me. There was no hasty escape from a tyrant for me and my family. But then again, I never walked on water either. Hugh Jackman on the other hand……….
It’s the recalling, and retelling of stories that instills a sense of wonder in me. This sense of wonder makes me believe in the strength of the human spirit to overcome adversity and injustice. I imagine the same is true for the people of Darwin. Darwin was named after Charles Darwin who visited the town in 1839. If only they knew then how poignant the name would be. Talk about survival against all odds. Darwin was bombed mercilessly by the Japanese in World War 2. Darwin was then slammed senseless by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. The surviving population was evacuated both times.
Australia is a large place, and Darwin is small and remote. Its survival, let alone its rebirth after tragedy, is itself a miracle of Darwinian proportions. The pub scene in “Australia” after the Japanese attack is profoundly moving. Hugh Jackman, the benevolent “drover” goes into the “whites only” pub with his best friend, an Aborigine named Magarri. He demands that his friend be given a drink. They drink together, and amidst the rubble of a broken town, a small victory of human justice is won.
“Australia” is an important story, and it’s told well. I wish it had been called “Darwin” as this is only a snapshot of Australian life, a play within a play. In any case, I’m thrilled that the rest of the world is invited into the story of Darwin. “Australia” portrays an aspect of the complex triangular relationship between England, a maturing Australia, and the traditional Aboriginal people. Nicole Kidman plays “Lady Ashley” who arrives from England with no clue about life on the land in Darwin. Her eyes are quickly opened to the reality of a young “half-caste” boy named “Nullah”. The police are constantly trying to “steal” Nullah to place him in one of the church run institutions to “breed the black out”.
Stories such as this need to be told, even when the stories are a blurring of fact and fantasy. Half caste kids were still being stolen when I was born in 1968 and into the 1970s. Racism in Australia mirrors racism all over the world, and if awareness and horror are heightened through movies such as “Australia” then they achieve a noble purpose. Ultimately, however, it is the honoring of the human spirit that inspires transformation and justice.
“Australia” offers plenty of that. The droving scene at cliff’s edge is heart stopping. Nullah’s bravery, Dover’s humanity, and Lady Ashley’s determination, are all awesome and inspirational. The scenery is breathtaking, and the desert appears endless. The movie appears endless at times too. But the movie does end, as the desert ends. The Japanese do leave, and people do repopulate Darwin. Racism and hatred do ease, and if nothing else, stories such as this remind me that all things are in constant flux. There is a way of living that rolls with the cyclones, dwells in wonder and offers the type of imagination and determination that helps to lift the fog.
My favorite theme running through the movie is the tension for young Nullah. He is constantly called to the land, feeling the lure of his ancestors. I wonder if it would have been more powerful to keep a veil of mystery over his grandfather, King George, whether he is real, or is an aspect of Nullah’s imagined world. What is real anyway? If I have learnt anything about Aboriginal spirituality, it is the blurring of fact and fantasy, dreaming and waking, present and future.
King George is the sorcerer, the Wizard of Aus, who wants to help Nullah find himself. Maybe Nullah finds himself much like we all do; by seeing all things as mirrors, by realizing that all is part of us and we are part of all that is.
As Joseph Campbell said, "All the gods, all the heavens, all the worlds, are within us." Maybe Nullah had to go walkabout to learn this from the land. Maybe the world needs to retell stories about racism, and cyclones and injustice in order recognize the goodness, the anger and the courage that is within.
Maybe stories such as “Australia” dislodge the screen that shields the Wizard of pretence. When the screen is removed, the truth is revealed. In the words of the Wizard of Oz, “I have been making believe.” Australians, English, Aborigines, Japanese- we are all related. We are kin. We are one at heart. All the divisions, the hatred and the rivalry are just make believe.