The absurdity of using fictional history to create derogatory caricatures of Australia to promote Australia.
Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008)
How does it reflect the Australian identity?
A movie is a work of fiction; however, characters within movies are based on positive stereotypes for the protagonist (hero) and negative stereotypes for the antagonist (villain). Because of the reference to real-life stereotypes, movies often blur the lines between myth and reality and thus have the ability to shape political viewpoints and beliefs about various cultures.
It was hoped that Baz Luhrmann’s Australia would be able to use a fictional story based upon real stereotypes and events in order to promote a positive image of Australia much like Paul Hogan's Crocodile Dundee had two decades earlier. Placing faith in Lurhman, the Australian government invested $90 million, which was further supported by $40 million from Tourism Australia in cross promotions.
A central plank in the strategy was to fabricate negative stereotypes about Australian racism and apply them to the antagonist (Australian culture at large) so that audiences would have a strong identification with the protagonist (Hugh Jackman) that sought to overcome them. To make the stereotypes look more real, the film was anchored in the history of The Stolen Generations. This was a term that was coined in 1981 by Peter Reid; a white historian from the University of Sydney, in reference to perhaps 100,000 mixed race children that had ended up in missions between 1910 and 1970.
Ironically, despite being a movie that purported to be anchored in true history and contemporary Aboriginal advocacy, Australia was ignorant about the basic facts of Australian history and how they related to the Stolen Generations. Specifically, Luhrmann's protagonist was a white man named Drover (Hugh Jackman) who had ostracised because he had married an Aboriginal woman. He had become single again after his wife died after being refused heath care treatment by local officials. In truth, at the time the movie was (World War 2), sex across the colour line had been illegal in the Northern Territory so someone like Drover would have found it almost impossible to legally marry a black woman. Arguably, this was the chief reason for why so many mixed race children that became known as the Stolen Generations grew up without knowing their parents. Instead of supporting marriage, the Northern Territory administator criminalised them.
If Luhrmann had been true to history, he would have shown Jackson in the relationship with the Aboriginal woman. Although this would not have appealed to audience that would be confronted by a mixed-race relationships, it would have given Lurhmann the chance to illuminate why so many mixed race children ended up in missions.
Instead of giving Jackman a black love interest, Luhrmann gave him a white station owner Lady Sarah (Nicole Kidman) who was newly arrived from England. The two also adopted a mixed race boy named Nullah, a boy whose Aboriginal mother had died and whose white father was the film's antagonist. After the romance had bloomed and a family formed, Nullah was ripped away by authorities who sent him to live on a mission where he could be assimilated as part of the Stolen Generations. Eventually, Nullah was saved so that he could go walkabout with his maternal grandfather. Lady Sarah and Drover lived happily ever after.
Prior to the credits, Australia states that the policy of assimilation (stealing children) ended in 1973 and that the Government apologised to the stolen generations in 2008. In the statement, Lurhmann again showed that he was ignorant to the basic historical facts relating to the Stolen Generations. In regards to Luhrmann’s claim that the policy of assimilation ended in 1973, in truth, until 1967, the federal Australian government was constitutionally forbidden from making laws targeted at Aborigines. It didn’t have a policy of assimilation because it wasn’t allowed to. (Ironically, it was post-1967 when it developed social engineering policies that could be defined as assimilation.) The federal government did indeed apologise in 2008, but it was a political apology designed to improve the electoral prospects of PM Kevin Rudd. No compensation was paid, no legislative changes made, no past past bureaucrats named and shamed and no reference was made to any piece of policy that made the federal government culpable. As former Australian treasurer Peter Costello pointed out:
" It also wants to tell the story of the stolen generations. It is out to make a statement - not one that will interfere with the box office receipts, but increase them - and show it is more than just a romance. The filmmaker wants to show a conscience, and make a healthy return. Everyone wins.
It is OK to invent things in movie fiction. But this movie wants to look historical. It ends by telling us that the policy of assimilation ended in 1973. (Nobody ever explained what that policy was.) It tells us the Government apologised to the stolen generations in 2008 (which solves the indigenous problem)." (4)
Admittedly, the federal government administered the Northern Territory in World War but the administrator’s policies seemed more focussed on protecting Aborigines from white exploitation than assimilating them to the white ways. Policies such as banning the supply of alcohol to Aborigines and sex across the colour line could not be defined as assimilationist.
Despite being ignorant of history, promotion in the US indicated that Australia was based on historical truths. For example, when selling the film to the American market, Lurhmann said,
"The President-elect of the United States is 47. If he was living in Australia, it is absolutely credible that the government, because he had one white parent and one black parent, could have taken him forcibly from his family. They would have put him in an institution, probably lied to him that his parents were dead, changed his name and reprogrammed him to be European, so he could have some sort of function doing something of service in white society. That would possibly have been Obama's journey."
Likewise, lead actor Hugh Jackman proposed:
"The stolen generation was a policy that was born out of eugenics. Eugenics in Europe, as we saw with Nazi Germany, was sort of popular at the time. This idea that if you mixed races or mixed breeds you lessened the blood or something and that you had an inferior human being, right?
So many well-intentioned people thought this was a good idea and in Australia if you had an Aboriginal parent and a white parent or a European parent, the government would take you away from your family, they would tell you your family had died or been killed in an accident, they would put you in an institution. "
Lurhmann took a lot of government money, took on a lot of responsibility, and let a lot of people down. For Lurhmann, Aborigines were just an issue to be exploited for his own commercial gain or his own vanity. His actions revealed something about an Australian identity that wants to be a protagonist fighting racism but doesn’t actually want to deal with the difficult issues or even face up to the truth about what happened in the past. Perhaps some audience members are endeared to such an identity but many aren’t.
Frank Devine - The Australian
"Australia has been hailed as a saviour of our soi-disant movie industry. So it could be, irrespective of its box office earnings, if it leads to recognition that we don't have a film industry, despite expenditure over 20 years of $1.5billion in subsidies and perhaps another half billion in tax concessions.
What we've ended up with, instead, is a government arts program.
Australia's official movie agency has backed 1049 projects. Only seven became movies that attracted enough ticket-buyers to turn a profit. In short, Screen Australia (its new name) has picked 1042 losers, but still hasn't gone broke. However, no movie company can expect to flourish here if shackled by the not-sufficiently-Australian standards that recently saw George Miller and Warner Bros abandon filming in Australia of the super-hero flick Justice League Mortal, after being refused film production tax concessions, which Australia got, reportedly after surrendering to government pressure to tack on a Stolen Generations theme." 1)
David Dale - The Tribal Mind
"Reader Mervyn Allbright thinks Oz does not deserve to succeed: "Why do we think we have to make Hollywood-style 'block-busters' full of inaccuracies, populist tripe, historical lies, foolishly one-dimensional characters, and cringing and condescending portrayals of indigenous people? It just makes Australia look like a nation of dunces."
That's where this column comes in, because our weekly subject matter is national identity. Since the film seems to be aimed at eight year olds, it should at least be informative. But we wouldn't want them to grow up with a deluded view of the nation's history and iconography. These questions occurred to me as I watched:
1. Was there ever a beer called Kangaroo Bitter or a rum called Poor Fella?
2. Did drovers and cattle barons habitually wear revolvers in holsters on their hips?
3. Would an Aboriginal kid in 1940 have said "That strange woman, she fire-um that Fletcher" or is that more like a line spoken by an Indian in a Hollywood western from the 1950s? (And if an Aboriginal dialect did involve the addition of "um" to verbs, should it not have been "sack-um" rather than "fire-um"?)
4. Would a man working as an accountant in the outback in 1940 know the song Over The Rainbow, when The Wizard of Oz only opened in America in September, 1939? Would he have explained his ability to play it by declaring "I've got the latest 100 songs of the hit parade here".
5. Were half-caste children exiled to a place called Mission Island off Darwin, and was Mission Island the first place to come under Japanese attack in 1942? - " 2)
Andew Bolt - Herald Sun
" Some questions for this serial fantasist. Mr Luhrmann:
1. Please name just 10 children stolen from their families just because they were black.
2. Please name a single child stolen from his white mother just because he was black.
3. Please explain your racist assumption that it would be terrible to raise a child of a single white mother as “European”, and please define what you actually mean by that phrase.
4. Please explain how Obama himself was not raised as “European”, given he was brought up by his white mother and white grandparents. Please explain why Obama is a lesser person for that upbringing.
5. Please explain why you continue to assert as facts things which are absurd, untrue and unhelpful. 3)
All in all, Australia is so damnably eager to please that it feels like being pinned down by a giant overfriendly dingo and having your face licked for about three hours: theoretically endearing but, honestly, kind of gross. - Liam Lacey, Globe and Mail
If you check your brain at the door, you’ll enjoy much of this roistering, resolutely old-school jumble of clichés...The story itself may pose a problem for some viewers averse to comic-book mystical deifications of Outback Aboriginal culture, or others who just might find the whole thing too derivative and simplistic a pastiche.. - David Noh, Film Journal International
Terrible. Cartoonish turkey with no script. Australia should rescind Baz’s citizenship. Smart move, Russell Crowe, backing out of this. - Victoria Alexander, FilmsInReview.com
Australia is one of the most boring movies ever made, and one of the corniest...I’ve been to Australia the country twice, but I never saw anything as insipid and monotonous there as Australia the movie. - Rex Reed, The New York Observer
Baz Luhrmann’s Australia isn’t a history of the penal colony turned commonwealth, but Luhrman’s absurd, cliché-ridden filmmaking ought to be a jailable offense. - Armond White, New York Press