Tag Archives: Tribune

Confronting Racism on Film – Dennis O’Rourke’s ‘Couldn’t Be Fairer’ (1985)

6 Feb

Published in Tribune – Summer Reading Issue (no 2406), 11 December 1985.

Mick Miller (right) and Dennis O'Rourke during the filming of 'Couldn't be Fairer'.

The Northern Territory’s recent campaign against the return of Ayers Rock to its traditional owners underlined the racism inherent in large sections of the white community in Australia. The “Ayers Rock for all Australians” (sic) campaign was not an isolated incident. Attacks on the basic human rights which Aboriginal people have gained through years of struggle are under attack across Australia, from both governments and corporate interests. But nowhere is it as vicious, or as overtly racist, as it is in Queensland and the Northern Territory.

Couldn’t Be Fairer, a new film by Australian filmmaker Dennis O’Rourke confronts the racism of the Queensland government and the white community of Northern Queensland. What emerges is a powerful statement, graphically illustrating the hypocrisy which seems to be the cornerstone of race relations in Queensland. O’Rourke has been internation­ally recognised as one of the most perceptive filmmakers on tensions between western and traditional culture. His films include Yumi Yet (1976) and Ileksen (1978) about the granting of independence and the first election held in Papua New Guinea. Yap … How Did You Know We’d Like It (1980) examined the effect of American television on the small Micronesian island of Yap. His most recent film, Half Life, which will be commercially released early in 1986, is a devastating account of the US nuclear weapons test program on the Marshall Islands. It concentrates on the effects exposure to highly radioactive fallout from the tests has had upon the inhabitants of the island.

O’Rourke was originally commissioned to make Couldn’t Be Fairer for the BBC program Third Eye, which is a series of programs designed to allow people from the third world to describe their conflicts with western culture. As O’Rourke told Tribune, “North Queensland, for Aboriginal people, could be regarded as the third world. What exists there is basically a colonial situation, both on and off the reserves”.

A major strength of the film is the power and commitment of its narrator, Aboriginal activist and chairperson of the North Queensland Lands Council, Mick Miller. The film follows Mick through Northern Queensland as he talks to his own people and discusses the effect that commercial development, such as mining and tourism, has had upon Aboriginal communities. We see how white Queenslanders effectively marginalise Aboriginal people, pushing them to the outskirts of white society. The alcoholism, sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women, and the degradation which is the result of two centuries of white oppression is in sharp contrast to the glimpses we are allowed of white Queenslanders in the film.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and members of the Queensland government, feature prominently in the film. In fact, the title comes from a statement from the Queensland premier regarding his government’s treatment of Aboriginal people. “Treat them the same as everyone else — couldn’t be fairer.” Mick Miller, time and time again, emphasises the hypocrisy and racism which underlies such a statement. Unfortunately, Couldn’t Be Fairer shows that Bjelke-Petersen’s racism is shared by many whites in Northern Queensland. Hotel workers, white drinkers, police, mining companies, even workers in the tourist industry show, by their statements and actions, that Aborigines are not treated the same as everyone else in the Sunshine State.

As Mick Miller says in the film, “We are living on the fringes of a white affluent society, treated as fourth and fifth class citizens …. We are truly strangers in our own land.” For Mick, Couldn’t be Fairer is an important and timely film, Speaking recently to Tribune, he said, “A film had to be made to show that in the little outback towns, nothing has really changed. Blacks are still being bashed and arrested for minor offences and it’s very difficult to lay charges against those responsible. “We wanted to show that, in Queensland, Blacks are still being treated the way they were 30 years ago, and that in some of the pubs in the little towns there are still separate bars for Blacks and whites. We Blacks still aren’t allowed to drink with the local ringers and land owners.”

It was an important film for Dennis O’Rourke as well. Although he had built up a reputation as a leading documentary filmmaker, until Couldn’t be Fairer he hadn’t actually made a major film in Australia. He had, however, been interested in making a film about racism in Queensland for some time. As he told Tribune, “growing up in a number of Queensland country towns, I was exposed to various forms of racism from an early age. “I didn’t understand it then, but there was obviously something different about the relationship between the Aboriginal kids and the white kids at my school. I remember feeling that it didn’t seem quite right. “Later, I decided that I wanted to make a film that was not so much about the ‘Aboriginal situation’, but rather one which attempted to pin down the nature of this sort of racism.”

Couldn’t be Fairer was filmed over a period of three months in late 1984. Dennis travelled around northern Queensland with Mick and members of the North Queensland Land Council, filming and interviewing people both on reserves and in towns. Later, when the film was being edited, Mick was often in Canberra in his various official capacities, so he was able to take an active part in the cutting of the film.

Problems arose, however, when the final version of the film was delivered to the BBC. It was decided that sections of the film were “too shocking” for English TV audiences. As a result, scenes dealing with drunkenness, the sexual oppression of Aboriginal women, and the degradation which many Aborigines had been forced into, were cut from the version which went to air in England. In all about half the film was edited out without the permission of Dennis or Mick.

Although Dennis told Tribune that there wasn’t anything which he actually found objectionable in the BBC version, he believes that the film lost some of its impact and many of the major issues had been subtly avoided. Mick believes that the BBC decision to cut the film reflects the naivety of the British. ‘They simply couldn’t believe that a state in Australia could have laws, or could subject its Black people the way Queensland does.” Mick saw the BBC decision as symptomatic of the attitude of many whites when confronted with the facts about racism — they simply don’t believe it exists or that it is as bad is you make out. “They say ‘We’re not all racist’, but lots of them still scream and oppose the little bit of help the Aboriginal people do get.”

Couldn’t be Fairer illustrates powerfully that the gains made by Aboriginal people in Australia are the result of years of struggle against deeply ingrained racist attitudes. As Mick told Tribune, ‘The system is designed to pull us down and keep us in the muck, but we fought it. That’s how we got to where we are today. Nothing would have changed through the goodwill of the government.”

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Determing our Culture – ‘Arguing the Arts: The Funding of the Arts in Australia’ Tim Rowse

9 Jan

Arguing the Arts: The Funding of the  Arts in Australia by Tim Rowse, Penguin, 1985. Review Published in Tribune – Summer Reading Issue (no 2406), 11 December 1985.

Tim Rowse’s new book, Arguing the Arts: The Funding of  the Arts in Australia, is a long overdue study of the role funding bodies play in determining the future development of culture in Australia.

Rowse traces the development of government patronage showing how the changes reflected changing attitudes and expectations about the role of culture in Australian society. Although commonwealth patronage of the arts had begun before the First World War, the major funding bodies, such as the Australia Council and the Australian Film Corporation (AFC), are legacies of the Whitlam government.

Rowse identifies three distinct stages of government patronage. The first of these he calls “voluntary entrepreneurship”. This period can perhaps be seen as a time of “cultural missionaries”. The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust’s touring policy, according to Rowse, reflected the cultural assumptions of the time. It was assumed that Australian society was “characterised” by a “good natured but resourceful philistinism which could be challenged by the presentation of the best of European culture”.

The next stage of patronage Rowse calls “statutory patronage”. This period saw the creation of the Australia Council and the AFC. These organisations made grants to “cultural activities” which they deemed to be worthy.

The concept of “worthiness” or “excellence’ took on new importance during the Fraser years when the real income of the Australia Council fell by over 30%. Because of its adherence to the notion of “excellence”, the Council continued to support only those activities it saw as the ‘best’. As Rowse points out, “The more acclaimed you already were, the more you got”.

The third level of patronage, and the one which is causing the ‘flagship’ companies so many nightmares, is what Rowse calls “decentralised patronage”. This sees alternatives to existing concepts of “culture” and seeks to demonstrate or cultivate community support for a wide range of cultural activities.

This concept is perhaps best reflected in the growth of community theatre and writing, the Art and Working Life programs and the success of the Community Arts Board, the Craft Board and the Aboriginal Arts Boards of the Australia Council.

Rowse goes onto examine a number of issues which he sees as central to the current debate on arts subsidy and support. These issues include the thorny problem of excellence, notions of “popular culture’ versus “high culture”, the distribution of cultural products and the new technologies and the increasing emphasis on the arts as an “industry”.

Returning to the notion of “excellence”, Rowse makes a strong case for the elimination of the word “excellence” from the vocabulary of public cultural policy. He argues, for example, that the term has always been available to those who could lay claim to it under the prevailing cultural ideology.

Towards the end of Arguing the Arts,  Rowse looks more concretely towards the future. In attempting to find a “new rationale” for commonwealth cultural policy, he examines the dichotomy between “popular”, commercial entertainment and “high” subsidised culture.

He argues that, in many ways, these distinctions are false. They tend to be supported at one end by the commercial broadcasters who have a financial interest in what is regarded as “popular”, and, at the other, by the subsidised  arts who seek  continued protection from what they perceive to be the vulgarity of popular taste.

One of the major points which emerges from Rowse’s study is his belief that the arts should make greater use of recording and electronic media in general. He points out that the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal already has the power to ensure that independent films and videos are shown on commercial television. He is also concerned with the minor role the ABC plays in the distrution of culture.

A refreshing aspect of his brief look at the role the domestic satellite could play in future cultural policy is his sympathetic examination of the cultural needs of Aboriginal people. He points out that “some outback people are Aborigines with an interest in the survival of their languages. They need the same choices as white city dwellers much less than they need the choice of not receiving English language broadcasting”.

Overall,  Arguing the Arts  is an impressive study of the cultural policy of successive Australian governments and highlights the conservative thinking which has held back creative development in many art forms in Australia. It contains a wealth of information which I have only been able to touch upon. It is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding how government policy can shape the future cultural development of Austral

Breaking Through the Silence: NO REGRETS 3

14 Dec

No Regrets 3: An Anthology of the Sydney Women Writing Workshop. Published by the No Regrets Group. 1985. Review Published in Tribune – Summer Reading Issue (no 2406) 11 December 1985.

“Literary history and the past are dark with silences”, declared Tillie Olsen in Silences. These silences, she argues, were due to a number of factors ‘including class, colour, sex and the times and climate into which one is born.”

Over the last decade, women writers in Australia have been attempting to make themselves heard above that silence. A measure of their success has been the number of contemporary women writers being published and the growth of women’s publishing ventures such as Sybylla, Sea Cruise Books and Redress Press.

Another result of the revival of women’s writing has been the ‘rescuing’ of women’s writing from literary oblivion. The republishing of works  by authors such as M. Barnard Eldershaw, Eleanor Dark and Christina Stead among others, has created an alternative to the conservative, male dominated, traditional literary history of Australia.

The creation of an alternative structure to the existing literary hierarchy has been one of the most important long-term results of the women’s writing movement. It is probably this aspect that the literary establishment finds the most threatening.

There are many reasons behind the growth of women’s’ writing which, of course, parallels the growth of the women’s movement in general. However, in part it can also be seen as a reaction against the writers of the so-called ‘generation of ’68’.

The generation of ’68 is a term used loosely to describe a number of young writers who first came to prominence in the late sixties. They saw themselves as ‘poetic revolutionaries’ attacking the bastions of traditional Australian literature. With a few exceptions, however, they were male. The vast majority of women in ‘the scene’ were there as girlfriends or wives.

In time, a number of women only writing  workshops were formed, one of which was the Sydney Women Writers Workshop (also known as the No Regrets Group) in 1978. For over seven years the No Regrets Group has met at member’s houses to read and discuss their work, as well as discussing practical and theoretical issues. Their influence, however, has extended beyond the actual group members through the compilation of three anthologies. Their most recent publication, No Regrets 3,  was recently launched at the Performance Space in Sydney. It contains work by sixteen women from the group, together with statements by each on their writing.

Although it is an often repeated assertion that all writing is political, it remains a concept which the literary establishment has difficulty coming to terms with. The women in No Regrets 3, however, repeat this assertion with a convincing directness  which comes from personal experience. Barbara Brooks, for example, says “You can hardly put pen to paper, or even open your mouth, as a woman writer, before you have to confront your experience as a woman, your power, or lack of it.” Anne Lawrence is a little more positive: “being a writer is just my way and I know that there are more women finding and owning their voices, power and creativity with honesty , integrity and great responsibility.” Uyen Loewald sees her writing in terms of her position as a migrant in a society where people refuse to try and understand her: “I began writing….when I realised that there was no other way to establish justice for myself and other people like me.”

The writing itself is varied and refreshing in its scope. It is particularly exciting to come across work by writers I hadn’t heard of before, such as Chitra Fernando, Marion Consandine, Coren Caplan, Anna Valerio, Loretta Re and Jo Garolis.

The influence of the first two No Regrets  anthologies has extended beyond the women’s writing movement. As the Adelaide based writer, Moya Costello, pointed out on a recent Crystal Set program (2SER-FM Sydney), a number of male writers have obviously been influenced, not just by the way women write, but by the supportive networks set up by women writers and the concerns which motivate many women to write.

No Regrets 3, together with the first two anthologies, provide useful models, not only for women writers, but all writers who feel surrounded by ‘silences’.