Saturday 14 March 2015

Ten Canoes, The Tracker

Ten Canoes

Borderlines Film Festival is screening three films by the Australia director Rolf de Heer that star the Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil. Gulpilil began his film career at 16 years old in Walkabout, opposite Jenny Agutter, in 1971. De Heer’s latest, Charlie’s Country (2014), screened on the opening day of the festival. Ten Canoes (2007) and The Tracker (2002) are playing this week. Like Rolf de Heer my cousin, Darren Clarke, emigrated to Australia as a boy. Darren was employed in a bridging role with the Aboriginal communities so I emailed him for some background information: 

The Aboriginal people have a very strong connection with the land in which they have lived for the past 40,000 years. They lived in harmony with the land, and each other, until the arrival of Captain Cook in 1788 - or, as many of the aboriginal people know it, the invasion by white man. [Tales of Captain Cook’s adventures were a seaside entertainment during Far From the Madding Crowd (1967). The festival's programmers tie it all together.]

Many aborigines live in dire poverty today. They have been forced to adopt a legal system that is not relevant to them and they have living standards (housing, education, health) well below the rest of the nation. Many have turned to drugs and alcohol which has only reinforced the perception most people have of them. [I checked with the Australian Bureau of Statistics. In 2008, 35% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, aged 15 years or over, had abstained from alcohol but 17% were alcoholics. Their unemployment rate is three times higher than non-Indigenous Australians. Life expectancy is about a decade less. The gap between living standards is not closing.]

Darren adds, “The closest thing I can think of is how American Indians have been treated. In comparison, the Maori of New Zealand are far more respected and integrated.” The key issues come down to: land rights; reconciliation; racism and equality; and, Dreamtime.

Aboriginals are the traditional owners of the land and have had some success in claiming land rights in remote areas and royalties from the mineral resources. Eddie Mabo is a key figure in this area of law. His test case, in 1992, determined the legal rights of the Meriam people to islands annexed by Queensland in 1879.

The Australian government apologised in 2008 but has not compensated the Aboriginal people for their treatment during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Such as the “Stolen Generations” scandal when aboriginal babies, by acts of Parliament, were taken from their mothers, as late as the 1970s, and raised as orphans or in white homes.

Dreamtime, in this context, refers to the unwritten history and beliefs of aborigines. They have no written language (as we understand it) so stories are passed down between generations. There is a great fear that these will be lost forever as future generations move away from their heritage.

There are some parallels with the Ethiopian film Difret, previewed last week. State law finds it very difficult to incorporate a way of life that does not involve paperwork. There are no birth certificates or title deeds. Family trees are not recalled, in precise detail, beyond living memory.
The Tracker

The Tracker, set in 1922, examines the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Gulpilil, ‘the tracker’, assists three white men – ‘the fanatic’, ‘the follower’ and ‘the veteran’ – in their pursuit of ‘the fugitive’, an Aboriginal man accused of murdering a white woman. It comes very highly rated by all the major review comparison movie websites.

Ten Canoes, set at any time before 1788, is the first film in Aboriginal languages; it was a Best Foreign Language Film nominee at the 2007 Academy Awards. It is unique. Gulpilil is cast as The Storyteller and narrates in English. It ensures that one story, at least, will not be lost to future generations.

Robin Clarke,
Festival Volunteer

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