Let me talk briefly about The Fringe Dwellers (1987) and now erased from the IMDb is the possible fact that Indigenous people walked out or turned their back on this movie at Cannes. It was the first movie which at least in its foreign soundtracks dealt with the ‘jinx’ of stigma which the Indigenous people suffer in the small towns and even within the reservations or shanty- towns which existed and still exist at the time this movie was made. What The Fringe Dwellers does show is how white boys are more likely to accept black boys while playing together on the football field and also in the classroom whereas white princess girls will stigmatise the not so intelligent but still beautiful black princess teenage girls as a matter of course. It’s Mean Girls (2004) albeit in Australia and girls will be girls but ‘ignominy’ or stigma of being Indigenous doesn’t help either. Perhaps things have improved in the classroom and in country towns…
What The Fringe Dwellers does positively mention is Indigenous culture within the primary school system with one child reading playwright Jack Davis’s The Boomerang (1917-2000). This writer’s play No Sugar is iconic by its title alone in terms of white sugar and alcohol as the destroyer of dreams and a ticket to an early death.
Meanwhile there is also a nod to Albert Namatjira (1902-59) who was the Indigenous artist and martyr in terms of jailed blacks in that he squandered his wealth through giving it away to his mob or family and was accused of leaving a bottle of rum in a car where alcohol was not allowed which led to the death of a woman. He was jailed for six months despite his celebrity in a clear indication the White Australia policy was still alive under PM Bob Menzies.
It should be noted that before this happened that Namatjira appeared in the Chips Rafferty (1909-71 heart attack) movie The Phantom Stockman (1953) aka The Return of the Plainsman which I haven’t seen but is reportedly a kind of ‘buddy’ movie between black and white and could relate to Namatjira’s early years with Rex Battarbee (1893-1973) who mentored Namatjira from camel boy to artist. Any relation to anyone alive or dead being totally coincidental as they say.
While I’m at it I’ll mention the early Indigenous activist Robert Tudawali (1929-67 burns sustained in a fire) who died shortly after he got drunk and passed out in bush which caught fire. Tudawali appeared in the early Aboriginal themed movie Jedda (1955) with another Indigenous actress turned activist Ngarla Kunoth (1937-) who worked for Amnesty International after a brief spell as a nun and protested against the displaced Indigenous from their lands and the associated ‘ethnic cleansing’ if not in terms of the encouragement of self-destructive Genocide but also in terms of the elimination of original Indigenous culture. She worked as a figurehead in Indigenous education in her later years.
Let me mention a quote from Andrew Penfold of the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation which has its own ‘mission’ to help “Indigenous boys and girls choose the futures they aspire to” if they can aspire beyond the remote communities where it is reported that only one fifth finish year nine education at high school and only barely one percent go on to complete a university degree.
Back to Tudawali, and he died within months of the referendum held during the post-Menzies liberal movement of the re-election of the Harold Holt (1908-67 disappeared while swimming) government which finally gave Australian Aboriginals a unilateral and uniform ability to register to vote and vote… finally.
Perhaps as it is healing week, I suggest that the Indigenous be recognised as the first people of Australia in the Constitution through another overdue referendum as their ‘civilisation’ albeit one of hunters and gatherers existed for 40,000 years before it was ‘discovered’ by the white man. The narrative of history still being in the hands of the whites as well as black historians and the laws pertaining to civilisation as we know it in this country!
Tudawali was played on television in a tv movie of the same name which had Ernie Dingo (1956-) who was excellent in the title role and he makes his acting debut in The Fringe Dwellers. The sport connection and assimilation I should mention has a personal connection as my great-great grandfather was a champion country footballer – his side beat the SANFL once upon a time – and his son told me that an Aboriginal who he played football with would visit I guess from the Point Pearce reservation and they were “like brothers” as they rolled around together and laughed. My great grandfather didn’t drink or smoke and like his wife both died at the age of 67. That number again in terms of Harold Holt disappearing and the referendum… My G-G-Grandfather’s Cornish surname was Roberts and they were free settlers. Perhaps we are distantly related to Scott Morrison’s Cornish convict ancestor by the name of Roberts… who was transported for stealing. Oh, the stigma!
If there is any symbolism to be found in The Fringe Dwellers it is that time and speed in terms of the urban speed limit is relative and limited to 60 k/p/h and that the laws of Australia are universal along with the BP sign of petroleum which exists still and links us all by road as a country as a kind of lifeblood, just as the roads are like the veins within every Australian … whether or not if you care only for your family and not your neighbour!
“What mob do you belong to?,” I’m told is the friendly question at the pub or in academia among the enlightened Indigenous who know about ‘on country’ … But in The Fringe Dwellers the black is discouraged to bring his mob to celebrate in the suburbia of a white township or such behaviour is expected to cause dreams to self-destruct through to dysfunction within each damaged individual who tries…It’s not a great movie as the ‘serenity’ of the less expensive home is The Castle (1997) in suburbia is one under threat from within and without as the noise pollution of the inner city must be aspired to for some reason against the sounds of birds and insects of the semi-rural or rural environment. The Dreaming of the Indigenous is something to aspire to in that respect.
It is interesting that The Fringe Dwellers was rejected as it is set in Queensland as opposed to Western Australia where the original novel was set and written by white woman Nene Gare (1919-94) who was also a talented artist and philanthropist who lost children to disease at a young age and so could probably relate to the high child mortality rate among aboriginal children back in the last century.
The film blurs the line between black and white on the fringe of a semi-urban township where the black men are stigmatised due to their association with each other in terms of crime and alcohol. As I have mentioned before stigma once it has jinxed you will never leave you in terms of your position in the community… black, mentally ill or criminal. Good works may ‘save’ you. Whatever. But the scars of the mind don’t necessarily heal within a family once there has been violence especially induced by alcohol… I was jinxed early on and there was no hope for me as an individual. Only now do I feel like I am free…
Now to look at Rolf de Heer’s most realistic Charlie’s Country (2013) which is the crowning glory of Indigenous actor David Gulpilil who got drunk a couple of times and while he didn’t get behind the wheel of a car, he was eventually jailed for throwing a broom at his then partner in 2010. Who started the fight I don’t know … Anyway, he was such a fine actor that he transcended stigma through his good works – and didn’t hang himself as a death in custody through the cultivation of guilt and paranoia… even murder – and gave what is arguably his finest performance as a man who is caught up between existing in the social state of welfare as his expectations as an Aboriginal man remain low and the possibility of his further education are now eroded by time and addiction which has led to his imminent death through lung disease.
This portrait of Indigenous life which has Charlie/Gulpilil aspire to live in a house supplied by the government as opposed to the ‘lean to’ in the bush where he is attuned to the voices of birdsong – not Hillsong. His want of a tin shed to sit on a plastic chair outside may be just a pale imitation of the suburban dream and it is at odds with his lack of skills and his need to be supported by welfare… it is not as though unemployed Indigenous are sucking the life out of the economy it is just that they are used to the colonial invaders paying a pound of flesh for putting them in a position of addiction and eternal poverty and inequality.
The tension between the white man and the poor Indigenous welfare dependent man is shown by Gulpilil walking past the police station where he greets the spectre within with the semi-scornful joke of why did you bring alcohol and marijuana and cigarettes to continually ruin us as a race in Australia. Otherwise, it is just another way to pass the day… as the police officer answers: How are you, you black bastard to Gulpilil’s how are you, you white bastard?! This is the soft insult which remains which is symbolised by the colour of a man’s skin about the introduced culture and perceived obliteration of former hopes and dreams due to no way of avoiding this lifestyle. Gulpilil and de Heer understand each other.
The schizophrenia and its associated stigma within the Aboriginal culture about its former ‘happy’ culture and its inability to successfully exist in terms of how white society exists due to its addictions and attitude to time are the tension which festers ever so slightly and cannot be reconciled. It’s that case of expectations being low that is no longer a joke.
“Jesus you black fellas are smart when you want to be,” says an enthusiastic and hoodwinked cop about Charlie/Gulpilil’s dubious tracking skills while investigating a crime which may have only been solved simply through community gossip. Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (2002) with Gulpilil is worth a look too.
For those caught in the welfare trap or poverty trap where $50 can break a friendship or be a windfall we have Charlie who is starving to death due to spending all his money at once.
“There’s a whole supermarket out there,” he is told by a fellow black about the bush.
There is a cashless welfare card under trial in Ceduna in South Australia by the Federal Government which has turned out to be problematical as the Indigenous continue to pool their resources and use alcohol as currency in terms of family and friends. You have to cure addiction before it happens or in the individual. You cannot forever cut off supply…
The luxury of drink is hinted at with bottles rattling in the back of four-wheel drives… But the film soberly links the tale of Bennelong (unknown-1813 possibly tuberculosis) who was the Aboriginal taken to England to be presented to King George III (1738-1820). His story is kind of mentioned in The Timeless Land by Eleanor Dark (1901-85 a recluse) set around 1810 or so. Bennelong being the ironic name of ‘sorry to not say sorry but not on your Nellie’ Prime Minister John Howard who was only the second sitting PM to be ejected from sitting in his electorate after an election for not saying sorry among other things!
He still hangs on to the Menzies dream or ‘brain’ if you watch him in a documentary now showing on iView. At least Malcolm Fraser redeemed himself before his death for his reputation of his cutbacks as The Razor Gang or The Fraser Gang. Still, Menzies created the stability of middle-class Australia which the young middle class people today cannot achieve due to job contracts and the outlandish price tag of home prices… You legend Johnny, can I get a selfie?
Charlie/Gulpilil gets lung disease and isn’t allowed to leave the Medicare system despite his wish to have died in the bush alone. The Utopia of black life before white’s arrived may not have been perfect and even Charlie faces danger due to climate change as he is caught with minimal shelter with trees almost falling from the sky like they did the other week in the Dandenong Ranges. Perhaps if Australian Aboriginals had been protected like in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004) which I once wrote about as a short story long ago but was rejected by an Indigenous magazine possibly because by name sounded ‘white’. My name alone had stigma one way or another.
Charlie in this movie had a Bennelong moment where he danced for the Queen on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. He once contributed as a performer and is asked to do so again for the young in his community but his memory will suffice along with the solace and panacea of alcohol and cigarettes.
“I still see you have your sense of humour, eh,” says a well-paid community doctor to Charlie as he recovers in bed at the hospital when he is found in the bush as the argument of euthanasia within the black community in terms of a self-imposed ice floe – ever rarer or more common in the Arctic due to climate change – or to just wander on country into the bush. Whites and blacks do it today anyway… Charlie weeps that this wish has not been respected and he is punished further in being kept alive by the Medicare welfare state which is a further prison sentence on top of a death sentence.
“My country is my home…” says Charlie and I guess it is a part of the estimated 14 percent of the country which belongs to Aboriginals under native title today as he then reverts to his old language which is being slowly forgotten by those who have moved on or don’t care to teach it and would rather be left to their addictions … There is a man in Where the White Ants Dream who cannot talk to anyone because he is the only person left who knows his language. Meanwhile there’s controversy that the Australian Sound archive has tape and vision of past Aboriginal life on video cassettes and reels which are at risk of quickly perishing and it needs funds to be digitally transferred. Not that some Indigenous can bring themselves to look at the past images of the dead as a part of their own folklore. And who can blame them as some of the first photos taken in Australia were of blacks in chains. A case of not wanting to be reminded and trying to escape the past…
The cheap cask of Yalumba wine continually looks good to those who are trapped on welfare in poverty due to their stigmatisation and it’s all they can afford compared to those that ‘quaff’ expensive booze while they retreat in the comfort of their luxury suburbs and expensive real estate. Black or white. Or was that red or white?
Meanwhile prisoners look like they’re well fed in prison when Charlie is sent there just like Gulpilil was too. There’s pie floaters and Tomato sauced penne which I can barely afford. The dreaming of being celebrated in white society like Bennelong but not recognised by the Member of Bennelong is the new Dreaming for those who aren’t attuned to the reality of nature and on country. The memory of one credit in terms of artistic achievement is enough for a lifetime. One/On Country Day – there’s a good public holiday name! It has a ring to it.
Ultimately, there’s no way the entire Indigenous population will heal despite state and federal governments throwing money at it. There will always be resentment and poverty and a new line drawn in the sand in terms of the constitution and law reform and land rights to help ease the white man’s burden… every so often. But if the affected or disaffected Indigenous Western Australian children survive the copycat suicides rather than suffer the indignity of copycat sexual abuse … and their personal screens which aren’t corrupted by porn as well as their homes being ones of addiction to alcohol, marijuana and the expensive and further poverty inducing cigarettes … Crime only beckons.
As one Aboriginal girl said about her jinxed male family and others as she leaves them behind in one song film video clip as she says instead “you were holding me back”, she instead gets the chance to express beyond the perception and stigma of low expectations and is led by the great ones in terms of art and assimilates herself to some degree from the ghosts of the back of beyond. Back of Beyond (1995) being a forgotten tale of ‘clairvoyance’ in the countryside which stars Strictly Ballroom’s Paul Mercurio and was directed by John Polson who would go on to found Tropfest. Polson was also Russell Crowe’s boyfriend in The Sum of Us with Jack Thompson as the father.
Will the possibility of the new studio announced for Coff’s Harbour by Crowe and Thompson be a possible oasis for up-and-coming young Australian talent of any race to at least get one IMDb mention on their portfolio in their lifetime as they become a part of the Dreaming of Ent! With a reported half billion-dollar price tag does it remain Pie in the Sky for ‘Aussiewood’ or ‘Bananawood’ as one journalist punned?
I should live so long as a dead red zealot who passed away from alcohol addiction and Covid, or at least ‘they’ hope as whites point the bone at me on Sundays at the local supermarket… Back of Beyond also reportedly has a soundtrack by Paul Kelly… From Little things big things grow! Otherwise, in Charlie’s Country…. Isn’t it great to be an Australian!!