Obama and Baz Luhrmann's Australia

Nicole Kidman, Baz Luhrmann's AustraliaOne of the defining characteristics of an Australian summer is the large number of people who spend their days relaxing on the many beaches that grace our shores. This is our annual holiday time, when families gather to spend days swimming, fishing and surfing. Or, when not so active, people can find plenty of sand dunes and rocky cliffs to sit, rest and walk upon.

At the same time, our coastal hills continue to reveal signs of people who sat on these beachheads long before us. As we barbeque, relax and gaze out to sea we can forget that we often stand upon ancient middens, places where Aboriginal people sat, cooked, ate and shared the stories of their human life, much as we do today.

Our dining rooms and kitchens have replaced older ones. Signs of shell, charcoal and bone abound. They remain just below the surface. Sometimes the wind and erosion of time removes the top-soil and reveals them. Rarely is the history of our land so physically close and tangible. It lies beneath our feet.

Australia Day remembers one particular set of footprints that first appeared in 1788, and the legacy of those early footprints. In the months that followed the arrival of that First Fleet many of those who had only recently arrived, like our summer selves, would often sit upon various coastal hills and cliffs and look out to sea. They waited in expectation for signs of more Tall Ships and news from 'home'.

And, in the decades that followed, others would take up that annual pilgrimage to the coast and look out to sea. Much of our south-east coast is now marked by housing developments that sit on the edge of land and look out beyond it. It is as if we have preferred to look out to sea than journey into the land's heart and mystery.

The film Australia captures something of the mixed history of our Australian footprint. We are reminded of the colonial intruder, often an out-of-place and insensitive stranger, the cattle barons and their invasive stock, the Second World War and the bombing of Darwin.

This was a time when men prized their masculinity in wearing side-arms, risking great odds, being independent from authority and consuming large amounts of alcohol.

The film provides telling reminders of very insensitive and violent intrusions upon the land. It also offers a parallel story. Aboriginal children were removed from their families, police implemented government racial policy and settler Australians accepted the many forms of discrimination against the First Peoples of this land.

The film, despite some of its historical errors and exaggerations about remote and Aboriginal Australia, introduces us to a child. This child, born from black and white, becomes a bridge between the two. It is striking that a child, vulnerable and not fully accepted by either group, reveals one to another and what each can become in risking a new relationship.

The film challenges our understanding of history and being colonised and colonisers. It tempts a romanticism of Aboriginal spirituality and ceremony, but this is balanced by more sinister and marginal experiences. We might feel better seeing Aboriginal people remaining mysterious, almost transfigured before us, but we cannot avoid feeling troubled by their humanity being dismissed and where economic, racial and class interests take precedence in most relationships.

We leave the film more sensitised and troubled about how to describe our nation's story. Our history lies so clearly and obviously around us and beneath our feet, yet can also seem so distant. In Australia we encounter a child who invites us to a new humanity that binds us to this land and to one another.

Australia Day comes this year shortly after Barak Obama's entry as President into the White House. His election opens a new chapter, particularly for African American people but for all Americans within the United States.

Like the child in the film Australia, he also embodies the races of white and black, but now white is no longer dominant. He offers his nation a new maturity and identity and the possibility of healing across racial and other divides.

At his inauguration he invited others to walk with him in a new partnership. He challenged its hearers to take greater responsibility for their relationships. I heard it as an invitation to take off our shoes and walk more sensitively upon the land.

Brian McCoyDr Brian F. McCoy, SJ, is NHMRC Post Doctoral Fellow for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University. He is the author of Holding Men: Kanyirninpa and the Health of Aboriginal Men (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2008).


Topic tags: brian mccoy, australia day, Baz Luhrmann, Barack Obama, nicole kidman, hugh jackman, brandon walters



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Existing comments

Thanks Fr.Brian for drawing this strong parallel . . . one that few others would have come up with.
Peter Faulkner | 23 January 2009

HMMM I'm a bit worried about all this Obama adoration.

The Age had a whole supplement devoted to the inauguration ... what's going on here??

We wouldn't dream of doing similar for Kev or that other bloke ... what's his name.

Seems to me the basic problem is thinking the President of the USA is some sort of messiah.

George W has gone ... goodie, Obama has to be better ... but??????
Patricia Crotty | 23 January 2009

Brian, your careful and sensitive imagery invokes far more meaningful thoughts & ideas to consider than the movie.
Kerry Bergin | 26 January 2009

Seriously. Obama is Kenyan. He is not a descendant of a black slave sold into slavery by other blacks. This is a gigantic farce that our nation bought hook, line and sinker.

All Obama has done is prove that people of color can be unethical and as deceitful as the white guys on Wall Street and in the Oval Office before him.

Australia is a great movie. The incredibly naive inner-workings of how society rules people instead of logic.

Not unlike other racial things our liberals have done for the past 50 years. Too bad they don't believe blacks in America can earn a living on their own without being latched to the teat of the government.
PAUL | 03 October 2009


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