Redemptorists of Australia and New Zealand

Australia, New Zealand and Samoa

Province of Oceania

Bringing Good News to the World

Australia - Without a story the people perish

By Edmond Nixon, C.Ss.R.

It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child
- Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Written by Baz Luhrmann, Stuart Beattie, Ronald Harwood, Richard Flanagan
Directed by Baz Luhrmann

Picasso’s words give insight into the Baz Luhrmann’s style as a director. Some people will walk over coals to view a Picasso, while others will just walk on by. It is much the same with a Baz Luhrmann movie. One key that helps unlock Luhrmann’s work is to approach it with the eyes of a child and with something of a child’s resonance with enchantment. His latest film, Australia, is a case in point, for even its title will confuse the too-analytical.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) would have done better at the box office, Morgan Freeman once remarked, if it had been released under a different title. There may have been criteria other than the name that prevented Bruce Beresford’s masterpiece, Tender Mercies (1983), from becoming the box office hit it should have been, but the title was likely part of its challenge.

Was Australia (2008) also saddled with the wrong name? Does its title really break through to domestic or international audiences? In trying to encapsulate the many stories within, does the title overstretch itself? In seeking to say so much is it a name that actually says very little? Would the working title, “Faraway Downs”, have been less pretentious and any more successful? Maybe a test release of the movie would have suggested a return to the film’s working title. At another level Australia is this film’s perfect title for it sums up all the stories therein. It is really about Australia, not Faraway Downs.

Prior to its Paris screening, director Baz Luhrmann shed some light on how Australia - the movie came about. “This film began in Paris” Luhrmann told his audience. “When my wife and I were living here with our two children, we wondered where their home was and what their stories were.”

Luhrmann is a master story-teller. This gift is underpinned by his conviction that story is central to the human experience, for without a story the people perish. Surely every person and every culture has a fundamental right to their story for it is through story that each culture and each person is able to come upon an identity and own it. Little wonder then that story is so central in human experience! Little wonder that the Luhrmanns pondered over their children’s true home and real stories!

Surely there must be a way to explain why the tears of joy run down my cheeks,when I stand and sing on my land. How can I explain that to a balanda?
- Yingiya Guyula, lecturer in Yolngu languages at Charles Darwin University, NT

Many movie-goers are content to view films without a story. Just as long as there is plenty of action, and just as long as they can be (passively) entertained they are happy. The industry often meets this need with formulaic, if commercially successful movies that make their profit on the weekend of release before going immediately to pay-per-view and DVD. Such movies the critics often applaud for their tightness (retentiveness?)

Other people prefer to view films that highlight a story. They enter not only into the story but also into the story-telling. Good story-telling will usually require the viewer to work in order to grasp the complexities and nuances therein. The viewer’s work imprints the story and releases the meaning. For example, this viewer found “Tender Mercies” (1983) a powerful story powerfully told. Not so one critic who said of that movie, “I found myself filled with disquieting wishes for something to happen to break the silence.” For the storyteller (Bruce Beresford) and for the integrity of his story, the viewer’s desire for something to break the silence was seminal to the film’s power. It was not a lack in the movie, but a defining quality.

In a deconstructing age, it is tempting to separate the story from the storyteller. Some film critics, who are neither story-makers nor story-tellers, make a living breaking the bond between story and story-teller. It is as if, without a story of their own to tell, they deconstruct the stories of others and surgically remove them from the energetic gestures of the teller. There is a place for deconstruction of story, but not to the extent that people are left story-less. To have no story is to be rudderless. To take another’s story away is to cut them loose without an identity. That is violence.

History is littered with cultures that tried to prop themselves up on illusory stories. These concocted stories emphasise what people only wished would have been their collective narrative rather than what was. For such narratives to be launched other related stories needed to be diminished or even eradicated. When these other stories are eradicated they take with them the people whose stories they were.

For example, the concocted story underpinning Nazism, in order to gain oxygen, needed to eradicate the story of the Jews and the stories of other minority groups living in 1930-40s Germany and greater Europe. If Australians are honest they will want to acknowledge that various minorities have been written out of the fledgling national narrative and no one more so than the Aborigines.

It is not only cultures that are tempted to such folly. The world over one can find ordinary people who have tried to airbrush their own personal stories. They strive to live a life other than their own. Popular culture’s preoccupation with celebrity and celebrities feeds on these desires.

Since the mid-80s, Australians have more consciously wrestled with their national stories. This struggle has sometimes been referred to as culture wars. It is not an exaggerated description, for as the story goes, so goes the culture. Over time some of the national stories have been diluted. Some have been “lost” if not lost. On occasion, sometimes brazenly, stories have been politically massaged. Parts of our national story might be seen as nothing less than “a double somersault with one and half twists”.

Lonely schizophrenic, your self is split in two,
Even brothers wonder, just which of them is you.- James Cavanaugh, (1934 - ), poet

Enter storyteller extraordinaire, Baz Luhrmann. His epic Australia is set in the early 1940’s around a north-west Australia cattle station called Faraway Downs. Yes, Australia is an epic made in the tradition of the great movie epics. As and epic it is grand - long, broad, high and deep. And as a Luhrmann epic, it is all of those things in a way that is risky, flamboyant and bold, in a way that is tongue-in-cheek at one moment and poignantly vivid in the next.

Making an epic presents challenges that are all but insurmountable given the complexity of the project itself and the very real restrictions of the production process. In fact epics are so expensive to make that they rarely come to production. That fact alone points to some of Luhrmann’s genius.

As with some other screen epics Australia is left with its slip showing. More time for editing may have made the difference and could lead one day to a Director’s Cut. For the present it is a movie that has its faults. Epics are long narratives in elevated style and they will more often than not have their ragged moments. Maybe that’s the way they are. Maybe that’s the price to be paid when reaching for overarching mega-story nuanced by accompanying mini-stories.

Some being truly great and others wearing their faults on their sleeve, the great epics of the screen live on in our memories and conversations - Gone with the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath, The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, Cleopatra, Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus, The Godfather trilogy, Ghandi, The Mad Max trilogy, The Harry Potter series, Schindler’s List, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Titanic, being cases in point.

Ragged moments or not, Australia remains a fine piece of story-telling. In fact it is a movie of many stories. Some of the critics denounce this fact. “It should have restricted itself to one or other story” they have said. Maybe it could have, but that it another movie. Luhrmann’s movie parallels life itself. People’s stories are full of other stories and all these in turn are within the epic stories of cultures and times. Human connections, human relationships are found in a gaggle of stories, some of them petite and cute, some of them transcendent and salvific. But their consequences are interwoven, their flow is one. As villagers around the camp-fire might tell stories great and small, so Luhrmann’s characters here unravel stories, also great and small. The coming together of all these stories supports the movie’s title – Australia.

Lucky schizophrenic, I find I envy you,
When you try to be yourself, you're only split in two
- Ibid, poet

The screenplay about a 1940’s Australia illuminates today’s Australia. By looking at where they have come from, Australians are, in this movie, exposed to the underpinning threads of a story about where they are going to.

In early 2008, after years of prevarication, the Australian federal government apologised to Aborigines in particular and to the Australian nation at large for those practices of past parliaments and governments that led to the removal of indigenous children from their families. By year’s end Baz Luhrmann had released a movie that had at its core the story of the Stolen Generations. The last significant movie on that theme was Philip Noyce’s The Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002).

Some critics and viewers have been disappointed, others quite annoyed by Luhrmann’s treatment of the Stolen Generations in Australia. And as I muse on this movie I can both accept and respect those positions. Majhid Heath writing for ABC-Indigenous is not alone when she says, “That fantasy can replace the horror of the Stolen Generations could mean that the true stories are lost or dismissed from the public imagination.” If that were to be true it would be both unjust and disastrous. I am more hopeful.

Even with fictionalised details story has the power to reach far beyond fantasy. Both indigenous and non-indigenous stories can be true without being fact. This distinction between what is fact and what is true puzzles contemporary Western cultures, something not lost on Aborigines. Stories are concerned with what is true rather than with facts, and that is their power. If people forget that stories are metaphors, and if they think of them as facts, then as sure as eggs the stories will be seen as clashing with those facts that have come to us through the scientific project. The key stories in any culture transcend the surrounding facts to expose a deeper truth. Good stories unveil life, fantasy buries it. And if Luhrmann’s movie has any power at all, and this viewer believes it does, then, I suspect it is the subtle power of story to call forth a curiosity that can fertilise the ongoing search for facts, even facts about the Stolen Generations. That would be a clarion call for movies other than Luhrmann’s - movies and documentaries that others will assuredly make.

Luhrmann makes the endless Australian landscape his set. Thereon he introduces his main characters who colour that landscape with their many stories. They include King George (David Gulpilil) and his grandson Nullah (Brandon Walters). These and other indigenous actors bring onto the screen with them the overarching story of the movie – the timeless story of Aboriginal presence in Australia with its time-particular twentieth century twist – the Stolen Generations.

In Luhrmann’s story, the Aborigines to whom the audience is introduced are those who worked on the cattle stations of the early 20th century. Their conditions varied from living under a paternalistic benevolence at best to living under intolerable abuse at worst. Aboriginal women and men universally laboured for far less than their work was worth. They were economically used. And, as portrayed in the movie, Aboriginal women were so often treated as chattels of the station managers and their white employees. They were sexually used. Nullah’s father (David Wenham) tried to have it both ways: he sexually abused an aboriginal woman, but then disowned the creamy offspring of the relationship.

To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be ever a child. For what is a human lifetime without the memory of past events woven with those of earlier times
- Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 - 46 BCE)

In the foreground of Australia there is Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) from England and her personal and business dealings with a northern Australia drover (Hugh Jackman). In the background there is the movie’s main story, the one that lurks in the mind long after the credits and final curtain - the story of the Stolen Generations. It leaves the viewer with insights and questions.

It is a ruse not unlike that used by story-teller James Cameron in his movie Titanic (1997). In his case it was the background story of the Titanic’s sinking and the foreground story of Rose and Jack. As with Australia, it is the background story that lurks in the mind and leaves the viewer with insights and questions. In this form of story-telling the foreground story gently opens up the background story and leads the viewer safely to it. In a way the foreground story fills the conscious mind as the background story fills the unconscious. The foreground story leaves us with incidental memories while the background story leaves us, often in a life-changing way, forever connected to an epic bigger than ourselves. The former through words releases feelings and leaves us with memories; the latter through imagery unleashes the mind and leaves us with insight.

In Titanic there were many accompanying stories - the competing suitors, the class distinction, the gender-based pastimes, and the naval engineering of the age. Australia too has other stories – The romance between Lady Ashley and the drover, the competing cattle barons, the World War II conflict with imperial Japan, the vagaries of Australian rural life and pub subculture in the 1940’s.

 The background story in Australia floats to the surface throughout the movie. Near the end of the film Lady Ashley declares, “Music, can’t you hear it? It is children singing”. Finally, unwittingly, she is responding to Nullah’s oft repeated promise “I will sing you to me”. The movie thus inevitably releases fresh insight: for all the injustice, cruelty and hurt heaped upon Aborigines since Europeans usurped their lands, perhaps contemporary Australia is not a little befuddled as it finds itself more and more being sung towards the island continent’s original peoples, original stories, and original Australian living. (Those who have let fall upon their souls the healing notes of Gurrumul Yunupingu’s Yolngu ballads will know full-well that they are being sung not just towards him, but towards the experience of his and the other Aboriginal nations. 

Some of the stories from your Dreamtime legends speak powerfully of the great mysteries of human life
- John Paul II, Alice Springs, NT, 1986

Nullah sheds light on the journey of soul undertaken by Lady Ashley and maybe too by the audience. “When Mrs Boss first came to this land” he says, “she look but she not see. Now her eyes are open and she sees.” In a prophecy not yet fulfilled in the contemporary Australian experience, Lady Ashley replies to Nullah, “You’re safe, it’s all right, you’re safe with me”. And then in freeing self-deprecation she cries out “I can’t believe I insisted on bringing all these things (with me)”. Her words contrast with those of Fletcher (David Wenham), the scheming station overseer who is Nullah’s father. His end is a lament: “Now I’ve lost everything”.

Lady Ashley’s journey of soul nails her to the stake of her peer’s ridicule, “She’s humiliating herself”, they chatter. But their fears are drowned out by the recurring theme, “Pride’s not power”.

The stories of indigenous and non-indigenous peoples are interwoven into a predominantly shared story. That is what Australia bowls up to its audience. The drover highlights the point. With his companions and cattle lost on the desert’s edge he puts his faith in the aboriginal King George, Nullah’s grandfather: “He can find his way anywhere. He will sing us to water even across the Never-never”. The term Never-never originally came into Australian parlance from Aeneas Gunn’s (1870-1961) novel “We of the Never-never” and referred to the land around Mataranka in the Northern Territory. In Australia the term highlights not so much the Mataranka terrain as the complex terrain of indigenous/non-indigenous relations in Australia today.

Australia goes on to warn its audience that the interweaving of stories will not come easily. In the movie we see how tempting it is for Mrs Boss (Lady Ashley) to take a short-cut and “steal” the child of another story. She is poignantly aware that the child Nullah’s story complements what is lacking in her own. Her insight is life-giving, but her first response is anything but. It is life-destroying both for her and for Nullah. Towards the movie’s end, Lady Ashley’s journey of soul unfolds so that she is content to have interwoven stories underpin her existence rather than narcissistically consume the story of the other.

Australia is definitely about story and it is about the interweaving of stories. Early in the film Nullah’s mother (Ursula Yovich) perishes as she struggles to protect her son from the police. They had come to claim him in the name of the incongruous assimilation policies of the day. Speaking to the sorrowing Nullah after his mother’s passing, but in a sense addressing the audience, Luhrmann has Lady Ashley say, “Would you like to hear a story?” She continues, “This story takes place in a far away land called Oz”. She hesitatingly follows up singing “Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz” to which young Nullah immediately connects for he thinks she is singing of the Rainbow Serpent of creation. He calls it a dreaming song. With not a little tongue-in-cheek it is through the “Wizard of Oz”, mythic in the American psyche, that Luhrmann is also pulling in his American audience.

The drover too is searching for where the stories of his experience come together. He “always wants to mate a bush brumby and an English thoroughbred”. However, he is held back by hurt and fear, not just from that dream but from other dreams too. His aboriginal brother-in-law and soul-mate, Magarri (David Ngoombujarra), puts it on the line to him, “You’re running. There is nothing in your heart, no dreaming, no story, nothing.” The drover is shocked, but he knows it is true. This “cobber with no name” resolutely gallops back to his own story, intent on completing his part in it.

Coming back-
              so many pathways
              through the spring grass.
- Yosa Buson (1716-1783), poet

In spite of the many colourful stories in the foreground of the movie, the background story will not lie down. It bubbles up to the surface throughout. The young Nullah calls this process tellum-story. In time the drover also becomes convinced, remarking as he does, “All you have is your story”.

Early on in the movie young Nullah tells us “Everybody happy except me. Me not blackfella, me not whitefella, me half-caste. Me belong no one”. And it is from this point that Australia the movie calls its Australian audience into a process of interweaving stories, stories that cross boundaries, stories that lift burdens, stories that restore dignity, stories that give life. From this point too the international audience is called to sit down and listen to a fable about the human family in a far away land and how in the end all the stories of humanity are alike. “While you tell stories, that’s how you keep people belonging always” Nullah adjures. Australia dares to put on the big screen this wonderful truth: “Just because it is, doesn’t mean it should be”. It puts it there several times, each time with growing conviction. It points the audience to find the real stories about what should be, and as a movie it goes out of its way to make a contribution to that endeavour.

The audience is invited to keep journeying even after the movie ends. “You have been on a journey”, Nullah says, “and now we are heading home to my country,” Faraway Downs at least, Australia at most. “Everybody get what they want. Everybody happy”.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times Kenneth Tunan said that Australia is “an old fashioned story told in a new way”. He is partly right. Luhrmann does tell his story in a modern way. But to see that story as an old fashioned story is to have seen only the foreground story, the romance between Lady Ashley and the drover. Lou Lumenick writing in the New York Post thinks Australia to be “wilfully old fashioned”. However, these present musings hold that it is the background story that is the movie’s bedrock story. That indeed is an old story, in fact an ancient one, but it is not old fashioned.

Writing in the Tablet, Francine Stock burrows underneath such debates. “Baz Luhrmann demands long sentences” she says. “Australia, his two-and-three-quarter-hours hymn to his homeland, is the cinematic equivalent of the flashiest prose stylist. It’s all there – lyricism, metaphor, satire and reference upon reference to genres and directors. And yet you cannot deny its sincerity, even if it sometimes has you sitting back in your seat with disbelief or hilarity.”

Baz Luhrmann himself says all well – “it’s between the film and the audience”. His witness is that audiences in general have been swept along by Australia’s grand narrative. It made them laugh, it made them cry. In short, it sang them into its flow and thence to another place …

Then he picks up some lady’s discarded sandals,
Holds them next to his head like sea shells,
Donkey ears.
                His body states,
Is safe from the dance of ideas
- Cornelius Eady (1954 - ),poet