Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 8, No. 2, 1994
Critical Multiculturalism
Edited by Tom O'Regan

Passing for white passing for black: an ideological con-pro-testation (written version)

Mudrooroo Nyoongah

The satellite was a threat to the Aboriginals, but now we have our own TV and video, we have put our things on too. We can fight fire with fire....We could have been watching ABC News all the time and nothing of our own culture....We like to watch our own things on the video. Now that we're got our own equipment we're able to do this ourself instead of Europeans doing it for us. Europeans only show what they want to show, not what we want to show. (Kurt Japanangka Granites, quoted Michaels 36)

'Thank Christ, that's over.' (Film Producer after finally shooting his "Aboriginal" film, 1993)

We maintain - when I say 'we' I speak about the region, the community that I belong to - we maintain that unless Aboriginal people control the content, the publishing, the ultimate presentation of the article, then it is not Aboriginal; that it ceases to be Aboriginal when it is interfered with, when it is tampered with by non-Aboriginal people who exist outside of the spectrum of Aboriginal life, of Aboriginal culture within Australia. (Bruce McGuinness, Denis Walker 44)

... there was no mention of Land Rights throughout the film. That doesn't mean that just because you're making a film about Aboriginal people you have to talk about Land Rights but Bruce Beresford, the white director, was wanting to make a film about contemporary Aboriginal society. He hadn't been in Australia for ten years, then came back thinking he could make a film about Black Australia not realising that a lot has changed over ten years. Blacks have become more political. (Tracey Moffatt 148-9)

... in the search for a less racist set of images, representation is effectively defined as the work of accurately capturing, rather than ideologically constituting the real. This means that the questions asked of racist versions are not asked of their revision: whose version is being proposed, and in whose interests will it work? In the new version, it is implied, representation has been divorced from ideology. (Graeme Turner 136)

Because images are put together - constructed - to show some things and not others, we can change images if we have access to skill in and control over the making of images. (Andrew Dewdney and Debby Michels 23)

Any requirement for Aboriginal content is by necessity so vague that the issue becomes not the identifying marks of the text, but the political one of just who is to designate these texts. As I conceive political privilege to be constituted in the Aboriginal bureaucracy, the contents likely to be identified are those that: 1. employ Aborigines as media subjects, perhaps as producers in certain"approved" forms; 2. provide an opportunity for powerful Aboriginal bureaucrats to become more powerful; 3. result in a certain distribution of media production resources, probably in the direction of those already best situated to deliver products of a quality and style suitable to the tastes and demands of Europeans; and 4. rewrite Aboriginal history while inscribing particular signatures as authors of this new/old Aboriginality.

None of these results begin to address the charge of media as an agent of culturecide. (Eric Michaels 74)

Recommendation 2.2 The Commission should formally adopt the definition of an Aboriginal film project as being a project where:
(i) the film script is prepared by an Aboriginal writer or
(ii) the Director or Producer is an Aboriginal or
(iii) the subject matter is primarily about Aboriginals and their culture. (S.A. McPherson and Associates)

Yet what is the real? We never know it except in the form of effects (physical world), functions (social world), or fantasies (cultural world); in short, the real is never anything but an inference; when we declare we are copying reality; this means that we choose a certain inference and not certain others: realism is, at its very inception, subject to the responsibility of a choice; this is a first misunderstanding, proper to all the realistic arts, as soon as we attribute to them a truth somehow rawer and more indisputable than that of the other so-called interpretive arts. (Roland Barthes 159)

Film publicity, marketing and distribution involve a conception of film culture in terms of markets, products and consumers. (June Givanni 39)

I would like to see many more plays and films with Aboriginal actors playing all kinds of roles; doctors, lawyers, everything. We could play these roles as our own people, not as Aboriginals. That would be exciting. (Lisa Kinchela 14)

It was only a few decades ago that the various individuals and communities still designated as Aborigines (and often seen as a singular "Other") were voiceless, were denied a voice, and simply were not seen to be capable of even amassing and adding their voices to the quotations with which I begin and end this paper, and which set up a field of con-testation and pro-testation. It might be interesting to conduct a quiz: which are the Aboriginal voices and which are the white? Signifiers of race are accepted as essential differences, that is until they appear to interfere with the craft of the often male auteur, then Aboriginality and even non-Aboriginality are pro-tested, are con-tested as unwelcome intrusions into the non-political craft of the auteur as he screams about the tyranny of "political correctness".

I use auteur in that I am at a loss to ascribe a film, the final product, or one of a series of a final product to a singular Other, although, perhaps, the producer, the production company may be accepted as the unit at the top of the pyramid. Film production is a hierarchical structure reflecting the structure of the market economy with which we are in con-testation, in pro-testation, and essentially it is with those with power, with political, economic, cultural and, yes, let us admit it once and for all, with those with the correct skin colour which determine the final market product: the film. The one which we see in the film houses, and often the one which the director desperately con-tests to own. It is to be his, and so the film is a con-testation between what Foucault has termed 'fields of power relations' (247). It is not an innocent artefact, a unified art piece; but a field of con-testation and we must admit this. In fact those who are most loquacious in the defense of their art, those auteurs who demand the right to film and control their work free from the interference from minorities who challenge their right to use who and what they want in their image flow, are often those who do not con-test and pro-test the other power groups which effectively determine their art and its distribution. In fact, it is often politically and economically disadvantageous to challenge these hegemonic groups and far easier to challenge a powerless minority which seeks to exert some control over their own representations as sites of con-testation, of pro-testation, though often denied as such; but as the film in itself, in its financing, its editing, its ownership and distribution is a site of con-testation, so is the content and structure implicit in what often is a very flawed product, compromised and battered. It is no wonder that the final product, or products, which we see are banal and stereotypical, and that any fields of con-testation, of pro-testation must be derived from a close examination and dismemberment of the product.

Films seek to be controversial while remaining non-controversial; seek to have social impact while remaining outside the fields of ideological and social con-testation. As market products, they are made for a return of economic gain, and those films which seek to evade the market field, to enter into the realm of con-testation of structure, of characterisation, of seeking to explode the constituents of what supposedly constitutes a good (read commercially successful film) are doomed to be ignored, to be viewed only by a few, often a minority audience, then to slip away into oblivion, or into the future where they might be resurrected as being "experimental".

There is a story implicit in the state of affairs in Western Australia, which over the last year or so took place in the Nyungar country and extended north to the Yamadji country. It was of great concern to all Western Australians. It was a case of 'which side are you on'? The battle lines were drawn. 20,000 people marched on parliament house demanding the end to juvenile crime through the imposition of stiffer penalities; the media joined the fray, and the people in power relationships, reeling under their own political problems of bribery and corruption, acceded to the popular demands. Hasty legislation was framed, corrected, then became law.

It was apparent who the villians in the piece were. ABORIGINAL GANGS TERRORISE SUBURB, the monopoly state newpaper shouted. The Nyungar people (and others) fought against the onslaught. Eyes followed Nyungar bodies now seen as deviant down the streets of your suburb, and if you were unfortunate to be seen as one of them you were hassled, and made to know your place. You were a member of a powerless minority, and what was more a criminal minority. This was the public perception and the body of the Nyungar person was not seen as ideologically neutral. It was a site of con-testation, of pro-testation, an apparent object made to fit the stereotype which had to be kept under surveillance, confined, disciplined and trained (Mickler "Visions").

During this period of con-testation, another event was happening which was of vital importance to the Nyungar people. This was the struggle to liberate the site of Goonininup and share it with the other communities constituting the population of Western Australia (see Mickler "Battle"). The struggle was to free the site of the Waugyal, the Nyungar creative deity in serpent form and connected through the anthropological unifying term, the Rainbow serpent, thus with serpent sites throughout Australia, from the tenacles of dubious financial schemes which operate to the detriment of Western Australia. A film, a documentary was quickly made to highlight the struggle, utilising the stereotypes of dignity and peaceful protest against the local media images of disruption and violence, which for once were not the controlling aspects of the case (the documentary was called Always was, Always will be). In fact, it was the site itself which was paramount and this to a great extent was not represented in the film made except as a backdrop. The emphasis was on the Aboriginal struggle and the Aboriginal participants and was a straight forward documentary, naturalist and realist, and as familiar as are the stereotypes of Aboriginal demonstrators on the mass television media. Of course such so-called "realist" depictions are too valuable as propaganda tools to be left to the opposition, and so a con-testation was entered into between television media and this film which had a somewhat limited distribution.

So during the period of the ninth decade of the twentieth century, Aboriginal representations were very much to the fore in Western Australia in both a political con-testation, which sought to present a dignified and normal face in spite of the mass onslaught of the visual and print media which sought to keep alive the more negative stereotypes of a dubious "race" of troublemakers whose demands, if not frivilous, could threaten the economic well-being of the state and were potent sources of disruption affecting not only the totalised state but its individual citizens. It must be mentioned here that at the same time there had been an ongoing and overlong enquiry into Aboriginal deaths in custody as well as a Royal Commission into the dubious power relationships between the state government and various failing financial persons and institutions. Fields of power relationships and con-testations threatened the well-being of the state, and it was precisely then that the issue of (Aboriginal) juvenile crime was emphasised by the media. The impression gained was that the state (and its law abiding citizens) were under attack by a minority which existed outside the boundaries of good behaviour. These deviant elements had to be controlled; and they were made use of to turn attention away from the "deviant" elements who con-tested (and shared) political, financial and cultural power in Western Australia.

Perhaps it may be almost a truism, at least to some, although to others it may be an imposition on the immanence of art which supposedly operates outside the boundaries of time and space; culture and society; relativism and inter-relatedness, to posit a purity freed of the taint of our political and social environment which is made up of competing power relationships, to say that such an "immanence" is but an ideological position resting on the power wielded by the dominant groups, and to which all white people, by the value of their skins can ascribe to. To be secure in one's dominant class and race is to lay an illusory foundation of art being free of the power complexes and con-testations of society. To extend the imagery a little further and perhaps into a patriarchal metaphor, it is keeping the daughter (and wives) safely at home while the master goes out to work and play, fight and contend for dominance. An immanent art is con-tested and pro-tested by Blacks, by Aborigines, by Gays and Lesbians, by many women who have felt the heel of oppressive laws and institutions pressed on their necks. Thus an immanent art is an enslaved art and a liberated art is one which is responsive to what is happening around and is responding to it. Art is a field of con-testation, of pro-testation as is any other field of human endeavour. Film (however much it may seek to evade the contentious) does not manage to do so, and in fact seeking to do so only makes it engage in the field of con-testation that made it possible for it to have an existence in the first place. There is thus no not taking up of sides, no purity of motive, no transcending the fields of con-testation which surrounds the making of the film, or a film whether it is Jurassic Park or Sanders of the River.

Before developing somewhat further this theme, I turn my attention to how a film is made, how is it structured in the sense of how it comes into being. First of all there is the script which, however much it is lauded, really has no fixity of text as such. It is to a great extent a field of con-testion which suffers changes along the way as it translates into the film. The first version is the scriptwriter's version which may be the result of several drafts which is sold to be made into a film. The second version may be the director's or producer's draft. Usually, the scriptwriter sells control of his script giving the studio, or producer legal right to change it. He or she in effect sells away his rights, and thus can have little say in the final product. This is an important point in the sense of what degree of Aboriginality can be taken for granted in a film which utilises an Aboriginal script writer so that it may qualify as an Aboriginal film. The producer or director then produces another version which may add camera angles and delete expensive passages to fit the projected budget. In fact, they may do what they like with it.

A third version may be the studio version. The producer will try to get financing and perhaps package the script, that is, place it with a star or include commercial elements which will have marquee value to draw in customers. A fourth version is the set version. If there is to be an improvised scene done before the cameras, it is possible that a copy scene is typed up to be added to the script days after the scene is finished. Version five may be the legal version, or the authentic version of what happens on film. It may be composed from viewing the finished film. A last version may be a published version of the script which is changed to fit a published format which is based on a drama script.

All in all, with all these changes, and really we are only talking about where the film begins, the script, and excluding editing and filming of extra footage, etc. etc., the film as such is an exceedingly loose structure, a field of con-testation and pro-testation, one which can be changed at will, or at the appropriate time, and we are all familiar with the re-releases of films with extra footage which was cut from the original commercial release and later added, examples being Lawrence of Arabia, Blade Runner, The Abyss, and many others. It is because of this extreme looseness of structure, that a film may have as many editions as those who have a controlling interest in it may want, that to talk of a finished product, or of a singularity of text is misleading, and a film text may be seen as process which can reshaped as much as may be necessary, especially if excess footage is available to be inserted, or if during production events warrant it. But why am I saying this; why am I destroying the film as a finished artwork? Perhaps for ideological reasons, that if the fixity of a singular text is done away with, the film maker, especially if he is an auteur in the usual sense of the word has a degree of liberty beyond that of a mere studio director to extend more control over the process of his product towards a finished version.

While the events I have glossed over were taking place in Western Australia, a film was being made from an Aboriginal novel, The Day of the Dog (Weller). The novel was set in the 1970s and was updated during the filmic process in much the same way as Fringe Dwellers was by Bruce Beresford. According to the publicity notes:

The story takes place now, in 1993. This gives the film a revelance and a political significance to the Aboriginal community. It also means that this story is not protected from criticism in any way. If there was a detail of dialogue or set dressing, or costumes that was wrong, we heard about it straight away from the cast or the aboriginal crew members. (David Rapsey 19)

This quotation is significant in itself in that it accepts a certain politicality of the film by asserting that it is set in the present in 1993. Yet, in viewing the film one is instantly aware that contemporaneous Aboriginal political issues and organisations have little part to play in the film, and that to all intents and purposes, the Goonininup dispute does not exist, though what does exist is an acknowedged deviance of Nyungar youth. In fact, all Nyungar youth in the film are seen as deviant and exist in a no-community land where there is no Aboriginal political struggle, or Aboriginal deaths in custody, although the alleged terrorisation of Perth by Nyungar youth is the content, not the con-testation, and supports the various media stereotypes against which Nyungars and others were pro-testing and seeking to elucidate and change.

Now as I have written before, even if a film seeks to be non-contentious, seeks to evade the political reality of Aboriginal existence in Australia by overly stressing mimesis, that is by forming stereotypes along certain well established pathways which are becoming dangerously akin to parody as we suddenly realise in such films as Jurassic Park, a film is still a field of con-testation embedded in the field of social contestation in which it is made, or purported to be set and contained. If a film does not deal with these things, or does not change and adapt to deal with these things, that is to take advantage of the looseness of its structure, then if it does present certain stereotypes supposedly acting out certain situations in a "realist" mode, then we are certainly entitled to ask what are the ideological implications of such a textual positioning, especially when it is harmful to the community depicted and strengthens the negative stereotypes prevalent in Western Australia and against which many Nyungars are protesting.

In the production notes, the writer/director says this about the film:

I think the film will be a real eye-opener to a lot of people in the Australian community who really have no experience of Aborigines at all. They will get a glimpse of a slice of life that is unfamiliar to them. (James Ricketson 17)

This is not true for Western Australia, where the negative stereotyping of Nyungars is all prevalent and Nyungar juvenile crime is dragged into the public arena of con-testation when other "political" con-testations need a scapegoat on which their sins may be loaded before the said goat is driven away from decent folk and penned up.

In fact owing to the film being nominated for a number of Australian Film Institute Awards it has had an extended season in Perth, and those who have seen it will have had all their prejudices confirmed. Aborigines (Nyungars) are a no-hoper race of deviants living a brutal, marginalised life and fit for no other. In fact, it arms those racist elements in Western Australia that have been active in constructing such Nyungar representations.

Of course, this is only one film, but it is difficult to find others, which are not documentaries, which do give a different representation of Aborigines. Too often the representation is one which is disempowering rather than empowering. It is all very well to stress the ideological position of "filming it as it is"; but filming it as it is is usually engaging in a discursive field of practices and conventions which has very little to do with "how it is". Seeking to film "how it is" I suggest may lie in experimenting with these conventions and practices, rather than in accepting them. Of course this may involve commercial ruination; but then we are all familiar with the stories of directors selling their houses to finish their films, another mis-representation this may be; but then, if it is not, then all it means is that "ruination" would come from "artistic" con-pro-testation rather than from purely commercial ones, which usually involve sifting through a number of approved formulae to hit on the winning one, or combination of such.

It is precisely that characterisation is denied as a site of contestation, of protestation, and that an essentiality, a stereotypicality of character is presented in naturalist films, that we Nyoongahs are forced to engage in that lack of contestation, of protestation in order to add that which is lacking. Part of the battle is to control the presentation of these stereotypes, these representations; the war is to destroy them utterly, to rid Australis of the dominance which demands that we give ourselves over to others, and thus become the other to be used as they wish.

It is difficult to finish a paper on film concerning, containing and con-testing Aboriginal representations in Film Australia. It is also difficult to put forth any concrete proposals on how films should be made, or even if non-Aborigines should make "Aboriginal" films. There are con-testations of power, dominance and privilege which film makers evade rather than confront, and perhaps it is to agree with those Aborigines who declare that they need educating, rather than engaging in a bitter polemic with them over ethics, morality and their contributing towards strengthening the prevailing stereotypes with which Nyungars and other Aboriginal groups are lumbered. I'll add a few more quotations to the paper and end it. Perhaps the paper should be cut apart and re-edited, the quotations placed within my text, and the text re-arranged. A text is rarely fixed, and as it is open to a myriad of readings, so it is open to a myriad of editings, just as is a film text, subject of course to the many compromises; but that after all is the main subject of my paper: the power fields of con-pro-testation.

I would say that one must take him - his mentality, his attitude - into account as well as his projects, in order to understand a certain number of the techniques of power that are invested in architecture, but he is not comparable to a doctor, a priest, a psychiatrist, or a prison warder. (Michel Foucault 248)

What happened in the film industry is that every major director has done their film on blacks. Of course, they are all white....I don't think at any point any of those films have advanced the cause of the Aboriginal people. I think mostly what they have done is reinforced what white Australians think about us. Low life. It's negative images, reinforcing negative images all the time in the minds of the children about what Aboriginal people are. How do you get out of that? (Brian Syron 168).

To the extent that the convergence of concern with identity in postmodernism has been diagnosed as a response to 'a crisis of cultural authority, specifically of the authority vested in Western European culture and its institutions', black film-making offers a unique set of perspectives on the fluctuation and potential break-up of hierarchical distinctions between "high" arts and "popular" culture, between what is valorised as "universal" and what is dismissed as "particular", between identities that have been centralised and those which have been marginalised. (Kobena Mercer 5)

The thing that I found then and found all the way through you know during 16/17 years involved in the industry, is that creative artistic and financial control of black issues by Aboriginal people is crucial. That is why my brother Lester and I decided to form our own company called Koori Productions. (Gerry Bostock 11)

I had to fight for funding for Jindalee Lady, and I did and I won. I took a complaint about the AFC to the Human Rights Commission. And I won. I don't think that the Australian Film Commission has the right to tell me what film to make. It doesn't have the right to deny people who have had the experience the chance to reproduce it and communicate with their own people. I don't think that any white person in this country has the right to do that. Especially if they've only been here for a year. (Brian Syron 171)

So you're the prick who wrote that review. (White film maker to Mudrooroo 1993)

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. "Literature Today. Answers to a Questionnaire in Tel Quel". Critical Essays. Trans. Richard Howard. Evanston: Northwestern U P, 1972.

Bostock, Gerry. "Seminar paper", Perspectives on Cross-Cultural Strategies for Action. Sydney, NSW Community Arts Association, 1991. 8-11.

Bropho, Robert. Always Was, Always Will Be. 1989. Documentary Film. Distributed by Australian Film Institute, Melbourne.

Dewdney, Andrew & Michels, Debby. More Than Black and White: Racism and Everyday Life. Sydney: Inner City Education Centre, 1988.

Foucault, Michel. The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. London: Penguin, 1986.

Givanni, June. "In Circulation: Black Films in Britain". Black Film British Cinema. ICA Documents 7 (1988): 39.

Kinchela, Lisa. Blackfellows Press Kit. Barron Films (1993): 14.

Langton, Marcia. "Well, I heard it on the Radio and I saw it on the Television...". North Sydney: Australian Film Commission, 1993.

McGuinness, Bruce & Walker, Denis. "The Politics of Aboriginal literature". Aboriginal Writing Today. Ed. Jack Davis & Bob Hodge. Canberra: AIAS, 1986. 43-54.

McPherson, S.A. & Associates. Report and Recommendations to the Australian Film Commission on Promoting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Involvement in the Film and Video Industry. Executive Summary. Unpubl. doc, 1992.

Mercer, Kobena. "Recoding Narratives of Race and Nation". Black Film British Cinema. ICA Documents 7 (1988): 4-14.

Michaels, Eric. Aboriginal Invention of Television in Central Australia 1982-86. Canberra: AIAS, 1986.

Mickler, Steve. "The Battle for Goonininup". Arena, 96 (1991): 69-88.

_______. "Visions of Disorder: Aboriginal People and Youth Crime Reporting". Cultural Studies 6:3 (1992): 322-336.

Moffatt, Tracey. "'Changing the Images'. Interview with Anna Rutherford". Aboriginal Culture Today. Ed. Anna Rutherford. Sydney: Dangaroo Press-Kunapipi 1988. 146-157.

Rapsey, David. "Producer David Rapsey Talks about Blackfellas." Blackfellas Press Kit. Barron Films 1993. 19.

Ricketson, James. "Writer/Director James Ricketson talks about Blackfellas". Blackfellas Press Kit. Barron Films 1993. 16.

Syron, Brian. "The Problem is Seduction: Reflections on Black Theatre and Film". The Mudrooroo/Muller Project. Ed. Gerhard Fischer. Sydney: NSW U.P., 1993. 161-171.

Turner, Graeme. "Breaking the Frame: The Representation of Aborigines in Australian Film". Aboriginal Culture Today. Ed. Anna Rutherford. Sydney: Dangaroo Press-Kunapipi 1988. 135-145.

New: 23 November, 1995 | Now: 26 March, 2015