January 10, 2009
Australia: Whose Land Is It Anyway?
Sheep may ever graze securely
Where a worthy shepherd wakes.
Where the rulers well are ruling,
May one rest and peace discover
And what nations blissful makes.- Aria 5 from The lively hunt is all my heart's desire (The Hunting Cantata) By J.S. Bach
We have to watch through the two and a half hours of Australia before we get an inkling of what the director wants us to do with all that beautiful scenery and enigmatic story. Then, at the very end, the young mixed white/Aboriginal Nullah leaves for the customary "walkabout", where he learns to be a man in Aboriginal culture by facing the elements in the wild. His Aboriginal "magic man" grandfather King George (who as far as we can tell reveals himself from time to time from some invisible realm to a select few) cautiously waves goodbye to the anxious Lady Ashley (played by Nicole Kidman), who up to now had taken care of Nullah, including rescuing him from being interned in a mission school. He tells her that Nullah and he are now going to "my country." As an afterthought, he adds "our country", but it is not clear if he means his and Nullah's country, or everyone else's there, including Lady Ashley's.
Baz Luhrmann's Australia is a highly creative and idiosyncratically imaginative film. It is also finely crafted with some exceptional cinematic moments. Some stunning examples are Luhrmann's choreography of the coming of the rains punctuated with claps of thunder and receding aerial shots of lightening; the symphony of explosions that destroys Darwin -- yes Luhrmann is lyrical; and the impeccable, grand shots of the Australian landscape of gorges, deserts, grasslands and forests. He intersperses his film with beautiful music, including repeating Bach's pastoral Sheep May Safely Graze throughout, and using Edward Elgar 's Nimrod from his Enigma Variations audaciously to send off Nullah into the wild grassland to start his Aboriginal walkabout - is Nullah to return as King Nimrod, a mighty hunter of men? Luhrmann cheekily introduces Rudyard Kipling's Sing-Song (originally a Kangaroo) as a guitar-wielding Chinaman chef (from Ching-Chong?), whose charming wordless song initiates a romance between Lady Ashley and Drover. And throughout, we hear Nullah's various "I'll sing to you" renditions of his tuneless little melody meant to attract people to him. That is, until he learns to play the harmonica and mouths out pieces of Somewhere Over the Rainbow from the Wizard of Oz instead (which we have the privilege of listening to none other than Judy Garland perform.)
This recurring theme of the Wizard of Oz' Somewhere Over the Rainbow song links many things together. Since Luhrmann was clearly brought up on American cinema, Somewhere is especially apt since it cinematically ties together his Oz Australian Faraway Downs Ranch and the Oz of the Faraway Land that is part of Judy Garland's adventure away from Kansas. And even more pertinently, it links the magical, Aboriginal land (or place) that is part of Nullah's world, with all the rainbows and dreaming that make up the song and Nullah's Aboriginal lore. Somewhere thus poignantly embodies everyone's enchanted somewhere, which even the arid Faraway Downs achieves during the rainy period.
But this Somewhere is also an elusive entity. Everyone is looking for theirs: Lady Ashley isn't sure if she will stay in Australia or return with her wealth back to England; Drover in never able to remain permanently in one location, and has to pull off with his cattle transporting mission every six months; and Nullah's is perhaps the most enigmatic, at times magical and surreal, yet informing everything he does. When Lady Ashley says that he belongs here, he emphatically says no, and then insists he has to go on his walkabout to find his "belonging" - or his story; his somewhere.
And Luhrmann decides to make the central theme of his film this mixed Aboriginal child's story. Just as Nullah's quasi-invisible grandfather King George says to him to "tell'm story" to keep belonging somewhere, so Luhrmann lets Nullah narrate the whole film to recoup that somewhere (and that belonging) which Luhrmann feels his own people, the white Australians, had taken away from the likes of Nullah, the Stolen Generation. These are Aboriginal children, most with some white blood like Nullah, who were removed into white households to be inculcated with that new dominant life, with the purpose of turning them into "civilized" beings. These children were to grow up, according to the sincere beliefs of their white protectors, getting a bargain of a new and better somewhere.
Of course Luhrmann doesn't believe that this Stolen Generation got a good deal. They are now all grown up and certainly far from belonging to the ways of the whites even after some 70 years of the policy. The problem, though, wasn't with the whites, or even with the Aborigines, but that the two just couldn't concur. They are very different peoples. But, Luhrmann makes a drastic proposition to right what he believes was a wrong. He seems to suggest that Australians relinquish their lands to these original inhabitants, to return to them a sense of belonging somewhere long lost by the arrival of whites.
Filmmakers never make a decision without carefully going through it with a fine toothcomb. It could end up an expensive mistake otherwise. I believe that there is a clear reason why Luhrmann chose his particular settings for Australia. It might have been more informative to see these Stolen Generation children in the later years, when things were really not working out. Or even much earlier on, just as the settlers were establishing their colonies. But Luhrmann deliberately chose the period during WWII as his setting. And not only that, he chose Darwin, the town that had received the heaviest bombings and damages from Japanese air raids in the whole of Australia, as one of his more important locales.
After surviving this bombing calamity, Nullah is reunited with his "adoptive" white parents, Lady Ashley and Drover, and soon after announces to them at the edge of the tranquil grassland that he is going to embark on his walkabout with his Aboriginal grandfather (if Nullah is an example of a Stolen Generation, then his Lady Ashley and Drover are godsends). We have just left the bombed Darwin, whose very name evokes a spirit of evolutionary superiority, and are now at this quiet place in the grasslands, a place that the Aborigines have maintained unspoiled for centuries. So who is the survivor here, the fittest? The Aborigine who managed to keep his land intact for centuries, or the white man and his city of Darwin that he destroyed in a matter of hours by deadly ammunitions created by none other than himself?
When Nullah's grandfather says that they are now going to "my country...our country", what he really means is Aboriginal land, separate from white land, which the Aborigines can still resort to especially at times like walkabouts. But Luhrmann pushes the message even further. I am certain that the several minutes of nihilistic (albeit magnificent) orchestration of the bombing of Darwin is his subliminal way of saying that we should get rid of this artificial, man-made (white man-made) civilization, and revert the land to its purity and naturalness, with the traces of the white man now destroyed, and return it to the Aborigines. Back to the long-time survivors and stewards. Nullah and his people can reclaim it all.
Each colonized and settled land is facing the same questions that the Australians are dealing with. How much of their land should Canadians relinquish to the Indians (some without any records of treaties?) Should demands by American Indians for claiming "sacred" lands to be acknowledged? Are the Inuit, for example, really the fittest of our lot, given that they have lived in the harshest freezing points for far longer than any colonizer or settler has ever attempted? Should we entrust the land back to them?
The Australians are ahead of us, at least cinematically. In Australia, they have made their epic anti-Western, where the bad guys are the cowboys, and the good are the Indians. And in fact, they are suggesting that we not even put up a fight, since it is a given that the cowboys will just ruin things for everyone, and especially for the Indians. Just hand it over, seems to be the consensus.
Ironically, throughout his film, Luhrmann tries hard to peacefully join together these disparate cultures, but fails just like his predecessors did while trying to deal with Aboriginal issues. Neither their forced assimilation policies nor his equal participation approach seems to have helped the Aborigines. But I doubt that ordinary Australians (or Canadians or Americans) will allow for Luhrmann's subconscious return-the-land-to-them appeal to resolve indigenous grievances. Perhaps a carefully arranged status quo is all we can hope for since the endless hand-wringing of Aborigines desire for belonging somewhere (other than here, just like Nullah and his grandfather) will never subside.
But, if I were Luhrmann, I would also pay special attention to the culture that allowed him to make this spectacular film.