Exploring Truth through Theatre and Film.Posted: June 20, 2012
“Bindjareb Pinjarra is devised theatre at its finest. It’s well-paced, with relaxed delivery, attractive larrikin clowning, and confessional intrusions where actors drop character to address the audience from their own experience. This last is effective in illuminating deficiencies in the way we educate young people about Australian history and culture.”
Cameron Woodhead, The Age, June 15
‘Falling for Sahara’ aims to raise awareness about the refugee experience to the wider Australian community, and highlights the important role sport – in particular AFL – plays in creating social cohesion for newly arrived communities in Australia.
Staff writers for essendonfc.com.au
This has been a great week for professional and personal growth, under the tutelage of professionals (I am now being schooled in Playwriting as well as Screenwriting). Seeing these two productions over the past week made it that much better! If you get the chance to see the following play or film at some point, I would encourage you to do so 🙂
Bindjareb Pinjarra, & the Playwriting Weekend
On Saturday I saw Bindjareb Pinjarra, a BRILLIANTLY constructed, entertaining, deeply moving and thought provoking improvised comedy about a massacre (that sounds wrong, but somehow, it totally works). THIS review in The Age (do read it) sums up pretty much everything I enjoyed about the storytelling elements of this production, so I won’t duplicate that discussion here. Instead I want to share the two big questions that emerged from it, for me.
Bindjareb Pinjarra is about the mass killing of the Nyoongar people at Pinjarra on October 28, 1834. This event was recorded by White authorities as the Battle of Pinjarra but mourned by local Nyoongar as a massacre. What is known is that Governor James Stirling led a force to punish the Bindjareb tribe. They took the Aborigines by surprise, and shot indiscriminately for over an hour (shot at people who certainly did not have the weaponry that they did). The death toll, though the subject of much debate and denial, included women and children. These deaths were recorded and passed down in Oral histories on the Nyoongar side, whilst news reports and “official” counts by Whites maintained the numbers were significantly (and conveniently) lower.
Towards the end of the play, one of the actors breaks character to address the audience (this happens at various points in the telling) and poses this question to us: did the Blacks exaggerate the numbers to make the killing seem worse than it was (although any deaths make this event heinous, in my mind), or did the Whites downplay the numbers to make the Nyoongar people look dishonest, stifle their claims that it was a massacre, and thus, legitimize their actions (at least, in their own minds)?
In essence: where lies the truth?
A challenging question, one that I feel completely compelled now to explore in my own writing – not specifically in relation to this event, but in general.
There is another question that is raised in the play that needs to be addressed, for it is one that comes up a lot whenever the topic of historical injustices (particularly as they pertain to Indigenous peoples) comes up.
And that is: why does it matter today?
An infuriatingly ignorant question. People do ask it, though. I’m sure we’ve all witnessed people question why we should “dwell” on these issues. Insisting that we should focus on the “positives” and not judge the motivations and actions of previous generations. And I personally don’t. I don’t judge the actions of previous generations. I judge the actions, and attitudes, of current generations. An understanding that current conditions, prejudices, disparities in health and life outcomes, rates of incarceration, and a myriad of other issues are directly related to the histories that preceded today, is possessed by anyone who has a functioning brain and a basic grasp on the concept of ‘cause-and-effect’. Acknowledging past injustices does not solve the problems, but it is most certainly the first step to healing what is a deep psychic wound that most non-Indigenous Australians (myself included) have the luxury of ignoring.
Similar to the cynicism expressed in regard to the Apology to the Stolen Generations, people who question the use of acknowledging today that this event – and others like it – were indeed massacres, despicable acts of unjustifiable violence, are completely, and embarrassingly, missing the point.
Falling for Sahara & Refugee Week Film Festival
On Monday night I attended the Refugee Week Film Festival at the Sun Theatre in Yarraville, a charming old little cinema. The program featured a few short films made by young former refugees/participants in the 2011 Young Media Makers Project (mentored by my Pacific Stories producer Amie Batalibasi) and the screening of the 2011 Melbourne feature film, Falling for Sahara (supported by the Essendon Football Club and directed by Khoa Do). The evident somberness of the audience kind of bummed me out – especially since the theme of Refugee Week this year is ‘Restoring Hope’ (I guess they didn’t get the memo, or possibly read this piece in The Age). I did, however, accidentally end up sitting next to Inderdeep, who wrote the Big Issue article that inspired my Big Issue article, on the ‘About The Messenger’ page of this blog! (yet another coincidence. They’ve been happening with increased regularity of late).
It is important to remind people that ‘refugee’ is NOT a derogatory term, an “identity”, or some kind of subset of humanity. It is a political term used to denote people who are stateless, primarily due to war and persecution, who are in need of a homeland and the protections that come with having citizenship within a nation state. They have the same basic human needs as you and me, the same desires for safety, and are entitled to the same basic human rights. Relocating to a new country from a camp or some other place is, of course, hugely challenging, in many ways. The four short films screened addressed some of these challenges. The first made the point that perspective – celebrating the light side of life – is important, especially if you have been through disturbing circumstances. The second was a documentary, interviewing two young refugees in good ‘ol Footscray (one Asian, one African). Another dramatized the culture shock of a newly arrived refugee, unfamiliar with life in a modern city. And the last was a well-constructed satirical piece on Australian government policies towards refugees from particular ethnic backgrounds.
The feature film we watched, Falling for Sahara, also showed some of the challenges of being in a stigmatized minority and crossing cultures through the characters of three young men/teenagers of African descent, living in housing commission high-rise flats in Melbourne (that look grand with good cinematography!!!). Directed by former Australian of the Year Khoa Do, it features a script developed in conjunction with the cast of African-Australian actors, and (then) recently arrived refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia. The three young men come from different circumstances. MJ is a refugee who experienced camp life in various countries in Africa before coming to Australia. Beniam is a lothario type, and the film opens with him seducing the beautiful Achol. And Ramsy is an aspiring Australian Rules football player. All three are affected by, in varying ways, a stunning Ethopian girl named Sahara.
I love seeing a group of people in Australia represented on film who pretty much never appear in media (unless presented in a sad/troubling news story or as ‘The Other’). In Falling for Sahara, the three young men are just a few dudes getting on with their day-to-day lives. Beyond the idiosyncracies of specific accents and peer group dynamics, their preoccupations are pretty UNIVERSAL: love and sex (at least for Beniam), belonging, appeasing their parents whilst having some sort of agency over their own lives, and a sense of identity. The way these characters pursue these wants is (obviously) influenced by their background culture (and its expectations of how they should behave), attitudes that they have been brought up with, and the complications that come with having to engage with (and try to integrate into) a dominant culture that contains elements simultaneously trying to reject them. A culture that has its own ingrained attitudes or misconceptions about who these young men are to begin with.
Another thing I appreciate about this film is that it does touch on some pretty sophisticated and complex issues: internalized and external racism, class, collective tradition versus individual choice. They emerge through snippets of dialogue, but are not explored fully. This didn’t really bother me too much, as by the 15-minute mark it felt to me like a “slice of life” kind of film, a snapshot of the lives of these young people. Once I had decided as an audience member this was what the film would be, I surrendered, and enjoyed the experience of seeing a part of Melbourne we don’t often get to see.
But, if I could change anything about this movie, it would be to give the script a stronger focus on the issues that the film lightly touches on, by making the protagonist of the film Sahara. I found myself wanting to know who she was. Why she just watched as the completely innocent MJ is dragged away by police, who have jumped to the conclusion he is hassling her based entirely on his appearance, not behaviour. How she felt about being married off to a man in Ethiopia. Why a private school educated, modern young woman could not assert her own wishes in the face of thousands of years of cultural tradition.
Obviously, that was not going to happen given football was supposed to be prominent in the film – The Essendon Football Club were supporters of the production, and have been working with the Flemington Housing Estate for a number of years. But perhaps even that focus – the role of sport in integration – would have been better served by making Ramsay a stronger central protagonist. We don’t find out much about him other than he plays footy, has mixed feelings about Australia, and fancies Sahara. The dominant sport cultures reveal a lot about a nation. I wanted to see how he got along with his teammates – in the film, Ramsy complains his teammates don’t pass to him, but it isn’t clear whether this is true or not. His character is seemingly eager to belong but also uncomfortable with Australia; trying to be in it and pursue a sporting career yet simultaneously dealing with the tension of elements within that culture rejecting him.
I wanted to meet his family. I wanted to see him making escalating and tough decisions to get what he wanted. Essentially, I wanted more drama.
So many meaty themes touched upon and hinted at, as well as characters we haven’t yet seen on screens. I would LOVE to see them explored more fully in future productions. Given that I am a writer, maybe these are topics I should tackle myself. And I have a suspicion this was the message for me this week.
Special shout out to Amie Batalibasi and Lia Pa’apa’a who opened their new studio/art space ‘Sunshine Art Spaces’ yesterday! http://prettywak.com/
Also check out this great t-shirt I scored on the weekend, from FCAC – really fits with the theme of this post: