“…I am dispended”, says Dujuan Hoosan, the Arrente/Garrwa little Aboriginal boy at the centre of the documentary, In My Blood it Runs (2020). “… suspended”, corrects his mother. But “dispended” like “Desperance”, could well be a coinage in Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria about a town that disappears.1 Though Dujuan got the word wrong, what we saw of his experience in the class-room at his Alice Springs public school certainly made him feel dispensable. The vicissitudes of Dujuan’s education are at the centre of this ambitious film, directed by Maya Newell, in collaboration with the boy’s kin group of elders and First Nations educators both local and international, developed over a period of more than three and a half years. Here, I want to explore the fictional child Nullah in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008), together with Dujuan (the former about 7 or 8 and the latter 10 years old), in terms of how theses films present their effective experience of pedagogy. In a volatile social field such as ours is now, with the global Black Lives Matter Movement demanding fundamental changes to entrenched institutional racism, it’s easier and indeed desirable to think together an activist film with an experimental attitude to lived reality, and Australia with its playful high-camp attitude to history as story, by focusing on their common ambition of placing an Indigenous child at the centre of the action. Equally, the imaginative power of these films (qua film), to become agents of pedagogy will be considered, elaborated for our social context.

Nullah, the mixed-race child played by Brandon Walters, is at the very heart of Baz Luhrmann’s epic yarn Australia both as its little story-teller with magical powers and target of the State’s Policy of Assimilation.2 Nullah’s name carries a trace of terra nullius (situating the child in a historical continuum that has already erased his presence). 3 The Latin word nullius, meaning “of no one” is refashioned by Luhrmann to name the mixed race child Nullah, who bears the weight of this history. When his pet dog is shot dead by the police as a means of capturing the boy, his cry “Jedda!” reverberates across the landscape and through Australian film history. The theme of the education of the Indigenous child is debated with great intensity in Jedda (Charles Chauvel, 1955), Australia and In My Blood it Runs, as in the contemporary public sphere with ever growing urgency. In Jedda, Mr and Mrs McMahon argue, in their kitchen, about the educability of the Aboriginal infant Jedda they adopted after her mother’s death. While Mrs McMahon believes fervently that the little girl can be trained to become “more white” by learning the skills of a Western child, Mr McMahon is doubtful that such an education would be able to replace what he thinks of as her intrinsic Aboriginality. Despite their different views they are loving adoptive parents to Jedda. The film dramatises this conflict, which it formulates as one between an ancient traditional Aboriginal culture with its immutable laws, and the dynamic processes of Western modernisation as linear progress, introduced by white civilisation, with an inevitable tragic outcome.

Nullah in Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008).

In contrast, more than 50 years later, soon after the 2008 National Apology to the Stolen Generations by the Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia opens up the question of the education of the Indigenous child by changing the terms of the debate.4 The issue this time round is staged on both an actual and an enabling mythical terrain. And in doing this Luhrmann changes the problem of irreconcilable opposites that structured the narrative of Jedda. So now, while there are still competing claims made about the child’s education, and educability, they are no longer posed in obsolete either/or modernist terms. The child’s curriculum is quite diverse, including Indigenous knowledge of lore and Country provided by his grandfather, played by the Indigenous national icon, David Gulpilil and the Western education provided by his adoptive mother, played by Nicole Kidman. Also importantly, for our purpose, it includes film! Nullah, the historical child, also operates on another plane as storyteller and this makes a vital difference. The storyteller as a child, a mixed-race child, does not see life in black and white terms, can slip between incommensurable worlds imperceptibly and retain a capacity for wonder even in the tightest of spots.

The scene in the “Pearl Picture Palace”, the racially segregated cinema in Darwin, is one of the richest, pedagogically multifaceted scenes in Australia. The seating in the cinema offers a picture of the racial and class divides in the multi-ethnic society at the time. The Professor of Anthropology and Indigenous Studies and public intellectual Marcia Langton has some fascinating things to say about this scene, drawing on her memories of segregation at the movies as a child. As she writes:

The scene in the Darwin cinema is especially delightful for me. The Wizard of Oz has come to town, and Dorothy’s escape from Kansas to the dream world is a metaphor for Luhrman’s own artistic struggle with the prosaic facts of history. In his imagined cinema of the 1940s, the spatial and social shape of racism is reconstructed with such exact detail, I felt I had been transported back to my own childhood. His white townsfolk are in their designated whites-only seats in back rows under the roof and the Aboriginal and Chinese members of the audience are in the front rows under the open sky, and I found my eye drawn to the location of my own seat on a bench in the cinema of my childhood in western Queensland.5

I am struck by Langton’s intuitive ability to understand the artist’s point of view in grappling with a difficult history and her appreciation of how his historical imagination is manifested aesthetically. Moreover, the scene of Nullah’s rapt absorption in Dorothy singing “Over the Rainbow” animates her own childhood memory at the pictures where enchantment and delight, no doubt, mingled with an awareness of segregation, seated on a bench, under the open sky. Moved by the film, drawing on interviews, the Historian Maria Nugent has written a perceptive essay on the social history of segregated cinemas of the time, well worth reading.6 There is also the vibrant painting, Roped-Off at the Pictures II (1987), by Indigenous artist Robert Campbell Jnr. which offers a not quite aerial view of a segregated movie theatre.7 As an artist he does two things simultaneously; he shows us how segregation is policed by an usher with a torchlight and he also celebrates cinema as “Democracy’s Theatre”, with its collective spectatorship, through his exuberant decorative style, despite the fact that the projected film is of a sheriff on horseback with a rifle pointed off screen!

Roped-Off at the Pictures II, Robert Campbell Jnr (1987)

In this scene we, the audience of Australia, watch an audience within the film watching The Wizard of Oz. Directors have been drawn to create variations on this meta-cinematic scene (film within film), from the very early silent cinema days on, as a way of imaginatively exploring the sensory fascination and kinetic liveliness of film as a medium, including the Edison short Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902) about a country bumpkin’s inappropriate reaction to moving images. It is considered a primal scene of cinema in the way it shows the fascination of film as a medium of public collective reception. However, in Australia there are no signs of liveliness in the audience who are seated patiently for the film to roll, though they all appear to be well dressed for the occasion waiting to be carried away by, what D. W. Griffith called, the “Universal Language” of Hollywood.

But when Luhrmann places the light-skinned Nullah at the centre of this scene, with his face blackened with charcoal, he is adding something more specifically local to this universal primal scene of cinema. The pedagogic implication of this scene is instructive. His aunty, Bandy Legs, blackened Nullah face with charcoal at a campfire in Darwin to disguise him as a “full-blooded” Aborigine, hoping to keep him safe from the police on the lookout for light-skinned children classified as “half-caste”. But as the storyteller with magical powers, Nullah pops up in this disguise at the segregated Pearl Picture Palace, perched high-up on a cross beam totally mesmerised by Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow”. It is a song he had heard previously in a brilliantly mangled rendition by Nichole Kidman’s Lady Sarah Ashley in her awkward attempt to comfort Nullah mourning the death of his mother. Visiting the child curled up on the floor in a humpy, Sarah sits beside him awkwardly, catching a glimpse of an advertisement for The Wizard of Oz in a newspaper fragment, begins to improvise on the tune. The child takes up each image offered in the song (“…rainbow” – “rainbow serpent”, etc.), and makes something more of it and comes to life. In doing this he becomes our mentor showing us what creative reception of sound and image can do.

In blackening Nullah’s face Luhrmann is creating a crystalline (temporal) pedagogical sign. Historically many parents smeared their children’s faces with charcoal and hid them in the bush to escape capture by the police. The racialised discourse on the gradation of skin tones, on which the “Assimilation Policy” of the state was partly based, is also given an absurdist turn here. The blackened face, as disguise rather than parody, is a strategy of survival and more. It is a sign of the storyteller’s powers of making images and also making himself as image appear and disappear magically. But as we know too well, the blackening of the face of a performer is a loaded sign, freighted with a long racist history. There is a stark difference between Nullah’s blackened face signifying the storyteller’s power to play with appearances and what it actually evokes, Blackface and the longer history of Blackface Minstrelsy.

Though Blackface Minstrelsy originated in the US in the 1830s it became a popular racist form of entertainment in Britain and Australian cities and country towns too. In addition to the American touring troops there were local amateur Blackface shows as well, according to theatre historian Richard Waterhouse.8 “Jumpin’ Jim Crow” was the name of a popular singing and dancing character in Blackface Minstrelsy in the mid-19th century, well before the term was smoothly appropriated to name the segregationist laws in the US South well after the Civil War and Reconstruction ended.

Australian cinema has also used actors in Blackface. The earliest being Robbery Under Arms by Charles Tait in 1906, which had a tracker in blackface. This practice continued on until as late as the early 70’s. In Journey Out of Darkness (James Trainor, 1967), there are two characters in Blackface, played by the popular Tamil singer Kamahl and Ed Devereaux, a white actor. The television series Boney (1973), had the actor James Laurenson ‘blacked-up’ to play the lead despite protests from Indigenous groups. The stage actor Justine Saunders challenged the familiar claim that there were no Indigenous actors available. Trained in theatre direction at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts rather than in directing film at Australian Film, Television and Radio School, Luhrmann commands a deep understanding of theatre history and the rich traditions of theatrical acting. I think it is this training that informs his unusual skill and derring-do in experimenting with innovative conceptions of character and styles of acting in his films, especially Australia.

Dylan Voller in Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre (footage from 4 Corners).

In My Blood it Runs is an observational documentary intercut with a montage of media images relevant to Indigenous politics, including the recent TV footage (2016), of police violence against the Aboriginal boy Dylan Voller, at the Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre in Darwin. When Dujuan is shown watching this footage I thought, isn’t he too young to see such images! But throughout the film this event at Don Dale detention centre is brought up as a warning to the child when he misbehaves. It is where he might end up, as many Indigenous children do in the Northern Territory. The film loosely follows Dujuan’s everyday life and observes how he learns formally in school and in his community. We first see him scouring the bush for medicinal herbs, which his grandmother prepares and bathes him in. Dujuan has a healing power (Ngangkere), inherited from his grandfather, which is nurtured by his grandmother and kin group.

Dujuan in In My Blood it Runs (Maya Newell, 2019).

Several key scenes take place in Dujuan’s classroom, at a school especially set up for Aboriginal kids. A book with the illustrated Captain Cook narrative, the way an Indigenous story is read out and talked about, the lesson plan and testing appeared to me to be something of a parodic representation of what teaching should not do. It appeared to be a demonstration of what an alienating classroom feels like. The tone of voice and mode of address of the teachers is often very unappealing and even intimidating, certainly to my ears. A friend thought that they were actual classrooms and that the teachers were doing their best in difficult circumstances. Whatever the case, feeling alienated from the activity of learning a curriculum that has no relevance to him, the mild mannered, thoughtful boy plays truant, he misbehaves and is suspended repeatedly from school. We see him seated in the classroom with a vacant expression. He shows his mother his report card with the lowest of grades and says that there must be something wrong with him. He curls up in bed in distress and keeps looking at it for a while.

The grandmother, fearing the worst when Dujuan does not come home from school, repeatedly searches for the boy at night, driving through the empty mean streets of Alice Springs because he is reaching the critical age of ten, the age at which he can legally be placed in a juvenile detention centre for wrongdoing. Elsewhere in most of the developed world and other jurisdictions the age of criminal responsibility is fourteen. Dujuan’s young aunt (who has herself served time in jail), in a quiet moment of desperation, talks to him (as a warning), about the not unfamiliar trajectory of Aboriginal youth known to them, from detention centre, to prison and finally ending up in a coffin. He then asks her, “What’s a coffin?”

When Dujuan is finally expelled from school, his grandmother and the extended family of aunties and great-grandmother meet and decide to send him to live with his estranged father, in his traditional homeland community at Borroloola, Northern Territory. There he has the opportunity to spend more of his free time with his father, close to nature, fishing and swimming. He refers to himself as a bush kid and says with great maturity, “If you go out to the bush every week, you learn how to control your anger and learn how to control your life.”

Dujuan’s attitude to learning improves at his new school in Borroloola, with an Indigenous and a white teacher, and a curriculum which includes lessons in the local Arrente language, provided in a nurturing environment. The liveliness registered on the child’s face and that of the other children in class is such a contrast to Dujuan’s listlessness and disconnection in the previous school. As an activist film, In My Blood it Runs has had wide circulation. Shown here, in the US, in educational institutions and public forums. This film, made with the support of the Indigenous community, stirs our political imagination by sharing an evolving global vision on how education should be formulated for First Nations children. The plan has been to advocate for institutional support from the central government to develop pedagogical programs and methods for the transmission of intergenerational knowledge of country, language and culture to the young. The active engagement of the wider family and Indigenous educators is considered to be essential. Like Nullah’s, Dujuan’s pedagogy becomes holistic. It is not an either or choice between traditional knowledge systems and a modern, western education. It’s a call for a process of education that does not destroy the child’s capacity to enjoy learning and to understand the world and assume their dual heritage with pride and authority.9

In this context, Nullah’s apprenticeship in Australia with his grandfather, played by David Gulpilil comes to mind. Though their relationship is an idealised representation situated in legend, it nevertheless feels very important for children to have a chance to see such positive images of an older male figure taking care of the child’s education and wellbeing. In Alice Springs there is a conspicuous absence of male figures to guide Dujuan until he goes to live with his father. In the new school, teaching and learning are not chores to be endured or rebelled against, is not exclusionary, but a vital process, enjoyable, of value. I wonder how Dujuan and his class-mates might respond to seeing Nullah learning from his grandfather, if excerpts of Australia were shown to their class with the necessary contextualisation, as it was to some city high school English students who studied the film with interest when it first came out, not least because of the Kidman-Jackman high-camp romance.10

In a reflexive turn, wouldn’t it be good to have had a short film of Dujuan and the other kids watching (instead of the violent Don Dale footage seen by him earlier), the relevant scenes from Australia just so that we can observe the expressions on their faces as they watch Nullah and his grandfather play and sing at the magical billabong to lure fish and allay fear.11 A similar idea is captured in a Cuban film where we see adults and little kids watch their very first film in a remote village in the highlands. It’s the gag in Chaplin’s Modern Times, where he is restrained and assaulted by the latest technological marvel of the Feeding Machine.12 The look of fear and absorption on the children’s faces is unforgettable and contrasts with the uproarious laughter of the adults. The film within a film structure in this instance affords us a glimpse of the power of cinematic fascination and of the child’s mimetic vitality which Chaplin shared with them.

As Larissa Behrendt has said and we have seen for ourselves, Dujuan is a child who has lived under the shadow of the Australian criminal justice system. He sees the Don Dale footage. At a critical crossroad “he could have gone either to Don Dale or Geneva” said a smiling William Tilmouth, who was an Indigenous educational advisor on the film. We do know that an older Dujuan did go to Geneva with his father and grandmother to address the United Nations on the Rights of the Child, to call for the age of incarceration of Australia’s children to be raised from ten to fourteen. The medical view is that no child should be incarcerated before sixteen. By the time you read this, the Attorneys Generals of the States and Territories will have met and reconsidered changes to this punitive law. This is what I wrote before Monday the 3rd of August when there was much hope and anticipation of a change to the law. But the Attorneys Generals ruled to defer their decision for another year, until suitable other arrangements could be made as an alternative to locking up kids in detention at the age of ten.

By considering these two films together they show us how the films do more than represent teaching and learning. They show us how film itself trains us, the viewers, to learn to perceive in unusual, non-literal ways and perhaps from a child’s way of seeing too. In My Blood It Runs is singular, it shows us how Newell has embedded herself and her camera within the community to which Dujuan belongs and won his trust after the quite considerable time she spent there well before the film itself went into production. She was invited to make the film by Arrente elders and an organization called Akeyulerre healing centre. She says that Dujuan also wanted her to make the film. His thoughts are expressed in his intermittent voice-over intimating his powers of introspection as well as a desire to share his experience. He has an intimate relationship to the process of filming, he knows its importance, his is an unselfconscious but aware presence, the film has participated in a process of ritual healing with tangible outcomes.

These are among the eloquent words the twelve-year old Dujuan addressed to the United Nations Human Rights Council:

I come here to speak to you because the Australian Government is not listening. Adults never listen to kids like me, but we have important things to say.13

Endnotes

  1. The Indigenous novelist Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (Giramondo Publication, 2006), won Australia’s premier literary award, the Miles Franklin, in 2007. The novel weaves Indigenous oral storytelling into an epic narrative scale moving between deep mythical time and contemporary politics between whites and blacks in the gulf of Carpentaria. These include conflicts between mining interests and those of land rights.
  2. The Australian government formulated its “Policy of Assimilation” in the 1930s, to address what it perceived as a problem with the Aboriginal population. Predicated on the assumed superiority of white settler culture, religion and civilization, the State decreed that Aboriginal children of mixed parentage, with light skin tones, would be removed from their families and placed in institutions to train them to become integrated into white society as domestic servants and work in other low paid employment. These children were referred to as “half-castes”, while the “full-blooded” darker Aboriginal children were isolated and segregated on reserves with the expectation that they and their culture would eventually die out.
  3. Terra nullius means land belonging to no one. This was the legal fiction under which Australia was acquired as a territory of the British Crown, by Captain James Cook in 1770. The British declared Australia to be “terra nullius” despite their awareness of the prior presence of Aboriginal people.
  4. “Bringing Them Home” is the 1997 report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission. In 1999 a further inquiry was set up to examine the adequacy of the Federal Government’s response to this report. This is known as the “Inquiry Into The Stolen Generations”. These inquiries and the reports made public the extent and effects of the Policy of Assimilation, which has created intergenerational trauma amongst Aboriginal peoples and continues to affect those living today. This practice of forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their families occurred roughly from 1910 to 1970. The National Apology to the Stolen Generations in the nation’s parliament is seen as a key moment in acknowledging culpability and in furthering the process of Reconciliation by addressing the historical trauma and continuing disadvantage experienced by Indigenous communities across Australia. It is within this larger institutional framework of reform that the problem of the education of the Indigenous child has become an area of great concern and focus. In My Blood it Runs is an activist film that intervenes creatively within this complex field.
  5. Marcia Langton, “Faraway Downs Resonates Close to Home”, The Age, November 23, 2008.
  6. Marie Nugent, “‘Every Right to be There’: Cinema Spaces and Racial Politics”, Australian Humanities Review 51, Nov. 11.
  7. See this painting at, https://www.roslynoxley9.com.au/artwork/robert-campbell-jnr-roped-off-at-the-picture-show-ii-1987/31:2406
  8. Richard Waterhouse, “The Internationalisation of American Popular Culture in the 19th Century: The Case of the Minstrel Show”, Australian Journal of American Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1, July, 1985, pp. 1-11. Also see, “The Minstrel Show and Australian Culture”, Popular Culture, XXIV, Issue 3, Winter, 1990, pp. 147-166.
  9. A film that eloquently teachers us about this dual heritage in its mythical and historical depth is Kanyini (Responsibility, 2006), by Melanie Hogan. The film is about the Yankunytjatjar elder Rob Randall who was a child of the “Stolen Generations”, taken from his family and home country near Uluru. In a wonderfully light, humorous and engaging act of storytelling he takes us through images of first contact, of his people as hunter gatherers (assiduously documented on ethnographic film), and through to the present and helps us to understand the importance of “country, family, spirituality, language and culture” for Aboriginal peoples.
  10. See my essay on the film’s camp couture aesthetic in, “The Drover’s Wives and Camp Couture: Baz Luhrmann’s Preposterous National Epic”, Studies in Australasian Cinema 4:2 (2010), pp. 131-143. The film was included in the Australian high school English curriculum.
  11. See my essay, “The Many Faces of David Gulpilil”, in The Monthly, July 2020. Here, I elaborate on the unique mode of acting Baz Luhrmann has developed in his film Australia, which I have called ‘acting in strobe’. Gulpilil’s virtuoso performance of many types and archetypes is in this metamorphic mode.
  12. The film is Octavio Cortazar’s Por Primera Vez (For the First Time, ICAIC, 1967).
  13. Dujuan Hoosan, “Indigenous boy asks UN to help end youth incarceration”, Sept 12, 2019.

About The Author

Laleen Jayamanne taught Cinema Studies in the Dept. of Art History and Film, University of Sydney from 1990-2013. Director, A Song of Ceylon (16mm film, Australian Film Commission, 1985). Author of Towards Cinema and Its Double; Cross-Cultural Mimesis (Indiana University Press, 2001) and The Epic Cinema of Kumar Shahani, (Indiana University Press, 2015).

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