Over the past week or so I’ve been surprised at how much I’m enjoying reading Thomas Keneally’s Australians: Origins to Eureka (Allen & Unwin, 2010). He’s no Inga Clendinnen, even in the early pages, but I wasn’t really expecting that. He knows how to tell a good story, though, focused on people, and not constricted by chronology. I’m about halfway through, and my major disappointment is that all the blackfellas disappeared about 150 pages ago. Indeed, once Watkin Tench went back to England, the story of the Eora faded almost completely, and I find that an interesting light on Australian historiography in itself.
These thoughts had been murmuring in the back of my mind, then, when I sat down the other day to watch Jeni Thornley’s documentary, Island Home Country (Anandi Films 2008). I’d puzzled over the syntax of the title a bit before viewing it, three nominatives stacked up in an uneasy grammatical relationship to one another. Now that I’ve watched it, I can appreciate the linguistic artistry involved: Thornley is struggling to balance those concepts that she acknowledges mean very different things to her than to some of the people who helped her make the film. In a subtitle, or a tagline, Thornley spells it out: “I am white, born on a stolen island. This is my story of a journey.”
The titular island is Tasmania. The home is hers, but it is also the home of the Indigenous people who have long been written out of its history and the history of the island continent as well. And country? Country is home and nation. Country is source, and most anyone who’s been to both England and Tasmania will feel the pull of comparisons in the landscapes of the two, a comparison that I think Thornley invites by including home-movie footage of her family’s first trip back to the “mother country.” But country is different here, not landscape, as the Indigenous Tasmanian voice of conscience, Jim Everett makes clear early on. Landscape, he says, is a white man’s concept that implies a human overlay on the world; country pre-exists and co-exists.
The problem of that human overlay, and in Tasmania in particular, of a suppressing white man’s overlay, is central to Thornley’s explorations. She was raised on a farm, in a large house that still survives, surrounded by an enormous, well-maintained privet hedge. The hedge is an inescapable and almost primordial symbol of the English countryside, the natural element trained and curated by human hands to enclose and thereby create property. It is perhaps the most potent and simplest symbol of the difference between the Anglo-Saxon and Aboriginal views of what can be encompassed in the word “country.” For Thornley, the hedge surrounded her childhood, and becomes for her, as an adult, a metaphor for the history that shielded her from history.
There is a double shrouding in Thornley’s story. Of convict descent, she grew up knowing nothing of her family’s history; a Tasmanian, she knew nothing of the history of the people the colonizers and convicts displaced. One feels that the two stories and the two searches are intertwined, and there is one beautiful moment in the film where she is able to dramatize that fact to great effect. With her sister, she ascends the Truganini Track on Mt Nelson in Hobart, and the two stop at the memorial to Truganini, the supposed “last Tasmanian.” The memorial, erected to commemorate the centenary of Truganini’s death, is situated at a spot that was once a signal lookout used to communicate with the prison at Port Arthur, neatly bringing a convergence of the two stories together. Thornley’s sister is visibly moved, quite emotional, as she looks down at the plaque. But Thornley had forgotten to turn on her camera’s microphone while filming the moment; we can see hear sister speaking, but hear only silence.
Although Island Home Country may have begun as a film about her childhood, Thornley quickly became swept us in the larger questions of history, and then just as quickly in the questions of cultural protocols. She visits with Jim Everett, with Aunty Phyllis Pitchford, with Tasmanian artists Julie Gough and PennyX Saxon. Gough in particular raises the issues of image making and image use; Everett and Pitchford urge her to tell her own story and not try to tell the Indigenous stories (although they do contribute their own in snippets throughout the film). Thus the weave become tangled as Thornley struggles to explore, to learn, and to tell what she learns: to tell a story that is both hers and not hers.
It’s a delicate balancing act, as delicate as balancing those three nominatives in her film’s title. Thornley is like a poet schooled in free verse who sets herself to writing a sestina; she re-arranges images, mines her own past, and strives to make that past a metaphor for the larger history of her island home. She knows as she does so that she is laying a landscape atop country, and knows there is no other way to do it. It is Jim Everett who speaks the phrase I’ve chosen as the title for this essay: “There’s no such thing as post-colonialism.” Unless and until the white man leaves and leaves the country to its original inhabitants, whatever remains is still colonial. There is no escape from history and Thornley bravely chooses to work with that fact. Everett, in the closing minutes of the film, talks of water coursing through human bodies and the veins of trees and passages of underground caverns and claims connectedness in his metaphor. I think Thornley recognizes an existential truth to what Everett is saying, and sees hope in the thought, but in the end she knows that there is a violence of difference that still overlays the hope. Island Home Country is a movement, a gesture on the path to reconciling that difference.
Thornley’s own eloquent reflections on the making of this film are available in a chapter of Passionate Histories: myth, memories and Indigenous Australia, edited by Frances-Peters Little, Ann Curthoys, and John Docker, an ANU E Press book published in 2010. More information can be found on Thornley’s blog, Documentary, and the film is available from The Education Shop. Watch the trailer on YouTube.