Four years ago this week, in 2007, I was touring through community based art centres in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, buoyed by the recent outpourings of support for the art centres that had emerged from the Senate Inquiry and by the energy and optimism that I encountered at every stop along the way of my travels. Two days after I arrived back in the United States, John Howard and Mal Brough announced the Intervention, and that mood of optimism and buoyancy collapsed.
On their 1993 album Freedom, Yothu Yindi sang:
Someone in the city
Gets a piece of paper
Someone in the bush
Holds the law in their hands
Last chance for freedom
In our generation
We’re not the only people
In our generation
In 2010 filmmakers Sinem Saban and Damien Curtis launched Our Generation, a documentary, and a movement, designed to tell the story of many interventions into the life of Australia’s Indigenous people, focusing in particular on stories of the Yolngu from Galiwin’ku. It tells the story of the paper law from the cities and the bush Law of the Yolngu, and the unending collision between the two.
The film begins with footage of living conditions on Galiwin’ku and reports on Indigenous health. Most readers of Australian newspapers will hear nothing new: stories of overcrowding, of trachoma, of broken promises. Indeed, anyone with more than a nodding acquaintance with Aboriginal culture will find little that is unknown in the stories retold in this film. What makes Our Generation worthy of attention is the straightforward way in which it narrates a complex story from the Indigenous perspective.
The Intervention had its genesis in reports of child abuse that were addressed in the report Little Children Are Sacred. The report is over 300 pages long and contains 97 recommendations for action. The first of these states, in part,
It is critical that both governments [i.e. Australian and Northern Territory] commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.
The report is dated April 30, 2007. The first whiff of the Howard Government’s hypocrisy wafted across the Territory when it announced the Intervention a mere six weeks later, claiming that it was forced to act because Claire Martin’s Labor government in the Territory had failed to act in response to the report. The second blast was double-barreled. The Northern Territory Emergency Response Act 2007 was tabled in Parliament eight weeks after the announcement of the Intervention: over two hundred pages of legislation prepared remarkably swiftly, so swiftly, in fact, that many suspected it had been in preparation long before Little Children Are Sacred was promulgated. Furthermore, the act took up none of Little Children‘s recommendations, reinforcing the suggestion that the two were fundamentally unrelated except that the report provided a convenient excuse for the Act. The legislation confirmed the government’s unwillingness to consult with the communities it affected.
This history is skillfully recapitulated in Our Generation. News clips from the ABC are integrated with footage of Brough out in communities and Howard addressing the nation. The tolling bell of Aboriginal dysfunction rings in tandem with pleas for the safety of children until a chilling black and white title appears on the screen: examinations of 4,733 children revealed four cases of “suspected” abuse.
As I watched these scenes repeated in the film, I felt the same disappointment and dismay that I experienced living through the events four years ago. As events unfolded toward the present day, I was surprised at how moving Rudd’s Apology remains, even in the face of Labor’s continuing support for the program and their continuing refusal to consult with the communities and to listen to the people whose lives are being manipulated and mangled by these policies. I wonder once again why it is so difficult simply to listen and to hear.
Indeed, one of the great virtues of Our Generation is the opportunity it provides to listen, uninterruptedly, to the voices and the logic of the people most affected. One man says, “Invade our community, invade our families, invade our land, and tell us, tell us, how we should live? Just can’t do that. Cause you wouldn’t let me do that to your family.”
Another elder, a woman, talks about how her culture is inextricably bound with her identity, much as her shadow is inseparable from her body. But the Intervention, she fears, is “eating our shadows.”
The chief spokesman for the Aboriginal point of view in the film is Dr. Djiniyini Gondarra from Galiwin’ku. In recent weeks, he has been touring through Europe, meeting with representatives from the United Nations and Amnesty International, among others. On May 15, just days after Our Generation won the award for Best Campaign Film at the London International Documentary Festival, Dr. Gondarra launched a Global Call to Action on Aboriginal Rights in a speech in front of Australia House in London. (Watch the ABC video and check out the report “Aboriginal elder takes blowtorch to the Intervention.”)
You can find much more information about Our Generation at the film’s website. You can watch the trailer. You can buy a copy of the video for public screening at an entirely reasonable cost, or find dates for one of the many community screenings being organized around Australia in the months to come. Sign the petition. Take action. It’s not too late.