Wednesday, May 27, 2009


My long weekend stretched into an unexpected fourth day because the hot water heater for our building died. I couldn't go to work Tuesday because (1) I had to stay home and wait for the repair people and (2) after three days without access to hot water I wasn't fit for human society. In the afternoon, after the new hot water heater had been installed and we'd each finally had a real shower and the day had subsided into a misty drizzle outside, Teresa and I decided to snuggle up on the couch and watch a pay-per-view movie. We selected Baz Luhrmann's 2008 film Australia.

The story takes place in northern Australia in 1939-1941. Brandon Walters, left, stars alongside Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. Some of the plot revolves around his character Nullah, an Aboriginal child whom white governmental authorities want to forcibly remove from his ancestral land and place in a boarding school to train as a servant. This policy was in place until the 1970s. The Australian government only finally apologized to the Aboriginal people last year. The stolen children are now known as "the stolen generations." The 2002 film Rabbit-Proof Fence took on this colonialist crime much more directly.

After watching the Luhrmann film, we wondered what Aboriginal viewers thought of it, so we got online and found a review by Amy McQuire on the website of The National Indigenous Times.
Luhrmann should be congratulated for trying to put the Stolen Generations issue on the agenda, but it adds nothing to the debate. ... For one point, it is overwhelmingly anti-racist - Hugh Jackman’s character The Drover advocates for the right for his Aboriginal mate to drink in a Darwin pub - and yet we still are left praising the triumphs of the white heroes.
Read McQuire's entire review here.

While we're on the topic of Australia, I've got to take this opportunity to comment on one of the best books I've read in the last 20 years, a book I've repeatedly recommended to anyone who asks for a reading suggestion. Death of a River Guide by Richard Flanagan. This novel is in a way everything Luhrmann's film, however well-meaning, isn't. Subtle, surprising, profound. It is a work of high art that is also a deeply political meditation on colonialism, racism, history. Reading Death of a River Guide was one of those times that I learned more truth from a work of fiction than I had from all my previous reading of history. Not that I'd till then read all that much about Australia, but with this novel I realized that I knew next to nothing. I knew that what we Marxists call the national question is central to that land's history, but from Flanagan's novel I began to get a glimpse of how incredibly complex it is. This book took me by the shoulders and shook me, and it's had a grip on me ever since.

I realize I've spoken mostly in generalities in this post. As to the movie, my best advice is to read the McQuire review I've linked to above. As to the novel, I don't want to get any more specific because readers should experience it whole, but my best advice is: read it.