Our Generation: Straight to the heart of the nation

Sunday, August 29, 2010
‘Aboriginal people in the film express dismay that their hopes are constantly raised by government spokespeople and then dashed by treachery.’ Photo courtesy of Sinem Saban

A powerful new film about the Northern Territory intervention, Our Generation, is being shown to audiences across the NT, and will screen in places across Australia.

The film-makers, Sinem Saban and Damien Curtis, spent three years with “just a camera and a microphone and lots of tape stock and time” and no script, allowing Yolngu people in North-East Arnhem Land to tell their stories about how the policies of the intervention — introduced by the Howard government and continued by Labor — have changed their lives.

Curtis has worked for the last 10 years with indigenous communities in the Amazon and Africa in defence of their environmental and cultural rights. Saban has a history of living in and visiting communities in North-East Arnhem Land that stretches over 10 years.

At recent screenings, Saban and Curtis have been joined by Yolngu guest speakers and former ABC foreign correspondent Jeff McMullen, another strong voice in the campaign against the intervention.

Saban, Curtis and McMullen spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Emma Murphy.

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What inspired you to make this film?

SS & DC: The Aboriginal people who I know, after spending 10 years visiting and living in communities in North-East Arnhem Land, are a deeply spiritual, moral and respectful people.

When the intervention was announced in June 2007, I was deeply disturbed with the way the media and governments were portraying Indigenous people.

The mass stereotyping, and generalisation that Aboriginal people are paedophiles, incapable of looking after their children and skimping on welfare was, in my eyes, a deceptive tactic by the government to manipulate the truth in support of its own agenda.

I wanted the people I know — my Yolngu friends and family — to have a voice, an uncensored voice, to be heard by those who would not otherwise have the opportunity to speak to an Aboriginal person.

Because essentially, when one does speak to an Aboriginal person, takes the time to truly listen, their knowledge and wisdom is profound and their hurt is deep.

This is what was missing in media reports down in the cosmopolitan cities: that first-hand, emotional, brutal, honest, profound expression, uncensored.

JM: For three years, the film-makers persisted in gathering truthful voices that have until now been ignored. Some, like Reverend Dr Djiniyini Gondarra, have travelled to the United Nations in Geneva to explain how the discrimination continues.

What are the issues that stand out most strongly in the film?

SS & DC: The film has developed into a deep transformative journey, bringing up issues that lie simmering under the nation’s surface. It has been entirely independently funded, with the help of philanthropists and generous public donations.

We wanted to allow Yolngu people to express themselves in story, not by answering questions.

What came through their stories were not only their feelings about the intervention, but also beyond: the unfinished business of this country, issues about sovereignty, treaty, the divide and conquering of Aboriginal peoples, the ongoing clash of worlds and how our history has shaped the present day. The undying need for true reconciliation and cultural co-existence came through.

Our Generation captures all of this, and although it is told by the Yolngu of North-East Arnhem Land, their words carry the same story that many other Aboriginal nations across Australia have experienced.

We wanted the film to hold the mirror up, so we are forced to look at our own society's moral decline before we question or blame another culture — in particular, the culture that existed harmoniously for thousands of generations before we arrived.

JM: The truth in this film is like a red-hot poker driven into the conscience of a nation.

This film is a plea for reason. Are we listening? Will we act?

The great Australian silence about the lack of equality for Aboriginal people has ignored their voices for more than 220 years. You may consider that 500,000 Indigenous people will always remain a minority with limited power, but the truth is the law, both Australian law and international law, gives them the legal right to their lands, culture, education, health, jobs and decision-making to shape their future. Most of these legal rights have been ignored or trampled.

The film expresses through dozens of powerful Indigenous voices the overwhelming belief among Aboriginal people that the intervention was never sanctioned by them. The pain experienced and the ongoing disillusionment with the clumsy and counter-productive government approaches is clearly documented.

Aboriginal people in the film express dismay that their hopes are constantly raised by government spokespeople and then dashed by treachery. The damage done by the NT intervention makes this the worst policy inflicted on Aboriginal people since the Stolen Generations.

In the age of global warming, with Australia's larger cities and towns increasingly unliveable, we should be concentrating on using the local attachment to land as the key to a successful balanced, sustainable pattern of life. Aboriginal people understand what is out of kilter. Contracts with government have not brought improved living conditions or equal opportunity for their children.

How has the film been received by audiences so far, and what plans do you have for it from here?

SS & DC: Sharing the film with those affected by the intervention has been the most rewarding experience. We have found that it inspires people to speak up and really express their deepest of hurts and frustrations.

It has created a sense of solidarity among affected communities, of increased confidence and pride, to know that others are speaking out and that the time has come to stand up and say it how it is.

It has created a confidence to challenge the ongoing racism and paternalism of the government, given strength in knowing that mainstream Australia is hearing their voices, and is joining their hearts to the cause. A confidence that change is possible, and despair can turn to hope.

For non-Indigenous audiences, the film creates strong emotional reactions. It is a rollercoaster journey through the emotions: through shock, despair, sadness, anger, but in the end, to solidarity, defiance, resistance and justice.

It is a journey to a feeling of unity and inspiration, that we can change the future and, together, meet the challenge of our generation.

JM: I am carrying the film to the US to share with other powerful people and to arrange screenings that will allow these Aboriginal voices to be heard in world forums.

We have held screenings, and I have chaired discussion forums in Melbourne, Sydney, at the Garma Festival and at the Darwin Festival. We have only just begun.

[For more information or to watch the trailer or purchase the DVD, please visit www.ourgeneration.org.au . Jeff McMullen will speak on “The future of race relations in Australia and the NT intervention”, at 7.30pm on September 8 at the Building Bridges series, Jubilee Hall, Parramatta Town Hall. For information and bookings, phone (02) 9639 8394 or email lynlew@optusnet.com.au .]

From GLW issue 850