The continued strength of the documentary filmmaking landscape in Australia rarely inspires the kind of complementary takes on the same story. In 2019, THE FINAL QUARTER and THE AUSTRALIAN DREAM felt the resonance of the very public beat down (so-to-speak) of AFL superstar Adam Goodes' and the need to take two distinct approaches to unravel its ongoing relevance. For Ian Darling's THE FINAL QUARTER, it underscored manipulation of dominant, hegemonic, media in Australia's conservative broadcast landscape. It reassembled the events, keeping with the facts and staring into the spin.
THE AUSTRALIAN DREAM, crafted by director Daniel Gordon, writer Stan Grant and with the collaboration of Goodes sees this trial in the continuum of the Indigenous experience. Grant outlines that the distance of his international journalistic assignments trained his focus on the issues Indigenous people face on his return. For Grant, he saw Goodes' experience with boos as a tempered racist "howl" echoing through Australian history. Grant and Gordon contextualise the original custodians of this land as the non-compliant minority - and a perceived threat. Grant digs beneath the media layering and stares into the eyes (and the hearts) of Goodes and his supporters and critics alike.
These resoundingly powerful documentary features are pushing buttons and progress in the Australian cultural landscape. For me, that's reflected authentically in encounters with regular filmgoers. It's not unusual when you're a film critic to be interrogated about your take on a new release film. Often it's the behemoth Hollywood blockbuster, but I have had a refreshing change to talk candidly about these two independent Australian documentaries. The shift in perspectives has been particularly fascinating to observe.
Before the release of the THE FINAL QUARTER - which reassembled the events of 2013-2014 - the reactions were near hostile. Memory served the spin. I shared that Ian Darling's upcoming documentary was my most anticipated film at the Sydney Film Festival, and people weren't shy to give me their opinion. Goodes was a "pariah" squeezing his club, the Sydney Swans for more funds with elaborate "excuses," and limping to eventual retirement. The talkback smear continued to linger.
Cue the Sydney Film Festival premiere.
A rapturous reception after a rollicking and rowdy screening, including as many boos, hisses and insults being gleefully shouted at Eddie McGuire and Andrew Bolt from the comfort of the dark belly of the State Theatre. The screening caused a chain reaction in the community. AFL clubs quickly condemned fan treatment of one of the greatest players in the game. Most clubs issued apologies to Goodes and his team, and the AFL took additional steps to eliminate racism from the sport. Little and late is better than never, it seems.
After Darling's preliminary offer to allow the film to screen for free in schools, Channel 10 broadcast the documentary to the nation. THE FINAL QUARTER struck the more significant chord. The 'just the facts' approach made the media outlets and personalities complicit with frenzy (which they were) and shared the blame. The spin had spun out.
Two months pass, and THE AUSTRALIAN DREAM's arrival received a similarly intense (yet smaller) response. Screenings at the Melbourne International Film Festival and Telluride Film Festival in Colorado generated universally positive reviews. The unfortunate reality, usually reserved for competing disaster movies about volcanos or asteroids crashing to Earth, is movie-goers saying "a movie about the end of Adam Goodes' career? I saw that one." The emphasis and enduring self-reflection of director Daniel Gordon and Stan Grant's layered context and intentions behind the actions create discomfort, it seems. For the ABC, film critic Cameron Williams attributed THE AUSTRALIAN DREAM's soft reception to it being "ahead of its time." Williams goes on to say that "while its heart is in the right place, the nation did not rise to meet it."
During my latest exchange about THE AUSTRALIAN DREAM, that hostility had strangely returned. This average filmgoer had taken umbrage with Gordon and Grant's forthright tarring of the crowd's behaviour as racist. For a moment, I sat passive, attempted to demonstrate cordiality to hear them. This person was enlightened and educated, politically savvy, historically aware. However, I felt compelled to challenge emphatically. There's a defensive gag reflex to the word 'racist' in this country - that Grant, Gordon and Goodes precisely address. In my review of THE AUSTRALIAN DREAM, I explained that film has the benefit of hindsight, taking us layers deeper to the motivations behind the actions of those involved. I'd add that it's compelling us to candidly address and acknowledge the past to strive for a brighter future.
When I wrote my review of THE FINAL QUARTER, I quoted comedian Dave Chapelle describing the plight of NFL star turned activist Colin Kaepernick. During his comedy special EQUINIMITY Chappelle says; "Every fucking person that takes a stand for somebody else always gets beat down. And we watch. Over and over and over again, we watch it...they make our lives better, and we could change the narrative." And it's funny that once again the words of Dave Chappelle bounce around my mind. In his companion comedy special THE BIRD REVELATION, he called for embracing "imperfect allies" in the #MeToo movement. While apartheid and #Metoo are drastically different things, they have one thing in common. Chappelle explains that the end of apartheid should have been "a bloodbath" by "any metric in human history." Chappelle goes on to posit that "Mandela and Desmond Tutu" understood that if a "system is corrupt, then people who adhere to that system, and are incentivised by that system, are not criminals. They are victims."
Restoring this tale into public consciousness has begun to agitate the same petty, defensive impulses. Are we ready to acknowledge systemic racism? Are we prepared to think of ourselves as victims propagating amnesiac foundational myths of this country? Do we ever pause to consider that our tales begin with stories of bravery maintaining the western way of life in World War One? Are we ready to stare into the souls of our history, just as Gordon and Grant stare into the souls of Goodes and critics like McGuire and Bolt?
In a recent op-ed piece for the ABC, Stan Grant discussed the universal message at the heart of THE AUSTRALIAN DREAM. He writes:
"Being in America reminds me of what a great American, Martin Luther King Jnr, once said: ‘The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ It bends. In a foreign country among strangers, a Wiradjuri man from Australia and a white American audience bent a little closer to each other."
THE AUSTRALIAN DREAM and THE FINAL QUARTER inspire us, implicitly and explicitly, to interrogate the systems that incentivise our compliance with casual racism in Australian society. Maybe the collective weight of two zeitgeist capturing documentaries and imperfect allies can help to accelerate that bend.
Blake Howard is a freelance Film Critic & Producer of Movie Podcasts THE TAKE on Flicks.com.au, ONE HEAT MINUTE, JOSIE AND THE PODCATS & INCREMENT VICE.