A reflection: Films that break the ‘conspiracy of silence’.

Our friends at A Progressive Christian Voice have recently posted the following commentary:

BEYOND ‘LION’ TO FILMS BREAKING THE “CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE”

by Ray Barraclough

Recently in cinemas around Australia tears were shed in response to the dramatised film Lion depicting the perilous journey of a young Indian boy losing touch with his natural Indian family. But there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of such stories in our own land.

And the children involved did not become lost but were actually forcibly removed from the arms of their families. The Royal Commission, which heard numerous testimonies from what was termed ‘the stolen generation‘, produced its report entitled Bringing Them Home [1997]. It contained dramatic accounts that could be the basis for not just one but many films depicting this Australian phenomenon.

The film Rabbit Proof Fence [2002] took viewers into this sad landscape. But there are many more such stories that Australians need to see on their cinema and television screens.

Bernard Lewis observed that:

History is the collective memory and if we think of the social body in term of the human body, no history means amnesia, distorted history means neurosis. [1]

Suppressed history and neurotic memory – both flow from what has been called ‘the conspiracy of silence’ in nationalistic Australian history. Timothy Bottoms, in his book entitled Conspiracy of Silence, documents what he terms ‘Queensland’s frontier killing times’. [2] But Queensland is not alone in this. No Australian state is devoid of such testimonies, such killings.

It is a challenge to the Australian film industry that that silence be broken. Brief and fleeting utterances have been given of the bigotry and violence that became cloaked in that Australian silence. Thomas Kenneally’s novel, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (made subsequently into a film) attempted to give insights into the life of Jimmy Governor and the ripples of violence that still affect this country’s memory.

Every year on 25 April we are saturated with Anzac memorabilia, leavened with religious salvific terms such as ‘blood sacrifice’ and martyr-like language of men shedding their blood for the Empire and their country.

Admittedly the numbers who died at Gallipoli vastly outnumber those who died at Myall Creek and Coniston. But what of indigenous people – women, men and children – whose blood was shed for defending their own land? Can not a drop of Anzac memorial water be spared for them?

What Australian town, shire, or city, pauses even for a moment on the 10th of June or over the days beginning on the 15th August, to remember and reflect upon the massacre of Indigenous people that occurred respectively at Myall Creek (10 June, 1838) and at Coniston (from 15 August, 1928).

And there are records in white history that document these events. The two trials over the Myall Creek massacre [3] and the records of a Board of Enquiry [4] into the Coniston massacre, would provide ample material for a full length film script to reduce the enveloping silence.

Even an arch-conservative figure such as Tony Abbott can refer to the treatment over history of the Indigenous people of this land as ‘the stain on our [Australian] soul’. [5]

Fortunately in Australia there are film-makers prepared to make films that will break the Australian ‘conspiracy of public silence’ about at least two of the numerous massacres thRay Barracloughat occurred throughout the length and breadth of this country? Notable is the 2012 production of Coniston by Rebel Films, directed by Francis Jupurrurla Kelly and David Batty. [6]

If our nation cannot bring itself to publicly remember Myall Creek and Coniston, perhaps commercial films depicting these events can break the amnesia and neurosis of our country’s limited memory.

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1. Bernard Lewis, Notes on A Century – reflections of a Middle East historian, Penguin, New York 2013, p.5.

2. Timothy Bottoms, Conspiracy of Silence – Queensland’s frontier killing times, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2013

3. For an account of the massacre and subsequent trials note Mark Tedeschi, Murder at Myall Creek – The trial that defined a nation, Simon & Schuster, Cammeray, 2016

4. Police Magistrate A. H. O’Kelly presided over The Board of Enquiry which was established on 27 November, 1928. One Board member was J.C. J. C. Cawood, Government Resident in Central Australia, and Murray’s immediate superior. Cawood revealed his own disposition in a letter to his departmental secretary shortly after the massacre: “…trouble has been brewing for some time, and the safety of the white man could only be assured by drastic action on the part of the authorities … I am firmly of the opinion that the result of the recent action by the police will have the right effect upon the natives.” Cawood to Secretary Home & Territories Dept 25 October, 1928. NAA A431 1950/2768 Part I.

5. Speaking in Federal parliament on 27 May, 2013, Tony abbott said: We have never fully made peace with the first Australians. This is the stain on our soul.

6.The documentary film entitled Coniston was awarded the best Docudrama award by the Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM) on 21 November, 2012. It was screened on ABC TV on 14 January, 2013.

oOo

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