'The Australian Dream': Film Review | Telluride 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
A sobering but emotional reminder of unresolved history.

Indigenous football legend Adam Goodes' experience of some of the most shocking racism in modern Australian sports yields a probing examination of the blinkered white national conscience and its capacity to change.

Few contemporary national sports heroes have endured the abusive treatment heaped on Adam Goodes, the Aboriginal Aussie Rules star who landed at the center of an angry social media storm, fueled by conservative media, when he ordered security to remove a 13-year-old girl from the stands after she loudly called him an ape during the Australian Football League's 2013 annual Indigenous Round game. When he was named Australian of the Year 12 months later for his anti-racism advocacy, his forthright views on the need to take responsibility as a nation freshened the controversy, contributing to a sustained booing campaign on the field from spectators that led to his premature retirement from the AFL in 2015.

Daniel Gordon's cogent documentary, The Australian Dream, written and to some extent fronted by prominent Indigenous Australian journalist Stan Grant, is a polemical examination of the casual racism embedded in the psyche of a country falsely declared Terra Nullius, or "nobody's land" by English settlers — in flagrant denial of the humanity of its original inhabitants. And yet one of the most welcome surprises of this articulate, even-handed film is its openness toward mutual understanding, a path to which both Goodes and Grant have made significant contributions.

Goodes' experience is specifically Australian, and many of the public figures featured — TV personality and AFL manager Eddie McGuire, right-wing social and political commentator Andrew Bolt and even hockey player Nova Peris, the first Indigenous Australian to win Olympic gold — will be unknown to international audiences. But The Australian Dream is both timely and universal in its reflection on racist attitudes too often considered innocuous by those not on the receiving end, and in its depiction of shameful disregard for the dignity of First Nation populations. With a current White House administration so fixated on restricting who gets access to the American Dream, the film has no lack of relevance. 

Gordon's is the second nonfiction feature focused on Goodes' ordeal this year, following Ian Darling's archival footage assembly, The Final Quarter. The new film has the advantage of hindsight perspective from Goodes himself, among others, as well as aiming for broader contextual scope. After winning the audience award in its Melbourne Film Festival premiere, it makes its back-to-back North American bow in Telluride and Toronto.

If the inclusion of both Goodes and Grant as quasi-narrators creates some uncertainty of focus in the early sections, the strategy makes sense in the closing stretch, after we see snippets of Grant's stirring 2015 speech about how the treatment of Goodes resonated for all Indigenous Australians. "I can tell you what we heard when we heard those boos," he said. "We heard a sound that was very familiar to us. We heard a howl. We heard a howl of humiliation that echoes across two centuries of dispossession, injustice, suffering and survival. We heard the howl of the Australian dream and it said to us again, you're not welcome."

The speech went viral and effectively turned the tide on the footy-field persecution of Goodes, spawning a belated "I Stand With Adam" support campaign. By that time, however, Goodes' glorious past in the game that had helped forge his identity, giving him a sense of belonging, had been soured. While he returned briefly after a meditative retreat to his ancestral homeland to play a few more times, he knew it was over for him. That outcome provides a double-edged conclusion, instilling cautious optimism that white Australia is ready for a reckoning on its history of racism, but also underlining with poignancy the tremendous psychological toll the experience had on the man at its center.

Gordon opens with an expressive visual transition from a vast desert landscape to a football stadium, its iridescent green field glowing under the night lights. That connection for Australians between the land and sport is echoed in commentary, including a mention of marngrook, a ball game played by Indigenous Australians for hundreds of years that some historians have linked to the origins of Aussie Rules. The point also is made early on that what happens in sports often tends to reflect conversations occurring elsewhere in Australia, in society and politics.

But the film's emotional immediacy comes primarily from its personal focus on Goodes, who emerges as a modest, thoughtful man walking a careful line between calling out injustices visited upon Australia's original peoples and extending an open hand toward reconciliation. Even his definition of the annual Australia Day holiday, celebrating the 1788 arrival of the British First Fleet, as "a day of sorrow and hurt" for the land's original owners is related in the nuanced tones of an honest observer, not an indignant victim. And yet, as Grant points out, a black man who complains tends to be viewed unfavorably: "People don't like the angry Aborigine."

Gordon and editor Matt Wyllie do a nice job of recapping Goodes' upbringing, raised with his two brothers by his full-blood Indigenous mother, who separated from their white Anglo father when Adam was young. He transitioned from soccer into AFL and was drafted as a 17-year-old high-schooler in 1997. After an initially tough entrée into the Sydney Swans ranks, he found a nurturing mentor when new coach Paul Roos, one of many illuminating talking heads, took over midway through his first season. Goodes rose to stardom, twice winning the prestigious Brownlow Medal for "best and fairest" player of the AFL season. Footage of the first time he received that honor in 2003, and of his mother's visible pride, is quite moving.

The movie also documents how Goodes went from only the most rudimentary awareness of his tribal ancestry to become more connected to his Indigenous roots after pursuing a Diploma in Aboriginal Studies — the growth of his identity coinciding with him becoming an elder in footy culture. The discovery (partly through his episode on TV genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are?) of his mother's past as one of the Stolen Generation yields more affecting moments. Insights into that decades-long campaign to assimilate Indigenous Australian children into white society and thus eradicate their traditional culture and languages will be familiar to domestic audiences but nonetheless are indispensable here in framing Goodes' cultural formation.

There are powerful testimonials from Indigenous AFL players who preceded Goodes, notably Nicky Winmar, who responded to racial vilification during the 1993 season with the instantly famous gesture of lifting his guernsey and pointing to his skin with pride. Goodes re-created that image years later, but it was his celebration of a goal, during the booing saga, with an Indigenous war dance that included miming a spear toss that sparked renewed outrage from conservatives.

It now seems irrefutable that hostility toward Goodes was racially motivated and the movie is unequivocal in its position, though Grant and Gordon allow plenty of space for some of the more vocal offenders to show their true colors.

Bilious AFL commentator-turned-TV personality Sam Newman is particularly noxious in his insistence that spectator abuse was directed at Goodes not because of his race, but because he was being "a jerk." McGuire ties himself in knots to appear on the right side of the controversy — his attempts to justify an ill-considered "King Kong" crack on radio as "a slip of the tongue" due to being overworked and stressed are clumsy and laughable.

It's admirable in theory that the filmmakers give Bolt such an ample window to double down on his condemnation of Goodes' actions, but there's such a thing as being too fair-minded. Bolt's sanctimonious observations — he calls the football fans' booing their "contribution to the debate" — feed the biased view that Goodes was both arrogant and thin-skinned in the face of supposedly harmless "tall poppy syndrome" criticism. The pervasive presence and irksome volume of Bolt alone risks giving a distorted view of the Australian media as a bastion of arch conservative commentary.

The film gets a little windy in the closing stretch chronicling Goodes' disconsolate exit from the AFL, with a few too many prosaic shots of him staring out at the Bondi Beach surf in burdened contemplation. But there are rewarding insights in comments from Grant, and from athletes like Peris, Gilbert McAdam and Michael O'Loughlin, the latter a relation of Goodes, that fortify the perspective, alongside the words of the man himself. The Australian Dream ultimately achieves its aims in exploring the country's problematic racial history while tentatively signaling the way forward.

Production companies: Passion Pictures, GoodThing Productions
Director: Daniel Gordon
Writer: Stan Grant
Producers: Sarah Thompson, Nick Batzias, Virginia Whitwell, John Battsek
Executive producers: Paul Wiegard, Andrew Ruhemann, Joel Kennedy, Tommy Gordon, Julian Bird, Ben Simmons
Directors of photography: Dylan River, Michael Timney
Music: Cornel Wilczek, Pascal Babare, Thomas E. Rouch
Editor: Matt Wyllie
Sales: Lorton Entertainment
Venue: Telluride Film Festival

106 minutes