I remember the first documentary I saw in a movie theatre. I was fourteen years old and my father took me to a screening of Lousy Little Sixpence (Alec Morgan and Gerald Bostock, 1983). I knew about the stolen generations policy through its impact on my own family but I had never seen Aboriginal people on a cinema screen telling their stories in their own words. There was both power in the telling of the lived experience and a subversive about it. While my brother and I knew this part of Australian history, in this period after the end of the formal removal policy and before the Bringing Them Home Report and a National Apology, no other student at our high school seemed to. The voices in Lousy Little Sixpence challenged that ignorance but also validated the lived experience of members of our family.
Documentary’s ability to provide a platform for marginalised voices to be heard and for lived experience to be seen makes it both a potent tool for de-colonisation and for the assertion of self-determination and the exercise of sovereignty. That my father took me to see a film like Lousy Little Sixpence – and to rallies for land rights and against nuclear armament on what seemed like almost every weekend – made it no surprise that I wanted to be a lawyer and change the world from a very young age. After completing my law degree, I worked at Legal Aid in the family law, surrounded by talented lawyers whose passion for justice saw them carry large caseloads for much less pay than the private sector. But I soon realised that processing maintenance claims through the local court was not how I envisaged changing the world would look. So, I started combining legal practice with an academic role (researching, teaching and writing) where the focus could also be on law reform.
The Mabo case came down during my last year of law school profoundly changing a legal landscape that until then embraced the legal fiction of terra nullius. But the backlash and fearmongering by anti-Aboriginal interests that followed the decision was a strong reminder to me that law does not occur in a vacuum. It is a product of society and true law reform is often only possible with a changing of the views of the broader electorate. This was also brought in to sharp relief for me when the Bringing them Home Report was released in 1997 making it no longer possible for Australians to say they did not know about the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families. What was most compelling about the report was its inclusion of testimonial evidence of the experiences of children who were removed and the families who lost them. It was in their stories that the real cruelty and tragedy of the impact of the policy was most keenly heard and felt.
There is something dangerous about Aboriginal storytelling. What can elicit empathy and sympathy in some can induce fear and rejection in others. What can break open the national narrative for one person may be seen as a societal danger to another. This was evidence in the response to the report from some quarters, including the Howard government, who sought to discredit the report by semantics (its use of the term “cultural genocide”) and by dodgy statistics (“it was only one in ten who were taken away”). There was also an attempt to push the whole issue back out of the dominant narrative (“we shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about the past”).
The public debates that followed – “black armband” versus “white blindfold” – were not debates about Aboriginal history. The lived experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders was not altered by the debates between historians and newspaper columnists. Their debate concerned the extent to which the dominant Australian narrative was prepared to acknowledge that lived history. How should Australians describe their process of colonisation and their relationship with Aboriginal people. The telling of Aboriginal lived experience is an act of subversion and an act of assertion. At the time, my reaction to the push back against the stories of the stolen generation and to the meanness of spirit that refused to apologise was to write my own grandmother’s story in my novel Home (UQP, 2004).
I started to appreciate this link between law reform or societal change and storytelling. One more evolution was to come to illuminate for me the deeply transformative power of personal narrative. And that happened when Aunty Elaine Walker, a Gumbayanggirr Elder, came in to my life. Between a period of several months over the summer of 1990 and 1991, three Aboriginal children – Colleen Walker (16), Evelyn Greenup (4) and Clinton Speedy-Duroux (16) – were murdered on the Aboriginal reserve near the town of Bowraville in New South Wales. When the children went missing, their parents knew that something was wrong but when they took their complaints to the police they were not taken seriously. Only when Clinton’s body was found a few weeks after his disappearance did police start to investigate but instead of sending in homicide detectives, they sent in investigators who had child welfare experience.
Mistakes were made at this time that made the conviction of the perpetrator elusive. The families have continually fought to have the case brought back into court for a trial with all of the evidence. I’d always been aware of this case. The murders occurred while I was in law school and they symbolised the very deep failings of our criminal justice system that was locking up Aboriginal men and women at such disproportionate rates for offences such as being drunk in public and swearing, that a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody had been undertaken. Yet a white man who murdered three Aboriginal children could walk around free.
Aunty Elaine approached me, it had already been a twenty-year struggle for the families. I was on Gumbayanggirr country for work and she approached me said she needed to talk to me next time I was there, and in the way that only the spirits can explain, it turned out I needed to be back in the area in a few weeks. She invited me in to the community and arranged a small meeting with family members that I attended with two of my colleagues, Craig Longman and Jason de Santolo. At this meeting, the family members spoke about how their case had stalled. The Department of Public Prosecutions had advised the NSW Attorney General that the cases shouldn’t be sent back to court. How could they break this impasse? They asked what ideas we have for how to get it started but, during our discussions, one of the best answers came from them. They had noticed that the only time there had been movement in their case was on the two occasions on which the mainstream media had done stories about them.
And so, we decided to make a documentary. I had begun using film in my research work as a way of recording interviews that could become an asset, an oral history for the community. My colleague, Jason, had undertaken an online multimedia project that highlighted giving voice to marginalised people in the Northern Territory about their experiences under the Intervention and was looking at other ways in which to explore the links between film, voice and advocacy. But this project was of a new scale. I took the craft of filmmaking seriously, enrolled in AFTRS to gain both a Graduate Diploma in Screenwriting and a Graduate Diploma in Documentary Directing; Pauline Clague became a mentor. Her thoughts on Indigenous story structure in visual storytelling was instrumental in ensuring that the land is a central part or character of the story.
Part of our thinking in making Innocence Betrayed (Frontyard Films, 2014) was that the legal arguments about why the case couldn’t go forward that were being asserted by the DPP had taken the real heart out of these cases – this was not a case that should be defined by legal arguments. This was about getting justice for three sets of parents who had their children murdered and about putting a child serial killer behind bars. Documentary was a way in which we could emphasise that important concept by putting the story into the words of the parents. And no lawyer could argue the rightness of this case as powerfully as they could. It was also apparent that there was a view amongst the officials that, after twenty years, these parents should just get over it and get on with it. I often wondered when I saw that attitude expressed whether those people would have the same view if these had been white parents who were grieving white children.
When Colleen, Evelyn and Clinton’s families spoke of them, you could tell that they lived with their presence every day. They were never going to let the case go. We also researched other avenues to pursue. One was a parliamentary inquiry and, while there had never been one into a case like Bowraville, the families decided to lobby for and got one. One of the first things that the parliamentary committee undertaking the inquiry did, was to watch Innocence Betrayed, this allowed the story of the children and the families to be front and centre. We were able to use the interviews done as part of the documentary as the basis of the written applications to the parliamentary inquiry which allowed us to put the perspectives of the families forward – in their own words – without having to re‑traumatise them with telling the parts of the story that still cause them great grief. The documentary is also being used by the NSW Police now as a training resource on what not to do when investigating a murder case in an Aboriginal community.
When the parliamentary inquiry delivered its findings, every member of that committee spoke with passion about the need to get justice in this case and what was striking was how each said something like, “As a parent, I could not imagine how I would feel if this had have happened to my child …” or “I put myself in their shoes …” What these comments revealed was that the parliamentarians saw their commonality as parents; they didn’t see this as an “Aboriginal matter”. They saw the humanity – the personal story. And once they could do that – once they could put themselves in the shoes of the parents – there was political will do finally do something. Understanding story in Innocence Betrayed helped make us stronger storytellers and better lawyers. Our team, led by Craig, wrote a new application to the Attorney General on behalf of the NSW Police. Two had been made previously and rejected so we had to think of what we could do differently. We decided to not start with the legal argument but to start with the story, to talk about the impact on the families and the communities, about the need to put a serial killer behind bars. And then we moved on to the legal arguments. The application was successful and now the case is winding its way through a lengthy legal process.
Many people wanted to make a documentary about the Bowraville case at the time we did it – and several have since we made ours. But an important protocol about our work on this issue was that we didn’t get involved in the case, even though we felt strongly about it, until we were asked. Along the way, we gave suggestions to the Bowraville families about their options or how to achieve what they wanted but we never made decisions for them. We did not speak for them but found ways to have their voice elevated. This is an important shift for lawyers where you advocate on someone else’s behalf because they can’t speak for themselves. Instead it understands the importance of creating the environment and space to support that voice to speak and to be heard. This is the self‑determining role that storytelling can play – it takes our voices from the margins and puts them in the centre. And that has become an important guiding part of our process.
After the Apology (Pursekey Productions, 2017) came about as my team at Jumbunna was dealing with an increased rate of child removals. The trend was not surprising since it corresponded with a national trend that had seen the rates of Aboriginal child removal increase every year since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered the National Apology in 2007. Media commentary on the issue is often ignorant of the complexities of the issues and the underlying causes and delves too easily into negative stereotypes about Aboriginal culture and parental attitudes. In the course of our work we came across several grandmothers who were fighting child protection departments whose stories spoke to all of the reasons that explained the deep problems with the judgements being made by child protection workers and the fundamental failures to apply the department’s own policy. Collectively, their stories told a powerful message of systemic injustice but also an inspiring story of taking on the system and through strength and determination, winning.
After the Apology includes four stories told by Aboriginal women from across Australia about their fights to reclaim children or grandchildren from the child protection system that echo the other key stories woven through the film. These were told in rotoscope animation for a number of reasons. The use of this technique was inspired by the animated short film, Last Day of Freedom (2015), that told the story of an African American whose brother has committed a crime. The black and white nature of the animation means that there is no skin colour but the voice and characteristics are distinct. It is also a technique that amplifies the voice, drawing the audience into the narration. In this way, it uses a self‑determination framework to clearly position and privilege the voice of the person who has been marginalised. This has a particular power in relation to the issue of child protection where legislation often has strict rules around reporting where there have been child protection orders in place. This means there is an additional barrier for people seeking to tell their stories of injustice in the system. Using animation, which is a way of giving actual voice but also masking identity, is a way of re‑empowering a voice that would otherwise be kept silent.
Telling these stories through After the Apology was not just a way of shining a light on what changes need to be made within the system, their stories spoke to the lived experience of other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families. A self‑determining approach in this topic was also important because the real solutions are not so much to reform child protection departments but to shift responsibility for child protection to the community‑controlled sector and to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities to play a key role in child protection. Another important choice to support the thesis that the Aboriginal community is best placed to find solutions to the increased rates of child removal was to only use Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experts in the film.
Through working with the Bowraville families and their community, this reflection supported a framework for self‑determination, an approach that I found useful in approaching After the Apology. A question often asked of filmmakers is what brought us to be interested in a particular story. What is our interest in our subject matter? But the deeper, more important question to answer in a self‑determination framework is how is the film building the capacity of the subjects and their community? How do you shift them from “subject” to “agent”? This involves asking questions such as:
Whose story is it?
Who has the real authority to speak?
Who has the power / is powerless?
Who needs to be empowered to speak?
How can we help them tell their stories?
From there, a story and perspective can be shaped that not only digs into a subject but moves voices from the margins to centre stage. What came through in Innocence Betrayed was that even though the families of the murdered children had been through an unspeakably awful experience, they were still proactive, strategic and determined. They were agents in working towards justice as much as they were victims of injustice. Acknowledging agency and resilience is an important way to ensure that a person’s story is not condensed to one of only being a victim. Similarly, in After the Apology, what was clear was the tenacity of parents and grandparents to wrest their children back from child protection departments. What was also clear was that community-driven approaches had the most effective solutions.
Directing film allows for authorial voice. As Aboriginal researchers, we do not assume to be objective. We know there is no such thing. If we thought our position in the world could be passive we wouldn’t introduce ourselves by our nations, our clans, our kinship networks. We place ourselves in the world as an act of sovereignty and it reinforces our worldview. Colonial stories that wrote out the experiences of Aboriginal people or told their stories from a colonial perspective were a powerful tool in the colonising process. Countering these narratives is an important part of the decolonising process. Having Indigenous voices tell of lived experience is also an important way of asserting sovereignty. Reasserting our stories on our land is a way of reasserting our ownership. In this way, visual storytelling also plays a key role in our resilience as the world’s oldest living culture, our assertion of sovereignty and in the countering of the colonial narratives, the colonial stories, that have spread across our lands.
Larissa Behrendt (Eualeyai/ Kammilaroi) is an academic, lawyer, novelist, filmmaker and presenter of Speaking Out, ABC Radio.