Australian Rules

Initially, Australian Rules (Paul Goldman, 2002) reads like self-conscious parochialism on visual and verbal planes both. Establishing shots are standard rural fare: a lonely shed foregrounded against bright blue sky and red earth; a ‘neighbourhood’ consisting of one house and one caravan on the beach; and the quintessential main road that runs through town, seemingly abandoned save for the infrequent presence of a vehicle passing through.

The script makes much of ‘ocker’ and Aboriginal dialects, uniquely Australian verbal usages that in the past have served to prepare us for films where the social setting is proudly different from the airs and graces of ‘mother country’ England. ‘Arks’ (Kevin Harrington), the local football coach, is so named for his repeated mutterings (“If I arks you once, I arks you a thousand times…”), and a player’s new Nikes are “Deadly, unna?,” the title of the novel upon which the film is based.

Ostensibly, the story explores the fortunes of a desert town’s Australian Rules football club, and to this end the subtext demonstrates just how the mateship of footy crosses cultural and racial boundaries. But the film develops into something more akin to the subtlety of its title pun where the rules and conventions surrounding football reflect the rules of being Australian. Those rules, it is suggested, involve a stoic posture in the face of perceived injustices. Australian Rules then is not just another film that promotes Australia as a quirky variation on a British theme like Road to Nhill (Sue Brooks, 1997), Love Serenade (Shirley Barrett, 1996) or Mullet (David Caesar, 2001). Rather, it actively explores the difficulty that our filmic vernacular faces in attempting to depict non-white Australia. Ultimately, Australian Rules asks how we can ‘represent’ the liberal humanist subject of national identity alongside the truth of Australia’s (post-)colonial history without stripping blackfellas of agency.

The sparseness of Aboriginal presence in the cinema of general releases leaves few options when depicting white-black relations. Two popular models exist, one being the portrayal of the virtuous victim as in The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (Fred Schepisi, 1978). The alternative is to ‘represent’ a separate culture that borders on Utopian multiculturalism – Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), for example. These films are from the 1970s, though, and we can presume these attitudes have changed in the course of 30 years. Certainly in the case of Stephen Johnson’s Yolngu Boy (2000), Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ has all but disappeared. Instead, we are presented with three boys whose journey together is one last attempt at altering that which seems inevitable. Their identity as Aboriginal boys forms only part of the overall representation. But the idea of cultural naivety persists even here, since youthful rebellion in the form of smoking and drinking is seen to prefigure one boy’s ultimate destruction. By contrast, in other Australian movies like Puberty Blues (Bruce Beresford, 1981), Metal Skin (Geoffrey Wright, 1994) and Love and Other Catastrophes (Emma-Kate Croghan, 1996), the rebellious behaviour of teenagers that includes drinking and smoking is portrayed as merely a rite of passage.

Australian Rules

The contentious issue of ‘representation’ within the vernaculars of (post-)colonial discourse ensures that no one film, as representation, can be universal. The term ‘representation’ itself has been the stuff of academic debate at least since Ferdinand de Saussure’s rendering of the structural linguistic model which demonstrates how the structure of language mirrors the structure of thinking, a rendering that has impelled responses from Husserl and Heidegger to Virilio and the ubiquitous Deleuze and Guattari. What is the fuss about? The easiest way to explain is by drawing an analogy with the theorisation of visual arts in the 20th century.

Since the beginning of the Renaissance, ‘great art’ has been theorised as typified by a resolution between the three broad categories of form, function and content. When resolution has been achieved, we are presented with a mirror to the world, usually in the form of a portrait or landscape painting. Such is the doctrine of realism where a single world populated by a single set of unchanging, familiar objects can be depicted and recognised across all time.

Modern art theory has evolved from this query about realism or ‘the real,’ and (to put it simply) understands the art of the Renaissance as an art concerned with representing the world as utopia, an idealised place where light, colour and the ordering of painting’s other structural elements fall neatly within the parameters of mathematical purity. The central problem underlying the concept of representational art as it pertains to the ‘universal’ is the so-called resonance between ‘nature’ and ‘culture.’ For if one does not experience the meeting between the two as particularly harmonious or resonant, then how can one describe that depiction as representational? Moreover, if one does not envisage the two as opposites requiring reconciliation, then how can one comprehend this as the acme of art culture?

Nowadays, ‘representation’ is used to describe an expressive style that remains oblivious to the means of its own construction. It no longer implies that the artist has reached the pinnacle of his or her craft. Rather, the reader or viewer is given to understand that this is how the creator of the work interprets his/her environment. In the same manner as abstraction or collage, where another set of principles other than those which appear upon the surface of the work are alluded to, representation is understood as a device.

The question of whether or not art depicts reality is crucial to the ongoing discussion because if visual arts do not necessarily represent reality, then why should it be of concern how that ‘non-reality’ is depicted? The intersection between two definitions of representation can elucidate this problem.

Under the rubric of philosophical discourse, the definition of representation provides a theoretical point of departure for a number of schools. From the phenomenologist reconfiguration of representation as ‘re-presentation’ (or the re-presenting of an object to the world in a medium other than that in which it would be ‘naturally’ encountered) to the contemporary predicament of hyper-reality that Baudrillard describes, representation is no longer understood as the acme of style. That is, the historical conflation between representation and realism has shifted; ‘realism’ is understood to be representative in its time. Thus film as a medium enters the discourse of representation at a time when the always-already notion of the fixed and knowable universe has dissipated. Particularly salient here is Jacques Derrida’s article ‘On Representation’ where the linguistic distinctions between the term as a form of depiction and the term as denotative of political agency are explored. Within the tradition of democracy, the two meanings are conceptually equal and thus, considering the shift in our understanding of representation in the aesthetic sense, it makes sense that the latter meaning is a site of contention within the sphere of politics. That is, the issues surrounding how disenfranchised groups are ‘represented’ within our parliamentary system are not divorced from how those groups have been and are portrayed within visual cultures.

Democracy as a concept is based on representation. That is, in cities or countries where more than ten people live, it is thought that the best way to run a functional society is to apportion tasks so that everyone contributes their field of expertise to the smooth running of society overall. Thus the roadmaker makes roads useful to everyone, the artist makes work that represents the universal experience, the doctor prescribes treatments applicable to the whole society. The role of the politician (and you can be forgiven for having forgotten this in recent times) is to administer these functions and to make decisions on behalf of the whole. In order for politicians to make decisions that serve everyone best, it is desirable that they represent all interest groups in society, ensuring that the interests of one group does not predominate to the detriment of others. Hence we must have men and women representatives, black and white representatives, rich and poor representatives, queer and straight. Since the part is being asked to stand for the whole, the more parts there are the better since there is no universal queer/straight, male/female or black/white person.

Even within this simplistic diagram of the democratic process and how political representation works, it is clear that equal representations have been largely absent. Women did not have the vote in most countries until the beginning of the 20th century; indigenous populations waited, on average, another 60 years for the franchise. Given this context, the representation of one blackfella does come to stand for the whole and this representation becomes encoded within (visual) culture as a stereotype. If the reader thinks this unproblematic, especially in regard to films like Walkabout or Yolngu Boy, imagine a world in which Romper Stomper (Geoffrey Wright, 1992) was one of the few depictions of white Australians alongside The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1997). Though not necessarily inaccurate per se, they are limited depictions nonetheless.

Australian Rules approaches the issue of representation by operating from a first person perspective – the narrator is a whitey named Gary Black or Blacky (Nathan Phillips) – which operates as a third-person narrative for the Aboriginal community. Blacky belongs to the football club, as does his best friend Dumby (Luke Carroll), the team’s star player. From Blacky’s perspective, many things that happen as the film progresses are not fair – his father’s violence, the way Dumby’s brother interferes in their footy practice – even upon the supposedly level ground of the footy field. In this way, the community is represented, but not from a position of interiority or knowing. Rather, the representation serves to remind white Australians that they cannot ‘know’ what it is to be Aboriginal.

Australian Rules

Dumby’s home, for example, is never visited by Blacky who only sees it from afar. And Blacky’s meetings with Dumby’s sister Clarence (Lisa Flanagan) occur only on the ‘neutral territory’ of an after-match function, or when Clarence visits him at home. Blacky’s knowledge of Clarence, then, cannot be absolute and this example can be extended to the whole Aboriginal community which outside Blacky’s perspective exists in itself as a society he is not part of. When Dumby’s elder brother Pretty (Tony Briggs) pulls Dumby away from a practice game, proclaiming that whiteys share in Aboriginal talent to win games but don’t extend this to sharing society, we are privy only to Blacky’s frustration at the game being abandoned. Pretty drives off into the distance, Clarence and Dumby with him, and we do not see them again until the next game. Thus the realist mode adopted for the telling of this tale matches one ‘message’ of the tale by indicating that this is not reality only an approximation of it. Similarly, if representation is the basis of the nation-state, the negation of such must lead us to presume we live only in an approximation of democracy, the framework for which, like ‘realism,’ shifts with time.

Unfortunately, it seems that Pretty’s observations prove correct when Dumby is not named the Player of the Year, an award he thoroughly deserves. At this moment, we are reminded of what the film’s title really means: to play according to ‘Australian rules’ is to accept this slight gracefully, without complaining, because deep down everyone knows that Dumby is the real winner. Within a system that idealises representation, though, this is asking too much. The winner of the award will be noted on an honours board, which serves as a record that exists beyond the moment of his/her ceremony – he or she is historically represented. We cannot at once promote the liberal humanist subject as one that gains political agency through representation, whilst denying some subjects this form of historical representation.

Colour is also an issue in the boys’ friendship – within the context of this town, football can be their only common reference – yet in conversation with Blacky Dumby jokes about ‘respectful’ depictions of Aboriginal culture (like Walkabout) that perpetuate white myths about the Dreamtime. This means that he trusts Blacky enough to understand his sarcasm, suggesting that within the bounds of their friendship Dumby and Blacky both experience an agency that they do not experience at home or in the game. The fact that Dumby can joke about whitey representations of Aboriginality indicates the film’s era, implying an awareness of the history of such representations, in addition to a nuanced understanding of what cultural agency means, an understanding barely possible when one is still debating the right to vote. Jokes of this kind also emphasise the problematic relationship between ‘representation’ and ‘reality.’ For, if one is at first ‘represented’ by absence, and then by a negative or incomplete presence, how can one be wholly represented, let alone serve in turn as representative of a larger whole? Yet it seems that the film is telling us that there are pockets of human relationship where enfranchisement is possible, via the realist technique of presenting these pockets (or slices of life) in extensive detail, pockets that contrast with the wider social backdrop.

Attempts to redress the imbalances of representation are bound to be fraught. Identity politics is fragile ground, not least because attempts to universalise representation have been found lacking. To conclude this article without making reference to how that fragility was exposed in the controversy surrounding this film upon its opening at the Adelaide Festival would be contrary not only to what I’ve just written but to what I believe generally.

Where once urgency in the politics of representation surrounded the issue of being represented at all, it now revolves around how representation can work against agency instead of for it. That is, it’s not just about getting the vote, it’s about how well that vote can represent the needs of a community. In this respect, Australian Rules has become part of the broader cultural dialogue about representation in the visual arts: detractors of the film have stated that its story has been stolen from an Aboriginal community. This community lost two members in a shooting, as in the film, and felt that ‘sorry business’ (a time of grieving) had not been respected in the depiction of their experience.

Their disdain became politicised by David Wilson, a leading voice in the Adelaide Aboriginal community, who added that by virtue of this fact and the fact that it was racist and sexist, Australian Rules should not be screened. Since the ability to own stories and their telling is to occupy a position of agency within narrative historical culture, this would appear to be the final word on the matter. However, the film is a semi-autobiographical tale based on Phillip Gwynne’s own experiences (hence the white narrator and the third-person point of view in regard to the Aboriginal settlement) and two of its actors, Lisa Flanagan and Kelton Pell, both Aboriginal, felt that it was the right of the author and the filmmaker to tell the story. Overall, however, Paul Goldman conceded that he did not consult enough with the community that saw itself as represented within the film. This brings us back neatly to the original premise of both this film and the liberal humanist thrust of democracy; there is no such thing as a singular voice that may represent the needs and hopes of all. It also highlights the fact that there are no ‘authors’ (authoritative voices) or definitive versions of events; as Roland Barthes would have it, we are all just writers, pasting ourselves together with fragments of everyone else’s stories.

Australian Rules is by no means my favourite movie but as a step towards modifying a filmic vernacular dependent on the quirky whiteness of Australia, it is an important contribution towards a visual realisation of the recognition of the need for Aboriginal agency. The controversy surrounding the film only emphasises the need for more filmmakers overall, and Aboriginal filmmakers specifically, to make films, regardless of theme. This can be one way of developing a cinematic language that does not presume the universality of the white viewing subject.

Main References

Barthes, Roland, Image, Music, Text (England: Fontana Books, 1984)

Derrida, Jacques, ‘Sending: On Representation,’ in Fuery, P. (ed.) Representation, Discourse and Desire (Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1994)

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, ‘Cezanne’s Doubt,’ in Johnston, G. (ed.) The Merleau Ponty Aesthetics Reader (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1994)