Land in Outback Noir Films: Trope of Spatial Alienation of Aboriginal People in Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road (2013) and Goldstone (2016)
“You are the New Australians, but we are the Old Australians. We have in our arteries the blood of the Original Australians, who have lived in this land for many thousands of years. You came here only recently, and you took our land away from us by force.” (Patten and Ferguson 3)
The land has always been integral to Australian cultural imaginary and artistic productions. Geospatial references in literary and cinematic texts connote the negotiations between different sections of Australian society, particularly the conflicts and contradictions between the white and Aboriginal inhabitants of the land. The representation of Aboriginal people’s connection with the land and the alienation they endured since colonial times has achieved new dimensions with the emergence of Outback Noir films. The present paper discusses how films like Mystery Road (Ivan Sen, 2013) and Goldstone (Ivan Sen, 2016) use the arid, eerie Australian outback to discuss the lives of indigenous people in contemporary times. It unearths the ecological underpinnings of urban policies and land grabbing for Aboriginal communities, which goes back to colonial times when they were denied access to their own land.
A critical reading of select films reveals the ecological overtones of colonial violence in the past and multinational, capitalistic exploitations in the present for the Aboriginal community as well as the land. The hegemonic ideology perpetrated by these institutions viewed the Indigenous community and the land as resources to be exploited. Ecological exploitations endured by the people and land are explored through select films with their peculiar treatment of the landscape of the Australian outback. It tells the story of the dispossession and displacement of Aboriginal people not only during colonial times but also in the present. Here, a brief insight into the Outback Noir genre is necessary to understand the relevance of the select films.
The genre of Australian crime thrillers in both fiction and films are known for its unique treatment of land and indigenous people’s relationship with the land. Among these, Outback Noir is of recent origin. Greg Dolgopolov defines Outback Noir as “a new wave of Australian crime films that highlight Indigenous and white relations and take a revisionist approach to traditional history” (Dolgopolov, 4). It combines elements from different genres like the Gothic, the Western, and the film noir to critique the repressed past of colonial violence and how Indigenous people were dispossessed of their ways of life and claims to land. In this genre, the distinctive landscape of Australian Outback is used as a trope as well as a character with its own agency to uncover “a rural communities’ dark, repressed secrets in order to solve a current problem” (Dolgopolov 5). The wide bird’s eye view shots of the Australian Outback represent the embedded history of colonial intrusion and the lives of Aboriginal people in that landscape in contemporary times. Outback Noir films are not the pioneers in the depiction of the Australian outback. It is influenced by the depiction of the frontier in American Westerns and Australian Westerns/‘bushranger films’. Here, the films Mystery Road and its sequel Goldstone are a watershed moment not only for the Australian crime genre but also for the representation of Aboriginal people.
The director of the select films Ivan Sen is an Aboriginal filmmaker; one of the pioneers in the ‘Black Wave’ in Australian cinema who questioned hegemonic notions about Australia as a nation and Australian national identity. The films used the landscape to reimagine and contemporise colonial violence of spatial alienation of Indigenous people. Though the films are situated in contemporary times, their depiction of Aboriginal people becomes a metaphor to deal with the “ancestral trauma” (Dolgopolov 12) of both Aboriginal and settler communities. These films are mostly set in the eerie, red, arid deserts of Western Queensland and the Winton shire region of Central Queensland. Using the outback, the films explore the trope of spatial alienation of the Aboriginal community on several levels.
Spatial Alienation of Aboriginal People
The films are primarily about investigations led by the Aboriginal detective Jay Swan. Through his investigation of murder and missing young Indigenous girls, the films explore the situation of Indigenous people in contemporary times and reveal how their woes are invariably linked with their traumatic colonial past. While Mystery Road deals with the sufferings of the Aboriginal community in the “crime-infested housing projects” (Gonzalez 350), Goldstone probes the reality behind land grabbing by multinational gold mine corporates and issues of human trafficking. The films represent the Australian Outback in two different ways. While Mystery Road is set in the urban landscape alongside the outback, the typical outback landscape is explored in Goldstone. Through images of settlement structures for Aboriginal people in the urban landscape as well as the rural outback, the films comment on the colonial project of dispossessing Indigenous people of their right to land and relegating them to the margins and reserves to ‘reform’ and ‘civilise’ them. In the films, critique of dispossession and displacement and the Aboriginal political assertion is done through its portrayal of the outback.
Here, the outback is not just a background. It is a character that “facilitates the criminal anthropology of digging up the past to help address a contemporary tragedy through the landscape” (Dolgopolov 7). It uses the landscape as a metaphor to problematise the Australian national identity and the colonial anxiety in inhabiting a ‘hostile’ land as far as the settlers/white people are concerned. However, for the Aboriginal people, it is at the centre of their identity from which they were dispossessed during the colonial encounter. Here, the place is used with a critical political purpose. The outback is used to comment on the “national identity, foundational myths, and issues in ‘imagined community’” (Gonzalez 344). Using the outback, the genre discusses the difficulties faced by ‘contemporary Others’ like racial, ethnic, and social minorities in assimilationist policies put forth by the mainstream society.
Fig. 1. Still from Sen, Mystery Road (1:55:34)
Fig. 2. Still from Sen, Mystery Road (00:10:44)
Fig. 3. Still from Sen, Mystery Road (1:55:15)
Fig. 4. Still from Sen, Goldstone (00:50:23)
Both films have numerous extensive, bird’s eye view shots of the outback which familiarise the viewer with the landscape (see fig. 1; fig. 2; fig. 3; fig. 4). It is not captured to enhance the cinematic effect nor as a locale alone. The landscape reflects the colonial past and spatial alienation of Aboriginal people in different walks of their life. The trope of ownership and dispossession plays out at different levels in the films.
Historically, the Australian outback inhabits several acres of cattle stations. In both films, the owners of the cattle stations are white people. Not just as an owner, Aboriginal people are entirely absent in these spatial structures. It connotes the colonial past of Aboriginal dispossession of land. Though they are the rightful owners, their rights are taken away from them, and they are forcefully relocated to the small, square plot of land in the suburbs with identical housing structures.
The scenes of urban settlements for Aboriginal people in both films indicate the colonial violence of forceful relocations. During the initial phases of colonisation, Aboriginal people were forcefully driven out of their land for the smooth functioning of the cattle stations run by non-Indigenous landowners. The dispossessed Aboriginal community were relocated to government-run reserves and church missions. The colonisers used the rhetoric of ‘civilise and Christianise’ Indigenous people to justify their violence towards the Indigenous communities in order to control and institutionalise them (Ross 6). The resultant Indigenous housing which refers to shelters, settlement patterns, and policies communicated Aborigines’ changed relationship with the land in the past and present. The uniform settlement patterns as portrayed in the films indicate the colonial project of homogenising the diverse Aboriginal community (see fig. 1). Through this, they were deprived of Indigenous ways of living and their connection with the land. Even though they are the rightful owners of the land, all they had was the unkempt, grimy square plots in the urban suburbs.
In both films, a few Aboriginal people are seen in the mainstream, dominant social spaces. They cannot be seen in the restaurant where Swan’s colleagues celebrate a farewell party or in the space of judiciary; in the police station where Swan works. Swan is the only Aboriginal person who straddles both worlds— the cultured and developed landscape of the white people and the poverty-ridden, crime-infested space occupied by the Indigenous people. In the police station, they appear as criminals, and in the gold mine, they appear as workers. It clearly indicates how indigenous people are alienated from all the mainstream spaces in current times, which also reflect the colonial past. The only exception is the character Tommy (Tommy Lewis) in Goldstone who holds an important position in the Land Council for Aboriginal people. Here too, rather than imbuing an Aboriginal sensibility, he perpetuates the white ideology of ownership of land by facilitating the devious plans of Furnace Creek, the mining company, to grab more land for expanding the gold mines.
The different approach toward the land in both films indicates how the Aboriginal idea of viewing land as a Being, as an entity, as one among them differs from the colonial idea of ownership and exploitation. The Indigenous approach towards land is explored later in the paper to discuss modes of resistance by the Aboriginal community. Almost all the white characters consider the Aboriginal claim to the land as an intrusion. Here, one has to remember that the very idea of ownership is a colonial import.
The theme of ownership is mainly explored through the cattle stations run by white people and the gold mine owned by Furnace Creek. The cattle station proprietors own hundreds of acres of land, which was originally inhabited by the Indigenous people. There are instances where Jay Swan engages in conversation with the owners of the cattle stations as part of his investigation, particularly with the culprit father-son duo Sam Bailey and Pete Bailey. White people like the Baileys speak of the “young hoodlums” (Mystery Road 00:22:28), the Aboriginal youths who intrude into their property to ‘steal’ their possessions in a derisive language. It connotes the colonial ideology of forceful ownership of land and its people. The characters believe that they have exclusive rights to the farms in the outback and they have the fundamental right to prohibit any kind of intrusion even if it means killing people. It is evident when Pete says, “we usually shoot fellas who turn up here without an invite. Especially ones of the dark breed” (Mystery Road 1:10:00-08) and he cites “man’s got a right to protect his property” (1:10:16-17) as a justification for his violence.
In all the instances, Jay Swan did remind the white owners of their fortune and the better prospects for their children because of the huge possessions of land. Indirectly, he is accusing them of dispossessing Indigenous people of their land and the depraved situation they are in.
The idea of ownership in Goldstone indicates how multi-national corporates exploit the Aboriginal community and land. It is explored through the profit-craving corporate Johnny and Maureen the mayor and their devious plans to expand the mining sites by dispossessing more Aboriginal people. As in Mystery Road, Aboriginal people are restricted to the housing settlement established by the authority. Big corporates lure them with job offers and a peaceful future to forsake more and more land. The different approach to the land by white settlers and the Aborigines is also evident in the conversation by Johnny in his attempts to make the white police officer Josh an accomplice in his devious plans. He says that Goldstone would have been “a bloody piss stop on the highway to nowhere” (Goldstone 00:10:35-40) if it was not for the mines and Furnace Creek. As far as he is concerned, the mines are the reason for the ‘developments’ in the area. Without the mines, the place will be nothing, “just like when the blackfellas were in charge” (Goldstone 00:10:40-42).
Johnny’s response about the ‘savage’, unoccupied outback is reflective of the colonial ideology of ‘terra nullius’, of ‘nobody’s land’. Colonisers’ used this logic to justify their forceful occupation of countries like Australia. Under this logic, Indigenous claims to the land were thwarted. Even the idea of ownership is of colonial origin where they viewed both the land as well as its inhabitants as resources to be exploited. Contrary to this, in Aboriginal imaginary, they viewed themselves as one with nature and land. They acknowledged the agency of land and it was reflected in the various inter-relationships they had with the land.
Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan
As part of Aboriginal political movements, the myth of terra nullius was nullified with the Mabo v. Queensland verdict in 1992. Through the verdict, the High Court “acknowledged the traditional rights of indigenous Australians to their land and waters at common law” (Langton and Mazel 39). It resulted in the Native Titles Act of 1993, which legalised the rights of Aboriginal people to their land. However, even with laws like these, Aborigines are exploited with false promises of development to grab land from them to expand mining sites, as in Goldstone. Colonial exploitations have always found accomplices in the Aboriginal community too. The character Tommy reveals how some Indigenous people fall prey to the colonial ideology and becomes devices to fulfil the wishes of colonial and capitalist institutions. It is only slightly reversed when Tommy confesses his crimes including the murder of the Aboriginal old man Jimmy to Josh.
The economically deprived situation of the Aboriginal community in Goldstone is also indicative of phenomena like “the resource curse” and “the paradox of plenty” (Langton and Mazel 31). It puts into question, who is the real beneficiary of development as proposed by Johnny and the mayor? Even though the Aboriginal people are literally surrounded by gold mines, they have not benefitted from it anyway. Just like the land, they are also exploited by the capitalists for more profit. Only to appease them to acquire land, the multinational corporate offer attractive yet unfulfilled promises of development. The original inhabitants of the land are not only denied their right to the land but also have to endure the environmental issues caused by excessive mining.
The devious plans of Johnny and the mayor to expand the mining sites become an instance of “rural eco-crime” (White 213). Scholars like Rob D. White argue that marginalized communities like the Aboriginal communities bore the brunt of capitalistic exploitation of the environment in the form of land grabbing/‘land theft’. Such endeavours are not only affecting the environment but “challenge the basic ways of life and subsistence abilities of traditional land owners” (White 213) like the Aboriginal community.
Ripples of Aboriginal Resistance
The past of colonial violence and the present of capitalistic exploitations do not mean that the Aboriginal communities are devoid of avenues for resistance. Their modes of resistance are linked with the Aboriginal approach to land, which can be explored through the concept of the ‘Country’. It is evident both in the urban settlements in Mystery Road and the sacred gorge visited by Swan and Jimmy in Goldstone. It reflects the peculiar connections the Aboriginal people had with the land and the ways in which they are re-appropriating the hegemonic ideologies to assert theirs as well as the land’s agency. For instance, in Mystery Road, amidst the uniform urban settlement structures created by the authorities, “the town is crisscrossed by dirt tracks that run through vacant grounds, parklands, and people’s yards” (Kirkpatrick 146). It indicates the Aboriginal re-appropriation of colonial structures where the dirt roads symbolise the hidden local knowledge of movement that is not accessible to someone outside the community (see fig. 5).
Fig. 5. Still from Sen, Mystery Road (00:31:59)
The concept of ‘Country’ is explored more in Goldstone. The notion of ‘Country’ in Aboriginal views of the landscape is ecocentric. In this view of the land, humans are only one of the entities among other entities in the world. They are not superior or dominant above others. In addition, Country is not just a place. Rather it is “multidimensional – it consists of people, animals, plants, Dreamings; underground, earth, soil, minerals and waters, surface water, and air” (Rose, Reports 8). It is not a monolithic idea about an undifferentiated place but “a living entity with a yesterday, today, and tomorrow, with a consciousness, and a will toward life” (Rose, Nourishing 7).
Aboriginal identity is linked with the land they live in and Aboriginal political assertions have invoked this idea to assert their agency. An acknowledgement of the past is important for the Aboriginal community. Hence, what began as an investigation of a missing Chinese girl becomes Swan’s journey to find out his long-lost ancestral roots. Led by the Aboriginal old man Jimmy, Swan confronts his past and peculiar relationship with the land in the sacred gorge. The scene with the accompaniment of the Aboriginal song sung by Jimmy becomes a gateway for Swan, as well as the viewers, to experience the Aboriginal relationship with the land (see fig. 6; fig. 7).
Fig. 6. Still from Sen, Goldstone (00:43:09)
Fig. 7. Still from Sen, Goldstone (00:43:23)
Swan’s claim to the outback in Goldstone reaches a new dimension when it is revealed that his father belonged to the Aboriginal community in Goldstone. Swan’s father was one of the ‘Stolen Generation’, a generation of Aboriginal children who were forcefully taken away from their families as part of the ‘civilising mission’. Thus, for Swan as well as the Aboriginal community, the sacred gorge becomes a site of resistance, of new political initiatives to deal with the ancestral trauma of displacement and dispossession. It also indicates that the solution to the violence endured by the Aboriginal community lies in the peculiar Aboriginal approach to the land. It is evident when Swan goes back to the sacred gorge after completing his investigation towards the end of the movie. He is not only going back to a space that indicates the past Aboriginal approaches to the land but also to a future where Aborigines can live as one among the land and nature.
The long quotation with which the paper began was the sentiments expressed by Aboriginal activists Jack Patten and William Ferguson against the dispossession of Aboriginal people by the mainstream ‘white’ Australia. Films like the selected ones reveal that nothing much has changed since 1938; the year of publication of Patten and Ferguson’s critique. Using the specific landscape of the Australian outback, Ivan Sen critiques the mainstream society’s approaches toward the Indigenous communities. The arid, eerie outbacks become metaphors for the colonial violence and the exploitation of the environment and the Aboriginal community in the past as well as the present. Hence, the significance of land is reimagined in new ways for the political assertion of Aboriginal communities through Outback Noir films.
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—-. Goldstone. Screen Australia, 2016.
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—-. Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation. UNSW P, 2004.
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