Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Religious Representation of Australian Aboriginals in Australian Films: Where do they Come From and How are they Changing?

By Monica Leonard

This essay will explore the problems and benefits of the representations of Australian Aboriginals within Australian films. This essay will overview the anthropological characterisations and explanations of aboriginal religions (or more commonly referred to as spiritualities), and lifestyles. The theories of Tylor and Durkheim will be explored and the limitations and problems of their analyses. The role of media and how it maintains and creates identity and class will be discussed in relation to Bourdieu and Baudrillard. Lastly, the representations of Aboriginal Australians within Australian cinema will be discussed.

The way in which Aboriginal religiousness has been described in the past, and perhaps even to the present, can be summarised by the works of Tylor. Tylor (Pals 1996: 15) surmises that the basis of so-called ‘primitive’ religiousness is animism. However, Bourdieu (Webb et al. 2002: 35) argues though that for an anthropologist to call a culture primitive, they must naturalise values, which describe one culture as civilised or advanced, or one that is other. Tylor argues that the essence of such
a religious perspective is the belief in “living personal powers beyond all things” (Pals 1996: 24). However, Durkheim describes Aboriginal and indigenous religions through totemism. Durkheim argues that Totemism is the way in which earlier peoples separated what he calls the, “sacred and profane” (Pals 1996: 101). Durkheim suggests that behind the totem is, “is an impersonal god, without name or history, immanent in the world and diffused in a innumerable multitude of things”(Pals 1996: 103). In this way community is formed around the totem and creates bonds with respect to the relationship with the totem. Therefore, Durkheim suggests that the totem serves as identity for early man, “The God of the clan, the totemic principle, can therefore be nothing else than the clan itself, personified and represented to the imagination under the form of the animal or vegetable which serves as totem.” (Pals 1996: 104).

Sita (1996: 38) argues that from an Australian Aboriginal perspective what is perceived to be their ritual and religiousness is one part of an entire reality, or worldview.
He also argues that the source of Aboriginal spirituality is the land and connection to it, represents the power of the Dreamtime. Sita (1996: 17) suggests that Aboriginal Dreamtime mythology along with ritual practices reveals the relationship with the natural environment and that this is also expressed through the symbology of totemism. However, Sita (1996: 40) rightly suggests that this view is a conclusion made by us and not by the Aboriginal people. In saying so, the anthropological analyses made by Durkheim and Tylor bring their own views when observing Aboriginal religion and life, and so become a biased description, or rather racial description of the ‘other’, or the ‘them’.

The role of the media has an influence in creating identity. To understand how representations of Australian Aboriginals in films affect the identity of ‘Aboriginality’, the theories of Bourdieu and Baudrillard should be explored. Both Bourdieu and Baudrillard’s theories discuss the formation and maintenance of identity and individual practices within society. Firstly, Bourdieu suggest a notion, which he calls Habitus, “the unconscious ‘taking in’ of values, rules and dispositions” (Webb et al. 2002: 36). Habitus is both the, “historical and cultural production of individual practices”, and “the individual production of practises” (Webb et al. 2002: 15). Bourdieu suggests the control or dominant practices are created by the interactions and relationships between different cultural rules, institutions and practises (Webb et al. 2002: 22). He argues that the dominated
social classes or positions remain so due to the normalisation of their condition by the dominant, as well as the misrecognition by the dominated that social positions are produced (Webb et al. 2002: 24). In this way the dominated class is subjected to what Bourdieu calls ‘symbolic violence’, where people are “treated as inferior, denied resources, limited in social mobility and aspirations” (Webb et al. 2002: 25), but for all intents and purposes view it themselves as a natural state. Essentially, Bourdieu’s argument about Habitus is that the individual is conditioned and shaped by the world and the materially and culturally. In a globalised society where stable identities are influenced by, and exposed to many other worldviews, Bourdieu (Webb et al. 2002: 43) suggests that people have to ‘make do’.

Baudrillard discusses a slightly different form of creating dominant social identities. He (Kellner 1994: 52) suggests that a hyperreality is formed and the exchange of meaning occurs at the level of information, including images and signs. Baudrillard argues that this is how dominant systems stay in place due to the fact that the “repressive and reductive strategies of power systems are already present
in the internal logic of the sign” (Kellner 1994:53). In this way the representations of Aboriginals become not a representation but an artificial, and complete sign, which creates a ‘reality’. Kellner (1994: 151) suggests that this ‘hyperreality’ is not always accepted as such and can be resisted. He suggests that people can use mass communications and media to create their own subversive messages and alternate values (1994: 158). Castells (Valtanen 2007: 4) argues that the emergence of a globalised society consumes local identities and practices, misrecognise, marginalise, or makes invisible these local practices and emphasises global practices. The idea of creating a resistance identity is explored by Castells. However, he suggests that the dominated group creating alternate messages are in danger of also succumbing to the same hegemony and exclusivity of message making that existing dominant groups create (Valtanen 2007: 6-7).

Representations of Australian Aboriginals in the media have many different socio-historical contexts. As such there are different discourses present in representations. However, there are problems with the representation of Aboriginal people as it is primarily from a non-Aboriginal view. Langton (1993:40) argues that the creation of Aboriginal representations by non-Aboriginals changes the reality and identity of Aboriginality. Jennings (1993: 10) suggests there are two ways of representing Aboriginals, positive and negative. However, Cohen (Jennings 1993: 10) argues that a positive image or
representation, one of success in a western society, or in a world becoming globalised is problematic as it ignores the dominantly prescribed limits to social mobility, and highlights values and practices of a western capitalist society. This also works for a negative representation of Aboriginal peoples. O’Regan (Clelland-Stokes 2007: 93) suggests that more than any other social group Aboriginals are seen and depicted as victims of white colonisation, “Aboriginal lifeways and aspirations are in many cases bounded by chronic social crisis manifested in alcoholism, violence, unemployment and homelessness, stemming from the ongoing effects of colonisation ”. As Bourdieu suggests representing Aboriginal people in this way highlights it as their social position and sustains the dominance of other non-Aboriginal social positions. O’Regan (Clelland-Stokes 2007: 93) argues that this victimised representation of Aboriginality portrays Aboriginal people in a negative form of the other and instils fear between Aboriginals and non- Aboriginals.

Representing anything in media only works to reduce and limit the complexity of what is being presented. Jennings (1993:10) argues that this creates a kind of stereotype, which functions repetitively due to homogeneous characteristics and the
ease in which it can be produced. In this way there are three specific versions in which Aboriginals are seen anthropological, romantic and racial. The last two are largely seen in films. Clelland-Stokes (2007:91) suggests that the discourses used to create ‘Aboriginality’ within film are “’the Aboriginal problem’ or traditional Aboriginal lifeways”. In keeping with Baudrillard’s theories these two images of Aboriginality become signs for Aboriginal peoples to identify with, or reject. In particular the representation of traditional Aboriginal becomes less human and what Clelland-Stokes (2007: 101) calls the “symbol of the ‘spirit of Australia’”. Jennings (1993: 12-13) argues that the creation of the traditional Aboriginal as the most valued representation in non-Aboriginal film ignores and marginalises the larger groups of the urban Aboriginal. The romanticisation of the traditional Aboriginal works in the same way as racism limiting Aboriginals agency in the world, “To picture Aboriginals as being ‘naturally’ suited to any particular set of historical, social or economic relationship is to deny their role in maintaining or transforming those relationships, or indeed, of defining those relationships for themselves…a quintessentially racist strategy” (Jennings 1993:15).

Two Australian films that highlight the problems of representation are The Last Wave and Jedda, which traverse the thin lines between romanticism and racism. Though the
character of Chris is portrayed as being an urban Aboriginal, his costume jeans and leather jacket, in the 'I take you now!' (Wier 1977) scene Chris is connected with his traditional Aboriginal spirituality and lifeways. In other words, this representation highlights the necessity for Aboriginal people, even in an urban setting to be connected to the traditional representational archetype of Aboriginality. Clelland-Stokes (2007: 124) is that the representation of Aboriginal spirituality in the film is a prescribed western view. The film prescribes a social function and practise that Aboriginals can assume or reject. Jennings (1993: 15) argues that The Last Wave works to emphasise the mystical or spiritual elements of Aboriginality, thereby limiting again the ways in which Aboriginal people can identify themselves through film, or in society. Jedda presents two representations of Aboriginality, that of assimilation and traditional cultural maintenance. It highlights the debates of the 1950s surrounding blood, cultural assimilation and dominance. Jennings (1993: 33) argues that characters within the film represent ideas behind non-Aboriginal prescribed Aboriginality. Jedda the character embodies both ideas. Jennings (1993: 37) suggests in the piano scene that Jedda is represented as longing to return to a traditional cultural purity rather than a cross-cultural refusal of restrictive parenting. The playing of the piano is ‘wild’ in fashion (Chauvel 1955) and frames Jedda between the two worlds of ‘Aboriginality’ and ‘whiteness’. Her fate is sealed however by western appropriation of Aboriginal beliefs as she is the wrong skin for Marbuk and the two die falling off a cliff. This highlights for non-aboriginals and aboriginals the so-called safety of assimilation, or traditional cultural purity, and that the two cannot mix. This is another form of racism as again non-aboriginals force and maintain a certain aboriginal social identity on aboriginal through film.

However, filmmaking which highlights the blending of both Aboriginal and non-aboriginal relations is the work of Tracy Moffatt. Langton (1993: 25) argues that
Moffatt’s film Night Cries makes an important social intervention, and helps to form views surrounding the problems of cultural relationships. She suggests that Night Cries gives an Aboriginal perspective on the problems of representation and that Moffatt explores, “the impact of the past on the present ― they explore the present on past inter-racial happenings in cultural codes of today” (Langton 1993:25).

Granted, as Bourdieu suggests social values and practices are not shaped with in a vacuum but are shaped by the world. To say that there is a traditional or untainted form of Aboriginality, or even an untainted form of Non Aboriginality is ignorant as both Bourdieu and Baudrillard suggest we create our own identities through dominant practices and values that are given to us by media. If Aboriginals had an opportunity to create their own relationship with society and to present their own commentary on the nature of Aboriginality it would be one way to help change
the representation of Aboriginality in film to something else, or broaden the representation and values non-Aboriginals create to include Aboriginal values. The Australian Film Commission and other government film agencies and Indigenous media associations have functioned to help form Indigenous media. Barron (Gallasch 2007: v) argues that since the beginning of 2000 and till today the range of quality and diversity in Aboriginal filmmaking has not only improved but also seen growth within local and international regard. The key to this success is found in the adoption of Indigenous Strategic Framework, which recognises the rights of Aboriginals to build
their own culture through media.

Aboriginal filmmaker Rachel Perkins’ Bran Nue Dae and Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah are two recent films, which help to build Aboriginal identities through an Aboriginal perspective and representation. Samson and Delilah, works to change the representation of Aboriginality formed by Non-Aboriginals. The movie is similar to Jedda; However, Sampson and Delilah are the “right skin”(Thornton 2009) for each other, and instead of falling off a cliff, the future of the two remains undefined by the movie and so it can be assumed that they are the agents of their own destiny, and identity. Bran Nue Dae explores the relationships between non-aboriginal representations of Aboriginal Spirituality and Aboriginal identifications of identity. Tadpole, played by Ernie Dingo says when asked where he comes from that he “was born in the midst of the Dreamtime” (Perkins 2010) and when threatened to be kicked out of the Comby van both Willie and Tadpole appropriate Non-Aboriginal stereotypes of Aboriginals in order to stay in the van. It is the assumed knowledge and comedic use of Aboriginal representations by an Aboriginal that helps the relationship between Non-Aboriginals and Aboriginals. Both these films had a wide release and work to view aboriginality from an aboriginal perspective rather than a non-aboriginal perspective.

The past discussions of Aboriginal spirituality by Tylor and Durkheim are perhaps dominant western views and in a way redundant to the representations of
Aboriginality in film today. As Bourdieu and Baudrillard suggest a person’s identity and practices are formed by dominant social practices and signs, which the individual can acknowledge, accept or resist. Subverting media messages and giving a form of agency to Aboriginals as well as the chance to improve skills in filmmaking is perhaps key in transforming Aboriginal representations, and understanding Aboriginality from a non-dominant view. Although, it is clear that whatever worldview is presented western capitalistic society and globalisation, also play a part in forming it.

Works Cited.

Chauvel, Charles. Dir. Jedda. 1955. ‘Jedda Dreaming Again’. 2010. Australian Screen. 2 Nov 2010. http://aso.gov.au/titles/features/jedda/clip2/

Clelland-Stokes, Sacha. Representing Aboriginality: A post-colonial analysis of the Key Trends of Representing Aboriginality in South African, Australian and Aotearoa/New Zealand Film. Denmark: Intervention P, 2007.

Gallasch, Keith. Ed. Dreaming in Motion; Celebrating Australia’s Indigenous Filmmakers. Sydney: Australian Film Commission, 2007.

Jennings, Karen. Sites of Difference: Cinematic Representations of Aboriginality and gender. Melbourne: Australian Film Institute, 1993

Kellner, Douglas. Ed. Baudrillard: A critical Reader. Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1994.

Langton, Marcia. ‘Well, I Heard it on the Radio and I Saw it on the Television…’ an Essay for the Australian Film Commission on the Politics and Aesthetics of Filmmaking by and About Aboriginal People and Things. Sydney: Australian Film Commission, 1993.

Pals, Daniel L. Seven Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

Perkins, Rachel. Dir. Bran Nue Dae. Robyn Kershaw, Mayfan. 2009. DVD. Screen Australia. 14 Jan 2010.

Sita, Frank. Aboriginal Rituals: Approaches and Interpretation. Victoria: Spectrum, 1996.

Thornton, Warwick. Dir. Samson and Delilah. CAAMA. 2009. Madman. DVD. 7 May 2009.

Valtanen, Markku. Identity, Structure and Ideology - Manuel Castells’ Contribution to the Identity Policy Discussion. 28 Sep 2007. Inter-Disciplinary.Net. 2010. 31 Oct 2010. http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/ati/diversity/multiculturalism/mcb1/Valtanen%20paper.pdf

Webb, Jen, Tony Schirato, and Geoff Danaher. Understanding Bourdieu. New South Wales: Allen and Unwin, 2002.

Weir, Peter, Dir. The Last Wave. 1977. ‘I take You Now!’ 2010. Australian Screen. 2 Nov 2010. http://aso.gov.au/titles/features/the-last-wave/clip3/

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