The Last Wave (1977)
Dir. Peter Weir
The best intentions have not achieved change (…) in every area of life for our people, inequality persists. Much more needs to be done.
-Patrick Dodson, 2017
A myth persists that the 1967 referendum gave Aboriginal people Australian citizenship, the right to vote, and made it so they were finally represented by the Commonwealth as people instead of ‘flora and fauna’. While some have pointed out that Aboriginal people could apply (!) for citizenship before this date, were already able to vote in some places, and were never classified as flora and fauna, the 1967 referendum represented a genuinely momentous time in Australian history wherein non-Indigenous Australians voted en masse for the rights of Aboriginal people. The fact that these myths were and are still believed by many Australians is not indicative of some sort of historical ignorance on their part, but instead speaks to the fact that they seem like entirely plausible realities.* The Last Wave moves uneasily through post-referendum Sydney- it has after all been ten years since white Australians agreed that they would like the country’s Indigenous people to become recognised by the same laws and rights that they have, and now an Aboriginal man is found dead outside a pub and there’s no way it’s not ending up in court.
David and Annie are the average white Australians that voted Yes. David jumps at the chance to represent (through Legal Aid) a group of Aboriginal men accused of murder, even though his only experience is in corporate taxation. He’s never done this before, but he wants to do good for those who are now subject to the same laws as non-Indigenous Australians. He and Annie sit around their nice house with their blonde children reading books on Aboriginal culture, and both of them pause on a ‘then’ and ‘now’ image. ‘Then’ is a low-angle shot of a proud elder looking into the distance, ‘now’ is a homeless man drinking piss under a bridge. They pause because they did their bit letting the government know that they feel bad about the concentration camps that were built to annihilate all Aboriginal people, but here we are in the present witnessing self-annihilation. This mindset- to mourn those who’ve been historically wronged, is one of the dangerous forms that ‘best intentions’ can take- the Dying Race is revived through peoples’ inability to recognise that they must continue to act and listen. This is in no way specific to Australia- the average white New Zealander will walk past art by living Māori to find the portraits of Māori painted by Charles Goldie, triggering a nostalgic recognition of when Māori were Dying.** This pseudo-respect means mourning those who are still very much alive, and responding to problems with Oh, isn’t it sad.
When the Aboriginal men Chris and Charlie come to dinner, very much alive and not dead or pissed under a bridge somewhere, the Burtons freeze up. Annie attempts to make conversation, ‘I paint’, gesturing to the wall which has two paintings- a watercolour of a frog and a rough approximation of an Aboriginal dot painting. It is unclear which is her painting and what that means- if hers is the attempt at the dot painting then the Burtons fully misunderstand the nature of those paintings as concealing secret rituals unavailable to the non-Indigenous viewer (the market for dot paintings made a lot of white art dealers very, very rich, they line the walls of many a wealthy art collector’s house). If hers is the frog then we see two parallel worlds in stark contrast. Later, Annie looks out the window and sees Charlie standing out on the road. She’s met him, but she goes to call the police. A knock at the door follows and she is relieved to find a white face on the porch, and not Charlie’s. Aside from the fact that these scenes are very much an Australian forbear to Get Out‘s first act, they highlight the overlapping of worlds that takes place when colonists realise that they cannot ignore the other voices; those who’ve been there for something like 75,000 years. The explanation of Dreamtime is a vivid way of making David understand what is happening, but this occurs in any meeting of worlds. His journey is not a descent into obsession or madness, but what comes with the act of actually empathising. The film does not offer a way forward, but it is not meant to. It asked ten years on whether any real progress had been made since the 1967 referendum, and this year marks its fifty year anniversary. I am not Australian, and this is very much a conversation for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, but from a distance it seems that for every movement trying to improve things, cuts are made to communities, sacred sites are deregistered, and works of anti-Aboriginal propaganda are produced by popular national historians. Whether or not things are improving, the task is continued empathy and the risk is thinking, with the best intentions, Oh, isn’t it sad.
Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, there is much to be said about the colonist’s own alienation from a landscape that they have tried and failed to turn into a simulated Home (England), as well as from this (imagined) Home itself, but a million words would not be enough. Weir’s films are almost compulsively elusive, and yet describing the themes and narratives of his works comes too easily. This ease is what makes his films so frustrating- they are frequently described as dreamlike, but they are more like waking up and spending the entire day trying to remember past the boring residual bits you’ve been left with. It is not that he obscures simple ideas with arthouse tricks, but that simple descriptions don’t do these ideas justice. His solution is to turn us into bewildered amnesiacs. I remember in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, the author using the word ‘despair’ and then having to backpedal to say No, really marinate on the word for a minute. This can be a problem in art- recognising words and concepts in a work can lead to the generation of a platform from which to appreciate the thing from afar. Our understanding comes premeditated, our feelings hypothetical. Weir’s films use their medium to ensure that we are not just gliding over words and ideas- we can cite ‘the tyranny of distance’, alienation, annihilation, and the collision of worlds, but Weir absolutely forces us to feel them.
*Aboriginal affairs before and after 1967, regardless of what the referendum said, still tended to be dealt with on a state by state basis rather than according to the laws of Commonwealth, and often by departments whose chief concerns were flora and fauna, not people. Not not people, but not people either, then. Before the 1967 referendum those with Aboriginal ancestry were added up in order to be subtracted from the population census numbers. Not not not people, but something to subtract from human numbers. An absence. Terra nullius: How can a country be taken from a people that never existed?
**Goldie was actually painting as the Māori population of New Zealand was for the first time since colonists arrived, growing. His subjects look back, defeated, but what we are actually seeing is a white New Zealander fetishising colonial subjugation. Contemporary viewers thus take part in a second or even third hand perpetuation of the Dying Race. He might be one of our best technicians, but he is certainly our worst artist.