Sunday, March 29, 2015

Black Diggers – telling war stories

‘If you are convinced you have heard all of Australia’s great stories, think again. If you consider you know something about Indigenous Australia you probably need to start from scratch. Black Diggers, “the untold story of WW1’s black diggers remembered” is a great Australian story. Why over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians left their communities in remote Australia or our regional cities or the big state capitals to travel overseas to fight and die in the European trenches far from home is part of a larger Australian story. Why they would bother when they were not even recognised as Australian citizens in their own land is a story all their own – but a story relevant to every Australian’.

If you are convinced you have heard all of Australia’s great stories, think again. If you consider you know something about Indigenous Australia you probably need to start from scratch. Last night I went out through a cool Canberra night to see ‘Black Diggers’, described as ‘the untold story of WW1’s black diggers remembered’. It was such a story that I got up before dawn to write about it.

It’s a great Australian story. Why at least 800, and possibly over 1,300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians left their communities in remote Australia or our regional cities or the big state capitals to travel overseas to fight and die in the European trenches far from home is part of a larger Australian story. Why they would bother when they were not even recognised as Australian citizens in their own land is a story all their own – but a story relevant to every Australian.

Memorial to the fallen outside School of Arts, Burrawang, Southern Highlands NSW

The play is sparsely presented and sparsely written, as a series of extended vignettes. You barely have time to take it in before another story is unfolding. You would think the subject is grim in so many ways but there is an undercurrent of humour throughout – goes with the culture, I guess. It’s a tough tale but oh so fascinating - and the detailed research that underpins it is excellent.

The set is very effective – simple and graphic. When you enter the theatre you face rearing grey walls like a bombed out building, or a blackboard, with white painted words that change as the play progresses to give you clues to where the action is happening and what it all means.

Director Wesley Enoch, who is so appropriately Artistic Director of the Queensland Theatre Company, and writer Tom Wright, with a creative team and an ensemble of immense talent, make the story fly. It takes 100 minutes – a centenary of minutes – and there is no interval. An interval would not have worked.

Of course the story is bigger than the play.

Travel around Australia and what strikes you is the tiny towns you pass through – probably not all that much bigger back in the days of World War 1 – and in each one there is a memorial with so many names that you wonder where they could have all come from. You are in the company of ghosts.

It must have been the same in Aboriginal communities as well.

I found it gripping because like so many Australians my history growing up was intertwined with war, World War 2 in this case. My father was too young to serve – not that it stopped him trying – but his five brothers all fought. They served on tiny torpedo boats in the Adriatic, on freezing Atlantic convoys to Russia and as aircrew in rattling, flak-damaged Lancaster bombers over Germany. They served and they were decorated, sometimes more than once. It’s a miracle beyond words that every one of them survived when so many didn’t.

As a child growing up I was obsessed with World War 2 but I knew nothing of this story. Over more recent years I’d heard about the black diggers and their incredible tale and I was determined to see this play. I almost missed out, discovering by chance that it had already started and was only on for four days. Don’t make the same mistake.

As if to underline how everything about Aboriginal history is contemporary, at the end of the performance the assembled cast thanked everyone for coming and said how proud they were to tell the stories of these men. Then in a reference to the current moves underfoot by the Western Australian Government with the support of the Australian Government to cut services to Aboriginal communities in remote Australia - something that looks suspiciously like a war crime in an ongoing war - they stressed the continuing importance of Aboriginal communities and culture.

The play is part of a grand and growing body of plays about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and stories, all featuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander directors, writers or performers to a greater or lesser degree. In recent times these include the suite of plays by Big hArt – ‘Ngapartji Ngapartji’, ‘Namatjira’ and ‘Hipbone Sticking Out’ – and ‘The Secret River’ by Sydney Theatre Company.

I’m not entirely convinced by all the play conveys – I’m not sure that the RSL was really as benign as it implies, for example. Still this is an Australian story that was overdue for telling. We can’t get away from our war history – it’s too powerful and too enmeshed in the depths of our culture. What is needed is to ensure it is well rounded and complete and tells the whole story – the good and the bad and the in between. Australia is a work in progress and a story with many aspects and we need to hear it all. We need to hear it all because while it might be a difficult topic it’s also a great pleasure to hear these stories – they add immensely to our personal sense of what it means to be Australian.

See also

History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research 
‘Cultural research has long term impacts in terms of our developing body of knowledge which stretch far into the future. Researchers are finding stories in our major cultural collections that were never envisaged by those originally assembling them – a process that will continue long into the future. The collections of our major cultural institutions are becoming increasingly accessible to the very people the collections are drawn from and reflect. In the process they are generating greater understanding about some of the major contemporary issues we face’, History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research.

Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’
‘A single exhibition can sum up many things. By bringing together so many histories, stories and objects – particularly long-absent ones from the British Museum – the 'Encounters' exhibition at the National Museum presented a snapshot of the ongoing living history of Australia. Many strands ran through it, reflecting the complexity of the realities it tried to express. By successfully reflecting on the pressing issues it raised we have some hope of getting beyond the vision of the Great South Land of 18th and 19th Century ambition towards a truly great nation of the 21st Century’, Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’.

When universes collide – ‘Encounters’ exhibition at National Museum of Australia
‘The Encounters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, a once in a lifetime event, makes you realise that astoundingly all this earth-shattering history happened only a few generations ago, so much so that descendants of the Gweagal, those first people Cook encountered, still talk about that encounter in 1770 as though it was yesterday. Despite the continuing concerns about the vast holdings of mostly looted cultural artefacts, the return of these objects, however briefly, will serve to emphasise how recently the British came to Australia, how much more we need to do to be fully at home in this country and how much part of a living, contemporary tradition Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are’, When universes collide – Encounters exhibition at National Museum of Australia.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber 
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come
‘The inaugural Victorian Indigenous literary festival Blak & Bright in February 2016 was a a very important event for Australian cultural life. It aimed to promote and celebrate a diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. It raised important questions about how the movement to revive and maintain Indigenous languages – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history – is related to ‘Australian literature’. Australian culture as a whole is also inconceivable without the central role of Indigenous culture – how would Australian literature look seen in the same light?’, Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel
‘Faced with the increasing prospect that it could become the next Australian Government, the Labor Party is reviewing its ‘arts’ policy. Whatever happens and whoever it happens to, considered and strategic discussion of arts and culture policy is critical to Australia's future.’ ‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel.

The Indigenous cultural programs – what is happening to them?
‘The Indigenous cultural programs of the Australian Government play a critical role in support for both Indigenous communities and for a diverse and dynamic Australian culture – what is happening to them?’ Death by a thousand cuts – what is happening to the Indigenous culture programs of the Australian Government?

Indigenous culture and the gap in Closing the Gap
‘Experience of many years of the Indigenous culture programs shows that involvement in arts and cultural activity often has powerful flow on social and economic effects.’ The gap in Closing the Gap.

Indigenous cultural jobs – real jobs in an unreal world
‘Subsidised Indigenous arts and cultural jobs are real jobs with career paths that deliver genuine skills and employment capability.’ Real jobs in an unreal world.

From series of articles about the impact of the 2014 Budget on arts and culture

Support for small scale arts and culture
‘Budget cuts only to uncommitted funding sound benign but will end programs by letting them peter out over several years.’ After the Budget: Government support for small scale arts and culture – here today, gone tomorrow.

Remembering Dresden
‘The age we live in is one of small, short wars. It affects some of us in large ways, but most of us, hardly at all. This is a return to the norm, for the widespread horror of world war is unusual this century—at least, so far.’ Remembering Dresden.




 

No comments:

Post a Comment