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I’ve never been as moved by an Australian documentary as I was by The Australian Dream. It moved me because of the subject obviously, but I was also moved by it because I’m so passionate about AFL. This is a confronting masterpiece which holds up a mirror most fans will never want to look into.
The Australian Dream is a film audiences must endure, as it’s too gut wrenching to enjoy.
Directed by Daniel Gordon and written by Stan Grant, The Australian Dream uses the remarkable and inspirational story of AFL legend Adam Goodes as the prism through which to tell a deeper and more powerful story about race, identity and belonging.
The Australian Dream marks the first big screen venture for Stan Grant, an award-winning journalist with over 30 years of experience working in broadcast radio and television news and current affairs.
We caught up with Stan to discuss the story behind the story of this remarkable, must-see documentary.
“This is not the Adam Goodes film. This is not the Stan Grant film. This is an Australian film and we are part of that story.”
Interview by Matthew Eeles
Can you remember a moment during your childhood when you first experienced racism, whether it was directed at you, or towards someone around you?
It was constant, to be honest with you. It didn’t even have to be verbalised. It was just a constant presence in our lives. There was a very early awakening for me about what put us where we were. I was in a very poor, itinerant, marginalised, fringe-dwelling family moving from town to town, never really part of the bigger society around us and a very, very deep awareness that it wasn’t just poverty that shaped us, it was something else – it was history, it was race, it was blackness and it was whiteness and how whiteness saw blackness. I was very aware of that. I was very aware that that shaped who we were. Then there would be the daily incidences of racism. I can remember stopping in at little towns and going into a shop to get something to eat. I would see my father, who was the darkest of our family, served last and being ignored. I would go to school and you would hear the schoolyard taunts. All the usual words. All the derogatory comments and the comments about skin. All the off-hand, casual, ordinary, everyday taunts about race and being outnumbered. Being the sole aboriginal person. Being the minority and being surrounded by people who were different to you. That was a constant presence. That was the hum of our existence and that’s what we dealt with every day. I was keenly aware of history and race from a very young age.
How closely did you follow AFL and other sports growing up?
I played a lot of sports. I was more of a rugby player. My father played Rugby League and had been a boxer and my cousins had played Rugby League. I came from a very sporty family. We played AFL occasionally. We lived near the Victorian border for a while and I used to play AFL from time to time. Sport was very important to our lives as it is in all aboriginal communities.
Was there an AFL team you followed?
Growing up I followed Geelong. They were one of my favourite teams in my early twenties because I really liked Gary Ablett as a player. I remember when I was a boy in Griffith and going down to the local oval. There was a guy there kicking a ball around wearing a Hawthorn jumper. This guy was tall and an athletic guy. He called us over and asked us if we wanted to have a kick with him. We asked him if he played AFL and he told us he played in Melbourne and his name was Peter Hudson. [Laughs]. I had no idea who he was because I was a Rugby League kid. I went back home and I was watching AFL and I recognised Peter as the guy I was kicking the ball with. [Laughs]. I had no idea I was kicking the ball with one of the greats of the game.
There are many stories of indigenous athletes experiencing racial abuse throughout the history of Australian sports. What made Adam’s story stand out?
You’re right. There have been many other cases. Remember Nicky Winmar? He made that famous stand. There were several aspects to this. You’ve got to remember the timeline here. Australia was was grappling with questions of history. There was the culture wars – who was right and who was wrong? There was that comment in the senate about people having the right to be bigots. There was a mood to the times which added to Adam’s situation. You’ve got to remember that Adam was Australian of the Year. He had spoken about reconciliation. He had called out racism and that had made him a particular target. So it was a combination of the person, a combination of the times. There was a vigorous conversation going on about refugees and immigration. All those things contributed to making this a particularly incendiary moment for Australia at a critical point. It captured something that we were grappling with as a nation.
Did you see the moment this young girl called Adam Goodes an ape live on TV?
No, I didn’t. My memory of this is patchy in many respects. I had come back from overseas. I had been working outside of Australia for the best part of 18 years. I had missed most of Adam’s career. I arrived back in Australia as this was sort of happening. Of course there were several moments. He becomes Australian of the year. He’s called an ape. There’s the booing. It goes from one year to the next and continues. Then there’s the moment Adam does the war dance and everything intensifies after that. There wasn’t one particular moment for me. It was more of a crescendo. It was this noise I kept hearing week after week and then the commentary around this and how toxic the discussion became. I was watching this and I thought I needed to say something and write something. This became very personal for me because, as I said in the film, this wasn’t just a boo, it was a howl. A howl of humiliation for us which echoed across our history about segregation and discrimination and being locked out of Australia. It was for me, and many other aboriginal people, a very personal moment.
Current indigenous AFL players like West Coast’s Liam Ryan and Adelaide’s Eddie Betts have both been victims of racial abuse recently. In your opinion, has the attitude of the AFL fanbase as a whole evolved since the Adam Goodes incident?
I think we’re much more aware. Aren’t we? We’re more aware of what happened and we’re aware of the consequences of what happened. No one can be oblivious to the personal tole this takes. It’s too much to say we’ve eradicated racism or that this couldn’t happen again because this happened before Adam and sadly it will happen again. I think we’re more aware of this. And I’d like to think that if something like this ever happened again, and maybe it will take a different form, that people will use their voices to call it out sooner and that the AFL would call it out sooner and that we would hear from other players and other clubs and that other fans would stand up. Because that was the problem with what happened with the booing is that there was an absence of voices raised against it. It took a long time for people to stand up and say, “No. We stand with Adam. This is not who we are.” I’d like to think we would be far more aware and far more courageous in how we deal with it.
Tell us about working with director Daniel Gordon on The Austrailan Dream?
Dan is an extraordinary film director who has a deep connection with telling stories where sport intersects with politics and society. I think that was particularly attractive for me to get involved and I suspect it was for Adam as well. There was the fact that Dan had an outsider’s eye and a perspective that didn’t come from inside this country. Sometimes that gives you a clarity – clarity to hearing voices and a clarity to storytelling that is sometimes lost when you’re immersed in a country. I think it was a great choice and great to have that connection between a British company and an Australian country and an indigenous involvement like mine and Adam’s and the involvolvement of other indiginous people. We were critical to the storytelling process.
Daniel compared you to iconic men like Martin Luthor King and Nelson Mandela. How does that sit with you?
[Laughs]. No. No, no, no, no, no. I’m fully aware of my own place in the world. I’m just a journalist and a storyteller and that’s what I do and that’s what I’ve done all my life. I tell stories whether it be here or in China, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq. I see myself in that way, not as a transcendent political figure or freedom fighter or any sort of lauded justice campaigner. There are many people who bring their voices to that and I certainly would be in that league or category. I do realise the importance of telling stories and I like to think I have a very strong moral compass, and I have a very strong idea of justice and I’m prepared to put my voice and face to that and to speak against that.
Why was the medium of cinema chosen to tell this story?
The idea was always to have a big screen approach to this. It’s a big story which needs to live on a big screen. The imagery lends itself to that sort of big treatment. Even the opening shot of the film gives you a sense of space and how expansive the story is and how big our country is. I think it allows for a storytelling style that is more nuanced and is more of a journey. It can slow the pace down and I think you can hear people and the land breath in this film. You need a big screen to tell it that way. I hope people come and they have that emotional and visceral experience of entering into that world and walking that journey with the people on the screen in a big way.
Have you seen The Final Quarter and is that something you’d like to comment on?
I have seen it. It’s a very different film. It’s a snapshot. It’s a film that’s torn from the headlines which captures a moment in time. I think where the films differ is that our film has greater depth and context. It isn’t about what happened on a football field in one particular season. It’s about the 200 years that lead to that and who we are as a nation. You hear Australian voices in The Australian Dream speaking in a way you don’t see in The Final Quarter because these aren’t’ voices that are answering back to Australia, they’re speaking from black Australia and that’s a very important distinction. They’re two very different films. This is not the Adam Goodes film. This is not the Stan Grant film. This is an Australian film and we are part of that story.
The Australian Dream is in cinemas August 22.