Earlier this year, I wrote an article for Junkee about the film Poverty Inc. The documentary is about the NGOs and well-meaning charity and how in many ways they enable poverty’s continuation rather than putting an end to it. Watching the film gave me a few moments of déjà vu for an Australian film I had seen a few months before at MIFF called Another Country. Originally I’d intended to write about the two films together, and I interviewed both directors – Molly Reynolds and Michael Matheson Miller – about the mirrored themes I felt were there.
Unfortunately, I had to cut the interview I did with Molly because of the article length. It was a great chat and we spoke a lot about the culture clash between white Australian culture and First Nation culture, and how the current way of doing things is failing Indigenous Australians in many ways.
Here’s the transcript. Edited only for length and readability.
Interview transcipt: Molly Reynolds, director of Another Country
Anna Horan: One of the first parallels [between Poverty Inc has with Another Country] is that in developing countries, foreign aid and support is given without a deeper look at how these communities function and what they really need. And this has been a problem with government intervention and support in indigenous communities. As David Gulpilil says in the film: “for the last hundred years governments have decided what’s best for our people because they decided they knew more about us than we do.” What are your thoughts?
Molly Reynolds: I think you’ve kind of struck upon a big issue that’s not actually – it’s sort of implicit in the documentary but not explicit, and is the nature of humanitarian carers… How we deal with our indigenous peoples probably does need to sit on a federal level rather than a state level, but the thing is the federal government tries to impose solutions that are one size fits all.
I think that we’ve really got to look at our Indigenous peoples: there was a time where when they were clustered together in nations and that was sort of through language groups and how that worked. But we’ve got to remember that what may be a solution for someone in the tropics is going to be a very different thing for a kinship group in the south. Especially when these two peoples – they don’t even speak a common language; they can’t speak with one another; they’re two different peoples. That universal solution is wrong and even with something like intervention, to which I’m philosophically opposed, I know there are some pockets of communities that say look, we had such big problems that this happened to be a solution that works for us, even though it didn’t work for most communities.
That universal solution is wrong and even with something like intervention, to which I’m philosophically opposed, I know there are some pockets of communities that say, ‘Look, we had such big problems that this happened to be a solution that works for us,’ even though it didn’t work for most communities.
Anna: You’ve known the Ramingining community for over ten years and understanding one another – that’s what made it possible to work with them for this film.
Molly: Yeah, definitely. I think there was sort of three main factors. Having known the mob for as long as we have because of Rolf [de Heer, Molly’s husband and collaborator] – I was there when Rolf was there making Ten Canoes – and during that period of time we were known to go up and visit the mob.
And it is like David Gilpilil says “cheaper to go and see the Queen of England” than it is to come to Ramingining. It’s an expensive trip to make and on occasion when we’re up there, our friends like Chiko, say “Yo, what you doing here? We’ll go and come and see you!” And it’s “Oh really?” because it’s so foreign to their experience.
White fellas come in they say, “Thank you very much, we’ve now implemented this educational campaign; we’ve now made this film. See you later.” I think it’s that long-standing relationship, so that when we came back and we said, “Okay, we’ll be making Charlie’s Country and Another Country, they knew from Ten Canoes that we were good. In fact, even when it came to do a lot of the publicity for it, they just said, “Oh too much, humbug. We trust you with it.” [As opposed to] previously with Ten Canoes, enough of the elders came around. They knew what this publicity thing was and they thought, “Ah, it’s all good.”
Another big thing, Anna, was smart phones. That really changed the way the mob felt about audio and visual and the capturing of image and what it meant. They were just so much looser about being filmed, because when we were first there it was all culturally quite a foreign thing and they really didn’t quite know what we were taking when we were shooting – were we perhaps taking their souls?
Rolf, when he was shooting Ten Canoes, had lots of trouble with the mob thinking: ‘well, if we’re filming it, it must be real.’ He couldn’t put one man with the wrong kinship wife because of what it spoke to, so I think that is another really big thing that changed and enabled us to kind of have such easy access. And as you can see, they were so generous with what they gave us in terms of letting us film. Like Bobby, he’s anti-gambling even though they sit in his house and gamble all day, he kind of goes, “Oh, how will it look?” But he sort of said, “I trust you. Tell it as it is. Tell it right.”
Anna: Well you mentioned language before and it’s quite strange that we don’t learn local languages, or Aboriginal lore or history with any depth in school – to either understand Australia before white settlement or bridge the gap culturally today. What are your thoughts on that?
Molly: Oh look, again, you’ve nailed it. I think that’s a huge thing. I’m slightly dyslexic so I’ve just gotten across English, any capacity to learn another language is so limited, and I always feel really embarrassed about that when I’m working with the mob there. I really wish that I could learn a little bit more so that they could understand the effort that I was making. Language is the big thing, [it’s] key to creating understanding cross-culturally and things like that.
All the problems with the missionaries, and what they introduced to the communities, the old fellas say, “Geez that was better than what we’ve got now, because they did at least learn our language” – at least there was this thing they call two-way learning. Now I think part of the despair is that in places like Ramingining it’s all one-way: ‘Now you learn our language’. And then for [elders], it’s like, ‘We know six or seven other languages; could you possibly learn one of those?’ And the language is actually very simple; there’s a real sort of simplicity of expression.
Things that are really confusing – this is a bit of an ramble here, but it might just interest you – is that the mob for example have no concept of numbers. So with their languages there’s either ‘one’ or ‘many’, there’s not something like eight or nine. You can imagine how confounding that must be to have to deal with a culture where we’re always counting? We measure everything.
Another thing that is culturally interesting is that there’s no word for ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. I’ve got a dear friend Gladys up there, and it took me a while to get used to [talking with her], because she’d say, “Yo Molly, get me a cup of tea.” And I’d be, “Oh, right, okay Gladys. You bossy lady.” It’s just a different form of expression. I’ve come to know Gladys over the years and now when I bump into Gladys, I might not have seen her for six months, she’ll walk up to me or I’ll walk up to her and we hold hands for anything from 30 secs to three minutes and then she wanders off, and I go, “Oh, that’s why it works.” It’s all non-verbal. There’s nothing to be said.
Those things people say, you know, “Bloody idiots – don’t they know how much money they’ve got in their hand?” And it’s because they’ve never had a numerical system.
Anna: I had no idea about how numbers are expressed.
Molly: I think it’s Yolngu. I don’t know if it’s a universal Indigenous thing, but with the mob up there, conceptually, it’s a really difficult one. I think they’re getting across it now – kids are taught it in school and things like that. It’s bizarre these things that make you go, ‘Oh, of course, that makes so much sense.’
Anna: Well, it makes sense when you talk about the culture clash with white Australian culture – the fact that time isn’t measured and money is always shared so it isn’t saved or anything. You either have one dollar, or no dollars or you have many dollars.
Molly: That one was profound but for me the profound one was rubbish… When I first went up there, I’m following David around and he’s got cigarettes, and he’s telling me about the sacred place over there and this rock and this is where he was born. He’s telling me all these stories and he’s choking up. At the same time he’s unwrapping a packet of cigarettes and throwing the litter on the ground. And me, in my very naïve patronising paradigm, is thinking, ‘Oh yeah, you really care about country. How come you’re littering everywhere?’ You know, that sort thinking. With the passing of time, you realise they just don’t get rubbish. So those things are really significant to cross-cultural exchange.
I think broader Australia would go, “Those blackfellas, they just waste taxpayers money.” But it’s not that, it’s that they’ve had this whole way of being, and without proper explanation about how to transition either: “We’re gonna come into the town now, we’re going to give you some money and you can go shopping.” There’s no transition there, there’s no understanding of what it is to be given money and to go and buy your food. That, I think, is partly why I think they get so excited when the sick old kangaroo hops through town because that’s not a usual occurrence. It’s only a generation ago – 25 years ago – that everyone would feel the thrill or the excitement when someone would bring a kangaroo to cook and they could all gather round and feed together. I think a lot of whitefellas, especially urban whitefellas, think ‘Oh, that’s so cruel, that’s shocking’ – but it’s food.
Anna: There’s a section in Poverty Inc where a solar panel business in Haiti is put out of business, not because of the earthquake that affected the region but because of the foreign aid that shipped in free solar panels afterwards. That’s similar to how David talks about learning to build houses from missionaries but then the government flying in construction workers to do the job instead. Enabling economic development is a key part of enabling people to climb out of poverty. What are your thoughts about that?
Molly: I completely agree. It’s a universal condition. If we don’t have purpose, if we don’t have routine, the flip side of that is losing one’s self. Getting off your face. Drinking. Drugs. For human beings across the world – despair comes in quite quickly. David says so eloquently that we didn’t need the houses to be built faster, we just needed to be building them.
There’s a third project – there’s Charlie’s Country and there’s Another Country – an online project called Still Our Country. It’s broken up into a whole lot of short works. There’s a character in there called Old Matthew and he was brought in by the missionaries and they taught him to read and write and he’s incredibly eloquent, he has a real command over English. He speaks so beautifully, it’s really quite moving. He said, “In my day, we used to go with the carpenter, we used to build houses, we used to build roads, we used to be fishermen, to be plumbers,” and he says that’s all gone now. I think that’s actually being written out of our contemporary history – that there was a time when the balckfellas were getting it… They really had embraced it – accountants, teachers. Shorthand of it is, yeah, productivity is such a good thing.
Anna: It’s that endless cycle of no jobs, so they get Centrelink money, which only comes on a special card, which they can only spend in one store.
Molly: And then, the big interests still win. You should see the amount of Coke and soft drinks that is consumed there. Tiny kids, 5-years-old, and they’re carrying a big bottle of Coke around of an evening and you kind of know that that’s their dinner. You think: well hang on, if you’re going to do the basic cards, shouldn’t it be fruit and veg, meat, bread, no chips, no fast food, no chocolate? And that makes government policy more outrageous.
Anna: It’s crazy because I think in the documentary it says $170,000 is spent in the store a week.
Molly: And that’s all government money.
Anna: It reminds me of another part of Poverty Inc where they talk about a lot of these organisations that profit from poverty. One doctor who has worked in various developing countries, he says, ‘Yeah foreign aid has been great – it’s been great for me, it’s paid for many holidays.’ Without him seeking out, trying to do over governments, he does inadvertently get the money that comes from foreign aid rather than the people who need it.
Molly: Rather than filtering through to someone from a community or a regional area who can become the doctor who can then go back and start up the clinic and things like that. We’re forever sending in people who go, “Oh this is not the life for me, living in Sydney, earning money”… they go for a change of life and work in a developing country and get the money paid back into an Australian bank account which is still paying off their mortgage. I think it’s a hard one to shift.
Anna: We shut out Indigenous voices in so many ways in Australia, and don’t listen to them when we do hear them. Why is that, do you think? Is it partly to do with some leftover shame of what’s happened in the past?
Molly: That’s a really good question. Could we apply that question to refugees as well?
Anna: Yeah, definitely.
Molly: I think it’s not about being Aboriginal. It speaks more to the dominant culture to which you and I belong and that really, in the end, I don’t like as a culture. Australians are leading the way alongside the USA in terms of how appalling our behaviour is – how inward looking, how avaricious – and that in very small nation. We’re still at 25 million people but we just cannot extend ourselves more. So for me, it’s more about us than our blackfellas, because in terms of refugees – it’s a little bit lame duck to say just because it’s too big a problem we just can’t deal with it. That’s where we’ve gotten to with refugees and our Indignenous people. We say, “It’s too big!” and it’s easier to look away. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Anna: Yeah, I was just thinking it reminds me with feminimism you have the men’s right activitsts that come up against it. It’s because the dominant culture has to give up something to make it more equal. You have to give up part of your position of power, because that’s the only way we can restore a balance. We can’t just lift up the minority to the same level. It’s the same amount of power that’s available; you have to give up some of yours.
Molly: Absolutely. There’s a wonderful article in last month’s Monthly by Robert Manne. It’s basically why have we failed to address climate Change. It’s a fabulous read and that’s one of his premises, that we’re living in a time of neoliberalism, the whole economics of ‘let the market decide’ rather than the post World War 2 economics… [where] the best way for a society to survive is when there’s a good tension between public and private sector, and that the government regulates to moderate the private sector. Robert Manne goes on to say that if we were living in those times, we’d have a better handle on how to deal with climate change, but at the moment the free market decides. That has led to a concentration of really wealthy and powerful corporations that are more powerful than governments and no one wants to give that up.
Your answer was a lot better than mine Anna! I think you’re really right that we don’t want to give up our comfort. It makes me think about last year. I toured around France with Rolf and the film Charlie’s Country. A lot of the French had this really romantic idea about what it is to be Indigenous and the connection with land, partly because the French have lost that for hundreds of years; every part of France has been taken over, there’s no great wild landscapes left. The French would just say, “Why don’t Australian Aboriginals just go back to the old ways?” And so often I would answer they don’t want to give up television, air conditioning and the comfort of walking into a store and getting food. None of us, no human being, wants to give up an ease of living. Even if it would probably be far better for us working for our food, not drinking Coke and all those sorts of things.
Anna: Another Country is David’s voice. How can non-indigenous Australians give First Australians a voice in their lives every day?
Molly: It’s so hard. Most Australians haven’t spoken with an Indigenous person. A really profound recognition for me was I used to live in inner city Sydney. Sydney’s not so much like that now but there used to be mobs of blackfellas who used to hang around outside Central Park. They’d sit there and they’d talk all day and, yes, drink all day. Often enough I would see someone lying across the footpath or ground, and I’d go “Jeez, they’re always drunk, always drinking.” Then it was a couple of years later Dr Donald Thomson who is quite famous because he went up through the north of Australia and took all these glass plate photographs of Indigenous communities and things like that.
I was flicking through
his book and there was this woman and child, and they were just lying together asleep in the rocks. It was obviously a bright day, the rocks were so bare that it told you that there were no trees nearby, and they would just lay down to rest. It made me think of how I used to see men and women just lying on the footpaths in Sydney and I went “Oh, no they’re not necessarily drunk – if I saw I whitefella do it, they would be drunk – but it was a very cultural thing of saying, ‘There’s nothing else to be done, so why don’t we rest now?” Engagement helps with understanding, different ways of seeing things. Indigenous stories are huge. The more we see of them on television and on films and in books and music and things like that then it hopefully becomes a broader part of Australian culture.
Anna: Poverty Inc posits that aid isn’t bad all the time. In a crisis, it definitely makes a difference, but if it’s still around years later, somethings’ wrong. David says at the end of the film that to move forward, Indigenous Australian need help to adapt their culture so that it and Indigenous people can exist in the future. What are your thoughts on that?
Molly: That’s really hard as well. As a documentary maker, and I’m sure you find it as a writer and journalist, I’m reporting on something that is still ongoing, that’s still happening. I can’t say this happened 20 years ago and it all works out fine or anything like that. I have no ending. At the same time, it’s also about not making it so that prospects for the mob up in Ramingining and the audience who may be able to respond to it go, “Oh god that’s too much. I can’t handle that” and to turn away because it’s easier to ignore it.
I think David speaks to that in the closing to say: this is where we are. We’re not quite there that we can get the solutions ourselves, but we kind of know how we’d like to be treated so we can work together to find a way forward. In asking that question, what you quite astutely have come to is the point where you’ve recognised the giant that David’s story has gotten to. It almost needs a part two, like ‘what can we do?’, and make that the investigative thrust of the doco.
Anna: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat to me.
Molly: I feel as though I gave you some very convulted heavy answers there but I suppose they were just honouring the nature of your questions.
Anna: It’s a very heavy subject.
Molly: Hopefully of use to your article and I shall look forward to your article when you publish.
Anna: I loved Another Country by the way. Like what we were talking about before, it’s hard to engage in it. I had a big realisation last year that I don’t engage with this part of my Australian culture almost at all and have been trying to take little steps towards rectifying that.
Molly: It’s really hard to, it really is hard to. Even for me, I know the community, I’m up there. The Easter parade where they all come down, I’m barking at my cinematographer Matt to follow them, I’ll take the other gear round, and when they’re all walking towards Matt and I, it’s like: “This is Australia! This is my country! This is so foreign to me.” And that is a problem, that we’re so disconnected from our first peoples.