No one film can solve racism. However, documentaries can provide important insights into its causes and its effects. In The Australian Dream, director Daniel Gordon uses the experiences of AFL player and Australian Of The Year, Adam Goodes, to do just that.
The documentary, written by journalist and ‘talking head’ Stan Grant, uses Goodes’ story to examine Australia’s relationship with racism - and the uncomfortable truths about the country's identity that many would prefer to ignore.
Conversations about Australia's identity typically reside in 'safer' territory. Within the sporting arena, for example. Early on in the film, journalist Tracey Holmes explains that “AFL is the thread that binds the nation”.
Sport certainly offered Goodes a lifeline. Growing up, he recalls feeling different and not understanding what it means to be an indigenous person in Australia. Sport allowed him an escape from these complicated feelings. And boy was he good at it - strong, fast and intuitive. Gordon includes footage of Goodes playing Australian rules football and he is an absolute joy to watch.
When he turned professional and started playing for the Sydney Swans, Goodes discovered that not only was he an incredibly talented AFL player, but that he was also a natural and inspiring leader - something that is abundantly clear from his ‘to camera’ interviews.
Unsurprising, then, that Goodes would win a Brownlow Medal - awarded to the fairest and best player in AFL - not once, but twice. Such success - both off and on the pitch - started to make Goodes feel comfortable in his own skin.
Then, in his mid-20s, Goodes had his first experience of being racially vilified while playing football for the Swans. His description of this shocking moment is stunning and deeply affecting.
The Australian Dream does more than just list these - sadly all too common - racist incidents. The film explores their impact. Grant is often on hand to add further context. He acknowledges that (of course) he gets the whole “sticks and stones” thing. Of course such comments should be ignored. Nonetheless, he explains why “names can really hurt”.
The Australian Dream covers a lot of ground in its exploration of racism in Australia and the country’s shocking treatment of its indigenous people. However, the film is most effective when it examines the overwhelming pain that an individual can suffer as a result.
Goodes talks eloquently about how everyday racism makes him feel. His insights are incredibly powerful and important. Want to know how racism destroys a person? This is the film for you… and, while devastating, it is a must-watch.
As a result, we understand why Goodes, after hearing a spectator shout “Goodes! You are an ape”, demanded the removal of that person in the middle of a 2013 AFL match. In the documentary, he recalls how this racist abuse rocked him - he walked off the ground and burst into tears.
The incident sparked nationwide debate - particularly because the spectator was just thirteen years old. Despite being on the receiving end of the abuse, television footage from the time shows that Goodes’ focus was always on education and reconciliation.
An infuriating by-product of racism - explored brilliantly in The Australian Dream - is the fact that the people most affected are often then expected to solve the problem. Goodes, like fellow AFL player Nicky Winmar, was pushed to a point where he could no longer ignore the obscene chants and the racial slurs. He decided to stand up, to speak out and to tackle the racism in his country head-on.
Goodes used his celebrity status to raise awareness of racism and the troubling history of Australia’s indigenous people. The stories explored in The Australian Dream - including from Goodes’ mother - are devastating. In 2014, he accepted - albeit warily - the title of Australian Of The Year and used it as a platform to educate and inform
The Australian Dream examines the toll that speaking out takes. Many people did not take kindly to what Goodes had to say - to put it mildy. Gordon includes the opinions of some of Goodes' critics in his documentary.
It is incredible to watch as they try to justify their words, actions and beliefs. They don’t deserve the airtime, but serve as an important reminder of the casual and incomprehensible racist attitudes that still exist in the world.
These reactions - often spoken within the anonymous confines of the herd - were brutal, ugly and draining. Standing up had huge personal consequences for Goodes - both personally and professionally.
It is to The Australian Dream’s credit that, while it contains many moving scenes showing AFL crowds turning out in support of Goodes, the documentary does not attempt to ‘solve’ the problem or suggest anything resembling a ‘happy ending’.
However, the film does end on a note of optimism. Goodes is still speaking out about his experience and the experiences of the Aboriginal people in his country. His voice has not been silenced.
Meanwhile, Grant suggests that Goodes’ story - and the experiences of many others in Australia - has opened up a space for debate. A space that will allow uncomfortable truths to be expressed and encourage a deeper exploration of what it means to be an Australian.