Sunlight dappling under gum trees, tra-la, tra-la. They’ve got a lot to answer for, those Heidelberg painters. Not that this is one of those films; this is educational video. About the death and rebirth of the Kaurna language as reconstructed by linguists and anthropologists; about cultural domination and resistance.
This is no Aussie battler trotting his poor but happy cart beneath the red gums, wryly pondering on the mysteries of women, the demands of mateship, and the quietude of life with a blue healer. To be semi-domesticated at the end by a pushy-but-loveable, diamond-in-the-rough, urchin almost-boy woman. No; this is the Colonial Myth; the past, as past, when looked at from the present. Same gum trees though. Same bit of scrub.
This is Gawler, second Governor of South Australia, circa 1838, as played by – me. No longer a wayside bum by the battler’s track, no meths-drinking dero extra with yak-hair stubble, lying by a fire in a hollow tree, emphasising the innate nobility and cleanliness of the lead. This time I’m the overlord, the leading actor. It is my nose that the makeup artist powders down. It is my cravat the dresser straightens. And very fine the costume is too, if a trifle oversize. This is low budget after all.
I didn’t think we’d get the shot done; it had pissed down all morning. The paper said the reservoirs were full and that the government would save a bundle this summer. I wondered who would profit once they’d sold off the water. It was to be a long, continuous shot of Gawler exhorting the blacks on how to fully enjoy the benefits of civilisation, which the white folks had brought with them from overseas and, in true Christian fashion, were more than happy to share. A low angle shot, so that behind the imposing figure in full naval uniform, dress sword, golden epaulettes, medals and all, would be seen the tops of the gum trees, quivering against the boundless sky, basking in the ferocious sun.
But miracles do happen. On low budget movies they have to. By twelve-thirty the oppression was lifting, and by two p.m. the flotilla of stately cumulus had blown north. The sun came out, the gum trees dripped, and the cinematographer beamed. Not quite so pleasant for the actors, as from the steaming ground mosquitoes rose to feed, but hey, we all accept that we’re not that important. It’s an industrial process, a modernist art, formalised in the constructivist twenties.
The reserve had been recommended, apparently twice, by the Botanical Gardens Department as the nearest piece of unspoilt bush. I fronted up to the dressing room, the aerobics hall of a fitness centre across the road from its gat, expecting to be the solitary player, and found half a dozen extras trying on costumes. There was to be an audience of colonists for my speech. In conversation with a tall man resplendent in a purple frock coat, I found that they were volunteers, education department officials. Language curriculum administrators or something. There was a husband and wife team who were German, and purple-coat was in charge of French. One had a daughter acting in Melbourne, who’d had six week’s worth of work this year. He wished me luck with my career. Made up and dressed, we were asked to wait by the pool, because another cast of extras had arrived; my real audience, the black one.
Great pains had been taken for historical accuracy. One reason I’d got the role was because I’d been born in Devon, Gawler’s home county. It was thought that some rudimentary inflection in my voice would add a touch of authenticity. They’d decided the shot needed framing by the backs of some seated Aborigines. But this mob came from no casting agency, these were no government employees. This mob came from the bush. It was Pitjantjatjara they spoke, I think, it certainly wasn’t English. Three old women, a middle-aged couple and four young kids, shyly trooped into the dressing room. They didn’t speak and they looked at no one, except for their white female interpreter-chaperone.
Waiting by the pool. It sounds so Hollywood that I have to repeat it. There were plastic garden chairs to sit in certainly, around tables pierced by giant cocktail umbrellas, but it was an indoor pool in something like an aircraft-hanger. The stench of chlorine etched itself into my vocal folds, and the three overweight swimmers bore no resemblance to starlets; past, present, or wanna-be’s. When the Aborigines emerged from the dressing room what had previously been parody lurched toward the surreal. The women had swapped their cardies, beanies, and floral dresses for what looked like moth-eaten fur rugs, which they held over their breasts by clenching their upper arms to their sides. The man had been stripped to the waist and red chalk had been applied to his skin, whilst the kids were completely bare. They looked neither to the left nor the right, but filed out of the building, as if joined by invisible irons.
We were all assembled under the tree. The track was laid, the camera mounted on the small crane attached to the dolly, and the camera-man and his assistant were rehearsing the shot. As the sound man wired me with a miniature mike the kids discovered the monitor. The camera-man, noticing, swung his lens on them and they whooped with laughter, pointed and waved. But, however quickly they moved, they could never quite catch themselves waving back.
Their elders squatted on the damp ground. I had never met people like this in my life. I am of the city, civilised. These people didn’t even see me, it was if I were a ghost that, if not regarded, might disappear. The director wanted the man and a woman to swop places but couldn’t make himself understood, so the interpreter had to be used. Of which I was glad, considering what I was about to say. Discussing the role earlier, I had asked whether Gawler had known he was selling a pup. The director got quite disturbed: “No, no, just very patriarchal, you know. But he would have believed every word that he said”. At the time it had been a question of style.
I told them to build huts, wear clothes, to work and be useful. To love Jesus who watched whatever they did. Not to kill their children and to love their wives. Not to fight and kill each other. Not to be drunkards, or they’d get sick and die. That I would give a plot of land to anyone prepared to dig the soil, to grow potatoes and cabbages and other ‘useful things’. And that they should learn English, so that should any white man injure them, they could tell the Protector, and he would do them justice.
With two good takes in the can we were finished. The black man sitting at my feet had broken a bunch of twigs off a shrub, and with it swotted mossies off his back. When the interpreter told it was time to go he stood up and looked at me for the first time, he in his rug, I in my Gilbert and Sullivan. I smiled nervously, and half-raised my hand. He half-raised his but then let it fall. He turned back to the scrub and was gone. He understood alright; the virus of language.