Ōtaki’s Māoriland Film Festival, which kicks off this week, features a documentary about Australia’s apology for the Stolen Generations – and what’s happened since. Aaron Smale spoke to director Larissa Behrendt.
Larissa Behrendt’s father didn’t talk about it much. But one day he suddenly made an explicit reference to his time in a boys home. The revelation came after he’d been reading her novel Home, based on the horrific experiences of her grandmother and father’s generations.
“One night we’d been up having a drink before we went to bed, and he said, ‘you know those things you wrote about in the book, they actually happened.’ I still get chills when I think about it. It was the only time he ever admitted to me about the sexual abuse in the homes. But I suspected it because his younger brother who was in there with him suffered a lot of the usual signs of having been abused as a child, in terms of his inability to be able to adjust to life. So I suspected it had happened to my uncle. I never thought of it in relation to my father because my father never gave that away. It was only because I’d written about it somewhere else that he could almost, without admitting it, admit it. This was when he was in his mid-60s that he said that to me. It’s a long time to have never spoken about it.”
It was a brief glimpse into what had happened to her father and his family and the ongoing legacy of the Stolen Generations. Her grandmother had been taken as a child.
But as a personal narrative it was only a fragment. Behrendt (Eualeyai, Kamillaroi) never got to grasp the fuller picture of what happened to her father, as large swathes of his childhood were cloaked in silence.
Her father didn’t get a chance to see the broader picture of what happened to him either – he passed away before Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised to indigenous Australians for the theft of their children and the impact it had on their communities.
Behrendt says the apology was a milestone in officially recognising what had happened to indigenous Australians. It helped many finally acknowledge the pain they had carried for so long. The apology also meant a great deal to many non-Aboriginal Australians who had come to believe that the country needed to reconcile with its past and its indigenous peoples.
“My father had passed by the time the apology was given and so had my grandmother (who was taken); they had passed away without ever hearing that. So he’d been through the Howard era where that history was being countered and dismissed.”
“I knew even as a child how much that policy had impacted on my family. The kids I went to school with – my brother and I were the only Aboriginal kids at our school – they didn’t know anything about that history. They were hugely unsympathetic to Aboriginal people and had incredibly racist views that had obviously come from their families. They were just kids.”
“For me the apology meant that that would change and other Aboriginal kids wouldn’t have to sit there and listen to such ignorance when it was such a big part of our family. I think whether you were personally affected or whether it was a family connection, it was profoundly liberating and important to hear that apology.”
But what has happened since the apology has challenged that hopeful moment.
Behrendt will be a guest at the Māoriland Film Festival in Ōtaki this coming week, where her documentary After the Apology examines what has happened since Australia officially apologised in 2008.
The film focuses on the fact that the taking of Aboriginal children has actually escalated since the apology, despite a promise to change law and policy to prevent another stolen generation. In 2007, just before the apology, there were 9,054 Aboriginal children in care. In 2016 it was 16,816.
An inquiry into the Stolen Generations led to the Bringing Them Home report in 1997. This was the basis for official recognition of the Stolen Generations but the Howard government resisted calls to make a formal apology, which had to wait another 11 years until the Labor government came to power.
Rudd’s apology repeatedly talked about turning a new page, starting a new chapter in the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. He also talked about ensuring Aboriginal Australians were given the same economic and educational opportunities.
“The apology itself remains a really important moment for the country and for all the Aboriginal people who had been through that experience. To have that official apology was then and still is now an incredibly important moment for the nation. One of the very significant things about it was that while it meant so much to Aboriginal people, it was amazing for the Aboriginal community how many non-indigenous people marked the occasion.
“But I think now that the apology is such a significant national moment for many Australians, it frames the issue of child removal as a thing of the past, that it’s been put to bed. One of the reasons for the film was to show that this is a current issue. One of the first reactions people have to the film is, ‘oh my God, I had no idea this was happening. How can this still be happening, I thought this issue had been resolved.’ In a way, because it has become such an important historic commemoration or acknowledgement of the survival of Aboriginal people, it means that the contemporary issues have been overlooked.”
She says implicit in the apology and the policy responses was a belief that economic uplift would prevent child uplift. However, the policy makers overlooked the importance of cultural identity and connection for indigenous people’s well-being.
“As policy frameworks have been developed there’s been no valuing of connections to indigenous culture, or the role of connection to culture plays in well-being indicator in a whole range of health and well-being research. All the research that shows that kids are healthier and happier in their own home.”
Policy makers also ignored the potential of wider family members to take in children who were in need of protection.
“We’ve got an Aboriginal placement principle in our legislation. But it’s not adhered to. Part of it is because of value judgements made by non-indigenous people about Aboriginal people.”
Looking at what has happened in Australia and North America with the removal of indigenous children, it’s impossible to ignore the parallels with New Zealand.
Behrendt has a familiarity with these links, and regularly catches up with kaupapa Māori academics Leonie Pihama (Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Māhanga, Ngā Māhanga ā Tairi) and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Porou).
“Obviously when we made the film we were pretty focused on making this a conversation within the Australian context, but knowing that it might be of interest to start conversations amongst our Māori brothers and sisters, and in Canada as well. When you get into the nuts and bolts, the policies might be different, the legislation might be different, but it’s striking that at that broader level there are such similarities. The intergenerational effects of the policies is a universal thing for all our communities.”
While Australia is grappling with the issue in a post-apology landscape, New Zealand is only at the beginning of setting up a Royal Commission of Inquiry to look into what happened to wards of the state here. The Royal Commission’s current draft terms of reference aren’t specifically about what happened to Māori, even though Māori children were in the majority in state institutions.
Keeping her father’s experience in mind, Behrendt believes it is important to keep a deliberate focus on those who are not well represented or reluctant to talk.
“I look at my father and how he could survive life past his childhood in what appeared to be a more resilient way than his brother, when he was actually dealing with a great deal of unresolved trauma but he could never admit it.”
While he couldn’t admit it, Australia finally did. But the state apology was too late for him.
“For me that was quite a sadness on the day, it was bittersweet, knowing how much it would have meant to my father to have heard that apology.”
“When I did the film I went back and looked at the archives from the apology, the shots of the people in the crowd and on the parliament house lawn, the old fellas crying, silently weeping. The film has a lot of very hard, heartbreaking scenes. But I found that almost the most moving. Here were old men who carried so much pain their whole life; to see the release of that pain… I’m sure it wasn’t a complete healing, but I find talking about it incredibly moving. It’s one of those times where the image can explain so much better than words how much people carried within them. And how important an acknowledgement, just a simple acknowledgement can be for somebody who’s lived through that and carried that.”
The Māoriland Film Festival runs from 21 to 25 March
Read more from Aaron Smale on Australia, Canada and New Zealand’s Stolen Generations here.