What’s your earliest memory?
Having my photograph taken with my brother Graham at the age of three. We were playing on the cold sand at Patonga on the banks of the Hawkesbury River near Sydney. He was instructing me, as older brothers do, to look at the camera and smile, and I was resisting. I had happy childhood moments there. It was many years before I learned that all around us was a secret battleground where the first Australians had fought the invading British. No-one talked about it – then and now.
Who inspires you?
I wrote a book called Heroes. The heroes were ordinary people who manage to survive and sometimes triumph against great political forces ranged against them. They inspire me.
What political issue are you most passionate about at the moment?
I’m not sure it’s possible to box ‘political passions’. Politics are part of life itself. Lately, I have been consumed by the making of Utopia, my film about the struggles and resistance of indigenous Australians. This is both an Australian story and a universal ‘issue’ – it’s about people defending a way of life against rapacious power, and having the right to share the riches and opportunities in their own country. It’s also about an apartheid that seldom speaks its name.
Utopia reunites you with people you filmed in The Secret Country in 1985. What had changed for them in the intervening years?
The short answer is, in essence, very little. A couple of examples: in the 1985 film I reported that in New South Wales almost a quarter of Aboriginal males who survived to the age of 20 were dead by 40. The latest statistics show that almost a third of Aboriginal people are dead before the age of 45 and almost half don’t live past 55. In 1985, I highlighted the fact that trachoma, which causes blindness and is entirely preventable, was rampant in indigenous communities. In Utopia, I point out that Australia is still on an international ‘shame list’ as the only first-world country that has not eradicated it. Almost all the victims are indigenous.
What has changed is the willingness of many indigenous Australians to fight back.
This is your fourth film about indigenous Australia. What inspired you to go back now?
I have been going back to Australia since I left. I’ve made seven films from and about my homeland; I’ve probably seen more of Australia than the great majority of my compatriots who sometimes give them impression of being bystanders in their own country. What inspires me to go back? Because there are two unique features about Australia: the ancient land and the original people. I am fortunate to have been born and to grow up in this haunting epic place, though I was not aware of that until, ironically, I returned from the other side of the world to ‘discover’ my own country.
In the film you reveal that indigenous children are being removed from their families at twice the rate as during the 20th century. Is this the Stolen Generation, all over again?
Yes, but with one major difference. The children of the first Stolen Generation were removed by welfare officials and others in authority, often for openly racist reasons: to ‘save’ Aboriginal children from their own societies: as the Chief Protector himself remarked famously, to ‘breed out the black’. Although the undeclared policy today is assimilation, the reasons given for removing children are often a form of blame – blame of indigenous families for their impoverishment and blame for the legacies of discrimination against them.
What needs to happen for the lot of first peoples in Australia to be transformed for the better?
Aboriginal people first and foremost should decide how their ‘lot’ is changed. At present, they are barely consulted. There will be a transformation only when they can sit down with the non-indigenous population and negotiate, as equals, a charter of rights that share the resources and opportunities of one of the world’s richest countries. It would not be difficult to achieve if the political will was there in Canberra [the seat of government]. It would be a transforming start, because it would exemplify something that is utterly absent – goodwill on the part of the majority.
In a recent piece in The Guardian, you wrote that ‘only Aboriginal people are the true Australians. The rest of us – beginning with Captain Cook – are boat people.’ Do you come under attack for these views when you travel back to your native Australia?
Yes: by those who themselves are part of the problem. The truth can be upsetting.
Where do you feel most at home?
I feel most at home in Australia, and most at home in London, and most at home in other parts of the world that have become familiar to me. I suppose I am an internationalist, but I am also very sentimental about those places where I ‘feel’ at home.