The Australian Wars review – a furious exposé of a place that celebrates murderous white settlers
When Australia rejected the Indigenous voice referendum last month, the news quickly spread to Britain. However, there was limited information available about Indigenous Australians. To learn more, one could turn to the films of Indigenous directors such as Warwick Thornton (known for Samson and Delilah and Sweet Country), Ivan Sen (director of Mystery Road), Leah Purcell (creator of The Drover’s Wife), and Rachel Perkins, who directed the musical comedy Bran Nue Dae and this new documentary. This documentary raises important questions, including who can be relied upon to accurately depict the shared 235-year history of our nations.
Perkins is a serious and genuine figure throughout the journey, often wearing a black cowboy hat. She starts her trip at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The walls here have names of those who died and are adorned with poppies as a reminder to never forget. However, Perkins points out that Australia’s memory is biased. From 1788 to 1934, around 100,000 Indigenous people lost their lives in conflicts with British settlers, a number comparable to those who died fighting in wars overseas. Yet, only the latter group is honored and remembered.
It’s possible that you believe these were simply minor clashes or conflicts over land, which occurred too far in the past to be recognized officially. However, Perkins disregards such justifications by physically visiting the locations of the massacres – many of which are also unmarked – and speaking with the descendants of both the victims and perpetrators. Other aspects of this history are even more difficult to discuss, including the organized sexual abuse and exploitation of Indigenous women by white settlers – something that Perkins’ own family history attests to – and the “native” police forces of Queensland and other areas, which involved Indigenous men in some of the most brutal violence.
Perkins collaborates with experts from various parts of the continent to thoroughly examine these obscure areas, uncovering a consistent pattern of sanctioned violence that has persisted even as British rule transitioned to state parliaments and a united commonwealth. As noted by historian Prof Henry Reynolds, Indigenous individuals were granted British citizenship and residing on crown lands at one point, but could suddenly be deemed “outside the king’s peace” when it suited those in power, making it permissible to kill them without it being considered murder.
Perkins’ movie constantly engages with present-day Australia. It includes the typical elements of a historical documentary, such as visits to old archives and dramatic reenactments of key moments, like the non-fatal attack on Governor Phillips on Eora land and the Gough homestead murders in Tasmania. However, it is through the interviews with Perkins’ subjects that the past truly comes to life. One woman shares her feelings of discomfort, difficulty, and emotion when attending the annual ceremony commemorating a massacre committed by her ancestor. Another describes the memorial on stolen land, still owned by the descendants of thieves, as more of an insult than an honor. Rodney Dillon, a member of the Palawa nation, reveals that he has never and will never drive across Batman Bridge, which is named after John Batman, a man who proudly killed Indigenous people and was rewarded by the governor for it.
All individuals, including the historians, show strong emotions and are not impartial. This is understandable. The Yiman anthropologist Marcia Langton, with her white hair, passionately exposes the inconsistencies in colonial propaganda. Many others are also deeply moved. The documentary is powerful and has a follow-up. After airing in Australia in September 2022, the new chair of the Australian War Memorial has stated that the institution’s expansion in 2028 will include acknowledging the effects of frontier conflict.
These conversations are crucial in breaking through what is known as the “great Australian silence.” Finally, the heroes of resistance, including Pemulwuy of the Bidjigal people and Tunnerminnerwait of the Parperloihener clan, are receiving recognition in public records. More importantly, the biases in the recording process are being addressed. For far too long, silence has been imposed, partly due to a refusal to acknowledge oral testimonies from Indigenous people as valid historical sources. Not only does Perkins’ film challenge the belief that the colonists’ written records are more reliable, but she also seeks corroborating evidence from cutting-edge archaeological research. While the dead may not speak, their bones hold the truth.