Personal Reflections on Whiteness and Three Film Projects

by Rolf de Heer

© all rights reserved

As a film maker I have found myself, over the years, involved in a number of projects in which issues of Whiteness are more overt and deeply embedded than in many films. These projects are ones that have Indigenous themes (and hence Indigenous participation) as at least part of their fabric. My responses to these issues at the time were largely instinctive and unconscious rather than articulated and intellectualised, but on some level they were often deeply considered nevertheless.

This article, based entirely on personal reflections, will try and unravel and make sense of those mostly unconscious considerations (and instinctive actions) and by doing so, will hopefully add to the understanding of these issues in my field in particular and in other fields more generally.

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My first major collision with issues of whiteness came partway through 1992, on an unmade project called “The Other Side of the Frontier”, loosely inspired by the Henry Reynolds book of the same name. An Italian/Australian producer, a Belgian director and an Australian writer had been trying to develop a viable ‘first contact’ screenplay about a cabin boy washed overboard and taken in by an Aboriginal tribe some two hundred or more years ago. Efforts had stalled so the producer turned to me and was willing to fund an attempt by me, an Australian writer/director born in Holland.

For proposed financing reasons, the filming was to take place in Queensland, so it was logical for me to also set the film there (this sort of logic is not always applied). The Indigenous community at Hopevale, north of Cooktown, was in some way involved in the project, and I was duly despatched there for three weeks to do “research”.

I arrived there at an unwelcoming time: a funeral was in progress and there had been another death in the community two days previously. Events surrounding the deaths were such that my accommodation had not been properly prepared and was not considered adequate for me (though I’ve had worse) and so I was sent back to Cooktown to wait for a week, staying in a good motel paid for by the community. Already nothing was going as I’d expected, but I had a lot of time to reflect on my experiences so far, particularly how it was assumed that as a white visitor I’d be more comfortable staying away from the community, in white person’s accommodation. The feeling that came through was “we’d be more at ease if you didn’t stay here because you’re a white man and we’re just blackfellas, and we’re not good enough for you”, and I likened it to a sort of low cultural (racial?) self-esteem.

The second week started just as inauspiciously. I was keen to make up for lost time, so I spent a day trying to see those contacts I’d been given, to absolutely no avail. I tried to make appointments, I tried to pin down times, create certainties, but the harder I tried, the further away slipped any connection I was attempting. As I left that first evening to drive back to my motel room in Cooktown (for which I was now grateful), it was apparent to me that unless I approached things differently, unless I “cracked the code”, then my entire trip would be a monumental waste of time and money.

I’d noticed, outside the Council offices, an area where at most times of the day people just sat, or sat and smoked. There was not a lot of social interaction, mainly a shifting group of between two and five people sitting in the shade of a tree passing the time of day with an occasional cigarette, an occasional word to a passerby or a fellow smoker. I thought I might plant myself there and just wait: those I needed to see would soon find out where I was, and I might even make contact with some new people.

Day one of the wait was discouraging. By mid afternoon I’d run out of cigarettes and only three people had even acknowledged my existence. Having no other way to penetrate this alien culture, being able to think of no other plan, I arrived again the next day and sat down again, a spot just outside the main sitting area so as to be there without directly intruding. Results were a little better. I began to recognise the regulars, a number of whom nodded in my direction. One man came over and asked for a cigarette, which he smoked sitting next to me, not talking, simply looking off while each of us smoked. Cigarette finished, he mumbled something and wandered away. And at one point during the day one of my named contacts approached me, introduced himself and said we should talk some time. Trying to appear as casual and laid back as seemed to be the mode, I replied “Whenever”, which seemed to satisfy him. He nodded and walked off.

I was unvarying in my approach, and each succeeding day was an improvement on the previous one. By the end of the week I knew a number of people’s names, I’d been invited into the centre of the sitting group by a man patting the ground next to him and indicating I sit there, there were snatches of conversation, occasional questions about what I was doing there. Although in many ways it was an excruciatingly difficult week, I learnt the fundamental lesson during it…if I was going to be working successfully with this community (or for that matter any other), it would only happen if I threw off the shackles of my white privileged existence and approached things in a manner consistent with their way of doing things.

By this stage I’d begun to regret my comfortable hotel room an hour’s drive away; it felt like a barrier between me and the people I’d come to know a little. An old man asked me where I was staying. I mentioned the name of the hotel in Cooktown, but something in my tone alerted him. He sat quietly for twenty minutes, then said he was going bush for a few days the following day…would I care to accompany him?

And so I went bush for the remainder of my stay at Hopevale, with a family group of about eight or ten, kids and women included, headed by the old man. He showed me things, tried to teach me: his land and its beautiful, almost desolate beaches, utterly empty apart from the washed-up plastic rubbish thrown overboard from passing ships; what to eat, what not to eat; how to make spears; where to find fresh water even yards out to sea; round the campfire, history of Hopevale, of its setting up as a mission station, history of old times before Hopevale ever existed. Near the river a couple of nights I was given the most dangerous sleeping spot, because crocodiles prefer eating black people over white people…the old man and another slept on top of the Troop Carrier we had for transport, the women and children slept inside the vehicle, I slept on the ground underneath.

Instinctively I asked no questions and ventured no opinions, simply waiting to be told what to do and then doing what I was told. It turned out that this was exactly the correct form of behaviour: notions of cultural and racial difference evaporated as I became what in essence I was, an uninitiated and therefore ignorant “youth” (though I was 41 at the time) who ought correctly have no opinions for himself yet and should simply listen and learn.

I learnt the film then, in a way I could never have had I approached the research with any vestiges of my own familiar white paradigm. Whether the old man was aware of the subject matter for the proposed film and had been deliberate in his arrangements I’ll never know, but I became that cabin boy in the story, a stranger at first but gradually assimilated into the ways of the people who’d taken him in.

Weeks later I sat in my office, paper and pencil before me, grappling with how to approach this script, what perspective to take, how to deal with language. This was fifteen years ago: the word ‘reconciliation’ was nowhere in our consciousness; there was a prevailing wisdom in the film industry that films with Indigenous themes were poison at the box office; and this was clearly (in my thinking at the time) going to be an expensive film to make and everything that could be done to make it more commercially acceptable ought to be done, to have any chance of financing it.

Language felt the biggest immediate issue. The closest comparison I could think of was Dances With Wolves, but that film had been flawed for me by the unlikely artifice of the entire Native American tribe learning English to communicate with the one white person, rather than the much more likely case of the one white person learning the language of the tribe who had taken him in. But I could see why they had done this…it would have been an impossible film to finance if most of it needed to be subtitled.

And I realised that if I was going to be as respectful of my new friends at Hopevale as I felt, then I had to humanise them, reduce the boundaries of difference such that the audience (predominantly white) could identify with them as people, as characters, rather than as, perhaps, exotic savages. There was no satisfactory way to do it, but somehow, I had to have them speak English.

My solution to these issues was an artifice less dramatically flawed than the one used in “Dances With Wolves”, though perhaps, in hindsight, it was rather more culturally flawed…I would have all the Aboriginal characters speak English, as if that was their own language (unimaginable to me now after Ten Canoes), and I would create a nonsense language for the cabin boy and any other white people who might come into the script towards its end, a language of gobbledygook that would not be subtitled but simply not understood (I remember flirting with the idea of having the white people speak Esperanto). It would force the viewer to experience the story from inside the Indigenous tribe, and would make the white people ‘the other’.

During my process of actually writing the screenplay for The Other Side of the Frontier, I also researched in a much more conventional Western way, in books and libraries, old documents and new publications. Much of what I read was not necessarily applicable to my script, but I did learn that the history of white colonisation of Australia was a much more troubled one than the history I’d learnt at school. The violence inflicted upon the Indigenous population was at times extreme, and certainly widespread. It was a deeply shocking contradiction to the comic book version taught in schools in the early sixties.

An idea for another film formed in my head, an angry film, a story of three white men and a black tracker in the middle of nowhere, hunting down a fugitive. The film would be a philosophical discourse between the white men, as they argued the black and white ethics of the time while tracking deeper and deeper into hostile territory, committing the sorts of acts I’d read about.

Inasmuch as The Other Side of the Frontier had become, for me, an Indigenous story with a white character (instead of its profoundly different original form of being a story about a white character in an Indigenous milieu), “The Tracker” was to be a White story with an Indigenous character in it. The two films had entirely different perspectives. The first was seen through the eyes of the Indigenous characters. The emotional core was theirs, they were in control of their own lives, they were the active characters in the story and any philosophical ruminations or subtext were their own. The white character was the dependent, almost the victim. The second film was to be seen through the eyes of the white characters, who were the ones in control. The philosophical discourse was to be an essentially White discourse, with the Indigenous people, to some degree the tracker himself, as the victims. I wrote down the storyline, about ten pages, and put it away whilst continuing with my paid work.

In the event, towards the end of 1992, the producer stopped paying me and the script for The Other Side of the Frontier remained (remains to this day) unfinished. The whole experience was, however, of lasting importance to me. It determined to a substantial degree how in the future I dealt with both issues and people on projects that had Indigenous themes.

I made, then, a brief attempt to get The Tracker going. Although people liked the storyline and the idea and I was funded to write the screenplay, for reasons that eluded me at the time, I could not write the script…it simply would not go down on paper in the way I’d conceived it. Other films started to happen for me, and the storyline spent most of the next decade sitting in a filing cabinet.

In those ten years, there were great changes to the Australian consciousness with regard to Indigenous people. The painful part of that history had increasingly been opened up to discussion and debate. The notion of Reconciliation had become widespread. Films with Indigenous themes were still considered box office poison, but there were now more of them in serious development. Programs had been instituted to train and give opportunity to Indigenous filmmakers to tell their own stories.

Then I was approached by the Adelaide Festival of Arts to make one of the films they were commissioning for the 2002 Festival. Did I have anything relatively low-budget, socially conscious and preferably with a strong Indigenous theme? I had my outline of The Tracker, still in the back of the filing cabinet. They liked it, committed to a part of the budget and soon the film was financed in its entirety.

And so a decade on I was grappling once again with this script that wouldn’t be written in the way it was conceived. I became aware that I didn’t like the three white characters talking so much, nor did I like what they were saying. I didn’t like the functionary nature of the Tracker’s character. The balance between the characters seemed morally wrong, almost invasive, in a way that echoed the historical invasions of this country. I understood why originally I had been unable to write it…I had been funded to deliver something I couldn’t believe in, a script that by its approach subverted its own intentions.

Once I stopped the white characters from talking so much, from dominating almost every scene with their philosophical musings, the film began to evolve into something much more interesting. The relationships between the characters, between black and white, became more complex. Throughout the process of the making of the film, the perspective gradually changed.

The script took it some of the way. David Gulpilil’s performance, so wonderfully instinctive yet layered with such intellectual consideration by him, led it a fair way further. When seeing what he was doing with what seemed like pretty sparse material, we often found ourselves adding a shot, or changing the planned shot, to lift the importance of his character. During the editing, when perspective can be one of the great issues, and can, with sufficient material, be changed almost at will, we found that the story worked best when we used almost all of David’s available material, often at the expense of the white characters…the better the character of the tracker worked, the better the film worked.

Music turned out to be the last piece of the puzzle. As I had struggled with the script and its perspective, so we now struggled with the music. The original idea had been to use or create a series of almost jaunty Country and Western tunes, to lighten the film by ironically counterpointing the weight of the themes. It simply didn’t work, trivialising what we had worked so hard to achieve. We tried all sorts of temporary music, but none of it worked. And we were, by then, committed to a performance of the film with live music at the Arts Festival, and we’d promised songs.

I found a CD of the history Indigenous country music, Buried Country. One song was particularly distinctive: the gravelly voice was unmistakeably Aboriginal; some words of the song were in Language; and the concerns of the song, though nothing to do with the film, were Indigenous concerns. We laid it up against the first massacre in the film and suddenly everything had changed.

Although much about it didn’t work, the song, in that context, utterly cemented what had been happening in the process from the beginning – this had to be the Tracker’s film, its prime perspective was not white, it was black. The words of the song glued themselves to Gulpilil’s character, it was as if he was singing them in his mind while the white men rounded up the small group of bush blacks, chained them, interrogated them in a language they didn’t understand and then shot them out of frustration and because they were ‘only’ black. The song had elements of a lament, not only for the Tracker but for all Australian Indigenous people. We now knew what to do with the music.

I have been questioned and sometimes criticised since the release of The Tracker about being a white person making what turned out to be an essentially black person’s film. I’m happy to say that after screenings, I’ve been spat at by white people and hugged by Indigenous people. The words of the songs, which I wrote because they became such an important part of the narrative, have attracted their own share of such criticism. I defend them with two stories.

The great Aboriginal singer Archie Roach was asked to sing them, and seeing the film (without the words to the songs, which had not yet been written), he readily agreed. Some months later we spent a week recording Archie and the musicians, and during a break in the recording (a very emotional time for Archie), he and I were sitting outside having a quiet cigarette. He looked at me several times, then asked a question…”Did you write those words?”. I said that I had indeed written the words to the songs. A piercing stare from Archie…”All of them?”. I nodded. He shook his head in some sort of disbelief, then said, “You and I have travelled very different roads, but we’ve arrived at the same place”.

Quite some months later Archie and I were in Melbourne, doing a live radio interview to promote the release of the film. In a fairly pointed way, the interviewer asked Archie, who normally writes his own material, what it felt like, singing a white man’s words. Archie turned to him, fiercely, and said, “They’re MY words, those words belong to MY people!”.

But it was during the making of Ten Canoes, a film populated entirely by Indigenous people speaking their own language, and set before white people began wandering the globe in search of lands to colonise, that the issues surrounding a white film maker telling a black story had their greatest resonance.

From the second time I ever met him, when we discussed making The Tracker together, David Gulpilil had asked me consistently and frequently to make a film with him and his people, on his ancestral lands. For some years I’d resisted, for many reasons, not the least being the difficulties in communication. David speaks passable English, but few of the people up in Ramingining, where he comes from, do half as well.

Ramingining has to be experienced to be understood. Some people talk of it being third-world, others say it is in fact a fourth-world existence for people there. And it is with Africa that the Indigenous people of Ramingining identify most strongly (the favourite DVD there, by far, is Shaka Zulu, a pot-boiler of a dramatic mini-series set among Zulu tribes, which means more to them than any notion of being ‘Australian’). It is a foreign, alien culture in Ramingining and I had little confidence in our ability to accumulate the material required for a feature film of sufficient quality to play in the cinemas of the world.

But then it struck me that there was one way in which this might be achievable: relinquish the almost absolute power normally associated with producing and directing a film and cede it to the people I’d be making this with; give them editorial control and as much responsibility for the film as we, the white film makers, had responsibility. It was an approach fraught with tremendous risk, but if somehow a true partnership could be made out of the venture, with me acting as the film-expert facilitator, then there was just a chance that something could work, in both process and product.

In some strangely confluent ways, the privileges (and consequent blindnesses) that inform the power structures of making a film are a metaphor for white privilege and blindness in general society. The director is seen, usually to begin with anyway, as a superior being not only because of the power they might have, but simply by dint of the title attached to the job. It is a perception that often suits the occupant of the job, who then generally behaves according to that perception.

It was my (semi-conscious) reasoning that all this had to be dismantled, that notions of superiority and privilege had to make way for a perception by all those involved, white and black, of themselves as equals in the venture. This was not some warm and fuzzy ideal but a necessary part of the risk minimisation strategy, and the difficulty here was that we were dealing with a double layer of this perception…not only was I the director and hence the expert who knew everything, but I was also white, and hence I ought at any rate to know a whole lot more than them.

During my initial trips to Ramingining to discuss what sort of film the people there wanted to make, my experiences at Hopevale more than a decade before stood me in good stead. I forced myself to be patient, I spent the many hours waiting by just being seen in probable places and when meetings did take place, I suggested as little as I could and demanded nothing.

Very slowly, over a succession of monthly visits each lasting a week or so, I began to form relationships. David had made initial introductions but had quite quickly faded from the scene and eventually moved to Darwin. I still thought he would be co-directing the film and starring in it, but content would have to come from the people of Ramingining without David.

I tried to learn about ways to behave within this foreign culture. Some things were almost counter-intuitive. It’s not the done thing, for example, to make too much eye contact, something that in our culture improves social and business relationships. There are no words for ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ in their languages, so I trained myself not to respond adversely to the sort of abruptness that comes through their absence. And, having had trouble at first differentiating one Indigenous person from the next, I realised that they possibly had similar trouble differentiating me from the other white people who strayed into town, and hence I always wore exactly the same set of clothes, without variation.

Gradually ideas for the content of the film were drawn from those interested in being part of it. The project took on a life in the community quite separate from anything I had to do with it, even though I needed to be the driver of it. There were speculations about it, jokes about the nakedness of the past, some doubters, others fiercely protective of it; but there is little doubt that some form of ownership was beginning to be felt. When David Gulpilil withdrew from the project just weeks before shooting, no one much worried about it other than me. I’d been relying on David especially because of the particular combination of knowledge that he had: film requirements; performance; culturally sensitivity; and appropriate language. For the community, however, it made little difference. By now they had come to trust me, and their decision-making process, being consensus based, was not much affected by the presence or absence of any single one of them.

That any of it ever worked at all is something of a small miracle. The community of Ramingining laboured under some profound disadvantages during the project: their culture has, over the years, been devalued, and along with it their confidence in their own abilities, particularly if there’s anything to do with the white world; they have learnt, in some measure, not to trust white people to do what they say they’re going to do (for example they had taken, some five years ago, a European anthropological film crew to many different “special” places, on the understanding that they would receive a copy of the material…nothing has ever arrived, no one has been heard from and all communications remain unanswered); and we all struggled with the biggest problem of all, language.

I had no real knowledge of their languages, and no ability to learn any of them. They knew their own languages, but in general could speak standard English only half-well, or badly, or not at all. Their languages evolved to describe a different universe than the one ours describes…they are languages that are poorly equipped to deal with concepts of fiction and film making, as my language is poorly equipped to deal with concepts of their kinship system, inner life and spirituality. Because English was the accepted and only practical means of communication between white and black, and because they had real problems communicating adequately in it, doubts about their own competence inevitably crept in and their pre-existing notions of white superiority were regretfully reinforced.

What saved the process, and countered these perceptions more adequately than anything anyone consciously or unconsciously did, were the rushes, the raw footage of the filming we had done, and which we would screen as soon as it arrived back in Ramingining from the laboratory. The Indigenous participants not only saw themselves on screen, speaking their own languages, but they also immediately understood this as a successful achievement of something they’d struggled hard for, against the odds, in a medium that was, for them, a given of white superiority…and they’d been instrumental in putting it onto that medium. The leaps of confidence in self had to be seen to be believed.

* * *

I understand that the success of Ten Canoes, both as a process and a product, is partly due to our ultimately effective grappling with issues of whiteness, and, as importantly, those issues as they were specific to the Ramingining community. I also understand that without the particularity of the process that led up to it, over a period of almost fifteen years, I could not have found that paradigm of equality from which we tried to operate. We were also fortunate: the sort of consciousness necessary does not just spring into being; it evolves as much through good luck as anything else.


Rolf de Heer writes, produces and directs a range of generally low-budget feature films, to varying degrees of critical, audience and commercial success. His films include : Bad Boy Bubby(Jury Prize and Fipresci Prize, Venice, 1993); The Quiet Room (Cannes Competition 1996); Dance Me To My Song (Cannes Competition 1998); The Tracker (Venice Competition 2002);Alexandra’s Project (Berlin Competition 2003); and Ten Canoes (Cannes Un Certain Regard Jury Prize 2006, AFI Best Film). Dr Plonk opens at the end of August.

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