Larissa Behrendt’s After the Apology—released in all major centres nationally this week—is one of the most important social justice films this country has produced. Its most powerful distillation is that the systematic high-rate removal of Indigenous Australian children from their families is not over—children are actually being removed at a much higher rate since Kevin Rudd’s 2007 Apology that formally acknowledged the Stolen Generations. This is not in our past, it is in our present and future.
‘Sorry means you don’t do it again’.
The film tells the stories of grandmothers who have had their grandchildren taken from them by FACS (NSW’s Family and Community Services). One of these is Hazel Collins, who started Grandmothers Against Removal (GMAR) as a response to the rising rates of children in out-of-home care. She connected with families across Australia in the battle to bring the kids home.
Although the film has a focus on New South Wales—as Behrendt is the Professor of Law and Director of Research at UTS’s Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning—there are stories from Victoria, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, told through interviews and oral testimony, realistic dramatisation and animation. Under the surface lies a constant reminder of the horrific and embodied legacy of genocidal practices committed on this country’s many lands.
The four short animation sequences present a beautiful and powerful way to handle sensitive legal information and move with metaphor (I’m thinking of a particular image: a house crumbling brick by brick), and could lead the way for the future of innovative documentary storytelling. One of the animations ‘BARBARA’, directed by Behrendt and Marieka Walsh, was nominated for a 2018 AACTA.
These stories are harrowing and emotive. They are the stories of children taken in the middle of the night, of bubbas snatched out of parents’ arms, and of the fight to bring these kids home. This systematic, escalating social horror should only exist in science fiction movies. No family should have to go through what many endure.
After the Apology shows a race under the microscope; it shows the weighty social surveillance on Indigenous Australians. How we live, how we love and how we parent is analysed through cultural bias. A number of children shown in the film are put into care over false or loosely interpreted information, and returned to their families after this was shown to be a mistake.
Questions of how ‘neglect’ is defined and how narrative is constructed is central to the film. Regarding what constitutes ‘neglect’, this is a move towards scrutinising the government at all levels, where policies and procedures must be held accountable.
Wangkathaa, Yamatji, Noongar and Gitja woman Shareena Clanton gave a stirring speech at the film’s opening last Thursday in Melbourne at the Human Rights Film Festival. Shareena started by uttering a one-word question that those who view the film will ask: ‘Why?’
And then she asked the audience, ‘What do you think is the driving interest of the removal of our children?’
‘Assimilation,’ an audience member offered.
‘More than that,’ she insisted.
‘More… more…’ she paused. ‘To eradicate us.’
Suellyn, one of the grandmothers in the film, described the removal of her grandchildren as a ‘living death’. I never need to be reminded about how brave and strong our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are, but seeing the courage of these women in times of spiralling grief, I know the most important thing any of us can do is listen to their recommendations about how to keep families together.
Behrendt calls this the most pressing issue for Indigenous Australians. The link between children removed and the criminal justice system is chilling—66 out of 99 deaths investigated by The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody were those who had been dispossessed from their families—and still, the government has yet to implement some of the most important recommendations of the 1997 Bringing Them Home report.
As After the Apology shows in theatres across Australia, and in on-demand screenings that can be requested (including sector screenings to FACS), I ask myself whether the measure of an effective social justice documentary is in the storytelling or the response. These stories have said more than enough.
Ellen van Neerven is a Mununjali Yugambeh person from South East Queensland. Ellen’s books include the award-winning fiction collection Heat and Light (UQP, 2014) and the poetry volume Comfort Food (UQP, 2016).