The sorry state of reconciliation

Age - 25th May 2000
Author: Rebecca Lancashire

Archie Roach draws a circle on the ground. Aboriginal people, he says, see life as a circle - with no beginning and no end. Family ties bind the circle and keep it whole. "If the circle is broken, you can't get back home."

Roach, a musician and survivor of the stolen generations, takes us on a journey around Australia - and around that circle. He speaks softly, often wiping away tears as he listens again and again to the stories of stolen children. When Sam Murray was taken, he was too young to remember his real name and has spent a lifetime searching; Jean remembers her mother begging for more time with her children; Roach's partner Ruby Hunter was told she was going to see the circus, but she never got home again.

Roach's documentary, Land of the Little Kings, is one of nine new dramas and documentaries commissioned by SBS Independent and dedicated to the stolen generations.

Unfinished Business: Reconciling the Nation is a landmark: it is the first time an Australian television network has devoted a season to stolen generations and reconciliation. It showcases the work of indigenous film makers for the first time and it represents a big financial investment for SBS - costing more than $1 million to produce.

"We've never done a project of this scale on a single issue before. I hope it will make people sit up and take notice," says Bridget Ikin, the manager of SBS Independent.

"It says something that the national broadcaster is dedicating that number of hours to telling these stories. I hope people get a sense of just how many lives are affected here and how personalised it is.

"It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about some of those stories - they are about people trying to grow up in a country where they don't know who their family is - the single most important thing for them is connecting with that family again. It is very hard not to empathise with people whose lifelong search is just to know who their mother was."

SBS has taken up John Howard's "black armband" version of history and waved it like a banner. They concur with Sir Ronald Wilson's report The Stolen Children: Their Stories, which states that the telling of these stories is vital to the healing process.

"We absolutely take for granted that there is a stolen generation - in fact several generations," says Ikin.

"Aboriginal people have had a chance to tell their stories and non-Aboriginal people have had a chance to really listen to those stories, too."

The genesis for the Unfinished Business was the growing numbers indigenous film makers around Australia wanting to tell their own stories. In 1998 and 1999 SBSI received numerous proposals for films about stolen children and reconciliation. "It seemed too important to just show one or two so we started commissioning; we saw an opportunity to make a difference," says Ikin.

"There is a wave of young indigenous film makers around the country - Rachel Perkins is the first of this group to make a feature film (Radiance) - but in five years' time you will look back and think: this is where it started." The season of programs includes live coverage of Corroboree 2000 on May, 27 and 28 when the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation will present its final proposal for a national document for reconciliation.

Darlene Johnson's powerful documentary As it Happened: Stolen Generations, shows the scale of the removal of Aboriginal children from their families - from the late 19th century right up until the early 1970s. The government rationale may have changed with the times - they were a dying race anyway, it was for their own good, it was assimilation - but the practice remained.

"What is love?" asks one interviewee. "It is a mother holding her light-skinned baby over a fire to try and darken his skin so he wouldn't be taken."

Historian Professor Marcia Langton talks of white Australians' denial of Aboriginal history as a "national pyschosis", while the victims had more practical concerns - it was common practice not to tell children their real names or where they came from. They feared getting married because they had no way of knowing if their spouse was really their sibling.

"For every child that was stolen it is like a stone thrown in the water - the ripple effect goes in every direction in the broader community," says Ikin. "Someone might have been stolen 50 years ago but because they had no experience of being parented, their own children have also suffered because they haven't known love and haven't been parented properly.

"The (Howard Government's) claim that only 10 per cent of Aboriginal people were stolen is such a mean-spirited way of looking at it. It's not about numbers, it's about the ripple effect through an extended family and through the generations." Cry from the Heart traces the life of Chris Edwards, whose mother was stolen and then her children, in turn, were taken from her. Edwards, who grew up in foster homes, institutions and finally jail, describes seeing his own daughter for the first time: "When I first looked at my daughter, I had no feeling of love in me, I didn't understand what love was because they never showed it to me."

Edwards was sexually abused from the age of four, became a confused and violent teenager and was locked up for 10 years. At his parole hearing is his biological brother Frank, a policeman whom he had never met.

For Ikin, formerly an independent producer whose credits include Jane Campion's acclaimed An Angel at My Table, is most struck by the lack of anger on the part of the victims.

"Many of the stories in this collection are so very personal, yet the feeling I get from them is one of incredible dignity ยค a willingness to keep on talking; a patience about the process."

Unfinished Business: Reconciling the Nation screens on SBS from May 25 to June 3.