THE late Pete Postlethwaite (1946–2011) performed in some fifty-two films; he had leading roles in only a few of them, but looking at his work wherever you might have found it – In the Name of the Father, The Usual Suspects, Distant Voices, Still Lives, Brassed Off, momentarily in Alien 3 – you saw a particularly generous kind of professionalism: an actor who pitched in without reserve, without care for image or career, giving his full energy to the work on hand. Since his death at New Year, the obituaries have been long and generous. Some recall his tour of Australia and New Zealand in the one-man show Scaramouche Jones; almost none remember the film that came out of that journey.
In Perth, an old friend, an erstwhile fellow-seminarian, caught up with Postlethwaite. The friend, Bill Johnson, had a film script he wanted the actor to read; he also had a terrible story to tell. His adopted Aboriginal son Louis – who had been born Warren Braeden, and taken from his mother in Alice Springs for adoption at two years old – had been horrifically tortured and killed by two young Englishmen, recent immigrants. Asked why, they had said, according to report: “Because he was black.”
On the same trip, Postlethwaite met Patrick Dodson, who had seen Brassed Off not long before, and instantly recognised Danny the bandleader. The actor couldn’t forget Bill Johnson’s story, and sought to learn more about Aboriginal Australians. The outcome was a road trip, or rather a succession of them, shared with Dodson and the singer-songwriter Archie Roach, and the film, Liyarn Ngarn, which the three made together on the way. With Dodson and Roach, he visited outback communities; in Alice Springs, he found Warren-Louis’s birth family, and he gathered up the story of how the Johnsons brought Louis back to Alice for burial among his own people, and the way the black and white families met. He heard the stories of several black deaths in custody, among them Robbie Walker’s. He met the football star and long-distance walker Michael Long, and the actor and storyteller Ningali Lawford, talking of the film she’d like to see made about the legendary Aboriginal warrior Jandamarra (who, she says, is “up there with Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King”). From part of his speech to camera, it seems that Postlethwaite meant to be involved in making such a film, and that research for it began.
The words Liyarn Ngarn mean “a coming together of the spirit.” The language is Yawuru, spoken in Patrick Dodson’s home country in the Kimberley. In their exchanges Dodson reflects on the encounter of the English with the country and its first inhabitants; and Pete Postlethwaite’s own highly accredited standing as an Englishman, his possession of an OBE, became thematic. Within the racism, he detects a kind of fear, and Dodson also sees fear – of the desert, of the wilderness, of vast stretches of uninhabited silence, of profound foreignness and an extreme of human difference. He has a thesis; he sees the planting of roses, the spread of suburban gardens, as aspects of the fear; attempts at control, to render tamed and comprehensible what was incomprehensibly strange. Images and argument are deepened by Archie Roach’s singing, some of it infinitely sad.
Postlethwaite spent three days with Patrick Dodson, who took him back to Paul Keating’s Redfern Park speech and the beginnings of the Council for Reconciliation, back to retrogressive political change, Pauline Hanson’s entry, and Howard’s notorious outburst at the 1997 Reconciliation Convention, when, as in many other polemical moments, he tried to insist on a fixed boundary between past and present (the elders, you may remember, rose and turned their backs). If Pete Postlethwaite had any single purpose in this film, it was to deny that any such boundary could really exist. He picks up on the old myth of terra nullius, and unlike any other commentator that I know of, he proposes that those words describe a still-continuing cast of mind – sometimes a quite conscious one (I’ve heard it said aloud: “They’re a conquered people; why can’t everyone get used to it?”). Patrick Dodson remembers why he pulled out of the Reconciliation project, and argues for negotiation, for an apology, for a treaty. (The film, which doesn’t carry a date, seems to have been finished before the National Apology of February 2008.)
We see a vast, magnificent painting made by sixty artists of the eastern Kimberley to expound their claim on land rights to their country, and hear that by the time that land claim came to a hearing, nineteen of those artists were dead. The English actor is then seen in the desert, somewhere east of Broome, contemplating the lessons learnt on the journey. He talks of a great country, where he has experienced the utmost friendliness and welcome, and also of a country where the first peoples are always lower down the scale: “They are worth less, they count for less, they matter less.” He and Archie Roach disappear together down a long bush road.
Still in desert country, the actor says that the business of walking together should really be quite simple. The three men talk around a table, Dodson arguing that the Australian state must still negotiate with the first peoples, must arrive at a treaty, must work on unfinished business. But then he says that art and music matter more than argument; and the film ends with Archie, singing about places where the desert meets the sea, then the song he wrote himself around the two words, Liyarn Ngarn. In his music, there is the communication of incurable loss; there is also commitment to carrying on, singing on. There’s a kind of fusion there, a balance so that the loss can’t be forgotten. It is profound emotion without sentimentality, and you dare not talk about hope.
The three had projected a conventional documentary of the journey, but couldn’t raise the kind of money that would take; the work was crewed by Murdoch University film students, directed by their tutor Martin Mhando. They did a fantastic job finding relevant archival footage – the story of Robbie Walker, his poem and his music; the stolen children; Redfern Park, and the great march over the Harbour Bridge in May 2000. The film is thus an assemblage, put together intermittently over two or three years; Postlethwaite returned to Britain to keep his work commitments, and then came back, as he said he had to. When it came to editing, the three found at first that the work lacked the emotional force they wanted. They got involved, taking a stronger hand in the process. At the end of it, Postlethwaite said, it was no longer a documentary, just a film to be taken wherever you can go with it.
As it is, Liyarn Ngarn packs enormous punch. To watch it is to smash through general amnesia, through the long-inured, dimly well-intentioned liberal boredom with the story of race relations in Australia. No déjà vu effect; having seen Rabbit-Proof Fence, Samson and Delilah and The First Australians, there is still another perspective: that of the questing stranger (“a nosey Pom,” he says) for whom the encounters registered in the film have been wrenching, shocking, because he didn’t know – and he shows us that neither, in many senses and even now, do we.
I think we need a sequel, but wonder who could replace Pete Postlethwaite as a central questioner and searcher. Among many other things, Liyarn Ngarn is also an Australian memorial to the actor who, as a storyteller, put all his skills and responses into this new call for justice.
The film is distributed only by ANTaR (Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation). It has achieved some circulation around community, school and church groups, and they’re seeking a television outlet. •
Sylvia Lawson’s most recent book is The Outside Story, a novel on the early history of the Sydney Opera House.