Review – The Australian Dream (2019)

Director: Daniel Gordon

Starring: Adam Goodes, Stan Grant, Michael O’Loughlin, Gilbert McAdam, Tracey Holmes, Nova Peris, Nathan Buckley

Australian DreamWhile it is not unheard of for two films on the same subject to come out at roughly the same time, what is more unusual is for them both to be quite good. Only eight weeks after Ian Darling’s The Final Quarter premiered at the Sydney Film Festival, Daniel Gordon’s The Australian Dream, written by journalist Stan Grant, premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Both films examine the final stages of the career of Australian Rules footballer and indigenous activist Adam Goodes which saw him prematurely retire after a prolonged campaign of racially charged crowd abuse. However, their different approaches ensures that they don’t feel like they are treading the same ground and end up complementing rather than competing with each other in the telling of this important story.

Where The Final Quarter really zeroed in on the events, progressing in a methodical, chronological fashion, from the inciting incident in the 2013 Indigenous Round match between Sydney and Collingwood to Goodes’ retirement in 2015, The Australian Dream widens its scope. This film wants to contextualise what happened, both within Goodes’ life and career, and also the 230 year history of white-aboriginal relations since the colonisation of Australia. As such, after a brief introduction, the first hour of the film is devoted to laying that foundation, ensuring we have an appropriate appreciation for Goodes’ skill and toughness as a footballer, but also for who he is as a person and, more specifically, as an Aboriginal person. We hear of his experience growing up with an indigenous mother and a white father. We hear how, owing to his mother being part of the stolen generation, he grew up disconnected from his Aboriginal heritage. We hear how sport, and in particular Aussie Rules football, became an avenue for acceptance.

One of the fascinating elements of The Australian Dream is how it describes the cultural significance of Aussies Rules Football not just to Australia more broadly, but specifically to Aboriginal Australians. It points to the traditional indigenous game marngrook as being a precursor to the creation of Aussie Rules, but also talks about how, for a young indigenous man who felt a certain disconnection from his culture, the football club was able to fill that void. The football club possessed a culture of its own, with its own heritage, stories and elders. This culture was something Goodes could feel connected to. This cultural significance of football, this idea of football as an equaliser, as a place where you could belong, only serves to make it more heartbreaking when football lets Goodes down. 

The big trump card that The Australian Dream has is the participation of Goodes himself. A private person who has understandably all but disappeared from public life, his new interview footage adds weight and gives insight. When we do get to the examination of those last two and a half seasons, of his time as Australian of the Year, and of the booing campaign and accompanying media frenzy, to hear his retelling of it and his reflections is illuminating. He gives us a sense of that emotional experience, and of the challenge that is presented when you become politically aware of your own identity. 

Goodes

Adam Goodes

Goodes’ contributions are complemented with a series of talking heads from former teammates and coaches who share their perspective having walked alongside him, and other indigenous footballers and athletes who provide interesting observations and parallel experiences. Intriguingly, Gordon and Grant decide also to give a voice to conservative commentator Andrew Bolt and to media personality and president of the Collingwood Football Club, Eddie Maguire. While Maguire comes across as an uncomfortable participant in image control mode, Bolt remains defiant and staunchly defends his interpretation of events and his role in the accompanying media storm.

Then there is Stan Grant himself. Grant is given a privileged position amongst the talking heads. Whether it was a directorial choice or in his writing of the piece, Grant seems to perform an expository function. After a series of bites from different interviewees talking about what was happening, we turn to Grant for an overarching summation. Where they are talking about their own experiences and perceptions, Grant is explaining and editorialising. He is used as a pseudo-narrator to hammer home the overall point at moments the filmmakers lack confidence that it has been made clear. This would not be a problem, but for the fact that he is visually presented the same as every other talking head, so it feels a bit clunky when he is performing a very different function.

The Australian Dream is a more reflective and openly polemical film than The Final Quarter. It is a film that is always making connections and showing us that things are more significant than they seem. In its desire to confront some uncomfortable truths about Australia there are occasions where it falls into sermonising, telling us rather than showing us. But the simple fact of these events, and the shameful recency of them, suggests that perhaps a bit of sermonising might be required. An ambitious film, with moments of brilliance and insight, The Australian Dream is a strong companion piece to The Final Quarter, with the two combining to effectively interrogate this shameful moment in Australian sporting history.

Rating: ★★★☆

Review by Duncan McLean

Have you seen The Australian Dream? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

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