Mad Bastards vs The Politics of Suffering

The must-see movie of the summer.

Mainstream Australia is becoming a safer and safer place. Whether in the business or government world, safety is the watchword. Safe people, safe investments, safe outcomes, safe institutions, safety belts, safe as houses. But the problem of safety is that it is about investment in the status quo. Such safety is illusionary. The world is a constantly changing place and it is sometimes dangerous.

When you need something, develop a public relations strategy that stresses being safe and how safe things are when in the hands of Mr X or Ms Y. But in life you must really get through the shmultz to the detail to understand the real situation. Because sometimes a flood or a cyclone comes and washes your safe world away

The movie Mad Bastards[1] which has won a screening at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival is important because it is not safe. Not one aspect of the film is safe. Produced by Broome’s famous Pigram Brothers, and mates, the movie is a small budget wonder. It is a movie that should not have been made in Australia’s safe investment environment. That alone makes it important viewing.

The lead actors are not actors. Many of the cast appear in movies for the first time. The director, Brendan Fletcher, is a novice. Yet every aspect of the technical production of the movie and the performances are magnificent. A director like Quentin Tarantino would be proud of this movie. It is beautifully shot.

I will leave it to film experts to talk about these things. What I want to focus on is how the story of this film contrasts with the new orthodoxy in mainstream Aboriginal thinking. The movie focuses on a violent man TJ (Dean Daley-Jones). Anyone who has spent time in the Aboriginal communities knows TJ. There are a lot of TJs out there and the new orthodoxy in Aboriginal affairs likes to concentrate on how men like TJ need to be stopped. The Northern Territory Intervention brought in the entire Australian army across the south, centre and western regions of northern Australia to stop TJ. It spent billions trying to stop TJs in families and communities.

The movie begins with TJ skipping stones underneath a freeway in Perth. Then we see him visiting his brother in prison. His brother pleads with him to take a carved wooden horse to his son. He also tells TJ to go and catch up with his own long lost son. TJ goes to the house where his mother is looking after his brother's child. She slams the door in his face and tells him he is not wanted and to never return. The wooden horse falls to the ground.

TJs prison visit and his mother's reaction reinforce the need to visit his long lost son Bullet. So the film focuses on the long thousand kilometre and thousand tear journey back to his son. I know TJ well. He is sitting beside you in a vehicle or at a pub and you know he is going to explode. You just hope he does not explode while you are sitting alongside him. You leave parties at 9pm in the bush because you know that TJ is going to explode at some point after the alcohol kicks in.

The conventional status quo view of TJ is not to look at anything but his exterior. He is wild, strong, out-of-control and a menace. Lock him up and especially keep him out of the way of those who are weaker than he is. It is a reasonable, common sense position, especially if you have the rogue breathing down your neck. But contrary to received wisdom this is also the view of people who don't really have to confront TJ because its only going to be a matter of time before you are going to have to confront him again. Somehow, some way you have to get to the nub of the problem and this is what Mad Bastards is about.

There is a new orthodoxy in Aboriginal affairs which has come to be known as “the politics of suffering”. John Sutton’s book of the same title[2] won the John Button prize in 2010 and it sums up the view of many who think of themselves as dealing with the hard issues in the Aboriginal community. The thinking is similar to that behind the New Zealand movie “Once Were Warriors”. The focus is very much on the surface. Ex warriors run amuck in communities and the whole blood smattered Tarantino drama culminates in an appeal for zero tolerance, the enforcement of law and order and the protection of innocents and the mother and child.

Of course when you are confronting a wild boar of a man ready to explode the only thing you can do is take cover, call the reinforcements and hope he doesn’t kill you in the process.

But there is also a dog whistle element to “the politics of suffering”;  warriors, either in New Zealand or Australiana Aboriginal society had, according to this reasoning, some elemental blood crazed violent component to them. There is one and only one course of action to be taken against them and that is to apply the full force of the law and imprisonment against them. The argument goes that once locked away women and children can get on with their lives. 

Bring on Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. Of course that is the point. “The politics of suffering” gains an in with the conservative party and with the editorial zealots who run our newspapers. Aboriginal leaders who advocate this line are the first to be quoted and the first to be consulted and the first to be included, by both sides of politics, in consultative bodies. These are apparently the ones who deal with the hard issues that no-one else will touch.

Ultimately “the politics of suffering” is an apology for a new gulag. And Australia really does have its own gulag of Aboriginal imprisonment. “The politics of suffering” results in prisons overfilling at the seams with adolescent boys and men of Aboriginal Australia who fit into a typology of pre-destined violence. They are seized upon by police, charity workers, social workers and family members alike and prison is their sole destination in life. There are now more Aboriginal young men in prison than in TAFE and in university in Australia. Many become lost souls.

The flow on of course is that those who conform to the dictates of mainstream European society are the model. Those who live in a nuclear family, go to school, work hard, buy their own house and car and live peacefully are the great aspirational paradigm for all Aboriginals. John Sutton points to the fact that an increasingly large percentage of Aboriginal women are marrying white men.

Such citizens will also only one want one Australia for Europeans and Aboriginals alike - all living together - according to the same normative values and the same cultural ideals.

Those who do not agree with all this are derided as devisive, weak, hippy, soft, sentimental middle class idealists. These people never have to deal with violence in their homes, against women and against children. They waltz into communities and do not see the TJs, do not see the violence against women and children. They overly sentimentalise the noble Aboriginal savage and even want to be Aborigines! This is the way orthodox politics now views anyone who has a counter view to the dominant "politics of suffering" argument.

Thank god then for the Pigram Brothers and Mad Bastards. Contrasting with the the politics of sufferingorthodoxy, there is an alternative course for the TJs of this world. It comes in the form of a tough policeman Tex (Greg Tait) who is struggling in his home town with his family. It comes in the form of Uncle Black (Dougie Macale) who has no fear of TJ and who seems to see the damage inside the man. It comes by valuing traditional culture as a way of healing the ruthless mainstream violence and alienation felt by so many Aboriginal boys and men.

Tex might well fit into the politics of suffering  scenario. On first appearances he is the counter tough arse man that is what so many orthodox politicians want to create in every Aboriginal community. You confrontmad bastards with other mad bastards.  But we see Tex struggling with the consequences of the law and order path as his own community is falling apart. He forms a men’s group. He knows that prison is no answer to his community’s problems. He is striving for something more.

Make no mistake Tex is tough when he has to be. But his toughness is very much of the old school. He believes in direct confrontation, having it out in a one on one fist fight. But he knows prisons and lock-ups are  a recipe for madness and I do not mean that in a good sense.

They say fathers day in Broome can be the most confusing day of the year! (See Bran Nue Dai for more on this subject)  So when Tex discovers that the rough head TJ is the father of his grandson – then a sort of turmoil is set up – in the end the resolution is that the answer to many Aboriginal communities problems with violence is not prison and courts, it lies in the imagination of those on the front lines, family members finding their own solutions and most particularly from traditional law and culture of Aboriginal society. This is not an easy fit. Its's messy and hard and never complete but it beats sending men to prison and throwing away the key.

Make it a priority to see this movie. It shows that the straight, generalising perfect cubes and circles of Aboriginal affairs are bunk. In the end life is complex, contradictory and non-ideological. The healing lies in the communities and not in the hands of Canberra politicians or national Aboriginal leaders trying to ride the tides of mainstream sentiment.

Finally a word on the outstanding actor of the movieF: Lucas Yeeda, who plays TJ’s son, and Tex’s grandson (Bullet), had only been to the movies a couple of times in his life. He was fourteen when the movie was made. He was wandering around the premiere of the movie when I saw it Sydney. The wide-eyed wonder of the Kimberley seemed to drift on and off the screen as I saw him moving nonchalantly in and out of the crowd. Every one in the cast was very strong, and Ngaire Pigram as Bullet’s mum will surely win a nomination for best supporting actress, but above them all, is the mystery of young Lucas. Words don’t matter much. His whole demeanour carries with it a special presence. I hope we see him again soon on the big screen.

Put some money into the box office for this movie - so the Pigrams and their mates can make more movies. It's not just a movie for white fellas. Despite its white director, and its appealing hooks for the US and international audiences, it's a movie of the Aboriginal community for the Aboriginal community and for everybody else as a result. Must see this summer in the antipodes or winter everywhere else!

[1] Australian/NZ


[2] Peter Sutton, The Politics of Suffering Indigenous Australia and the End of the Liberal Consensus, Melbourne University Press Publishing, 2009