A Meeting of Cultures

Article excerpt

Three films shown at the Sydney Film Festival over recent years have, it seems to me, offered compelling interpretations of the confused conceptions Australians are labouring under as to the proper relationship of the descendants of colonizing Europeans and of the indigenous people of this country. These confusions are suffered by native Australians --both white and black--as we attempt, on the one hand, to provide for all and, on the other, to achieve as a group, material and social well-being and historical and cultural respect. Despite their differing stories and viewpoints, the films suggest some possible ways out of the quandary in which we find ourselves.

Ruby and Rata is a New Zealand film directed by Gaylene Preston and shown in 1991. In the words of the Festival program synopsis:

"Ruby is an old snob, of upper middle class background, who thinks she can stay out of a nursing home if she gets a gullible tenant. Rata (Maori) seems the right sort when she appears dressed for success--obscuring the fact that she's a homeless single mother, with a light-fingered kid called Willy (aged about seven). Rata wants to be a rock-star, but in the meantime she's an office cleaner and a welfare cheat."

Once Rata and Willy are ensconced in the downstairs flat, a domestic war begins, with Ruby rattling the pipes in the middle of the night in retaliation for Rata's loud music in the daytime. Ruby sets herself to lure Willy onto her side by enticing him with the chocolate-coated marshmallow fish which we have already seen him stealing from the corner shop. Willy, who seems never to attend school, is immediately fascinated by Ruby's 'things'. Ruby has had relatives in the British Colonial Service, in India and elsewhere, and the objects among which she lives are a record of these associations. Willy is particularly entranced by her china cabinet, which contains many small curiosities from India and China, as well as Europe, and in particular by a small carved Indian buffalo, which he first steals and is later given as a gift.

Ruby's cabinet is an important symbol, because it makes the point that what white Australians think of as our culture, European or Western culture, is by no means all ours, but is made up of the contributions of many civilizations, races and nations. This cultural tradition, from its vantage point of outreach into many parts of the world, has accepted into itself much that other cultures have achieved. It has been transformed, as much as transforming. There is thus no way in which I, as a white Australian, can claim that Western culture is mine, in the way that Aboriginal culture belongs to Aboriginals. It is the exclusive creation neither of my race nor of my nation.

Why, then, should it be considered culturally oppressive to pass on these intellectual achievements to Aboriginals through formal education? An activist on behalf of Aboriginals might object to the teaching of Greek myths to an Aboriginal child living in Australia, while regarding them as appropriate for a fourth generation Australian of British stock. But what have Greek myths of 2,000 years ago to do with a white Caucasian living in Australia today, or an English child in England, for that matter, any more than with an Aboriginal child in Australia? The one is taking on an important part of the world's cultural heritage as much as is the other, and neither is oppressed. Their relevance for both the Caucasian and the Aboriginal child, in Australia 2,000 years after their origin, is the superb manner in which they speak to the human condition, shared in experience across race and time.

The fourth generational Australian of British stock has no racial and national claim on Christianity, a Middle Eastern religion with origins 2,000 years ago, on Greek philosophy and science, equally the work of a different people and a different time, on the mathematical tradition begun in India and transmitted through Arabia, on the Renaissance paintings of Italy, and the great German music of the 18th and 19th centuries. …