Bitumen Films in Postcolonial Australia

By Probyn-Rapsey, Fiona | Journal of Australian Studies, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Bitumen Films in Postcolonial Australia


Probyn-Rapsey, Fiona, Journal of Australian Studies


In 2000, the Council for Reconciliation brought out the 'Road map' for reconciliation 'as we walk together along the reconciliation road'. (1) In May 2004, Reconciliation Australia launched 'Pathways to Reconciliation', again implicitly linking the trope of the road to nation, reconciliation and political progress as movement. This situates the politics of reconciliation within a discourse of 'freedom of the road' which has its cinematic apotheosis in the road film. Critics who suspect that reconciliation is the next phase in colonial re-settlement and domination (2) will appreciate that the road film is bound up with narratives of imperial expansion. This is clear in Timothy Corrigan's terra nullius sounding description of the road film genre as perpetuating 'freedom on the road to nowhere' (3) (emphasis added), or Cohan and Hark's 'back to the nation's frontier ethos' (4) where the road signifies 'an empty expanse, a tabula rasa, the last true frontier'. (5) Such terra nullius images of the US road movie genre ring hollow in postcolonial Australian cinema and culture that attempts to account for post-Mabo history, (6) and also the persistent history of Aboriginal sovereignty. This essay follows the associations that the 'road to reconciliation' conjures up and looks at how this trope of the road has been taken up in cinematic depictions of Aboriginality and whiteness on the road, both prior to the 'road to reconciliation' and after it.

The road bears a long tradition of figuring not only colonisation, (7) but also social movements of white and black resistance. In the case of 'actual' roads for instance, Stephen Muecke's book No Road: Bitumen all the way (8) indicates that a 'road' is not always bitumen but can be a path/track that is actually imperceptible to settlers. (9) Thus roads/tracks can be sites for demonstrating and calling attention to the performativity of Aboriginal sovereignty. (10) Such 'performativity' is well documented by some of the films discussed here, many of which take the 'road' as the site for this reclamation of national space.

The road is a liminal space, both a 'sign' of, or material semiotic form of, settler occupation, but it is also a site for its critique. Alongside the rise of the road movie genre in the US during the 1960s there was the Freedom Ride's critique of race relations. In Australia in 1965 we had our very own 'Freedom Riders'. The Freedom Riders were a group of mostly white University Students (led by Charles Perkins) who set off in a bus from the University of Sydney to Moree, Walgett and other towns practising overt racial discrimination. In February 2005, forty years later, the Freedom Riders set off again with a different group of students (and many more Aboriginal Riders) to reenact the original journey (with air-conditioning). This indicates the longevity of the issue of racial discrimination and also the endurance of the road's association with 'freedom' and political 'movement'. I followed this trip for some of the way and kept a critical eye on the road metaphor, how that metaphor of 'escape' and 'freedom on the road' disguised other histories of containment. I wondered whether or not the Freedom Ride, like reconciliation's love of the road metaphor was tying itself too closely to a history of (post)colonial expansion and Aboriginal containment. At the same time it was impossible to remain untouched by the excitement of political movement. I got caught in the momentum, while thinking that momentum might be part of the problem: appealing to a desire to quickly 'solve' something, we keep things moving rather than sitting down, slowing down and thinking, which is often presented as not 'progressive', the opposite of 'action'/movement.

On the road there are always other things happening that might not be perceived, which is perhaps why the road is an apt metaphor for reconciliation: whites like me cannot presume to 'know' what reconciliation will mean finally. …

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