For Their Own Good
Williams, Patricia J., The Nation
One of my favorite little films is a satirical documentary titled Babakiueria. Only about thirty minutes long, it was made by the Australian Aboriginal community to commemorate the bicentennial of British rule. It's hard to find these days, so you'll have to trust my best recollection, but it opens with a long shot of a happy family of contemporary white Australians having a nice relaxing barbecue on the beach. Into the frame chugs a boatload of Aborigines, dressed in army khakis, "discovery" in their eyes. Their haughty leader steps off the boat and asks in the slow, hyperarticulated way some people reserve for speaking to the retarded or the hard of hearing "What ... do ... you ... call ... this ... place?"
"Why, it's a barbecue area," the father of the family replies, with surprise and a welcoming innocence in his voice.
"Nice native name," murmurs the Aboriginal leader. He nods to his men. "I like it." Then he assumes the stentorian intonation of one inaugurating a new regime: "I call this place: Babakiu-eria!"--and plants a flag.
The rest of the film follows the white family as they fall into more and more desperate circumstances because of the well-intentioned but misinformed policies imposed by the Aboriginal occupiers. They block a veterans' day parade because they think it a barbaric glorification of war. The Minister of White People's Affairs, an Aborigine with a perpetual smile of gentle condescension, displays actual footage of real-life Australian soccer riots to prove white people's love of ritual violence. Polluted cities are shown as proof of white primitivism. Over white complaints about disruption of their "ancient trade routes," highways are torn up and strips of "lovely" green grass and trees planted in their stead. White people are "taught" the ways of Aboriginal civilization by forcibly removing them from their homes, breaking up extended families and ultimately dropping them off in the middle of the outback to fend for themselves. "I wish I'd had such an opportunity," sighs the avuncular Minister of White People's Affairs.
The film ends with the sound of broken glass--as the teenage son in the white family, growing angrier and more dangerous, throws a rock to protest what has happened to his family and to their way of life. He is a doomed soul, warring against forces he cannot control, uneducated, without resources of any kind. He seems destined for a life of crime or drink or destitution.
Babakiueria is premised on a crude reversal, but it's an illuminating one. It is a polemic against the hubris of colonialism and the sad toll inflicted by those who presume to improve the lot of others without consent, participation or cultural understanding of those others. The film works as an object lesson not merely about Australia, of course--it sketches the core emotional dynamic of the English invading Ireland; or the overzealous policing tactics that have led to race riots in American urban centers; or the French colonial administration of Vietnam; or the brutality of South African apartheid-era laws; or the Chinese occupation of Tibet; or the US and Canadian governments' botched oversight of Native American affairs. …