Days of mourning in a secret Australia: John Pilger on aboriginal deaths and national silences

The shameful treatment of Australian aboriginals.

How many days of mourning have I attended? Vivid in the memory are wreaths thrown on to Sydney Harbour, and men in crumpled hats and women in loose frocks standing on foreshores where their forebears saw the first ships carrying white men. On 14 February, there was a day of mourning for T J Hickey, an Aboriginal boy who was chased by police three years ago and ended up impaled on a spiked iron fence in The Block, a ghetto within sight of Sydney's banks and corporate towers. Commemorative silences were held for "TJ" and his violent death was likened to Australia's many Aboriginal deaths in custody, such as that of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island.

Palm Island is one of the most beautiful on the Great Barrier Reef, yet few outsiders take the short flight from Townsville. Established in 1918 as a detention camp for Aboriginal men, women and children convicted of the crimes of homelessness, rebelliousness and drunkenness, it has changed mostly on the surface. When I first went there in 1980, an epidemic of gastroenteritis was deemed life-threatening. Two years later, researchers discovered in the records of the Queensland Health Department that Aboriginal deaths from common, infectious diseases were up to 300 times higher than the white average, and the highest in the world. In the cemetery, overlooking waves breaking gently on the coral reef, many of the headstones bear the names of children.

On 26 January last, a date known as Australia Day by whites celebrating their "settlement" (Aborigines call it Invasion Day), something very unusual happened. It was announced that a police sergeant, Chris Hurley, would be charged with the manslaughter of Mulrunji Doomadgee. In 2004, Hurley arrested Mulrunji for swearing and drunkenness; once in police custody, Mulrunji had his liver torn in two. "These actions of Sergeant Hurley," said the deputy coroner, "caused the fatal injuries." However, Queensland's director of public prosecutions decided not to lay charges. This is standard practice. In 1989, a royal commission inquired into more than 100 deaths in custody, many of them demonstrably murder or manslaughter. "I had no conception," wrote the chief commissioner, Elliott Johnston, "of the degree of . . . abuse of personal power, utter paternalism, open contempt and total indifference with which so many Aboriginal people were visited on a day-to-day basis."

So spoke the voice of Australian liberalism and justice. Of the 339 recommendations made by the royal commission, not one called for criminal charges. The prosecution of Sergeant Hurley is the first of its kind, and it happened only because the Queensland government was virtually dragooned into seeking the independent opinion of a retired chief justice of New South Wales.

Of all the great Australian pastimes, silence is currently the most popular. This is largely due to a fear of speaking out, described in a rare book, Silencing Dissent, by Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison. The authors' fellow Australian academics and writers say little if anything publicly that might upset the all-controlling Bushites of John Howard's government and its inspectorate in the media. Trial by media of Australia's domestic victims, be they Aboriginal or Muslim, is standard practice. Officially approved platitudes pass as news and commentary, along with weary stereotypes of much of humanity, from heroic Aussie cricketers to whingeing Poms and mad mullahs. True Australian heroes go unrecognised, such as Arthur Murray, a former Aboriginal union organiser who has fought unremittingly for 25 years for justice for his son Eddie, killed in police custody, and for all his people. Few white Australians will have heard of Arthur, whose dignity and courage evoke a secret history, described by the historian Henry Reynolds as the "embarrassment of bloodied billabongs".

Australian "values" and national pride are political distractions of the moment in a nation witlessly at war in Iraq and Afghanistan - a nation with up to 43 per cent youth unemployment at home and, in some places, the majority of its black youths in custody.

"Australian patriotism," says the cultural historian Tony Moore, "should be first and foremost based on taking the piss, of laughing, not just at one's self but at the powerful . . ." He calls this "bullshit detection". Terrific idea, Tony, but I suggest you first run it by Arthur Murray and the people of The Block and Palm Island; for until we whites give back to black Australians their nationhood, we can never claim our own.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran - Ready to attack

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.