There's no timelier release this week than Daniel Gordon's The Australian Dream, as civilised society submits to renewed self-scrutiny in matters of race; the damning indicator of Where We're At is that it would have scarcely seemed any less relevant in any week dating back to the dawn of cinema itself. It opens as a straightforward profile of Adam Goodes, who came to prominence in the first years of this century in the somewhat underreported field of Australian rules football, where he was tall, athletic and speedy, noted for his ability to leap like a salmon. The account of Goodes' rise to superstar status within this still largely working-class sport will be a useful starting point for those of us previously unable to distinguish our Geelong Cats from our Richmond Tigers, but Gordon gradually shades in some context, illustrating what his subject, and Goodes' Aboriginal predecessors in the game, had to try and rise above: there's a lamentable blackface episode on the Aussie equivalent of Soccer A.M., swiftly followed by a press conference where the extraordinarily terse body language of the parties involved speaks multitudes about decades-old tensions that have yet to be resolved. (Gordon lands an especially trenchant point later on in the film when a cutaway reveals that the pundit who blacked up, an individual who displays all the charm of a less appealing Jim Davidson, is still very much in his job.)
It's into this arena that the emergent Goodes stepped, and the rest of the film goes on to illustrate how this player became a lightning-rod for those same tensions - the AFL's own Colin Kaepernick, Cyrille Regis or Raheem Sterling. Relatively late in his playing career - as recently as 2013, by which time he'd been established as an ambassador both for Aussie rules and a more outward-looking, inclusive Australia - Goodes stopped a game to point out a spectator who'd referred to him as an "ape". The shock, felt in the stadium on the night and in the wider country in the days that followed, derived from the fact this abuse came not from the mouth of some pie-munching gutlord (as we've come to expect from the terraces), but from a 13-year-old girl sitting with her mother and some friends. Where this story becomes timelier still is that the racism can be traced very specifically back to a national original sin that even those of us in the 21st century are struggling to get our heads around. As current race issues in the US and UK can be traced back to slavery and Empire-building respectively, so Gordon's film contends the treatment of Adam Goodes corresponds to white Australia's ever-fraught relationship with its indigenous people. The Goodes story, as smartly reframed here, is but one sorry chapter in a much longer, unhappier book.
That story now gets set out in the Passion Pictures house style I mentioned when discussing Mike Wallace is Here last month, combining no-nonsense, straight-to-camera talking heads with judiciously marshalled archive footage. Some of that footage is plain electrifying, not least that captured by the live TV cameras during the incident itself, which retains a charge comparable to that of Eric Cantona's fateful night at Crystal Palace (an episode that, you'll note, rarely gets replayed other than as a series of Chris Marker-like stills, the raw feed being deemed too ugly for TV). Gordon and editor Matt Wyllie evidently had a lot of heartsinking footage to choose from when summarising the all-too-familiar culture war that broke out in its wake: right-wing blowhards insisting that snowflake Goodes should stop picking on kids and stick to playing soccer, Internet morons attempting to retrospectively justify the kid's epithet by pointing out "hey, we all descended from apes", commentators sliding into the controversy with blunt, two-footed contributions. Many of those paid opinion-havers have shown up again for filming, either to defend their position or explain themselves, and it's here you realise The Australian Dream intends to initiate or continue a debate - not about racism per se, understood to be beyond all debate, but the country's response to it. Rather than pious, a closed shop touting a set thesis, the film feels newly alive, inclusive in another sense, buzzing like a stadium with a capacity crowd. To borrow another sporting term, everything's suddenly back in play.
Playing arbiter, Gordon knows he can guide and direct the viewer. He very carefully connects the booing that greeted Goodes' subsequent sporting engagements - what the journalist Stan Grant, one of the more eloquent contributors here, describes as "the echo of our history" - back to an earlier failure to unite Australians of all stripes and shades; he explains how this abuse was a crime many decades and several generations in the making. It remains jolting, however, that so much ugliness should have been prompted by a mere child - immediately giving the lie to that teary-eyed Whitney Houston notion that the young are pure souls who represent our best hope for an egalitarian future. The doc could maybe have done with a little more of that girl and her family, confined here to mid-furore news footage in which they offer a very clumsy, non-media-trained, not-quite apology, though you can understand why they might want to slink away out of the spotlight for a bit. (Still, the girl in question would now be of college age: has she seen the film? Does she now understand the implications of what she said and did?) The Goodes story, though, is left deliberately and pointedly open-ended: as we clap him off the pitch, his career remains in limbo, the player having lost all desire to set foot in stadia that once cheered him but now resemble simmering cauldrons of rage. If a well-paid, much-admired footballer is struggling with all this, what of his indigenous brethren back home in the port town of Wallaroo? There's something both admirable and instructive about the way Gordon expands his inquiry beyond one harassed sportsman to an entire overlooked people.
The Australian Dream is now streaming via Curzon, Amazon Prime and the BFI.