The Australian Dream
2019's second documentary about champion AFL player Adam Goodes proves powerful and essential viewing.
August 22, 2019
When the crowd roars, cheers or applauds at an AFL game, the sound can be deafening. Caught in the moment, thousands of people watch the sport they love and vocalise their immediate feelings, with the resulting racket echoing through football stadiums around the country. For much of his Aussie Rules career, Adam Goodes experienced that joyous onslaught of noise — as he played 372 matches for the Sydney Swans, became the all-time Indigenous games record-holder until just this past month, kicked 464 goals, won two premierships, earned the code's highest individual honour not once but twice, and was even anointed Australian of the Year. But, as the champion's on-field days came to an end, he also became the target of merciless booing.
Reverberating across multiple seasons, those jeers were thunderous, too. Anyone who heard them won't easily forget them, nor should they. It's hardly surprising that Goodes decided to take a break from playing when the taunting wouldn't stop, then retired not long afterwards. The ins and outs of the behaviour directed towards him were discussed at length at the time, as were the supposed reasons for the booing, but the basics really couldn't be more simple. One of this country's greatest Indigenous athletes was shunned for embracing his culture, speaking out against racism and calling out specific attacks against him — and, instead of hearing his eloquently stated position, empathising with his suffering, and affording him the respect and decency that everyone deserves, AFL crowds voiced their displeasure in a primal and abusive way. Even when Goodes explained that he found the ordeal deeply hurtful, as anyone would, it didn't stop. Rather, he was bluntly told to toughen up.
It's a bleak chapter in Australia's history — even more so because it happened so recently, between 2013–15. It's also a damning indictment of our society, indicative of defensiveness rather than a willingness to evolve, and illustrating that racial prejudice remains part of our everyday lives. From the moment that Goodes enraged some portions of the population by drawing attention to vilification hurled at him by a young Collingwood supporter, his loud-mouthed detractors have tried to rationalise their position. Contending that they oppose his supposed 'bullying' (by asking that the young girl who insulted him be removed from the match), and decrying his playing abilities and sportsmanship, their excuses have always fallen flat. But if any further evidence of their futility was needed, The Australian Dream lays bare the situation. An emotional account of Goodes' AFL career directed by experienced British sports documentarian Daniel Gordon and written by Australian journalist Stan Grant, the film offers both an intimate and an overarching view of the footballer's experiences. As well as chronicling his rise from quiet kid, to reluctant superstar, to determined anti-racism activist, it places Goodes' plight in historical and social context.
Walkley Award-winner Grant also provides the movie's narration, title and thesis, and inspires its shape and structure. "The Australian Dream is rooted in racism. It is the very foundation of the dream," he announced during a rousing address back in 2015. "It is there at the birth of the nation. It is there in terra nullius," he continued, with his speech quickly going viral. It's this sentiment that the documentary unpacks. To explore Goodes' story, why the tide of public opinion turned on him in some quarters and why he still sparks heated debate, is to explore Australia's treatment of its first peoples for more than two centuries. The parallels aren't hard to spot. Indeed, in making this point, The Australian Dream isn't a subtle film. It doesn't wait for the audience to join the dots, but instead shouts its message at every turn. It tells the bulk of the nation what we already know, especially arriving so soon after fellow Goodes-focused doco The Final Quarter (which relived his final three years in the AFL solely through media footage from the time). But a subject as important as racial discrimination — including casual racism, aka comments with a racist impact even if they're not intended that way — warrants force.
A documentary so thoughtfully stitched-together also justifies such bluntness, with The Australian Dream taking a broad and detailed look at its topic. Childhood photos, family recollections and archival clips combine with face-to-face chats with Goodes today, evocatively shot sequences of him traversing the country's sprawling landscape, and glimpses of the champ and his ex-Swans teammate Michael O'Loughlin attending Australia Day gatherings. When needed, historical primers fill in the gaps. So does a hefty roster of talking heads that features Goodes' loved ones, former footballers Nicky Winmar and Gilbert McAdam, and past and present Swans coaches Paul Roos and John Longmire. Polarising figures such as Eddie McGuire and Andrew Bolt, both of whom have made unacceptable comments about Goodes in the past, are also interviewed — and if giving them screen-time seems strange, it demonstrates The Australian Dream's wholistic approach. It also exemplifies Gordon and Grant's aim to weave the spirit of reconciliation into every aspect of their film.
Of course, while McGuire is in somewhat apologetic mode, his appearance — alongside the typically inflammatory Bolt — provides a strong reminder. The attitudes that The Australian Dream examines, and the racist treatment of Indigenous Australians that's been part of the nation since its formation, haven't disappeared since Goodes stepped off the field. In fact, the existence of two movies about the footballer in such short succession has made this plain. The Final Quarter received a standing ovation at its Sydney Film Festival world premiere, and finally inspired the AFL to apologise to Goodes for its lack of action. And yet, when the doco aired on TV, it was followed by a national news poll once again questioning whether the booing of Goodes was racially motivated. The Australian Dream earned widespread acclaim when it opened this year's Melbourne International Film Festival, and will screen at the Toronto International Film Festival as well. And still, when Goodes revealed that he has no desire to return to the game after his traumatic experiences — speaking in a rare interview just this past weekend, to support the picture's local theatrical release — the online trolls came out in force. That's the reality that these films belong to, as The Australian Dream confronts head-on. It's also a situation that Aussies need to keep seeing and interrogating, including in this powerful and essential documentary.