IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Paula Kehoe, director/producer of ‘An Dubh ina Gheal’ (‘Assimilation’)

| September 11, 2013 | Comments (2)

PaulaKehoe Director
Paula Kehoe: Director/Producer

 

An Dubh ina Gheal (Assimilation) is a revealing exploration of the relationship between Aboriginal Australians and the Irish in Australia. Steven Galvin caught up with Paula Kehoe, the film’s director/producer, to find out more about her fascinating documentary.

An Dubh ina Gheal (Assimilation) screens at 13.00 at the IFI on Sunday, 15th September 2013.

An Dubh ina Gheal (Assimilation) is a documentary that explores the relationship between Aboriginal Australians and the Irish in Australia. Produced and directed by Paula Kehoe, the film is structured around Irish poet Louis de Paor’s journey back to his once-adopted homeland to explore a hidden story of the Irish in Australia. A story that takes in the existence of a new colonial identity in Australia – that of the ‘Aboriginal Irish’, proud to be Aboriginal and proud to be Irish – while at the same time exploring how the Irish, as white Australians, were also complicit in the dispossession of Aboriginal people.

Since the British first established a colony in Australia in 1788, Aboriginal Australians have had their land stolen from them or destroyed, become victims of new diseases brought in by sailors and convicts, and became targets of genocide. By the late 1800s, the indigenous population had been reduced from up to an estimated one million to only 60,000. During much of the 20th century, the government adopted a policy of assimilation by removing mixed race children – many of Irish heritage – from their parents and adopting them out to white families or placing them in mission schools in an effort to eradicate traces of Aboriginal culture and language. An Dubh in Gheal explores the story of this “stolen generation”, and also that of an Aboriginal resistance lead by ‘Shamrock Aborigines’, who saw theirs as a shared struggle against a common oppressor.

Paula explains how she had “brewed over the film for quite a long time. I actually started thinking about the subject area before I ever started making films. Since then it had always been at the back of my mind as a story that should be told. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable trying to tackle it in Australia as an Irish-Australian filmmaker for a lot of complex reasons. It was only really when I was in Ireland and with Louis on board that I felt comfortable with the fact that this was also an Irish story that could be told from an Irish perspective.”

Louis de Paor

Louis de Paor: Presenter/Co-Writer

Paula, who moved to Ireland in 1994, tells me how it took the years she had spent immersed in indigenous culture and language in Ireland “to raise my consciousness and deepen my understanding of the society in which I was raised. As a result my growing awareness of and engagement with Aboriginal life, culture and politics in Australia became entangled with a very Irish perspective. When I looked deeper into the recent past in Australia, the Irish dimension of the Aboriginal story was starkly apparent. It is remarkable how many Aboriginal people have Irish heritage, political activists, politicians and members of the Stolen Generations among them, and they are very proud to claim it. Yet conversely the Irish were embedded, and themselves assimilated into ‘white Australia’ and all that it entailed.”

Having first heard Louis de Paor reading the two poems that feature in the documentary in 1997 in Club Áras in Galway, Paula recalls how “they suddenly reappeared in my consciousness in 2010 while I was researching this subject.” Louis had lived in Australia and had responded to the plight of the Aboriginal people through his poems, ‘An dubh ina gheal’ and ‘Didjeridu’, which inspire the film’s narrative.

“These poems have powerful things to say about Indigenous Australians”, whom Louis feels a natural affinity with as an indigenous Irishman according to Paula. “Yet, as ‘Didjeridu’ acknowledges, the Gael, as a founding people in the story of white Australia, were also complicit in the dispossession of Aboriginal people.The fact that the poems were written in Irish is crucial. When I explained to contributors that the documentary would be bi-lingual, half in ‘Gaelic’, they were much more open to it. English is the language of the coloniser for both the Irish and Aboriginal people, and certainly the Aboriginal people I spoke to have a very keen awareness of those paralells.”

Paula first approached TG4, who liked the proposal, then wrote it up for the BAI, and it got commissioned. “Then Louis and I started working on it together and shaped it beyond my initial proposal to embrace the personal stories and the contributors who came and went and also to incorporate what Louis brought to it. So it’s evolved in various different stages. I couldn’t have done it then without Louis. He was the key to making it work. He gave it a moral centre from an Irish immigrant’s point of view. It was a fabulous experience and such a privilege working with Louis on this project.”

An Dubh ina Gheal explores the story of the ‘Stolen Generations’, but also how, despite the circumstances, out of these multi-racial unions new identities have been formed. Paula points out that “there is now a whole generation of indigenous Australians of Irish descent. During the ’60s and ’70s political activists of Irish descent were called ‘Shamrock Aborigines’, “who saw theirs as a shared struggle against a common oppressor. They recognised that the Irish have also suffered under British rule. So there are strong associations there.”

Bill Brock-Byrne & LdeP

Louis de Paor & Bill Brock-Byrne

Bill Brock-Byrne, a member of the Stolen Generations, features in the documentary and explains how he thought the missions were there to protect them from the government, and yet part of that was protecting them from their own culture and from their own beliefs.

Previously there had been little to no research done on the offspring of Irish and Aboriginal parents so Paula couldn’t rely on archival sources and “that’s why finding someone like Bill Brock-Byrne was crucial because his family history tells us so much.”

Paula admits that the documentary was the most challenging project she has ever undertaken. “It’s a sensitive area so it was important to be respectful and aware on every level. The archive film and photographs proved a tremendous challenge as there is so much kept by so many different institutions and there’s so much protocol involved in using any archive material that has indigenous content. While it wasn’t an easy journey, it has been without any doubt one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I hope that it does justice to all of those involved.”

The result is a fascinating document that achieves a balance between the historical, the personal and the poetic, crystallising the intimate and complex ties that bind the Irish and Aboriginal Australians and how that relationship is envisaged and in doing so reveals a hidden history of the Irish in Australia.

 

An Dubh ina Gheal (Assimilation) screens on Sunday, 15th September at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

The Australian Ambassador Dr Ruth Adler will attend and there will be a post-screening Q&A with filmmaker Paula Kehoe.

Tickets for An Dubh ina Gheal (Assimilation) are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

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Comments (2)

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  1. Peter Carter says:

    Attended ‘Assimilation’ on Sunday and enjoyed it. Congratulations. I grew up in a small country town in NSW amongst the Kamillaro people. I then returned to teach there some years later and had to leave my job when I tried to introduce a course on Kamillaro history and culture (as my class was 90% Kamillaro) which the authorities would not tolerate. I have worked with the SCU College for Indigenous Australian Peoples and have for many years had an interest in and written about Indigenous health issues (including in other countries). You may be interested in my CEO Blog at http://www.isqua.org.
    I take issue with one suggestion in your doco. After 10s of thousands of years of the telling and retelling of the the Dreamtime stories, and Songlines (and there are variations depending on the Nation) which are faithfully passed down through the generations, it is most unlikely that the Dreaming would have been allowed to be contaminated by a recently arrived European, Irish or otherwise. These stories are embedded in the earth, sky, sea and the spirits of the rainbow serpent and other creatures. It you were told Kelly had been taken up in these stories it may be an example of how Indigenous people often nod or tacidly agree in a superficial way to suggestions made to them about how things might have been or how things are.
    On the question of Abbott, it is true that Abbott, along with Brendan Nelson when AMA President and Health Minister, have spent more time in Indigenoue communities that any other politician. When CEO of the College of Surgeons I spent some time with Nelson promoting Indigenoue health and he was incredibly receptive. I hold out hopes for Abbott.

    Well done.
    Peter Carter

  2. Paula Kehoe says:

    Hi Peter, lovely to hear some feedback and I’ve only just seen this, so apologies for any delay in responding. Thanks for your link and for sharing your experiences. The Gurindji Dreamtime story about Ned Kelly is well documented by the anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose, she wrote a fascinating essay called Ned Kelly Died for our Sins. I can send it to you if you like. Rather than seeing it as a contamination, Rose suggests it’s an attempt to find a moral European. I spoke to quite a few people about this story and it’s well known that it exists as a Gurindji re-reading of the Ned Kelly colonial legend. I’ve been extremely thorough about all of the references in this documentary, which as you can appreciate was absolutely necessary.

    Regarding Tony Abbot I would prefer not to comment, as on that issue we may fall out!

    Thanks so much for your feedback, and I look forward to reading your blog.
    Best wishes
    Paula

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