Red Dog Whitewashes The Pilbara

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The Australian film industry’s new champion seems to have arrived — the undeniably appealing Red Dog, set in the North-West of WA, has opened to positive reviews and grossed $2.6 million in its opening week.

The film is based on a true story about a well-loved dog who was also the subject of a 2002 short novel by Louis de Bernières. It projects a familiar image of the Pilbara and its residents: straight-talking eccentric larrikins who are egalitarian in nature and represent the salt of the earth. Indeed, as one review wrote, Red Dog resembles "an extended Toohey’s commercial". The film embodies the idea of Australia that we sell to the outside world and with which many of us identify: as Judith Brett noted in her recent Quarterly Essay, despite increasing urbanisation, when Australians ask what make us distinctive "the country still supplies much of the answer".

In the words of Cinetology blogger Luke Buckmaster, Red Dog "taps into the spirit of old school Australiana with infinitely more grasp of the national ethos than anything slapped together by Baz Luhrmann". This highlights the fact that old school Australiana has always been uncomfortable with the nation’s colonialist past — while Luhrmann’s Australia, for all its flaws, had Aboriginal characters in speaking roles, the Pilbara’s original owners are largely absent in Red Dog.

In this respect the film reflects the ongoing fissures within Australia; separate societies tend to exist in an uncomfortable parallel in regional as well as metropolitan areas. The major town near the film’s setting of Dampier is Karratha, a mining centre built in 1968 to accommodate workers mining iron ore in the Hamersley Ranges. Karratha was sometimes colloquially known as "Charlie’s town" after Charles Court — then minister for the North West and Industrial Development, a future State premier and intractable opponent of Indigenous land rights. About an hour away along the North-West Coastal Highway sits Roebourne, which was proclaimed as a township in 1866. The majority of Roebourne’s populace is Aboriginal and disadvantage is rife.

Red Dog is a story of mine workers, of an industry which has particular difficulty fitting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples into its narratives. Sometimes it is simpler to leave them out of the picture altogether; in a recent speech (pdf), Hancock Prospecting Chair and Director Gina Rinehart enthused:

"The North West of West Australia … is where my pioneering family descendants settled in the 1860s to become the first white settlers … It was an inhospitable, remote and rugged country forming a very tough life for the first settlers, far from civilisation, medical care, supplies and my family descendants had to ‘make do or do without’. Today of course … much has changed with the progress brought by the mining industry."

There is no mention of the Aboriginal people who had lived in the Pilbara for thousands of years prior to the 1860s; they might have disagreed that the land was "inhospitable" but their descendants would no doubt concur that much has changed since then.

Although the ideal of the "pioneer" no longer resonates among non-Indigenous Australians to the extent that it did in the past, the concept endures and is perhaps embraced in Red Dog — the film lovingly documents the privations experienced by those who lived in what one character describes affectionately as "the armpit of the north-west".

The film, partially funded by Rio Tinto Iron Ore and Woodside, largely depicts the mining industry in a positive light, although modern-day occupational health and safety practices are nowhere to be seen; in a concession to the 1970s setting, mine workers generally get about in shorts and singlets. David Stratton, who gave the film four and a half stars, mused: "When I saw that mining companies … had supported the film financially I was momentarily troubled; but this is a film about the way mining was back then, in a more innocent age, and bears little relation, I presume, to mining activities today. It’s not a propaganda piece".

Stratton’s conclusion is a rather curious one — like the pastoral industry, mining has never been "innocent" in Australia. From their inception, both have relied upon the dispossession of Indigenous people. To acknowledge this is not to embrace a simplistic "anti-mining" stance but merely to recognise an uncomfortable truth. Red Dog is set in the early 1970s — long before native title was recognised, when miners were unhindered by any requirement to consult or negotiate with the traditional owners of the land they worked.

A stark reminder of the underlyng inequities came with the bitter Noonkanbah dispute in the Kimberley in 1979-1980, which ultimately saw drilling rigs force their way through community picket lines to drill in an area sacred to the local Yungngora community. Fred Chaney, who was at the time the federal minister for Indigenous affairs, argues that Sir Charles Court had been "absolutely determined to demonstrate that exploration for oil and minerals and the mining of oil and minerals could not be prevented by Aboriginal people". Noonkanbah was, as Professor of Politics Quentin Beresford later noted, "a flashpoint" in the "political struggle over access to, and the distribution of, resources on Aboriginal lands".

This troubled history is not acknowledged in the film, which is silent on the means by which access to the prospective red dirt was gained. One character remarks that all those who come to the Pilbara for work "have a story we’ve left behind", but the narrative’s ambit cannot expand to embrace the stories of Aboriginal people from the area.

Although Red Dog is as Stratton notes not propaganda, the film presents a triumphant narrative of the Australian mining industry; producer Nelson Woss enthuses:

"We basically show the heartbeat of the Australian economy — we show the mines, we show the trains that take the ore to the conveyor belts, we show the conveyor belts and the crushers then we show the ships being loaded and the iron ore being taken to China … People forget that’s the engine of Australia that’s going 24/7 and it’s billions and billions of dollars."

The industry is indeed impressive in in scale and scope, and the era depicted in the film resonates for contemporary audiences familiar with the current resources boom.

The legacy of the 1970s iron ore boom is however a mixed one; Aboriginal people largely failed to benefit and Karratha is now held up as a warning by those who oppose industrialisation in the Kimberley in general and the James Price Point gas hub in particular. Serious concerns have also been raised about the inequitable distribution of wealth flowing from the current boom and, as the current disputes between the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation and Fortescue Metals Group demonstrate, the native title system has barely addressed the power disparity between claimants and developers.

Of course, Red Dog makes no pretensions to being a documentary and cannot be criticised for failing to lay out mining’s troubled history in Western Australia. At a deeper level, though, the film is a sobering testament to ongoing divisions in our society as well as how far Australians have to go in telling stories about our past and our present.

 

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