Servant Or Slave: Stunning New Documentary Exposes Australia’s Stolen Wages History

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Australia’s history of slavery has been laid bare by a powerful documentary premiering in Melbourne overnight. Cath McLeish explains.

Servant or Slave is another memorable and important documentary that I have discovered at the Melbourne International Film Festival over the years. Like many quality documentaries, it’s a personal story, unwrapping a broader social story. It’s an Australian history that needs telling and hearing.

Premiering in the week of the announcement of the Royal Commission into abuse in the Northern Territory’s juvenile justice system, and during renewed public discussion on racism in Australia, the connections between the past and present are obvious.

Cruising into the city on a rainy Melbourne Monday, I was pleased to be re-joining the film-buff crowds in session queues, cinema bars and tram platforms.

Melbourne is full of artsy, informed, interesting film festival goers, it seems. I knew a bit about the history of Aboriginal slavery in this country, and wanted to know more, so I summoned my emotional strength and booked the ticket.

If you are not aware of our own history of slavery, this film tells a big story, with a human face.

A screencap from Servant or Slave, a documentary that premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 1.
A screencap from Servant or Slave, a documentary that premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 1.

The Indigenous filmmakers introduce us to five Aboriginal women, now grandmothers, who describe their own childhoods without knowing family. Stolen as small children by Australian governments, they were raised by institutions, deprived of the love of parents and siblings.

They did farm labour and trained as domestic servants for white families. They suffered harsh discipline and all variants of child abuse. The women’s stories are told with the perspective of survivors: hurt but also wisdom; pain but also pride.

This film does not feel primarily political, but succeeds in explaining injustice through personal experience. We understand the deprivation and abuse of children under deliberate and long-term government policies through the warmth of these women talking about their own lives.

I was not the only woman in the theatre wiping my eyes, feeling the fear of a young girl who has just been raped and whipped by the man in whose family home she is a domestic servant – slave – who has nobody to go to for help, and whose survival instinct has her polishing his boots the next morning to avoid further reprisals.

A screencap from Servant or Slave, a documentary that premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 1.
A screencap from Servant or Slave, a documentary that premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 1.

As children, the women were part of a Stolen Generation of children and young adults put to work, virtually unpaid and involuntarily. State and territory governments around Australia, we learn, developed policies to retain the wages of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers, ostensibly for allocation to their welfare.

This money is now known as the “stolen wages”, never returned to Indigenous people, nor the workers who earned them. Australia has been partly built on state-controlled slavery.

Plenty has been written about stolen wages for decades. This history is folklore in the Pilbara, where I worked in native title for five years. While the Wave Hill Walk-off is reasonably well-known as a catalyst for the Aboriginal land rights movement in the Northern Territory, the 1946 Pilbara Strike – another powerful struggle for race equality in Australia – is less well known.

During World War II, Pastoral workers in the Pilbara met to discuss action to claim their rightful pay. Like the women in Servant or Slave from Queensland and New South Wales, many Pilbara Aboriginal workers were paid only in rations, while white stockmen were waged.

They decided to wait until the war was over, so as not to undermine the war effort. Days were counted on calendars sketched onto jam tin labels, delivered across hot, arid country by now-legendary messengers.

A screencap from Servant or Slave, a documentary that premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 1.
A screencap from Servant or Slave, a documentary that premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 1.

On 1 May 1946, pastoral workers who had been the backbone of the booming wool industry in the northwest, walked off the stations.

Aboriginal workers were rejecting a life of slavery: officials in Perth were outraged.

Police officers hauled strikers back to the stations, or to jail. The men identified as the strike leaders were jailed, as was a white man who was blamed for explaining industrial tactics to the “natives”.

Maritime unions refused to handle wool from stations that held out against the strikers. Groups in Perth and Melbourne raised funds to support the strikers.

The strike was called off after three years, but change – if not full equality – had been achieved. Stations were required to pay Aboriginal workers in Western Australia, but many stations refused to take them back.

Many families decided not to return, and set up new, self-sufficient communities. The pastoralists’ position that their businesses were not viable without cheap or free Indigenous labour is part of the Australian history laid bare in Servant or Slave.

In 2006, a federal parliamentary inquiry into Indigenous Stolen Wages released its report. Ten years later, its title “Unfinished Business” is still apt.

Servant-or-Slave-4
A screencap from Servant or Slave, a documentary that premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 1.

The inquiry found that – although calculations are imperfect – the unpaid wage debt owed by Australian governments is in the range of half a billion dollars. Queensland and West Australian governments have offered millions of dollars of compensation, but the individual packages have amounted to only a few thousand dollars, sometimes for decades of labour. They have been widely rejected.

Many of us are wondering, in the wake of the Don Dale footage, whether we can be part of a solution to such systemic failures, beyond the social media cycle. In the Q&A after last night’s premier screening, we learned that one of the stars, Aunty Rita, is a long-term volunteer for many charities and schools.

She has fostered 17 children, despite having grown up without her own parents. She has health problems and a big family of her own, but finds the energy to support other kids to avoid the kind of trauma she has experienced. She is one of countless Indigenous Australians supporting young Indigenous people. Unpaid. She is a mighty role model of survival and generosity.

One audience question suggested that incarcerated Aboriginal kids should watch tonight’s film. On my way home, I seethed at the prejudice contained in that idea: that the kids don’t know what their own people have been through? That if only they knew better, they wouldn’t be incarcerated?

A screencap from Servant or Slave, a documentary that premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 1.
A screencap from Servant or Slave, a documentary that premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 1.

It is attitudes like this that allow governments to shirk responsibility for treating black lives as though they matter less, still.

It is the silence of fellow film goers in the comforts of the mainstream – like me – that condones that prejudice.

This rich, moving film can be part of the ongoing – and improving, I think – education of Australia, but we have a long way to go, and a lot of days of hard labour and suffering to repay. If we mean what we say.

Servant or Slave will play again at the MIFF this Thursday. The details are here. It will also air on NITV later this year.

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Cath McLeish

Cath McLeish is a Melbourne-based community sector lawyer with 6 years’ experience in native title, mostly in the Pilbara. She has particular interests in indigenous rights, environmental conservation, social justice and post/colonial histories, especially Australia’s.

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