In 2013, legendary Australian football player Adam Goodes – and that’s “Australian Rules” football, not soccer, Rugby, or NFL (Google it) – found himself at the center of an on-field race controversy when a young girl called him an “ape” from the stands. Goodes, who is Indigenous, asked security to remove the fan from the stadium and himself left the field, shocked and emotionally shaken. It was a moment of sport as a microcosm of race relations that would not be unfamiliar to those who’ve seen what Serena Williams and Colin Kaepernick have sometimes experienced in recent years.
For those who didn’t witness the incident – which would not include many Australians, as it was played over and over again in the media there – it is shown in full and painful detail in the new documentary, The Australian Dream, which has been earning raves in Telluride and then in Toronto. The documentary also tracks what’s become known as the “booing saga” that followed: where public sympathy for Goodes largely turned and he began to face angry, loudly booing crowds whenever he took the field or the ball came near him during play. Some fans said they felt for the girl who had been made the national face of racism (something Goodes never said), some said he needed to man up and stop complaining; the booing continued for years and when, in a moment of fury and frustration in 2015, Goodes celebrated a goal by performing an Aboriginal war dance – one which climaxed in a mimed spear-throw at the opposing team’s booing fans – it only intensified.
The Australian Dream deftly captures the on-field drama, the media storm surrounding it, and the experience of Goodes, the stoic figure at its center, but it is also much more than a documentary about one man and one moment in sport and culture. Directed by Daniel Gordon, the film uses Goodes’ experience to explore tensions at the heart of Australia’s founding, when English colonizers declared the continent unclaimed land and took it over, often violently, despite the fact that the Aboriginal people had lived there for more than 60,000 years. The Hollywood Reporter‘s David Rooney describes the movie as “a sobering but emotional reminder of unresolved history.”
As the film looks for international distribution – something that seems inevitable given its rapturous reception – we sat down with Goodes, who loves movies almost as much as he does “footy,” to talk about his Five Favorite Films and about stepping back into the toughest time of his life with The Australian Dream.
One of my favorite films is Avatar. I love the connection to the land; it’s like Aboriginal culture. I love the idea that everything is connected, and if you cut down a tree in one area, it’s actually going to have a flow-on effect to other beings, and I love there was this one significant tree in the whole movie that was the key in connection to a group of people culturally. It protected them, it gave them shelter, it gave them protection from within. So that’s what I love about Avatar. I also love that they won; they fought off the human race, which was coming for greed purposes.
Another really great movie that I connected well to was Rabbit Proof Fence. This gave me a real understanding of what was the Stolen Generation, and my mum never really spoke about her being taken away, and it gave me an insight to what it must have been like for my mum and aunties and uncles to be taken away.
I am such a blokey bloke and that movie… We’re down at the holiday house, and I’ve taken all my DVDs down to our holiday house, and I’ll just chuck that on, because I know I’m going to laugh at that constantly. I think these three movies so far give you an insight to how crazy or kooky I am. I watched Superbad in a cinema, and I watched it three times.
Something that I watched recently that I absolutely loved was Black Panther. I love the idea there is a Black superhero. Love it. The people have their own world and have their own technologies. I really love that it empowers of men of color to identify with that and, I suppose, that Black excellence.
Your picking that is interesting because in your documentary, fellow Indigenous athlete Nova Peris Kneebone says that you were like Superman to her son. It struck me that, until recently, her son wouldn’t have had a Black superhero outside of sport, perhaps.
Yeah. The superheroes are like our sporting stars, I suppose, but in performing different roles. When they are sporting stars, you would put their posters up as role models, you want to be them, a sporting type. But now we are actually seeing them be superheroes, and it’s like, “OK, Black people can be superheroes, too.” For a lot of our people back home, we actually don’t see ourselves as being something that somebody else hasn’t done before. It’s just too hard. Or you have these people that break down those barriers for you, like those actors are doing in movies. It makes it a lot easier for people to go, “If they can do it, then maybe I can do it.”
Another movie that I absolutely loved, and I am a massive Queen fan, was Bohemian Rhapsody. I watched it five times at the cinema, and I cried every time. I grew up on Queen; my mom fed me Alan Jackson, Queen, Roy Orbison – all these incredible artists – and that’s what I still listen too now. Rami Malek was incredible. Like, I know hard it is to talk with a mouth guard in my mouth trying to play sports, so trying to then talk with a mouth piece that he would have had to create the look of the big teeth. I was just blown away. It was pretty incredible.
Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: Early in the film a number of people being interviewed talk about how wonderful it is to live in Australia, and then pivot with a “but…” to talk about the issue of race at the heart of the story. And you seem to say something similar: “It’s the best country on earth, but…” I think that’s something people living everywhere can relate to – The Australian Dream, the American dream.
It is, and that’s what so hard, right? Because for the last two years of my career, for two hours every week, I’d be faced with this onslaught of booing. I lived in an apartment in Bondi with my fiancé at the time, living a great life, going to the beach every day, cafes – lifestyle couldn’t be more perfect. But for two hours every week, I just dreaded going home to that football field and being subjected to what was happening.
Now, having been retired and not being subjected to that, it’s still a great country, but I still see what happens to my relatives. I still see what happens to Indigenous people, and I can’t just say, “Hey, I’m OK with that because I’ve made it.” I still want to be able to make a difference and have a voice to create an environment now, for the future, which is better. Because I’ve got a little daughter that is going to have to grow up in this environment. I think that my role as a father and as a person who’s got a bit of a platform is to help continue the conversation and try and make a better environment for her and others to grow up in.
Is that why you did the film? Because watching it, there was a part of me that was thinking, “Damn, why is he putting himself through this again?”
Yeah, I think the biggest thing for me was, even when I retired, is that I don’t think people still understood the situation: Why I, as an Indigenous person, was saying the things that I was saying, was representing my people in the way that I was; why, after learning our history of our country, I was having the stance that I was having. And I think what people are realizing now, after watching The Australian Dream, is they go, “Oh, I get it now. This is what’s happened to Indigenous people. I never knew about it. They’re now helping educate me. I can see now why, when people call you an ape, that is a racial comment that’s been used for hundreds and hundreds of years across the world to say to you that you’re no more than an animal, less than human.” They start to understand a little bit better. Whereas, if I was to just come out to the media again and do public speaking, people aren’t really going to hear or understand the reason behind it, so I feel a documentary was the best platform to have that first comment back to the Australian public around why I am who I am, why I stand up for the values I have. Hopefully that helps them understand the journey that I’m on.
The film has already been released in Australia, where it’s renewed interest around the booing incident and Indigenous-white relations again. But you’re looking for international distribution now and I’m curious, do you think it’s a uniquely Australian story or one that will connect globally?
We’re already seeing that people are connecting in America – at Telluride last week and here in Toronto – with the story. These are people of color, these are white people, who understand that in any country that has minorities, those minorities are going through racial tensions and issues. For me, this movie is a story of what happens to anyone who’s being colonized, it’s what happens to any Indigenous people who have been moved off their land or that have had to face the disadvantages of people coming to their country, and whether they have sovereignty or treaty or land rights – all of those things come into play in our documentary. People can connect to those issues. Here in Toronto, they connect with Indigenous people here, and I think in America they can connect with what happened with Colin Kaepernick and myself. So I think people connect in different ways to the documentary. I think people who have had racial tensions themselves can connect with things that have happened to them, and it can be quite emotional seeing and feeling for other people, the empathy you feel with watching me and others go through that.
It’s clear that a lot of people who already agree with the basic sentiments are likely going to see this movie. But watching I was wondering who you felt the key audience, the most important audience, for it was – and then how you get it in front of them? And are you optimistic it will have an impact – and optimistic generally about race relations in Australia?
I think the biggest thing for me is huge optimism. I wouldn’t be making this documentary if I didn’t think it would help or I didn’t know that the work this documentary would do post-cinema release, whether it be through a distributor like Netflix, or played through our schooling system [in Australia]. That’s where it can make a massive impact and can make a massive difference for me. Yes, it would be incredible for it to be successful in the cinemas, to be picked up by Netflix – all tick, tick, tick. But how do you make sure everyone watches it? My optimism lies with the youth. I’m not gonna lie, they’re the future of our country. They’re gonna look back on us in 20 years’ time and go, “What the hell were we thinking?” Why have we not got an Indigenous voice to Parliament? Why aren’t Indigenous people part of our Constitution? All these things, we’re so stupid. Why don’t we just get it done? Unfortunately, I know it’s going to take time, and I’m OK with that. I’m now part of things that are more proactive and supportive of Indigenous people who want to be successful, whether it be in business or around education. They’re the spaces where I know I can make my biggest difference and where I’m focusing that time.
Thumbnail image: Dominik Magdziak Photography/WireImage, © Marvel Studios/© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, © 20th Century Fox, © Columbia Pictures, Becker Entertainment
The Australian Dream is currently in Australian theaters. It is awaiting distribution in the U.S. and internationally.