2019 saw the release of two documentaries about the Indigenous former Australian Rules football player, Adam Goodes, and the nation which loves and hates him, Australia. Ian Darling’s The Final Quarter, which opened the Sydney Film Festival in June and was televised nationwide in July, is assembled from media coverage of the final three years of Goodes’s career and focuses on the racism he endured on and off the field during that period. Daniel Gordon’s The Australian Dream, which opened the Melbourne International Film Festival in August and has since had a domestic cinema release, takes the more familiar form of a talking-head documentary, using Goodes’s experiences as a starting point for a broader examination of race and national identity.
The two documentaries are obvious companion pieces and ostensibly cover the same issues, but their scope and approach are poles apart. The Final Quarter focuses exclusively on what was said at the time; The Australian Dream focuses equally on what wasn’t said, or said clearly enough, lost as it was amongst the noise. Although the successive timing of the releases has likely weakened the latter film’s box office prospects, it has also provided a unique opportunity for the films to explore their shared themes with a shared momentum.1 Each film complements the other film’s insights and compensates for its shortcomings. Taken together, they form a stirring celebration of Goodes’s legacy and a lucid rebuttal of racism in Australia—and the ongoing denial of this racism to exist.
The films come at a time when the public humiliation of Goodes remains a recent and unsettled controversy. Although his status as one of the greatest AFL players is known even to those who know little about the sport, Goodes will also be remembered for the shameful way in which his eighteen-year career with the Sydney Swans came to an end.2 For many months, he had been the sustained target of booing by opposition fans, the victim of racial abuse and online trolls, and the butt of criticism by a rollcall of conservative commentators, ex-players and public figures, many of whom had a proven track record of making inflammatory and racist comments. All this was the culmination of events—Goodes calling out a teenage fan who racially vilified him in 2013,3 his Australian of the Year Award in 2014, and a controversial war dance he performed in the AFL’s Indigenous Round in 2015—none of which had to do with his abilities as a footballer.
Many who booed or criticised Goodes, or defended those who did, freely admit to doing so for his willingness to assert his political beliefs, including his strong stance against racism. Although these beliefs are inseparable from his Aboriginality—a connection that his critics still seem incapable of grasping—many denied the role of race outright. Shock-jock Alan Jones’s rationale for the booing featured in The Final Quarter (“Someone’s got to ask the question: Why are they booing Adam Goodes and not the other seventy Indigenous AFL players?”) typified a childlike conception of racism whereby skin colour is the sole relevant factor, ignoring the myriad ways in which racial identity and racism are felt and expressed. Meanwhile, Jones and others promoted a revisionist narrative positioning Goodes as a victimiser of the girl who had racially abused him, despite the compassionate and unequivocal statements Goodes had made in her support after that incident. Some sold the flimsy claim that Goodes was booed only for his on-field behaviour: he was a “sniper” (someone who targets opposition players in an unsportsmanlike fashion), a “stager” (someone who stages for free kicks), a “flog” (a vague slang used by many fans, basically meaning a wanker).
Such myths can be dispelled without effort by anyone who followed Goodes’s career. Moreover, anyone with a working set of eyes and ears should’ve been able to detect that the vitriol directed at Goodes was grotesquely disproportionate to that directed at other players who have previously drawn the ire of fans, for their on-field antics or otherwise. In any case, amongst the anonymous wall of boos, the willful blurring of events, and the clusterfuck of excuses proffered, the racial motives behind the booing became camouflaged and denied. Goodes has kept a low profile after retirement, and the booing at AFL matches has returned to a garden-variety sort. But the controversy which tainted his final years as a player remains very much misunderstood and unresolved, and no less divisive in the years since. It is this ugly context which The Final Quarter and The Australian Dream try to negotiate.
The Final Quarter belongs loosely to an archive documentary tradition whereby films are made without a camera and relying entirely on footage recorded by others. Filmmakers who adopt this method often re-examine or attempt to bring clarity to historical events, such as the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal in Masaki Kobayashi’s Tokyo Trial (1983) or the 1991 Soviet coup in Sergei Loznitsa’s The Event (2015). Sometimes they chronicle the stories of individuals whose lives were well-documented, as Asif Kapadia has made a name doing in films like Amy (2015) and Diego Maradona (2019). Or they may re-purpose archival footage for political effect, often contradicting the original intentions and meanings behind the material, as Santiago Álvarez did throughout his career in works like Now! (1965) and Hanoi, Tuesday 13th (1968). The Final Quarter straddles all three approaches. It re-examines and brings clarity to the Goodes controversy by assembling media coverage from the period, offers a partial character portrait of Goodes via this coverage, and presents the collated material in such manner that leaves little doubt of where the filmmaker’s sympathies lie.
Accordingly, The Final Quarter isn’t just a compilation of footage that “speaks for itself,” as some have suggested. If all of this footage did speak for itself, the film would be unnecessary; everything shown and heard has long been on the public record and most of it remains a quick Google search away. One of Darling’s (and editor Sally Fryer’s) significant achievements is the concise editing of the material to form a coherent timeline of events, whilst mapping out the discourse surrounding these events. This is crucial not only for the purpose of structuring a legible and engaging narrative; it directly challenges a common ploy used by those who deny racism in the treatment of Goodes, namely the muddying of events and the order in which they occurred. By making the effort of going back and watching (and listening to) the matches that Goodes played in before and during the period in question, it’s possible to identify the distinctive nature of the booing and to pinpoint when it became more intense and consistent. Not many, of course, will bother with such an arduous undertaking, and this is where The Final Quarter plays a vital role. The film becomes a valuable piece of evidence in itself—an audiovisual research folder through which one can easily isolate specific quotes, events and discussions, and which unambiguously reveals the racial motives underlying the booing. None of this may be enough to sway Goodes’s detractors, but the clarity with which the material is presented will no doubt prompt many of them to reflect more deeply on what transpired.
In addition to offering factual clarity, Darling creates a visceral impression of what the boos may have sounded like for Goodes and other Indigenous people. Fading out the distracting aural clutter which accompanies a televised football match, Darling foregrounds the sounds of booing in a couple of heartbreaking sequences, with only a caption indicating when it occurred. The film’s constant stream of information—exemplified by quick cuts, overlapping audio, Twitter collages and split screens—also evokes a palpable sense of the issues surrounding the booing spiraling out of control, and slipping away from the realms of rational debate. Misinformation and misunderstandings seem to spread like a virus. Careful and considered views, when they have the chance to be expressed at all, are reduced to soundbites or headlines which are quickly displaced by whatever is uttered next.
However, The Final Quarter’s most distinctive trait is also its biggest limitation: there isn’t any persuasive reason why only archival materials were used in its making. Because of its self-imposed constraints, the film sometimes strains to stretch out the material at its disposal. For example, Darling resorts to illustrating a BBC radio interview with unrelated images of Goodes, which are arranged as a dull, screensaver-like slideshow. And in an otherwise touching sequence showing fans uniting in their support of Goodes during his period of absence from football,4 a cheesy image taken out of context (Goodes is superimposed against a starry night sky, thumbs up as if appreciating their gesture) is used to fill the space. Many of the radio excerpts are played over a captioned waveform graphic borrowed from news and current affairs programs, and transitions between sources are usually marked by brash sound effects (flash bulbs for newspaper headlines, static for TV and radio) which quickly become repetitive. Holding it all together is an insistent musical score which spells out emotional cues and distinguishes the good guys from the bad guys. The film assumes TV viewers as its primary audience, but its aesthetic often resembles a highlights reel of factual TV tropes, which surely would’ve been unsustainable for much longer beyond the 72-minute running time.
More importantly, the film’s method allows no room for discussion beyond what has already been said. At the post-screening Q&A at Revelation Perth International Film Festival, Darling suggested that there was no need to film new material given how much Goodes had said publicly at the time. It’s true that Goodes said a lot during this time—because he was forced to say a lot. When he speaks in the film, it’s rarely on his own terms. He’s almost always on the backfoot, responding: by politely answering inane questions from journalists (“Why do you feel you’re such a polarising character in the game?”), patiently offering explanations to correct misunderstandings (for example, that his war dance was meant as a celebration, rather than the aggressive gesture that it was misinterpreted as), and generally being required to defend what shouldn’t require defending in the first place. By the film’s design, Goodes can only be shown speaking when he fronted the media during those years. This is why the last third or so of the film feels odd: Goodes virtually drops out of it altogether, as it corresponds to the period in which he tried to avoid the media’s attention (it’s in this section that Darling is compelled to insert images of Goodes taken out of context, as if to soften his absence). No further light can be shed on his time away from football, his decision to quietly finish out his career, or what all of this actually meant and felt like for Goodes beyond what he was willing to say in front of cameras at the time.
There are some other curious omissions on the film’s part. For example, Goodes’s Australian of the Year speech is practically elided, despite its central role in communicating his views to the public and in shaping what happened next. In fact, the film intimates that it may have been the single biggest factor behind the booing, but we’re mainly shown Goodes being asked about it afterwards on a series of breakfast programs. Another of the film’s missteps is to insert dictionary definitions of key words and phrases that pop up in the discussion (“racist,” “invasion,” “ape,” “war dance,” etc.), usually with the intention of refuting an on-screen speaker who is reluctant to admit (or seems unaware of) its meaning. For example, a caption defining “racial vilification” follows the exchange below between AFL 360 co-hosts Gerard Whateley and Mark Robinson, and Collingwood Football Club president Eddie McGuire, as they discuss the latter’s infamous comparison of Goodes to King Kong.5
Whateley: Do you accept that you have racially vilified Adam Goodes?
McGuire: I accept that, uh… Yeah, you have to. You have to.
Robinson: So I asked you at the press conference, ‘Did you racially vilify Goodes?’ And you said, ‘No.’ Now you said…
McGuire: Well I said ‘no’ because you have to.
Robinson: Now you say you have.
McGuire: You have to, because I’m not trying to look for excuses. Did I racially vilify? No, I had a slip of the tongue. But what I said, was it racial vilification? Yes it was.
McGuire’s confused and confusing response demonstrates that when the level of understanding of racism is as low as it is here, nitpicking over semantics amounts to little more than impotent finger-wagging. Dictionary definitions can be used to classify a certain set of words as racist, but are otherwise useless in explaining why those words are racist. Ironically, many at the time brushed aside McGuire’s “King Kong” remark and the Collingwood fan’s “ape” slur by pointing to the literal meaning of these words and refusing to acknowledge their historical, racist connotations.
Although such limitations prevent The Final Quarter from becoming more than a surface examination of racism, it nevertheless exposes the mainstream Australian media’s incompetence in matters relating to race. The media’s lack of ethics and sensitivity, as showcased in the film, is sometimes staggering. For example, on the morning after it was reported that Goodes might be forced into retiring, Channel 7’s Sunrise breakfast program (co-hosted by current Port Adelaide Football Club chairman David Koch) inexplicably and inexcusably invited Alan Jones on air to provide his opinions, helping only to fan the flames. Also staggering is how the film demonstrates, perhaps inadvertently, the lopsided influence wielded by a small number of media figures. When watching The Final Quarter, it’s easy to fail to notice that most of the media outlets were in fact united in their support of Goodes. The incendiary quotes and headlines which frequent the screen create the impression that the debate in the media was split across an equal divide, even though the overwhelming majority of these are attributed to the likes of Jones, Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine—conservative stalwarts whose number can be counted on one hand. The Final Quarter documents their disproportionate and divisive impact in full effect.
What the film highlights above all is the glaring absence of black voices in the Australian media. The names, faces and voices seen and heard in The Final Quarter are predominantly those of journalists, commentators, coaches and ex-players—a miniscule number of whom are likely ever to experience racism themselves. Many who appear in the film offer astute comments in their efforts to understand or explain the treatment of Goodes, and of these, the most perceptive are by the tiny handful of Indigenous or non-white commentators (such as Stan Grant, Charlie King and Waleed Aly). The scarcity of these commentators becomes in effect the parallel subject of The Final Quarter, and is made all the more obvious through the film’s form. Just as Goodes was hounded into submission by the relentless booing (to paraphrase the words of Grant), these non-white voices likewise become overpowered in the film by the uniform procession of white voices which are heard before, after, and sometimes over the top of them. Former St Kilda player Gilbert McAdam puts it best in a clip from the Marngrook Footy Show, which was until recently the only football program where Indigenous voices are prominent: “How are they experts in trying to justify this and that and that? We’re experts because we’ve lived it.”
The Australian Dream reverses this imbalance by assembling a cast of “experts” that McAdam calls for. Goodes’s outspoken words during the booing saga were recorded and presented according to the media’s requirements, as The Final Quarter shows. The Australian Dream is instead built around Goodes’s words—here he appears comfortable, speaking at his own pace and on his own terms6—as well as those of eminent Indigenous figures (including Grant, Linda Burney, Nova Peris and Nicky Winmar) who reinforce his experiences by sharing their own. If The Final Quarter shows what a particular form of racism might look and sound like, The Australian Dream conveys what that racism might feel like from those who would know best. The former film provides information and factual clarity, and the latter provides context and emotional clarity.
To say that The Australian Dream offers a more personal account of what Goodes experienced is an understatement; many of the key events are able to be fully felt and understood only in light of the accounts provided in the film. For example, for the pivotal incident when Goodes was racially vilified at the MCG, The Final Quarter presents only a condensed version of how the incident played out in the media. It quickly passes by as one highlight (or lowlight) amongst many in the film, more notable for the fact that it occurred than how it occurred. In The Australian Dream, the same incident is given a monumental treatment: it’s introduced via ominous aerial shots of the stadium, replayed and recounted from different perspectives, and narrated by Goodes with a frankness and attention to detail which lend it a tremendous emotional gravity. Many viewers will also learn for the first time that Goodes’s decisive action on that day wasn’t an aberration, but a logical continuation in the development of his Indigenous identity and the political awakening that came with it (“The more I learned about what it meant to be Aboriginal, the more proud I got”). In a key sequence from the film, Goodes’s temporary absence from football in 2015 is likewise revealed to have been much more significant than it may have seemed. Gordon probes into Goodes’s mental anguish at the time, before recreating in detail his journey to the Flinders Ranges, the country of his Adnyamathanha heritage, to meet with elders and reconnect with his land and culture.
Other familiar figures are given a chance to speak in a format far removed from their usual media appearances. McGuire’s sympathetic response to the MCG incident will surprise many, and makes his “King Kong” remark all the more bewildering and uncomfortable. (For what it’s worth, he’s given another opportunity to explain that too—and he stumbles through his excuse in a manner no more convincing than his earlier efforts.) Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley sometimes comes across as rather dismissive of the racial nature of the booing in The Final Quarter, but is far more reflective here, perhaps wiser from the few extra years in his position of responsibility.7 Bolt, in his own eloquent way, reiterates the same views he has espoused elsewhere, but his prominence in the film is a slip-up. His comments feel redundant within the film’s framework, and his appearance as the sole representative of Goodes’s critics to be interviewed has the unintended consequence of spotlighting him as a lone dissenting voice, which he wasn’t.
In general, The Australian Dream charts the controversy surrounding Goodes’s final years as a player as effectively—if not quite as exhaustively—as The Final Quarter does, and delves into areas that the earlier film does not. As anyone who has closely followed the controversy will know, the most vicious attacks against Goodes occur online, where users can speak without consequence and whilst remaining anonymous (in effect mirroring the fans who booed him at football matches). The Final Quarter barely dives into this world, but Gordon succeeds in capturing how vile and widespread the comments were in a series of succinct montage sequences. Gordon also chooses to visually identify fans who booed and taunted Goodes from the crowd—including children, such as the girl who called him an ape, and a pair of boys who mock Goodes from over the fence by miming tears. The inclusion of such images will no doubt bother some viewers (the corresponding images in The Final Quarter are blurred), but is nevertheless essential in conveying how pervasive the vitriol was. In The Final Quarter, we hear the boos; in The Australian Dream, we also see them.
On the surface, Gordon’s film is the more pedestrian documentary, distinguishable from most others of its sort only by its subject matter. It’s a talky film structured around an endless array of voiceovers and interviews, complemented by a requisite amount of archival and observational footage, and made with enough technical flourish to warrant a cinema release but essentially designed for the small screen. Some of the film’s stylistic elements are too forceful, even hyperbolic, and like many documentaries which rely predominantly on speech, Gordon has a habit of overediting interviews for economy and not allowing enough space for words to resonate (this is particularly telling when he truncates Goodes’s post-MCG press conference, stripping it of crucial nuance).8 Yet the film still works brilliantly because it’s one in which words take centre stage, and most of the words that are spoken in it—some of them eloquent and poetic, others plain and direct—feel powerful and urgent. The film overcomes the limitations of its own form because the speakers it assembles are, for the most part, so devastatingly articulate.
It helps matters greatly that the film is written by and features Stan Grant, the Indigenous political journalist and broadcaster whose words during and in the aftermath of the booing saga were some of the most incisive to be said on the issue. Grant broke his silence with a moving article supporting Goodes in The Guardian, followed it with a lauded speech delivered for the IQ2 debate on racism, which was later expanded into a Quarterly Essay from which the film takes its title. While his anger and frustration at what happened to Goodes could surely be felt across these and in various other media appearances, Grant chose not to angrily denounce the booing but appealed for others to try and put themselves in the shoes of Goodes and other Indigenous people. “To Adam’s ears, the ears of so many Indigenous people,” he wrote, with words which are repeated in a slightly different variation in The Australian Dream, “these boos are a howl of humiliation. A howl that echoes across two centuries of invasion, dispossession and suffering.”
The Australian Dream puts into effect Grant’s words, approaching the Goodes controversy from a mostly irrefutable perspective: who can deny what one claims to have heard and felt? None of which is to say that the film shies away from trying to explain what happened in more rational terms. Rather than condemning Goodes’s critics directly, however, the film does what Grant has done elsewhere, which is to situate the controversy as a continuum in Australia’s racist colonial history. For Grant, the booing and the criticism which accompanied it were contemporary manifestations of attitudes towards Indigenous people which had normalised territorial invasion, genocide, the separation of families and the disappearance of languages and cultures—and which downplays or ignores all of the above. Such attitudes may no longer take the form of direct violence, but continue to be violent in their effects (“Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can really hurt you,” Grant says, inverting the well-known children’s rhyme).
Grant is a conspicuous presence throughout The Australian Dream, and his impact on the film is substantial. He appears as the film’s foremost analyst, demonstrating keen insight into the Goodes controversy. The film also depends on his precise rhetorical skills to summarise events and organise the film’s themes, which splinter off in many directions as the focus expands from Goodes and football to encompass the nation’s history. His importance is also structural: by the end of the film, Grant emerges as a major character in his own right, his experiences presented in parallel to Goodes as those of an Indigenous man who has “succeeded in spite of the Australian Dream, not because of it.” Through this parallel and the interweaving of other Indigenous voices and histories, The Australian Dream powerfully articulates the thesis that the booing of Goodes was also a painful, communal experience—and that the personal, political and historical experiences of Indigenous Australians are inextricable.
It’ll take some time to gauge the effectiveness of these two films about Adam Goodes, if such a thing can be gauged at all. For those who admire and sympathise with him, the films will likely reinforce what’s already known to be true. Those who hate him, or continue to deny the role of race in how he was treated, may not bother to watch them at all. The immediate aftermath of the films’ releases suggests that a familiar pattern will continue for some time yet. While many maintain a cautious optimism about the films’ potential to change minds, the likes of Jones, Bolt, Rita Panahi, Sam Newman and Mark Latham continue to doggedly deny racism as a factor in the Goodes controversy; News Corp ran a poll again asking readers if the booing was racist, with predictable results (sixty-five percent said no); and online posts about Goodes are still regularly hijacked by trolls and bigots.
Although there remain gaps in both films which expose them to criticism (how instructive it may have been, for example, to include just one or two voices of those ordinary fans who booed Goodes, or indeed tried to defend him?), the conversation about racism in Australia will be richer for their having been made. And on the specific matter of the booing of Adam Goodes, as told by those who were most directly affected by it, it feels now as though everything that needs to be said has been said through these two important documentaries. All of the relevant evidence, all of the pertinent personal and historical insights, have been laid bare and recorded. These words, images and sounds—some damning, others celebratory—will be there for anyone who wants to see and listen.