Aboriginal youth and their challenges of integration and identity-building in Beneath Clouds

The drama directed by Australian Ivan Sen in 2002 highlights the long identity quest of two Aboriginal teenagers, Lena and Vaughn, both different in many ways but nevertheless prone to the same feeling of abandonment and the same desire to escape their fate. It is through this story that the director gives us an insight into the many economic, social and racial difficulties faced by Aboriginal youth in contemporary Australian society and their consequent difficulty in finding their place in it.

Lena and Vaughn. Screenshot, Beneath Clouds, Ivan Sen.

Beneath Clouds follows the encounter, adventure and identity quest that two Aboriginal teenagers undertake during their journey to Sydney. Lena, the result of the union of an Aboriginal mother whom she despises and an Irish father whom she fantasizes about, flees in the hope of finding him. Vaughn escaped from a juvenile prison camp in New South Wales in an attempt to join his dying mother. Lena sees Vaughn as the embodiment of the Aboriginal heritage she seeks to escape, while Vaughn, on the other hand, holds bitterness and resentment towards the white Australian society that Lena represents through her appearance. Yet both are on the run, one from her family and social context ruled by alcohol and exclusion, the other from prison. Despite their very different quest and vision, the two teenagers quickly became travelling companions with many things in common. Both seek to escape a difficult context but do not find their place in Australian society; Lena does not feel in her rightful place anywhere, while Vaughn is constantly facing rejection, and responds with violence. Between conflicts and moments of intimacy, their eventful journey provides us with a glimpse into contemporary Aboriginal society from the perspective of youths in the grip of many difficulties. The film explores all the issues of anger, despair, confusion, racism and exclusion experienced by young Aborigines, which make their identity-building process much more complex.

The often deplorable economic and social conditions in which the Aboriginal community lives have an impact on the identity-building of young people, their relationship to their origins, but also and above all to the rest of Australian society. How is it possible to find a place in it when integration is and has always been almost impossible? Indeed, as Rosalind Kidd explains in her text “Suffer the Little Children”, the integration of Aboriginal communities into white Australian society has never been successful. The assimilation policy pursued by the Australian government throughout the 20th century has proved to be a total failure precisely because of the persistent racism rooted both in Australian society and in its government. In the name of protection, Aboriginal people were indeed made wards of the state and submitted to policies that gave government the power to deny them control over almost every aspect of their lives. Kidd explains that there were not enough means on the part of the government to properly feed the Aboriginal children, or provide them decent living conditions, or even care for their education since the state voluntarily did not want to grant the same educational budget for Aboriginal institutions and white institutions. So Kidd highlights a very clear paradox: the government’s initial plan was to educate and assimilate Aboriginal people into white society through the removal of children and the care of their education, yet the state never wanted to invest financially for their education, good development and well-being, which of course could not result in their assimilation but only in their further social and economic exclusion from society. Inclusion and equality were never made possible. This resulted in increased risks of falling into unemployment, criminality, and alcoholism. As Abigail Payet points out, the communities of Aboriginal culture have “become associated with alcohol and drug problems, suicide and crime”. Kidd mentions in her text an officer from State health department who said in 1945 concerning the children in dormitories that “practically nothing was done either to teach them work which might be useful or even to occupy their time and minds” and he therefore added that “responsability must be accepted if these children become criminals” by referring to the State, which proved to be partly true. Indeed, as explained by Dr Grace O’Brien, issues such as “limited educational opportunities”, “socioeconomic hardship”, or “addiction” – currently faced by many Aboriginal people – significantly increases the risk of delinquency of Indigenous youth which “are incarcerated at 25 times the rate of non-Indigenous youth”.

Vaughn in prison. Screenshot, Beneath Clouds, Ivan Sen.

This exclusion from white society and persistent racism against Aboriginal people has continued long after the end of the government’s assimilation policy, as we can see in Beneath Clouds. The film highlights the social exclusion, economic difficulties and racism they face in Australian society, particularly through the case of Vaughn; the scene in which the police officer unjustly arrests him is a clear reflection of racism against Aboriginal youth in Australia. As Abigail Payet mentions in her article, “young, indigenous people are taken into custody for minor offences like swearing or making too much noise”, which shows how prevalent racism is.

It is therefore difficult to build an identity in such a context of poverty, hopelessness and injustice, since it is precisely all these barriers that make integration and the feeling to belonging to the rest of society difficult for Aboriginal people. As rightly pointed out by Professor Alexandra Xanthaki of Brunel University, “aboriginal youths feel alienated from their country’s society and stripped of their identity by colonisation”. Beneath Clouds is interesting in the sense that it shows us two different ways to approach aboriginality. Vaughn is proud of it and affirms it all the more loudly and strongly as he is rejected on a daily basis by white society. On the contrary, Lena is trying to escape this identity of which she is ashamed, but without being able to develop any sense of belonging to the rest of Australian society either. In such a context of exclusion, social misery, delinquency, and violence, achieving any kind of identity as a young Aboriginal person in / and with Australian white society is a complex process that the film cleverly underlines through its two protagonists.

If Beneath Clouds shows us the particularly difficult economic and social aspect faced by the Aboriginal community, it has the intelligence to present another aspect of their history through the more complex characters of Lena and Vaugn, by raising the question of identity, of aboriginality, and of both the relationship to their origins and to their country.

Lara Tantawi

Works cited:

-Kidd, Rosalind. “Suffer the Little Children”. Black Lives, Government Lies. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2000.

-Payet, Abigail. “Australia’s Aboriginal youth: young life in our oldest civilisation”, BBC, 23 January 2017.

-Dr O’Brien, Grace. “Excluding Indigenous youth from schools may severely increase their rick of incarceration” , The Conversation, 19 septembre 2017.

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