TIFF ’19 Interview: Adam Goodes, Dan Gordon and Stan Grant on Uniting for “The Australian Dream”

At about the eight-minute mark Stan Grant could no longer keep track of how long the standing ovation was for “The Australian Dream” when it premiered last month at the Melbourne Film Festival.

“They were still standing when we left,” the longtime reporter said with a hearty chuckle, of the documentary he had written about the legendary Australian Football League player Adam Goodes.

“It disoriented all of us,” says the director Dan Gordon. “They’ve never had a standing ovation at Melbourne. It happened with other film festivals, but there’s a line in the film that Adam says about the beauty of the game is that the fans ride every bump, every tackle, every score, and it was like the audience did that watching the film.”

Goodes himself wasn’t fazed by any of this, not necessarily because he had become accustomed to such adulation on the field, but because even after retiring only four years ago, it was a lifetime ago for the already humble athlete and while the roar of the crowd may not get old, it’s been the individual conversations that he’s had with people who have seen the film that have resonated the most.

“I’m loving being here in Toronto and wanting to get as much support for our documentary as possible and talk to those people on the street when they’re seeing it, because of that one-on-one interaction where you really do get an understanding of people’s lived experience and how to connect to the documentary,” said Goodes, on the eve of the film’s premiere in Canada, following a bow at the Telluride Film Festival. “There’s something about back home in Australia that if things are spoken about more internationally, you take a little bit more notice.”

The opposite also proves true with the eye-opening documentary that may chart the end of a celebrated career for the four-time All-Australian star for the Sydney Swans, but inspires by bearing witness to the birth of a greater social conscientiousness for Goodes, who felt compelled to leave the game after a series of events that began with hearing the racist taunts of a 13-year-old girl during a match in 2013 comparing the Aboriginal athlete to an ape. While the sport itself may look unfamiliar to global audiences in its specificity to Australia, played on cricket fields and resembling rugby, Goodes’ experience is unfortunately all too similar to incidents roiling major leagues around the world, namely the exile of Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers whose stand against police brutality left him unemployed and vilified.

Goodes endures some of the same blowback after asking security to escort the teenager from the game and uses his platform to plead for a more open dialogue about racial tensions that have long been swept under the rug, but beyond asking more of the public, the 2014 winner of Australian of the Year Award asks more of himself, fearlessly thrusting himself into a journey of self-discovery to learn about his indigenous roots. He can only go so far when he traces his lineage back to the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who were taken from their families as children over 60 years, but he is far from alone in recounting a painful past as other Aboriginal athletes such as Olympic hockey gold medalist Nova Peris and AFL star Nicky Winmar share their stories as well. “The Australian Dream” is a tremendously moving film that seems destined to open up the difficult yet necessary personal conversations between audience members that Goodes has been enjoying so much on the streets following screenings, and it was special to get to catch up with him, Grant and Gordon during a busy festival run for the trio to discuss the responsibility of doing such a story justice.

How does this film come about?

Dan Gordon: Myself, John Battsek, my producing partner Sarah Thompson were discussing three years ago what our next film could be and Sarah is Australian, so [she was saying], “Have you seen the Adam Goodes story?” This is late 2016, so it was fairly raw at the time. And very quickly I found out it was a story and then I was pointed to Stan’s speech that’s in the film. And we had a chat with Adam, but I think [for] Adam at the time was still quite early into that sort of post-trauma and it wasn’t easy for him to talk.

Adam Goodes: Yeah.

Dan Gordon: But it wasn’t really a great conversation. He tried and normally, I make films where the story’s 20 or 30 years old, and people have that distance to speak. But this was really about trying to work out if we could tell a story that is very relevant now, but also quite soon since the time’s past. I went out two years ago, we all met and were filming in January ’18.

Adam, you seem very deliberate about when you speak publicly and what you want to say. What led to the decision to participate?

Adam Goodes: Yeah, I’ve been really strategic about when I talk and what I talk about and when I was announced the Australian of the Year in 2013, you get a great opportunity and great platform to talk about things that you’re passionate about. And usually someone who has been announced Australian of the Year, they go to every breakfast, lunch and dinner for the whole year. But I was still playing football, so I actually didn’t have time to do that, so I had to have a strategy around when I spoke, what events I went to, and after retiring, I wanted to be really clear that the media played such a massive role in not telling the right story during that last part of my career, I wanted to then work with not so much media people, but a documentary to really capture what had happened so when people do look back in time and go, “Wow, this is what happened. This is what Adam was feeling, this is what he saw,” it’s not so much what the media said. That was really important for me because I can’t go out in the media and talk to people and change their minds. People already have their made-up opinions about who I am and what I’ve done. It’s only now that people have watched the documentary or they’ve seen me talk at a corporate event, that I can then start to change their perceptions.

Stan, you covered this as an ongoing story – is it interesting to go from covering it as it unfolds to completing a definitive record of it?

Stan Grant: It was interesting for me because I lived abroad for 18 years — I lived in London, Hong Kong, the Middle East, and back to Beijing again. Part of the reason I wanted to work [abroad] was professional, but it was also personal, just to get away from a country where you live with that history. There’s no way to escape it. Even if you’re successful, even if you have options in your life, you can’t escape that pressure. So I came back to Australia after all that time right as this whole story was reaching its prime and I was appalled that we still do this, but also appalled that Adam was going through this and no one was standing up and saying, “This is wrong. No society should do this.”

I thought it was fairly obvious to say these things, and I had an opportunity to speak and to write about this, saying, “I’m not going to tolerate this.” And it was also very personal, because all indigenous people share this story, have had family members taken away and being pushed off their land, [desecrated] their sacred writings, brutalized. That is a lived experience for all of us. So for me it was going from being an objective journalist who wrote about other people’s stories to writing about something that felt very personal and with the documentary, I’d been approached by various production companies for a film about my story and I never wanted to do that because for us, it’s not my story. And it’s not even Adam, it’s our people. So when this came along, I thought, “Well, here’s an opportunity to tell a much bigger story.”

Is it difficult to get people to speak openly about racism?

Dan Gordon: It’s not for people to be racist, but the big challenge is that every single person that we spoke to had been through some sort of trauma, and that’s quite tough because you are trying to bring out that story without re-traumatizing people. Most people who are in the film know Adam or admire Adam, so they were always on side for that, but it’s one thing agreeing to interview, it’s then another sitting down and opening your heart.

Stan Grant: And it’s different with this. We spend a lot of our time and energy in Australia speaking back to racism, having to defend or explain or justify ourselves. What was really critical in this film was that Aboriginals didn’t have to do that. When Nicky Winmar spoke, or Michael McLaughlin or Nova Peris spoke or Adam, this is how we see Australia. I’m not answering back to you, I’m not debating you. This is our truth, and I think the ability to speak that without feeling as if you are on a witness stand, being cross-examined about your own history, that was a really different approach. You don’t see that very often when Aboriginal people just get to speak the truth of their lives.

Adam Goodes: A lot of people definitely are not racist, but unfortunately, what you see through “The Australian Dream” is that there’s this unconscious bias towards Aboriginal Torres Strait Island people based on media views on what’s happened in our past, but it’s unspoken. My whole journey is about learning who I am and how proud I am of who I am. It’s also about wanting to share that with other people so that they can feel connected and [realize it’s] part of their culture. [The indigenous community] is one of the longest surviving cultures in the world, over 40 to 60,000 years old and all of Australia should be proud of that. To not talk about it means that we’re not talking about the bad stuff, but it also means that we’re not talking about the good stuff, the stuff that could actually bring us together and help us walk together in the future.

Was it important to bring on opposing views like Andrew Bolt to speak to that perspective?

Stan Grant: We couldn’t avoid it. That would’ve been a very disingenuous thing to do to lead them out. They are a voice of a minority, but significant minority of Australian opinion and at the time they were leading voices in this, so to not have them I think would have weakened the documentary. Also, I liked the juxtaposition of aboriginal people speaking in a very courageous, strong and very generous way about our story and our hopes for reconciliation in our government, and the voices of other people who still fail to empathize with us as human beings. When you put those two things side by side and you leave that for the audience to form their own opinion, it’s much more powerful than trying to direct you in a particular way and silence other voices. They were voices. They were part of the story.

Was it difficult to balance a personal story versus the larger history of the indigenous people?

Dan Gordon: That was the big challenge and we always felt it couldn’t be seen as an average [historical] story because they fight so much more than that. You only really find out just how much when you get into the edit suite, and Matt Wiley, the editor, did an absolutely brilliant job in bringing together all the other stories so that it seems quite seamless now, but it obviously took a lot of work to get that balance between, “Is it Adam’s story? Is it Sam’s story? Is it Nova’s story? Is it Michael’s story?” And then the realization was we’re going to tell everyone story through either an incident or a theme. In Nicky Winmar’s case, it was pretty much through that incident, we tell his story, though there’s so much more we could tell.

Stan Grant: What’s been really interesting is when I’ve read the critical reviews in Australia — which have all been overwhelmingly positive and for a subject matter like this, that is very surprising — but I’ve noticed critics are really comfortable with telling Adam’s story or hearing about football, but they are still really uncomfortable being confronted by Aboriginal people speaking the truth and not explaining or defending and justifying themselves, saying, “This is the truth.” A couple of them said, “Oh, trying to tell the big Australian story and the sports story really gets challenging for the audience.” It’s not challenging for the audience at all. It’s challenging for people who still don’t want to see us and our history as a defining thing in Australia. You still want to say, “We can deal with what happened on the football field, but do we really have to tell them about 200 years of history? Do we really have to show people in chains?” Yes, we do.

One of the moments that was so striking to me is when you revisit the locker room during the scene following the incident with the young girl. I mean because it was so fresh still, I wondered was it difficult to go back to some of these places and, you know, how much you wanted to physically go back to some of these places to help tell the story.

Dan Gordon: I don’t know what [Adam] was thinking because one of the things we did lead the SCG. The Sydney cricket ground was the home ground for Swans, and the MCG, which is the Melbourne cricket ground, so you must have played on it hundreds of times at that particular stadium and I don’t know how it felt for you because I wasn’t trying to get any emotion. I knew I would intercut between that [contemporary interview in the locker room] and what happened at the time and because you’ve moved on from football as well, I was like, am I taking someone back to somewhere where you actually feel nothing?

Adam Goodes: Yeah. My whole career’s been being able to compartmentalize things that have been going on in my life on and off field and making a decision to be part of this documentary, I knew that I had to open myself up and go back to parts of my life that I didn’t want to, but needed to. Going back to the MCG actually [feels] a bit of a safe place and a place where I have fond memories. I played a couple of Grand Finals there that we won — and I’ve lost a Grand Final by a point on that ground as well — so the immediate feeling isn’t, “Oh, this is where that 13-year-old girl racially vilified me.” But going back and talking about what happened, especially the last two, three years of my career, it was hard to do, but I wanted to do it because it was going to be done with the care and love of people that are going to make and create something as special as what you’ve seen to help educate others and help them go on their own personal journeys. As a sports person, but also as someone that wants to share my culture, I’ve known that I’ve got to put my neck on the line from time to time.

It’s clear in the film it’s an ongoing journey of discovery for you. Do you actually learn anything about yourself or the indigenous culture in resurfacing things?

Adam Goodes: Yeah, I learned a lot about other indigenous people and the journey that they’ve been on [because] it’s not something we sit around a barbecue and talk about. But when you watch something like “The Australian Dream” as an indigenous person, it’s a kick in the guts, seeing your people in chains and looking at footage of what happened in the past that still, to this day, some people are recognizing as part of that history. It’s not something I want to revisit and look at because it does bring out that trauma inside you that you try to stay away from as much as possible.

Stan Grant: It’s very tough when indigenous people watch. I was talking to my parents last night. They live in a small town in the Outback, and it’s still a very very racist place to live. My mom said my dad just broke down several times because those memories are so fresh. He had been beaten — ribs broken, jaw broken, you know, brutalized and excluded, segregated, not allowed entry to schools and cinemas and swimming pools and those things — and even all these years later, those things are so fresh. So it’s very, very hard and no matter how often you watch it, those emotions become overpowering, even as it’s important for people to watch.

Adam Goodes: And for me, this documentary is for indigenous people and for non-indigenous people to really open themselves up to the life that they’ve had but also the life that they’re going to continue to have, whether that’s calling out racism [or] voting for Trump in the next election, one of the views that they’re having now, based in the world that we live in. Our culture is passed on through telling stories, and “The Australian Dream” is a group of indigenous people telling their stories.

“The Australian Dream” will next screen at the London Film Festival on October 12th at the Curzon Soho Cinema at 8:45 pm and October 13th at 3:15 pm at the Vue West End.

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