Black Robe (1991)

Another film that Gary recommended (he recommended Traveller’s and Magicians) was Black Robe about a French Jesuit priest in the 17th century who goes to Quebec to convert the Native Americans to Catholicism. It is directed by Bruce Beresford who also directed Driving Miss Daisy.

It’s beautifully done. So many of these films make the Native Americans out to be saints or the Catholics out to be saints and this one does neither. Instead, it does a wonderful job of showing how courageous the French Catholics were in coming to a foreign land to try and convert a people while at the same time showing how this courage was also hubris (the opposite of reverence – see Woodruff’s Reverence, Renewing a Forgotten Virtue).

They may have meant well, but they had absolutely no understanding of the people they had intended to convert.

A wonderful conversation occurs between Father Laforgue and Daniel (his companion):

Daniel: “But they are true Christians. They live for each other. They forgive things we would never forgive.”

Father Laforgue: “The devil makes them resist the truth of our teachings.”

Daniel: “Why should they believe them. They have an afterworld of their own.”

Father Laforgue: “:They have no concept of one.”

Daniel: “They believe that in the forest of night the dead can see. Souls of men hunt the souls of animals.”

Father Laforuge: “It is childish stuff.”

Daniel: “Is it harder to believe in than a paradise where we all sit on clouds and look at God?”

This is a sort of turning point for Father Laforgue, played by Lothaire Bluteau, whom I loved in Jesus of Montreal (and why Gary recommended this film to me.)

It’s the story of a culture clash – how two very different cultures who do not understand one another consider the other’s ways to be evil. (A story that continues to be very much alive and well today.)

The winner gets to tell the story, of course. The winner in the Americas was Christian domination. But that does not mean the story that is told is reality. It is only the story as told from the view point of he who conquered. His Story (history).

And that is not to say that the loser was completely innocent of any wrong doing. Only that their story has it’s own point of view and is not necessarily the one told from the point of view of the “winner”.

This movie does a wonderful job of displaying the culture conflict without glorifying either side. Both are demonized, both are glorified, both are seen as heroic. Human beings.

Thanks again Gary! Wonderful film.

Dancing with Strangers by Inga Clendinnen

Just finished reading Dancing with Strangers: Europeans and Australians at First Contact. (Lindsay sent me the book for my birthday – thank you Lindsay!) I read the book in two days – I literally could not put it down. It reads like an extremely intriguing novel.

Inga Clendinnen is a historian who has written about the Mayans, the Aztecs, and the Holocaust. The current focus of her work is looking at the way different cultures view the world and how these differences play out in relationships between them.

I’ve read several historical works, of course. But I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything with the sensitivity of Dancing with Strangers. I have a completely different appreciation of history now than I did before reading it.

It’s interesting to imagine that race was not an immediate issue between the Native Australians and the British, but developed as the gulf of their mis-understanding of one another widened – both sides expecting the other to be beholden to their laws and understanding of the world. But neither really understanding the laws of the other because of the fog created by their own understanding.

We know how the British felt about the people they came across as they colonized various areas because we have their written record. But we don’t have the written record of the native people of the lands the British colonized. That the British found natives of many lands to be “savage” is clear. That the native people of the lands found the British to be appalling and savage as well is not always as clear. What is especially unclear are the reasons the natives of these lands found the ways of the British so appalling because we tend to exist in our own present day cultural fog when it comes to such an understanding of the past. We can understand peripherally, of course. But to understand with any depth takes a willingness to acknowledge the fog so we can move beyond it for a clearer view.

The main characters are primarily male, with a few accounts given by British females. But there is one Native Australian female character that receives an entire chapter. Barangaroo. I love this woman. She refuses to wear clothes. She wears a bone in her nose – something only males do. Her husband wants her to have her baby in the British Governors home which she seems to agree to. But when the time comes, she has her child by herself in the place of her choosing. She fights back with a vengeance, even though women are regularly beaten by men at the seemingly slightest provocations. Her husband’s beatings, no matter how severe, do not stop her from standing up to him or anyone. At one point, a British convict is being flogged by a British soldier for a transgression against an Australian. Baranagaroo, who is among the appalled Australians watching the flogging, is so outraged at this treatment that she flogs the flogger. What a woman!

I know that there is a tendency to romanticize the native peoples of areas these days which is probably somewhat healthy. But Clendinnen reminds us that it is important to remember that every culture has it’s ugly side. As was true with British females, the role of male and female was most definitely not equal among the Australian tribes. Women seem to have been considered property and were heavily beaten regularly. Sometimes to death.

The British regularly beat and executed the convicts they had brought with them. There are many stories of the white convicts trying to escape this treatment – one group hoping to get to China where they assumed they would be treated more fairly by those who are not white. According to Clendinnen, this has been a common, although not entirely accurate, assumption throughout history.

Clendinnen closes the book with an account from 1839 offered by Mrs. Charles Meredith who explains the various ways “ay” is used amongst the Native Australians and claims that this is proof that all Australians are Australian now. (I’m not familiar with the use of “ay” in North Queensland although I’m much more familiar with the Australian accent since Lindsay turned me on to the ABC.)