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This essay is a response to the question from our 2019 Common Module: Texts and Human Experiences Practice Paper 1.
Texts “hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” – Hamlet (3.2.17-24)
To what extent does this statement reflect representations of individual and collective human experiences in your prescribed text and ONE other related text?
The figurative notion of texts mirroring nature implies that texts are an accurate reflection of human characteristics and relationships, and this is represented in the documentary series by Ivan O’Mahoney, Go Back to Where You Came From (2011); and the eclectic poem by Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Let Us Not Be Bitter (1964). These two texts represent both individual and collective human experiences by exploring the process of Othering, which, in their respective contexts of restrictive government legislation and social tensions, results in an ‘us against them’ dynamic. In both representations, individual experiences of identity and belonging uncover the desirable aspects of our humanity, as much as the inconsistent. Both O’Mahoney and Noonuccal, therefore, create texts which “show virtue her feature” while simultaneously “scorn[ing] her own image”, and, in this way, draw our attention to the impacts of our shared and individual experiences on the way we perceive the world and ourselves.
Both texts represent the collision of cultural identities by exploring an ‘us vs them’ dialectic in the shared human experiences of displacement and acceptance. The social documentary series Go Back to Where You Came From is a social experiment featuring six participants – described as ‘ordinary Australians’ in the marketing tagline – who are all made to experience the journeys of asylum seekers to Australia. The program was first aired in 2011, a tumultuous era in which the ‘Stop the Boats’ immigration policies catalysed extreme nationalism. The resultant xenophobia is evident in the documentarians’ characterisation of Raquel. In Episode Two, when she arrives at the Malaysian airport, she comments on the modesty of Malaysian women’s clothing, by declaring, “I don’t care. I dress how I want to. If they wanna wear tea towels and long pants, that’s their problem”. The mid-shot of Raquel at the airport, in combination with the ignorant tone of her candid dialogue, highlights the xenophobic rhetoric and high emotion of public discourse surrounding refugees. In this way, the documentary seeks to hold a mirror up to anomalous emotional behaviours in real life. Although Raquel’s understandings are challenged over the season, her initial non-acceptance is visualised in the opening sequence of each episode: a montage of archival footage of refugee boats crashing into shore; Australian politicians in public address; protesters, and reporters; accompanied by a soundscape of violent ocean waves and sirens. The documentarians’ use of montage and provocative characterisation enhances the ‘shock factor’ of the series and mirrors our collective desensitisation to news representations of the displaced Other.
In Let Us Not Be Bitter, Noonuccal similarly represents the polarisation between colonial Australia and Indigenous Australians and its effects on shared experiences of national identity and belonging. The poem was published at the latter end of forced assimilation policies, which sought to integrate Aboriginal Australians into ‘white’ Australia through various means including state guardianship of Aboriginal children, resulting in the Stolen Generations. This profundity is further evidenced in: ‘my own dark people / Come stand with me, look forward, not back’, where pause and enjambment are used to punctuate Noonuccal’s encouragement of Indigenous peoples to reconcile their differences and move towards a more inclusive future. The volitional tone in Noonuccal’s poem presents a call to action for fellow Indigenous Australians to look to a future of cross-cultural healing, despite a paradoxical past of cruel mistreatment: ‘Time for us stood still; now we know / Life is change’. Building on this, Noonuccal evokes poignancy and pain through inclusive language: ‘Let us try to understand the white man’s ways’,
Whilst Noonuccal distinctly addresses prejudice through the differing experiences of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by posing potential futures for Australia, O’Mahoney sets out to ‘scorn the image’ of intolerance embedded in the Australian identity. In Go Back to Where You Came From, the documentarians deliberately emphasise the ways in which most of the participants’ first-hand experiences of the plight of refugees ultimately transform their ignorance. This is notably seen in Episode 3, when Raye is debriefing on her experiences of living with the Masudi family in a refugee camp in Africa: “We just have to survive. And that’s about all they’re doing in there, is surviving, because it certainly isn’t living”. Raye’s emotive dialogue overlays a montage of refugees in the camp, and the resultant sympathy is heightened by a smash cut to a long shot of a sunset behind barbed wire. O’Mahoney, thus, represents the collective human desire for freedom and underlines how the shared experience of ‘walking in the shoes’ of others can affect an individual’s experiences of the world and themselves. Instead of encouraging Indigenous Australians to ‘walk in the shoes’ of non-Indigenous Australians, Noonuccal is far more interested in self-reflection. Her historical reference to the Stolen Generations in, ‘The past is gone like our childhood days of old’, acknowledges the oppression that Indigenous Australians collectively experienced; followed by, ‘The future comes like dawn after the dark.’ This profound combination of simile, alliteration, and juxtaposition simultaneously addresses the suffering of Indigenous Australia as a single entity, while providing for a form of hopeful anticipation. Noonuccal, therefore, constructs a poem to the same end that O’Mahoney uses the form of social documentary: to mirror individual experiences of changes in prejudice and intolerance, and to position them as collectively emblematic.
Both Go Back to Where You Came From and Let Us Not Be Bitter explore Othering and nationhood, and their effects on the more personal experiences of belonging and identity. Madhouse and Noonuccal offer compelling representations of these sometimes paradoxical experiences. In relation to the given statement, it can ultimately be concluded that when texts expose the virtuous aspects of our human natures, they automatically draw our attention to the less desirable qualities that we perceive in ourselves, both individually and collectively.