I am working on a short film project, The Good Deed, which seeks to share one of the many stories of the indigenous people of Victoria. My role is a PR one, writing about the background and the process of telling this story. I wasn’t sure where to start. I asked for help in meeting the people I needed to talk to. My friend, Ben, put me in touch with the Collingwood Police Station’s Senior Sergeant who works with the indigenous community in that area. I was invited to a social meeting with some community workers down on Smith Street. When I mentioned the project to them and name-dropped one of the writers, they all said, Robbie Thorpe?! He’s the best one to talk to. And with that, in perfect synchronicity, Robbie got off a tram and was there and inviting me to walk and talk.
Robbie Thorpe is from the Krautungalung people of the Gunnai Nation, the traditional owners of Lake Tyers. He has been active in initiating indigenous solutions and, in particular, has been a strong advocate for ‘Pay the Rent’, an indigenous initiative which would provide an independent economic resource for Aboriginal peoples. Robbie has initiated a number of legal actions, where he has argued that crimes of genocide have been committed against Aboriginal peoples throughout the history of the colonisation of Australia.
Robbie, with Eugene E-NRG and Ray Edgar, has written Fire Boy, a feature length film, and the short film, The Good Deed.
For Robbie, The Good Deed has been pulled out of a bigger picture, and he is quick to explain that Fire Boy will explain the issues in more depth.
Robbie says that he is not a film person. He is new at this. When I point out that he is a storyteller though, he agrees and we decide that filmmaking is a good way to tell a story. He does go on to qualify that everything is a story. He tells me that his daughter works for NITV and she asked him why there aren’t any stories coming out of Victoria. Robbie decided it was time that some did.
As we walk down Smith Street and into Gertrude Street, Robbie tells me about Fitzroy and how important it is to his community. The history of Fitzroy is very similar to Redfern. Robbie says that Fitzroy was built out of a ghetto. The community who lived in Fitzroy back in the thirties, his grandmother and his mother’s generations, lived where the Atherton Garden commission flats are now, with no running water or electricity. The CBD was off limits to aboriginal people. So they were finding their way from the reserves and ending up in Redfern and Fitzroy. There, they found some solidarity. Robbie credits much of this to the ability of the aboriginal women. They created organisations and instigated gatherings. Robbie’s mother, Alma Thorpe, was instrumental in building community-run health and social services for the aboriginal community, including the Funeral Service Committee which raised money to give proper burials to those who might otherwise end up in ‘pauper’ graves. Alma has recently been awarded for her many contributions to the community.
Up until the nineties, Fitzroy had aboriginally run Health, Housing and Social Services, as well as the Melbourne Aboriginal Youth Sport and Recreation centre on Gertrude Street. All of these buildings have now been taken over by other businesses or are empty, with only a plaque to commemorate the persistence, energy and hard work of the people who established and ran them.
When Robbie was growing up he enjoyed his community and the work his mother and others were doing. He thought they were going to be free doing all of that. The aboriginal community in Fitzroy inspired other communities, such as the Vietnamese community in Richmond, who went on to establish similar health services to those in Fitzroy. Prevention is the best cure and the land is the only medicine, was a well-known saying at the time.
This all changed when the only way to get funding from the government was to adhere to the Australian, rather than aboriginal system. With these constraints, many people, including Robbie walked away.
Robbie prefers to be independent and not get caught up in the system. He sighs when he tells me that the indigenous people are forced to educate the oppressor. He explains that aboriginal people see the land as their mother. That’s how sacred it is. And you don’t destroy your mother. Robbie describes the stark contrast to the ecocide he now sees by telling me: “We used to fish out the river. There were birds everywhere. You don’t even hear a kookaburra laugh now. It’s not a good sign.”
What he wants is a treaty. He wants the Australian government to acknowledge the past, create a proper legal foundation, leading to a constitution; a constitution for the people, by the people and based on a treaty of peace.
Stories like The Good Deed and the larger Fire Boy tell the story Robbie wants people to hear. But for him, life is a stage and it’s happening every day. He says he doesn’t have time to be creative and he leaves that up to Eugene and Ray. For Robbie, this is the act here and now.
For Robbie, winning is holding our head up and looking people in the eye. The weapon he carries is the weapon of mass destruction, the truth. He says he tries to be as truthful as he can possibly be. Nothing can stand up to the truth and he laughs, “It’s a very cheap weapon too.”
As we arrive back at the corner of Smith and Stanley Streets, Robbie leaves me with this: “I get energy from keeping truthful. I’m fighting ecocide and genocide and racism. I think that’s important. That’s what I do. I have a great life. I wish everyone was as free as me.”