The extraordinary new documentary The Australian Dream begins as the story of Indigenous AFL legend Adam Goodes. The Premierships. The Brownlows. And then, the booing, jeering and ugly, racist snipes. And then it goes even deeper.

The film was written by prominent Indigenous journalist Stan Grant (and directed by Daniel Gordon), who guides us through the story of anti-Indigenous racism in Australia from colonisation to the present day, with input from other Indigenous athletes such as hockey player and Olympic gold medalist (and former senator) Nova Peris, and former AFL footballers Michael O’Loughlin and Nicky Winmar.

It’s thoughtful, compassionate, and possibly the best explainer ever made of Australia’s murky, racist history. It’s the one Australian film you must see this year.

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Broadsheet: You arrived back in Australia in the thick of the Adam Goodes booing saga. What was it like to come home to that?
Stan Grant: Living overseas was liberating. I was freed from my own history. I didn’t have to explain myself. Professionally it was a wonderful thing to be able to engage in the world, report on China, the Middle East and other places. [Coming home to this] was a very confronting thing.

In a way, this matched up with what I’ve seen in other parts of the world. The world grapples with questions of history. Of the legacy of history, of race. Of nationalism. What is it to belong? What is a nation? In this I saw all of these things playing out, but in a very personal way for me. This wasn’t something I was reporting in a detached way. This was my country, my history, my people.

And it was baffling for me. Australia, in the eyes of many, is the envy of the world; there are few places in the world as peaceful and tolerant and cohesive and prosperous. It’s difficult for people to see the underside of that. There’s the Australia that people see, the Australian dream – where people leave things behind and start again – and then there’s the other Australia, where you don’t leave things behind, where you’re locked out, segregated, ostracised, your rights denied. Those two things sit so uncomfortably together. And yet in this moment I saw all of those things playing out.

I think it’s difficult for people to get their head around the idea that this was racist. They’d say, “Oh, we’re just football fans. We don’t like him.”

BS: They can’t get to the core of why they don’t like him.
SG: No. They can’t understand what it sounds like to [Indigenous Australians], because they’re not used to hearing us or seeing us. I arrived at the centre of that.

Initially I thought well, I’ll just keep it at arms-length. But the longer it went on, the more personal it became to me. I could hear the echo of so much of my history in what was playing out. So I decided to write about it. An article led to a speech, which led to a book, and ultimately to a film.

BS: The film talks about how Goodes didn’t really know much about his ancestral roots. Did you grow up with that connection?
SG: It was very different for me. Adam was raised away from his traditional roots in South Australia. My father is a Wiradjuri man, my mother is a Gamilaroi woman, and I was raised on that country. That kinship connection, that understanding of place and belonging, is part of who I was.

Mine was a very traditional family. My uncles and grandfather, my great-grandparents, they were all heavily involved in Wiradjuri culture and politics. My father wrote the first Wiradjuri dictionary. They spoke their own language and knew their own stories. If anything, I was estranged from Australia. I was deeply within Wiradjuri culture, with a sense of who I was and where I was from – that was never in any doubt. I was lucky.

BS: Did Goodes take some convincing to get involved?
SG: I don’t think so. What appealed to him here was that this isn’t just the Adam Goodes story. I think that was appealing to both of us, that it was a bigger canvas. [We asked] bigger questions than just, “What happened to Adam on a football field?”

And it’s a hopeful film. The arc of the story leaves us with the possibility that we can find a new beginning, we can reconcile. The voices that supported him are louder than the ones that booed him.

BS: Eddie McGuire features pretty prominently, expressing remorse for his own past comments. Were you surprised that he was willing to be interviewed?
SG: Good on Eddie for that. My experience of him is he’s got a good heart. He’s a very well-meaning man. But he just doesn’t … he’s every man in Australia. They don’t get it. There are far worse people than Eddie McGuire. But if Eddie, with all his good intentions, still can’t understand the power of words and the offhanded way we joke about these things, what hope is there for other people?

There’s a lot in the film about Australian culture, but also about colonial history. At first I thought you were aiming for international audiences. But then I thought, “Do most Australians even know this stuff?”
SG: If the film is about anything, it’s about how we perpetuate the myth of terra nullius. Terra nullius means “empty land”. Empty. No one here. You can take it – the whole nation. And Australians are oblivious to this.

[Australia] is founded on the idea that the people who were here, that had been here for 60, 70, 80 thousand years (we keep pushing that date back [as research uncovers new findings]) had no rights to this land. For all intents and purposes, legally, Indigenous people were invisible.

The language we use, that Captain Cook “discovered” Australia, that the “explorers” were exploring some untouched wilderness – people were there. That’s the point of the film, and we can’t stress that enough, how oblivious people are to our nation’s story, and the foundation of the nation.

When people are invisible, it’s out of sight, out of mind. It’s happening to someone else. We don’t have to be accountable. Those voices are silenced.

The Australian Dream is in cinemas nationally now.

Watch the trailer.