Ian Darling says he’s nervous. Still nervous after more than 12 months of engaging with the Australian Football League, its 18 clubs, Indigenous footballers, more than 20 Indigenous organisations, educators, schools and members of the philanthropic community about his latest film.
The starting point is former Sydney Swans footballer and Australian of The Year Adam Goodes, who was booed out of the game he adorned. The booing of the dual Brownlow medallist was, according to one of Goodes’ teammates, ‘relentless and sickening.’
Film director Ian Darling has recently released a documentary entitled The Final Quarter about the circumstances surrounding Goodes’ departure from footy in 2015. It has been a delicate, sensitive and contentious topic that has already provided Darling with a mixture of plaudits and the occasional brickbat. ‘It’s an incredibly sensitive topic: not just the subject matter but also as a critique of the Australian media,’ Darling explains. ‘You never know how people will react.’
But for the most part, the football industry – especially the AFL – has been supportive, even though the circumstances of Goodes’ exit from the game, reflected badly on the league and some of its clubs. Darling, the 2017 Leading Philanthropist, has a track record as a filmmaker who takes on difficult topics. This project, totally philanthropically funded, required careful planning but unlike many documentaries, it doesn’t contain any fresh interviews or reflections. Instead, Darling has gone back to the original footage and reporting, showing the racism that ran through fans booing Goodes and the AFL’s silence on the issue.
Darling was keenly aware of how careful he had to be. ‘We tried to provide a big safety net and duty of care around the film because it can cause pain to Indigenous players and Indigenous organisations,’ Darling says. ‘Our first duty of care was to Adam Goodes.’ Darling explains. Goodes did not take part in the documentary that charts the final three years of his stellar career but is supportive of the film. Darling’s sensitivities extend to a considered awareness of the nation’s first people’s vulnerability to the increase in overt racism in the street and on social media whenever there is public discussion of racism.
More than 12 months ago Darling approached the AFL about the project. At a practical level, he needed its approval to release the footage for the documentary. At a more profound level, the AFL needed to understand what Darling was trying to do with the film. ‘And the thing was we saw that the AFL had an appetite for change,’ Darling says. Critical to this change was the appointment of Tanya Hosch three years ago as the League’s general manager of inclusion and social policy. Initiatives were put in place, including commissioning a statute to commemorate St Kilda Indigenous footballer Nicky Winmar’s famous proud chest-bearing moment to the Collingwood hordes at Victoria Park. The statute was unveiled at Perth’s Optus Oval last weekend.
The documentary was not the trigger for such a change at the AFL, but it has arguably become a beneficiary. In the 12 months since the early conversations with AFL chief Gillon McLachlan and his team, Darling noticed the mood was different. Not only did the AFL have an in-house screening of The Final Quarter, but also most of the 18 league clubs have also screened it. Those who haven’t done so yet, will have shown it within the next few weeks.
Indigenous footballers and then footballers across other clubs saw it and were instantly united in their opposition to the racism displayed in the film. The AFL and all clubs issued an apology to Goodes and committed to never letting such a concerted display of racism-inspired booing to happen again. ‘The AFL is very proud of its game, but no one is proud of this episode,’ Darling says. ‘There was no sense of defensiveness at the AFL about this, but an enormous sense of change.’
Sport has a unique power to bring broader social issues to a specialist audience. Initially Darling had wanted to start a discussion through the nation’s sports pages, where so many of those who follow football start their daily newspaper reading. Such has been the power of The Final Quarter that the debate moved quickly from the back pages, to the editorial pages and then to the front pages.
For Darling, the goal – should there be a next time – is for the AFL to call out the racism much sooner and that the clubs, in the heat of the match, come together in protest and walk off the ground in support of the booed player. ‘Literally, everyone has to have a personal conversation with themselves – am I capable of racism? Am I prepared to stamp it out? Does my silence make me complicit?’ Darling asks. These are powerful and confronting questions.
No wonder Darling remains anxious about the next stages of the documentary’s public unveiling. It premiered at the Sydney Film Festival in early June to stunning reviews and has had several outings since then, but it will appear on the Ten Network and WIN next week, potentially sparking another round of debate. Darling already knows there is a section of the population who will reject everything the film stands for. ‘But the film is driven by honest intent. It’s about a great Australian and a great sporting hero,’Darling explains. ‘We haven’t had that conversation about what happened. And it was so wrong not to have that conversation.’
The Final Quarter will air on Channel 10 and WIN on Thursday 18 July at 7:30pm.