The Curb acknowledges this review was written on Wurundjeri country, and acknowledges that sovereignty of this land has never been ceded. We honour and pay respect to elders past, present and emerging.
The Stolen Generations lasted a lot longer than the history books stated. By 1969, the legalised process of removing Aboriginal children from their families in the name of ‘protection’ had been repealed, but the story was far from over. What if there was a story about a girl who was still subjected to that displacement as late of 1973, a period when it was apparently ‘impossible’ for stolen children to still be taken in Australia?
Brenda Matthews has this story.
Based on the memoir of the same name, The Last Daughter is a rousing, enlightening and informative documentary that charts a complex and sensitive tale. Co-directed by Brenda herself and Nathanial Schmidt, it sheds light on a very specific story, one thought to have fallen through the cracks of history. It asks its audiences to imagine one key scenario – what if you had memories of two different families? For Brenda, there are multiple strands of her childhood. On one hand you have what she recalls as a loving, white family that nurtured and looked after her for half a decade. On the other, you have her Aboriginal family, one that fought long and hard to have Brenda safely and successfully returned to them. What centres the core of this narrative is the union between these two sides, Brenda’s quest to uncover her past and reconcile these two juxtaposed worlds. Brenda wants Australia to heal, and spreading her message is the first stitch in a long festering wound.
Using a combination of interview footage and recreated flashbacks, the story begins by introducing Brenda’s white parents, Connie, and Mac – still hurt from the day they were forced to say goodbye. The camera switches regularly between the assumed memories of Brenda and present-day interviews, making the viewer understand the angst and displacement that Brenda feels dipping your toes between two cultures. It’s not a grounding feeling, and the film does an absorbing job of situating those nuanced and troubled sensations onto the screen. A minor quibble would be aimed at its structure, certain flashback sections feeling out of place and borderline mawkish. The score is also overly sentimental at times, often repeating melancholic piano tones without much subtlety.
While Brenda’s white family were told nothing about her actual family beyond the false narrative that her parents were alcoholics, Brenda’s mother, referred to as Nana Brenda, had to react in distress as seven of her children were taking without consent. The Australian government has yet to take further responsibility for the eugenic and race related separations of so many Indigenous families – and Nana Brenda is one of many strong, surviving victims. There are lies buried deep and trying to educate the history of this nation with veracity and voice has a long way to come.
Nana Brenda exemplifies the hurt and confusion of a system that so painfully tore black families apart for the benefit of white society. Both Nana Brenda and her own mother were also victims of being stolen, a perpetual line of displacement, pain, and anger. At a point in the film, Brenda floats the idea of reconciling with the white family she has many memories of but is now estranged from. Nana at first has no clue why Brenda would want to reconcile with the very family that essentially stole her blood from her – channelling the wrought emotions that many Indigenous Australians rightfully feel emblazoned with to this very day.
It is a complicated situation with no easy answer, and the film does a candid enough job of walking that fractured line. Brenda is determined to create a reconciliation, whether her birth mother likes it or not. Her father was once a pastor, and his religious pull to unite community and faith has passed down with great spirit in Brenda – allowing the viewer to understand why she is so pulled toward making this union happen. After all, Brenda believes that “We can’t change the Nation or the world without first changing ourselves”.
The gentle nature to the film is accompanied by a myriad of support that Brenda has around her. Brenda’s husband Mark provides a sturdy anchor in her life, having met him while going on cultural camps across the Gold Coast. He has worked with the Aboriginal community for over 20 years, being the co-founder of the Balunjali cultural awareness camp – providing activities and water for all sectors of the community. Seeing positive structures and support around Brenda is important for the healing nature the film provides.
What generates such intrigue in this documentary is the crossroads of where Brenda sits. The Child Welfare Board was disbanded in 1969, but Brenda was taken in 1973. There is a compensation scheme for those affected, but Brenda is not eligible. The film details with comprehensive embellishment the people that fall toward the sidelines of history. For Brenda, who is she if she’s not deemed officially a part of the ‘stolen generation’? By the end, the viewer is aware that the parameters of these atrocities were a lot more complicated than it seems on paper.
The Last Daughter is a resonant think-piece that reminds us that Australia is one of multiple worlds, ones that include Blackfellas and Whitefellas. Brenda’s story is one rarely told, and bridging the divide between those two worlds is only solved by sharing our stories and embracing our past. It may not be the most astutely made documentary, but its heart speaks volumes.
If these stories continue to uncover more truths, maybe Australia’s wounds can finally start to heal.
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