Romulus, My Father, From Cronulla to Kokoda and The Black Balloon

The concept of Belonging can bring about a sense of comfort and security it can represent being part of a group, whether defined as social, cultural, racial, historical, political or religious. In one sense, man is a herd animal and has an innate instinct to belong to a group for security and well-being. Core and related texts reveal that the protagonists, whether due to circumstance or desire, fall outside the group. This is evident in Raimond Gaita’s memoir ‘Romulus, My Father”, the 2007 ABC Compass story “From Cronulla to Kokoda” and the 2008 film “The Black Balloon. Gaita’s memoir reveals how Romulus, a reluctant eastern European immigrant to Australia in the 1950’s, is caught between two diverse cultures, struggling to belong as a “New Australian”.

His sense of alienation is partly due to experiences of discrimination in Australia, “… the authorities… chose not to utilise the many skills of the foreign workers… my father this unusually gifted man was set to work with a pick and shovel. Here, Gaita, through contrast, reveals tones of admiration and frustration, as Romulus’ talent is undermined by having to resort to basic labour. Romulus “… longed for European society, saying that he felt like a ‘prisoner’ in Australia”, this simile reinforcing his lack of comfort and security. He could not become reconciled to the Australian landscape, “He longed for the generous and soft European foliage … the eucalypts… seemed symbols of deprivation and barrenness. ” This contrasting imagery reflects Romulus’ struggle to find identity in a strange land.

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It is evident that Romulus in Australia doesn’t feel a sense of comfort and security rather feeling alienated and distressed. Ali Ammar a 16 year old Lebanese Muslim growing up in Australia explains his ordeals with the Cronulla riots and how all his life he has never truly understood his Australian heritage and culture. Ali involvement in the 2005 Cronulla riots struck many Australian’s at heart, when confused and angry with the Australian’s reaction to his fellow Lebanese friends being told repeatedly to “fuck off Lebs… climbed the local RSL club, ripped down the flag then continued to spit and urinate on it before setting it ablaze, “We just felt like we had to do something about it. We just wanted to show how angry we were. ”However, Ali deeply regrets these actions and decides to embark on a journey that will mentally and physically challenged him as he discover what it truly means to be Australian and why the Australian flag means so much to many by walking the legendary Kokoda trail.

Through the use of high angle shot of his actions and the voice over, his actions are demonstrated which are then juxtaposed with his experiences on the Kokoda trail, where he is surrounded by the rugged jungleAli explains his suffering as a young child growing up, “When I was a kid growing up in Australia it was sort of weird, because I used to have different lunch to everyone else. And they’d have birthday parties and things like that, or just places they’d go different to us. ” It is evident here that Ali has always struggled in Australia similar to Romulus due to their cultural heritages.

Life as an outsider, due to dysfunctional families, often creates a strong urge to belong. This is exemplified in Gaita’s portrayal of Romulus, who is forced to flee his home due to domestic violence after trying “to protect his grandfather from a beating”. This quote reveals Romulus’ courage and love for his grandfather. History repeats itself when Gaita also suffers a dysfunctional childhood and both father and son are denied a sense of family, due to the instability of their wife and mother, Christine, caused by her depression, infidelities and neglect.

Gaita employs assonance and symbol to describe her torment, “A dead red gum… became for my mother a symbol of her desolation”. Romulus’ desperation to belong to a family is reinforced when he tolerates Christine’s periodic abandonments, even her pregnancies to his ‘friend’, Mitru, allowing her to return, but “her neglect… fuelled (his) hostility towards her”. However, Romulus finally finds a sense of belonging with Milka, “His strength of character needed the right kind of nurturing to function, and that, I believe, was given to him by the relative stability of his life with Milka”.

Romulus’ need for a sense of family is also reflected in his attempt to adopt Gaita’s half sisters. Gaita also acknowledges the importance of family when he visits his aunt in Germany who had cared for him as a baby, “This new-found sense of family… gradually awakened in me a desire to find Susan and Barbara”. Once achieved, Romulus “felt the damage had been repaired” believing “for brother and sister not to know of each other’s whereabouts, let alone existence, was so profoundly against the order of things… Down’s film, ‘The Black Balloon’ also explores the effect of family dysfunction as well as the prejudice of outsiders on the process of Belonging. The title is symbolic, evidenced by a high angle shot of a bunch of brightly coloured balloons flying fast over the home of fifteen year old Thomas’ family, recently arrived to a new neighbourhood, while a lone black balloon hovers like a cloud, foreshadowing themes of alienation and discrimination.

Central to the plot is Charlie’s ADHD/Autism, which acts as a barrier to Thomas’ sense of belonging within his family, the community and the local high-school. As his brother, Thomas must negotiate adolescence under the shadow and responsibility of Charlie’s behaviour when he runs semi-naked around the neighbourhood and rubs excrement onto his bedroom floor. Thomas struggles to accept him, vacillating between love, understanding, embarrassment and resentment. His father responds to his conflicting emotions, “All I know is he’s my own, and you’re weak if you don’t look after your own”.

The repetition reinforces the importance of family responsibility, a value shared by Romulus. The ignorance of neighbours is apparent through dramatic irony when they complain to Family Welfare about violence when in fact lovable Charlie is simply behaving boisterously. Thomas’ peers taunt him calling his brother “a spastic” but his caring friend, Jacquie states, “Don’t worry what those stupid boys at school think. You have to stop wishing Charlie was normal. It’s never going to change”.

Like Romulus there is the painful challenge to belong to a dysfunctional family but Thomas heeds his father’s metaphorical advice, reflecting values of the Aussie battler, “Son, shit in one hand, wish in the other and see which one gets full fastest” finally accepting his ‘lot’. The personal, cultural, social and racial relations explored in the abovementioned texts reinforce the notion that we all yearn to belong for security and well being. For those who happen to fall outside the group, belonging offers a sense of place, self-worth, refuge and consolation, vital to making life easier in our hectic world.