The documentary honouring the twentieth anniversary of that 400m Olympic gold medal for Cathy Freeman was unlike any documentary I’ve seen before. None of the speakers were on camera as they spoke, other than when they showed old footage of Freeman and others being interviewed. This may be because it was made in a pandemic when people couldn’t travel or even gather for the filming. But it works as a storytelling choice regardless. The visuals were more artistic, then, with shots of Freeman surrounded by oversized projections of photographs onto material hanging over a theatre stage. A dancer represented the young Freeman in stylistic, impressionistic, movement and dance that suggested and evoked imagination and memory for the viewer. Freeman’s voice over the footage of each moment of that race took us into the moment, into her memory, into that bubble of calm and peace, to experience the race from her perspective. What a gift. What vulnerability in the telling of the story, and in the moment itself. I understood how remarkable she was in her presence with that moment: to be utterly present with herself, with her plan, with the ground, with her competitors, when ‘the beast’ of the crowd, the media, as she described it was pressing against her bubble threatening to burst it. My, what presence of mind, and body, and spirit.
Freeman described the presence of her ancestors – knowing herself to be the one in that race who was running on her land more than any other, and drawing great strength from that. What a gift to allow us to see that, hear that, from her. If we are to move forward as a reconciled nation, we must receive these gifts from our First Australians, the gift of their story, their land, as part of our story. Freeman was shown through this documentary to be one who had found her Indigenous identity difficult to carry within the dominant settler society; and also to be one, once she was being interviewed regularly, to speak with growing confidence, joy, and gratitude for her heritage, her people as she often said. In doing that, to our shame, Australia, she was acting out of vulnerability. That anyone would find claiming and celebrating their heritage an act of vulnerability saddens me deeply.
But we burst out of the bubble with Freeman after she crosses the finish line and lets the beast in. Freeman ran that race for herself; and then she opened to the nation and allowed the victory to be ours, together. In an act of generosity, humility, and vulnerability, Freeman allowed Australia to celebrate her victory as our victory; she accepted the public role of heroine, she chose to act with grace and courage and integrity as an ambassador of her people to the whole of Australia, and of her people and her country to the world. There’s more to that public persona, role model, element of leadership, which for many, sports people, entertainers, researchers, politicians’ spouses, clergy folk, even, is not entirely what they signed up for, and not always able to be fulfilled. I suspect I have more to say about that in future.
Vulnerability, though, and one’s ability to lean into it and act from within it, is the deep, profound, requirement of a leader I have been reminded of in my current encounters with leaders so far.
In particular, I have noticed and appreciated the vulnerability of all, not only ‘leaders’, to tell one’s story with integrity and authenticity, knowing that we have a responsibility to tell our story, each of us, in order to share what wisdom we have gained through experience, to encourage each other, and to build strong and courageous individuals and communities.