Australian documentary unspools race riots dating back to 19th century

Tue Feb 17, 2015 12:17am EST
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By Pauline Askin

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A racist flare-up in a beachside Sydney suburb hit the global spotlight nine years ago, besmirching Australia's reputation as a sun-drenched oasis wooing migrants from around the world.

A TV documentary attempts to show the alcohol-fueled riots of December 2005 were not an aberration and that racial tension in Australia had simmered long before the Cronulla Beach incident pitted white surfers against ethnic Lebanese youths.

"The Great Australian Race Riot" documents nine major riots since the mid-19th century, beginning with sectarian violence between Irish Catholics and British Protestants living in Melbourne that led to bloodshed on city streets in 1846.

"As awful and as sensitive as it can be, when you look at racial riots, they do say something about the political, economic or social status," director Sally Aitken told Reuters.

"It's not just an outright racial outburst of uncontrolled violence," she said.

The three-part documentary opens with a surfer riding the waves on Cronulla beach but the scene quickly shifts to a glimpse of bare-chested young men, some draped in the Australian flag, waving their fists in an angry warning to stay away.

The 2005 riots are a sensitive topic in the country, with many Australians considering them a national disgrace.

"What?? 'The Great Australian Race Riot'. Should have been called 'The Shameful Australian Race Riot,'" read a comment left on the Facebook page of broadcaster SBS Australia.   Continued...

A man argues with police before being detained for an alcohol-related incident on North Cronulla Beach in Sydney in this December 18, 2005 file photograph. REUTERS//Will Burgess/Files