"Failure to thrive"? Imagining precarity, sensing agency, through Ivan Sen's Toomelah

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Representations of Aboriginal childhood as a fraught and vulnerable existence are overdetermined by the material, affective, and psychic residues of colonisation in Australia. Ten years after the National Apology to the Stolen Generations, public discourse regularly represents Aboriginal children as neglected, shifting blame to Aboriginal communities whenever inequalities between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous Australians are raised. This paper situates such representations in the context of the racialisation of Indigeneity in Australia. Specifically, representations of Aboriginal childhood as ‘unliveable’ reinforce the colonial view that Indigeneity is in decline — children’s “failure to thrive,” so to speak, signalling the inevitable extinction of Aboriginal peoples. Government policies focused on children, in turn, have for generations severed First Nations children from the cultural systems that would nourish a sense of identity, belonging, and hope for a future lived as Aboriginal. Aboriginal Director Ivan Sen recasts images of juvenile vulnerability in his film Toomelah in order to explore its power. In Toomelah’s protagonist, Daniel, we find a burgeoning agency wrought in a space of self-conscious vulnerability, ethical ambiguity, and relationality. In contemporary Australia, government agency assessments regarding the care of Aboriginal children are guided by a limited understanding of “the child’s best interests” that fails to consider how the form of agency addressed by Sen might be nurtured. I argue that if Australia is to decolonise its systems of support and welfare, and promote conditions in which First Nations children and communities may thrive, such agency must be comprehended, supported, and encouraged to develop in situ.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)63-79
Number of pages17
JournalChildhood Vulnerability Journal
Volume2 (2019)
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • Childhood
  • vulnerability
  • indigeneity
  • Ivan Sen
  • Colonisation
  • Stolen Generations


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