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Romper Stomper is a film that makes a mess on the living room carpet of Australian society: it is neither polite nor quiet, and it talks about unpleasant things. It is the sort of film that dares to do more than wag a tale.  ANDREW L. URBAN reports.

Even before its Australian release, Romper Stomper generated heated criticism and a great deal of praise. Some film writers and critics feel the film is racist, with the potential to influence young people to society's detriment. Others strongly disagree.

"It's an important film and what it says is very strong," producer Daniel Scharf

But no-one denies it is first class film making; nominated for nine AFI awards, it won three (Best Actor, Best Music, Best Sound) despite the award feeding frenzy of Strictly Ballroom. And it set off a buzz of appreciative discussion among some of the 8000 members of the Australian Film Institute who were shown the film in the voting process.

"I'm happy it's creating a disturbance; it's an important film and what it says is very strong. If it disturbs an audience, it's doing what we set out to do," comments the film's producer Daniel Scharf.

"If the film is racist, it must be proved to contribute to racist behaviour." writer/director Geoffrey Wright

Writer/director Geoffrey Wright, the 35 year old Melbourne film maker making his feature film debut, challenges those who call his film racist: "If the film is racist, it must be proved to contribute to racist behaviour." Wright does not believe the film will do that.

Romper Stomper is the story of a Melbourne gang of skin heads whose violent clash with neighbourhood Vietnamese is followed by the gang's disintegration. But there are other elements and other characters, which add to the film's complexity - not only in the narrative but also in its emotional and psychological aspects.

Russell Crowe plays gangleader Hando (Best Actor Award), who reads Meine Kampf and displays the most menacing nazi attitudes in the film.

"The hardest thing is to confront yourself." Geoffrey Wright

Wright sees Hando and his gang as pathetic figures, "desperate figures in a suburban landscape who do what they do to know they're alive." It is a nasty example of people trying "to solve their internal problems in the outside world - externally. I'm unhappy. Why? Because there are too many Asians in the neighbourhood. Instead of having the gumption to help themselves...it's always easier to look elsewhere for the solution. The hardest thing is to confront yourself."

The suburban landscape that Wright depicts in the film comes from his observations over several years in inner Melbourne. Born in pleasant enough Pascoe Vale, he grew up in Laverton, and saw how empty lives can be filled up with hate.

But the script grew as much out of a cinematic exploration as of a cultural one; in the 80s, he had been fascinated by the polarisation of film styles. There were action films, and then there were 'serious' films.

Where were the characters in the suburbs that could provide a serious film maker with kinetic energy? Right there - in the angry, violent, racist Skinhead gangs.

"I formed a more complex view of some of them," Wright on Skinheads

Wright had observed street life at a distance: but he also mingled with skinheads in the course of research. "Some are very intelligent and wanted out of their gang, others were firmly entrenched. I formed a more complex view of some of them, and it was hard not to like a few...there were stories of broken homes and fancy dreams..."

One day in a pinball parlour, Wright met a girl from a gang, who ended up telling him her life story, "over many coffees and many hours. I never saw her again." But he based the film's character of Gabe (played by Jacqueline McKenzie) on that girl.

Gabe is something of a catalyst, coming into the gang at first as Hando's lover, leading them to a wealthy home for a robbery, with Hando eventually kicking her out, taking Davey (the late Daniel Pollock), Hando's sidekick, with her. Gabe's story, interwoven with the gang's, becomes more important as her love for Davey overpowers Hando and his destructive force.

Here is Wright's moral point of view: and again, more directly, when he has one of his female characters predict the gang's ultimate demise in the none-too-vague language of the milieu: "You're all fucked!"

Wright's movie education began when he was 17 and convalescing after an operation. For six months he watched movies on television, acquiring an appreciation for a film's many elements, from lighting to camera angles.

He got so interested he even turned the volume off so he could watch the edits without distraction.

"People can say anything: it's actions that count." Wright on his characters

"I love to be challenged about the film," he says vigorously, his round spectacles giving him an air of earnest enthusiasm. "I like a bit of a debate and I'm confident of holding my own."

For Wright, "people can say anything: it's actions that count." Which is why he has his characters defined by what they do, not by what they say.

His producer believes that Romper Stomper is a social comment "on any group of people living together. It's the story of the world...listen, my parents had to leave Germany 30 years ago..." Scharf says poignantly.

"The thrill of speeding cars" on Metal Skin

Wright's next film again deals with "people resorting to external solutions for internal probelms; this time, it's petrol heads in Melbourne's Western Suburbs. A bunch of characters who approach the thrill of speeding cars from four different directions."

The film, originally called Speed, has been re-titled to Metal Skin (avoiding conflict with the US film, Speed).

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One of the first of contemporary Australia’s darker films, Romper Stomper, despite its R rating, attracted a large audience – and considerable international attention. It helped establish the reputation of filmmaker Geoffrey Wright, as well as its two leads, Russell Crowe and Jacqueline Mackenzie.


10/9/98: The Making Of … is a unique and historic series of articles on a selection of Australian films - such as this one - that were made BI (Before Internet), or at least before Urban Cinefile was launched. All the films covered in this series can be found in the FEATURES ARCHIVES menu page, listed alphabetically under MAKING OF

We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the Australian Film Commission in helping to publish this series.


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