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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

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IN OUR OWN IMAGE ?

Australia has an identity problem and is using films to help define itself - but not fully, says Hunter Cordaiy.

At particular times in our cultural history we feel compelled to pronounce that a certain work of art (including film) defines the nation and reflects our aspirations and sense of identity.

There are numerous examples from cultural history which have been used in this way, as defining signposts in a cultural landscape - Picasso's Geurnica symbolises the cry of rage on behalf of the Spanish people against the atrocities of fascism, or Alan Ginsberg's poem Howl, and Laszlo Benedek's The Wild One represent an important moment in youth culture and their search for freedom of expression.

The problem is that such images never really occur in a neat sequence - though we like to see them that way, because an isolated and clearly chronological history is easier to explain. In fact there are several simultaneous images, which depending on your point of view, would define a nation at any moment.

In this sense the current position of the Australian film industry is of particular interest. Australia has an identity problem and is using films to help define itself and, by turns create a history. We are poised on a narrow edge between a British (colonial) past and a possible future which could be uniquely Australian, or look and sound a mid-pacific version of an exported American culture.

The films we make in the next five years will conceivably be as important as the first projects of the industry renaissance in the early 1970's.

Canada has been struggling with a similar problem, particularly in its film and television industry, which is trying to retain an individual voice and style in its productions whilst being next to the largest most successful global exporter of films. For the Canadians, film, literature, theatre, art are also ways of asserting a difference which supports the idea of a specific Canadian identity.

One way of judging the success of this is to analyse which sectors of the community are regularly shown in dramas and documentaries, and to try and trace trends within that representation.

Australia is an immensely diverse multi-cultural nation with immigrants from over 40 countries and yet we barely produce multi-cultural films (Clara Law's Floating Life being one of the few recent attempts) or television programs. We have invested billions of dollars into the film industry especially in providing access for sections of the community historically deprived of facilities and opportunities yet we have not produced a single feature film directed by an Aboriginal Australian, though in recent years there have been features with largely Aboriginal casts and take on issues of great concern.

We have been more successful in providing opportunities for women who now have a variety of voices in the film industry - from Gillian Armstrong's landmark film, My Brilliant Career the first feature directed by a woman in Australia for 40 years, through to Emma Kate Croghan's Love and Other Catastrophes currently screening in America after a successful release locally. This progress characterises the Australian industry in its first two decades - creating opportunities, reaching out for the daring decision rather than the safe path.

In fact, the Australian industry is very good a portraying eccentrics and the dysfunctional - not only Shine but that other now undeservedly sidelined film, Lilian's Story, are two of the current crop of productions which examine a disturbed central character who is, for a change, a creative being rather than a serial killer. The self-willed eccentricity of Sybylla in My Brilliant Career was her attraction to audiences of both sexes, whilst the whole of Priscilla Queen of the Dessert was concerned with characters who crossed all borders.

In art, and literature, the precedents for these eccentrics are readily available - Patrick White's novels area rich field of outsiders and visionaries (from Voss to the Vivisector) - and the film industry has learnt that audiences expect to see parts of themselves and be surprised at the same time when viewing new film.

Australian audiences are patriotic that sense, and support the emerging class of 'stars' in the industry -but the question must now be asked, as the industry kicks into what is clearly a new phase of international recognition - to what degree is the Australian industry internationalising its image at the expense of the 'local' images which were the origins of its success?

The hardest creative balancing act is to retain a local identity whilst addressing an international audience. Paul Hogan couldn't manage it, whilst Peter Weir, for example, works largely in America with American subjects, and Bruce Beresford tries valiantly to work with stories closer to home when he can ...Paradise Road being the latest attempt.

Ironically neither Crocodile Dundee or Priscilla Queen of the Desert, reflect an accurate national image, whilst Muriel's Wedding might be more middle ground in its heterosexuality and conformist values, yet the former two films are successful parts of the mosaic which is our cultural diversity and from a small capital base we have managed to market them as something much more significant than they might truly be - and our national image has been enhanced as a result.

So, what is missing from the mosaic? Well, migrant stories in feature films for a start, along with strong political content in all films. Peter Weir's The Year of Living Dangerously is a good example of the type of film NOT being made in Australia today, yet arguably our political relationships within the region are the major influence on our national destiny - and our images should reflect that complexity. Perhaps we should hope for a film soon about mercenaries in New Guinea......?

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Judy Davis in My Brilliant Career




Above: Year of Living Dangerously

"Peter Weir's The Year of Living Dangerously is a good example of the type of film NOT being made in Australia today, yet arguably our political relationships within the region are the major influence on our national destiny - and our images should reflect that complexity."







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