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
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
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......?