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The purpose of Australian feature film production, argues Dr Karen Pearlman*, is not to tell our own stories. The purpose of our feature film industry is to make our myths.

What’s the difference? Three things stand out for me: scale, dynamics and ownership.
First, scale. The purpose of any feature film in our new media environment, is, technologically speaking, scale. Feature films in cinemas may or may not survive the digital revolution, but if they do it will be because we crave a big, social experience, not a small, private one that we can watch on the 5 cm screen of our iphones. The implications of this experiential ‘purpose’ are that the cinematics of the experience must be given stronger consideration. Cinema is not made of moving images and sounds for no reason. It is a sensual, vibrant experience of light, movement, colour, composition, tone, and entrancing, more overwhelming, more transformative. If our industry takes up the responsibility of being a sensual experience of scale, we can’t just make pictures and sounds we see every day, but must compose this art of movement on the scale of symphonies.

"Myth is, by definition, larger than life"

And scale is also salient to making our myths. Myth is, by definition, larger than life.

Wether a single individual feels sad or lonely is not enough consequence to make a myth, an ideal or a call to action for our culture. If we can make stories in which qualities of character are resonant with recognisable humans but they come into conflict and have consequences at a level which is beyond what we might really experience, beyond naturalism, in other words, then we make a myth which sets an example, writ large, of humanity struggling and overcoming adversity or being brought down.

We can’t really justify romantic comedy or period drama as myth unless we can explain how, for example, a little romance between two seemingly mismatched people who discover they are made for each other can resonate larger than
life. My answer to this is that myth is also made through dynamics, and particularly, dynamic dramatic questions.

A dramatic question is a question that implies action and has something at stake. It often starts with the word ‘will’ and it always has an active verb in it, not a passive one. Will someone do something, get something, achieve some thing, not: does someone feel or experience something. Action is dynamic, it forces change, movement of story, emotion, images and sounds.

"Stakes create dynamism by making us care"

Having something at stake is the other important half of a dramatic question. Stakes create dynamism by making us care. The more we care, the more we experience the movement between hope and fear. We hope something will happen, we fear it won’t. These things, in a myth, have room to move dynamically.

Until recently, genre films, by policy, were not funded. Emotion is kept at a muted naturalist register. Entertainment is rarely, if ever, a stated purpose. This is not the forum for delving into wether or why these words - genre, emotion and entertainment - deserve to be resurrected or rejected. But all three, especially genre, are being given radical re-consideration for their value in making myths and engaging audiences with our ideas and stories.

The notion of ownership is deeply embedded in the phrase ‘tell our own stories’ but the question of who the owner is needs to be confronted here. If the ‘owner’ of the ‘our own stories’ is the person or people with the money to make the movies or the filmmakers who raise the money, then we are ascribing ownership to a very small, and by our own admission, culturally proscribed group of people. Myth on the other hand is owned by everyone it speaks to, and it speaks to humans more broadly than within specific cultures or societies. In order to be a myth is has to be a story bigger than ‘our own’. This does not mean it has to be an American movie.

American movies are based in American myths, and these are not the same as Australian myths. I speak from personal experience here. Americans believe in manifest destiny and Australians do not. Americans are raised to behave as though they could become the president of the United States and Australians are not. American movies uphold the underlying myths of pursuing your destiny or dreams, and taking individual action in the world. So, dynamics and scale come easily to those myth makers, which is why it may seem as though to argue for scale and dynamics is to argue for Americanisms. But I hope that this is not the case.

This year (2009) has seen some remarkable myth making by Australians. Robert Connolly has mythologised the Balibo five and awakened exactly the sort of energy to work towards ideals that myths are capable of doing. Warwick Thornton has create a mythically resonant tale of indigenous kids sniffing petrol - with an optimistic ending – are these heroes not ideals for all indigenous cultures and their colonisers to work with? Mao’s Last Dancer is classic myth making: the dynamics of a rags to riches/ repression to freedom/struggle to triumph story, with dancing on a spectacular scale. It not only has built in international ownership across the U.S., China and Australia, but it’s a story owned by anyone who strives.

"Don’t tell our own stories, make our myths."

Myth making does not mean movies have to be happy or sad, smart or dumb, expensive or cheap, real or surreal. They must have scale, dynamics, and ownership by more than just their makers. Don’t tell our own stories, make our myths.

Published October 29, 2009

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Karen Pearlman


* Dr Karen Pearlman is Head of Screen Studies at AFTRS and an award winning filmmaker, editor and dancer.

This is an edited extract of her essay to be published next month in Lumina, the AFTRS journal of screen arts and business.

This article continues the debate about Australian films & Australian audiences that was the subject of a public forum on October 22, 2009 organised by Metro Screen and held at the Chauvel Cinema, Paddington, Sydney.


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