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MAKING OF: GHOSTS OF THE CIVIL DEAD (1988)

On itís 10th anniversary, Ghosts Ö Of the Civil Dead remains one of the most powerful and disturbing film to emerge from Australian filmmakers; director John Hillcoat talks about his debut feature in our continuing series, Making Of..

Arguably the most powerful Australian film made until then, Ghosts...Of The Civil Dead, tackles its subject matter uncompromisingly : it is the film's contention that the Australian prison system is being increasingly modeled on the "New Generation" system of "human containment". This New Generation of prisons adopts the 'environmental awareness' generated in the 70s for the workplace.

They are almost like suburban supermarkets with yellow/green/blue colour schemes gently persuading violent breasts to stop heaving, frustrated psyches to be placated...automated doors slide, glass enclosures provide observation posts.

The language is as sterile as the intended message: General Population means general inmate housing. Administrative Segregation means maximum security. The bland, unnatural environment, however, is seen as threatening and manipulative.

"a deeper, more awesome proposition"

Behind this manipulative new methodology lies a deeper, more awesome proposition which the film defines. This is that the system needs to justify its own brutality by frequent and bloody examples of how ugly the inmates are - having made them so ugly by the clinical process of "containment," its sterile jargon and the dehumanised manipulation.

The warders are just as badly off. They are brutalised as much as the inmates. The insidious nature of the New Generation system is underscored by the soft, irritatingly emotion-neutral female voice whose recorded announcements sound much like suburban train departure information.

But this contrasts with the often graphic and disturbing content, violence made the more penetrating by our involvement through the eyes of a new prisoner, Wenzil, played by Dave Field and a warder, Officer Vale, played by Mike Bishop.

There is little doubt that the film is a significant cinematic debut for both producer Evan English and director John Hillcoat, distributing the film nationally, through their own company, Outlaw Values Marketing.

They also traveled the world and sold the film for release in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, New Zealand and Austria.

"..is about the way fear is used as a means of social control,"

The film traces the events that lead to the 'lockdown' - a state of emergency when all inmates are confined to their cells, all rights and privileges withdrawn.

"Ghosts...Of The Civil Dead is about the way fear is used as a means of social control," says director John Hillcoat, "both in prison and outside it." We see, for example, how the officers' respond to the manipulations of the System.

The unremitting tension and the violence are all part of what has to be called "tough" viewing: but the film has been made with exceptional care and preparation. Hillcoat and producer Evan English spent weeks researching the New Generation prison system at America's Jail Centre in Colorado, (where the exteriors were shot) and then recruited prison warders and ex-inmates as well as professional actors to work on the film in Melbourne. After six weeks of rehearsals, they began to shoot - and finished up with a film unlike any other made in Australia.

The effort paid off: the performances are hauntingly effective. Indeed, Hillcoat's vision was fully realised in all aspects, including the music. "I had a clear idea of what I wanted," he says. "Nick Cave, Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey collaborated on it and came up with exactly what I conceived."

"It's really about our world - with the volume control turned up,"

Certain sounds (a tin whistle, for example) becomes associated with each of the different areas of the prison, and with each of the central characters - but in the solitary confinement areas, there is just a black silence. "It's really about our world - with the volume control turned up," says Hillcoat.

After the Cannes Film Festival screening for buyers and critics, the audience filed out in stunned silence: after a promotional public screening in Paris, they debated it at length, and in London many prominent industry people came especially to see it. In Berlin, also on a promotional programme, there were two sessions and two full houses: in New York, "where you can't get an audience in two weeks" the film attracted a lengthy queue with just five days notice.

And at a one-off late night screening in Sydney, the Dendy cinema was packed out, two hours before the screening began.

Following its debut at Cannes, Ghosts ...Of The Civil Dead was invited to film festivals in London, Toronto, Hoff and New York, as well as the second most important feature film event, the Venice Festival, where it was shown in the Critics Week section.

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GHOSTS OF THE CIVIL DEAD

FIRST REPORTED: April 1989

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18/2/99: The Making Of Ö 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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Other films already covered in this series of Making Of:
ANGEL BABY
BIG STEAL
BLACK ROBE
BLOOD OATH
CAPPUCCINO
CUSTODIAN, THE
DATING THE ENEMY
HERCULES RETURNS
MAP OF THE HUMAN HEART
MURIEL'S WEDDING
PIANO, THE
PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT
PROOF
ROMPER STOMPER
STRICTLY BALLROOM
See our features archives.
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