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OUR OWN VOICE

With the help of international approval for our cinema, Australia has found its own voice – indeed, its own voices. Now we are building a whole culture of cinema with it.
By Hunter Cordaiy

The weeks before Cannes, when hopefuls from all over the world, including Australia, will be parading their wares before the buyers in the global market, is a good time to reflect on the impact of the film industry on Australian society. Cannes is important because it is one of the focal points in process by which the Australian public accepted that its film industry was worthy of support and which allowed the film industry to become part of our national culture.

"Australian cinema admissions have more than doubled in the period of the film renaissance"

Imagine the impact of an international audience seeing The Cars That Ate Paris in 1974 or Picnic at Hanging Rock for the first time the following year. What view of Australia did those films which were perceived as coming from a fresh, young cinema, create? The international respect shown to our films overseas since the 1970's has worked well on the Australian psyche which continues to believe that the approval of others makes it easier for us to accept ourselves and our achievements.

Ironically this has split the industry in two directions – international respect has been for the Australian art film whilst the industry and local audiences work and live in one of the most commercial cinematic environments outside Hollywood. Australian cinema admissions have more than doubled in the period of the film renaissance:-

1976 . . . . . . . 1995
28.9 - tickets - 69.9 (millions)
$95.3 - dollars - $501.9 (millions)

and these figures become more interesting when the source of films screened in Australia is analysed:

Year Australia France USA
1984 . . . 25 . . 9 . . . .146
1989 . . . 39 . . 14 . . .163
1990 . . . 22 . . 26 . . .153
1995 . . . 14 . . 17 . . .171

Despite the difficulty of turning art into money, culturally this new recognition derives from the notion that the importation of cultural objects and ideas is more valuable than the local product.

In film, having struggled mightily to create our own product it seemed hardly worth it unless others approved of our hard work. Thus the pioneering forays of Weir, Schepsi. and Armstrong carrying features to the South of France along with the short films of other aspirants.

No one should underestimate the power of this acceptance by the most important film festival in the world because it meant we were telling stories with our own voice. No longer would American or English intonation be heard on our screens but instead, the vernacular and truth of the local storytellers. (We should all flinch at the re-runs of the Great Escape where James Coburn plays (badly) an Australian).

"The film industry found its 'voice' through the often problematic process of adaptation."

The effect of international acceptance has been another step in the process of building a strong cultural bridge between Australia and the international market of ideas. It has also lead to international careers for actors and directors, particularly in America.

The film industry found its 'voice' through the often problematic process of adaptation. While some critics suggest that the eschewing of the contemporary in favour of previously published, often Victorian novels, displayed an immaturity and fear of contemporary 'engagement' it did reinforce the cultural value of the literary pillars of Australian culture. These stories were already in our own voice, and required only the transformation of form to the screen in order to remain relevant or alive for audiences.

For example, Arts Spending in Australia over the period continued to rise:

1988/89 1993/94
Books $705 $1,063 millions
Cinema $200 $ 409 millions

"We had local heroes on screen to match the heroes of literature, bush painting and song."

There was a particular irony however, of 1980's and even 90's audiences watching men and women struggle for 100 minutes with the morals and concerns of 19th century Australia which should, by all accounts, be as different as another planet from the eclectic, cosmopolitan, liberated society which was now re-presenting those stories. This raises the suggestion, that perhaps what appeared to be enormous social advances since the 1970's in Australia was more superficial than was supposed - fashion needed time to evolve into social belief and practice on a national scale.

What was taken up very quickly by Australian audiences was the idea that we had local heroes on screen to match the heroes of literature, bush painting and song. The Man from Snowy River (the poem) and other titles became transformed into dusty screen icons played by the likes of Mel Gibson and Judy Davis. These along with other actors (Jack Thomson, Sigrid Thornton, Bryan Brown) connected with Australian audiences because they were seen as 'our own'. The two characters which have had the most lasting impact are Mad Max and Sybylla from My Brilliant Career, helping to define the male and female in Australian society at precisely the historical moment when both genders were undergoing a fundamental change.

Mad Max is the prototype for a male hero that Mel Gibson has successfully exploited in a series of films - especially the more successful gladiatorial stories. Similarly My Brilliant Career evolved years later into The Piano in the sense that the woman's struggle for independence and creativity remains central to the narrative concern. Indeed her struggle seems more desperate in the latter film. Whilst men and women might explore sexual boundaries (The Sum of Us and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) the liberating quest of women and the self doubt of men remain at the core of Australian films.

"The national consciousness is now firmly tuned into the big screen in Australia."

Opportunities to take this deeper have been lost or not taken up. I'm thinking here of two sensitive films Wrong World, directed by Ian Pringle, and Metal Skin directed by Geoffrey Wright. In Pringle's film there was a truly international moral framework for the story. A young Australian doctor goes to south America to help the poor and returns a heroin addict because he cannot cope with the unrelenting pain of others. Whilst this film won a prize for Best Actress in Berlin for Jo Kennedy it sank without trace in the marketplace. Similarly, the 'difficult' Metal Skin could have been one of the most enlightened dramas in recent Australian film, exploring the inner world of young drifters in the Melbourne suburbs with impressionistic flair. Instead it baffled and confused its publicists and subsequently its audience.

The national consciousness is now firmly tuned into the big screen in Australia. There is much celebration about Russell Crowe and Jack Thompson's recent successes in America, and of course everything Nicole Kidman makes receives intense support. The test, however, of how Australia continues to perceive its film industry is not its support of local actors in international productions but rather how much the local productions engage with contemporary issues in Australian society.

Sources:
Get The Picture, 4th edition. AFC
Welcome to Oziwood by Hunter Cordaiy, Urban Cinefile, Dec. 1997

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Picnic at Hanging Rock –

Imagine the impact of an international audience seeing The Cars That Ate Paris in 1974 or Picnic at Hanging Rock . . .

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Mad Max–

Mad Max is the prototype for a male hero that Mel Gibson has successfully exploited . . .

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Priscilla–

Whilst men and women might explore sexual boundaries (The Sum of Us and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) the liberating quest of women and the self doubt of men remain at the core of Australian films.

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Deadheart –

Actors like Bryan Brown connected with Australian audiences because they were seen as 'our own'.

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SumofUs

There is much celebration about Russell Crowe and Jack Thompson's recent successes in America

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