The 26th of January marks a somewhat controversial day on the Australian calendar. Should one celebrate a date that symbolises the invasion of a continent and the beginning of the decimation of its indigenous population? Should we mourn this date?
Does the date simply signify, for most people that call themselves “Australian” – that is, who have or would be eligible for an Australian passport as an Australian citizen – an excuse to get drunk and play an outdated gambling game?
A great deal of this controversy is generated by, as well as reflected in, popular media, and the inane confusion that often fails to separate facts from values in popular media. Of course Australia was invaded – this is the very nature of colonisation, and is a fact that is not debatable.
What is debatable – and, therefore, a matter of political struggle (or “culture war”) – is whether this was good or bad, and for whom; that is, the ethical context and value of this fact.
One way of beginning to engage with and think through some of these complexities is through the popular culture that reflects them.
One could watch, of course, one of the many recent Australian films that have received international acclaim, including Oscar nominees for Best Picture from this year, Lion (see my review in The Conversation) and Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. Both movies have been nominated for six Oscars each, and it’s the first time two Australian films have been up for Best Picture at the same time.
But Australian cinema frequently engages with and analyses the ramifications of post-colonial trauma, and, with this in mind, I’ve compiled a list of some of the best Australian films.
Those of us who feel like neither two-up nor beer-sodden hangovers might spend the 26th January watching some of them.
The first film by Justin Kurzel, Snowtown – though based on a “true crime” story – is one of the fiercest dissections of the Australian mythos to date, critically challenging those cherished phantoms of nationhood, “mateship,” the obsession with masculinity, and the notion of classlessness that has falsely defined so much cultural discourse and promotional rhetoric about the “Lucky Country”.
Snowtown extends Robin Boyd’s aesthetic critique in The Australian Ugliness (1960) to the level of political economy, demonstrating – like The Boys (1998) before it – that crime is largely the product of the barren suburban geography in which these characters are imprisoned.
The speech in which Messianic killer John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) relates the violence undergirding that great Australian death cult, Anzac, to his gang’s homophobic violence is one of the high points in Australian cinema – and seems particularly pertinent to the 26th January.
This “Jaws on land” trash epic was widely derided on its release, but it contains some of the most stylish, stunning depictions of the Australian landscape in cinema. It was filmed around Sofala in Western NSW, which becomes, before the eye of director Russell Mulcahy, a kind of surreal, neon-lit nightmare-scape.
The razorback – the killer pig itself – is pretty silly but, thankfully, seldom appears. The basic plot, following a Canadian man travelling to Australia to look for his animal activist wife who has disappeared, skilfully transposes the perennial Australian theme of the suave urbanite stuck in a repugnantly violent, misogynistic, and racist environment onto a transnational schema. Vincent Canby’s contemporaneous review for The New York Times was right – the landscape is much more terrifying than the pig.
The Cars That Ate Paris, 1974
Peter Weir’s first full length feature film remains his best. Its premise is thoroughly bizarre: a town of maniacs cause tourists to have car crashes in order to salvage the spare parts upon which the entire economy is built.
This satirical horror film contains some fantastic caricatures of small town Australian types – the megalomaniac mayor (John Meillon); Dr. Midland (Kevin Miles) who performs surgeries using unorthodox methods; Charlie (Bruce Spence), the local idiot who prowls around the outskirts of the town terrorising locals and tourists alike. It features in addition to this panoply of types one of the most inert protagonists in screen history in Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri) who basically drifts into Paris and then through the film without any capacity for action or reaction. Brilliant.
Phillip Noyce’s first significant feature film follows Gary (Gary Foley) and Jack (Bill Hunter) as they steal a car and drive cross-country, getting into various scrapes along the way.
The film seems as productive today as when it was released, with its irreverent dialogue and mutually affirming depiction of race relations not detracting from its dissection of the post-colonial condition for indigenous Australians. This is rough-hewn, Kamikaze film-making on a shoe string budget done with verve. A definite must for Australia Day!
Beneath Clouds, 2002
Ivan Sen’s first (and best) film was released to much critical acclaim, and features two stunning lead performances by non-actors Dannielle Hall and Damian Pitt as a couple of indigenous kids who leave rural NSW together in search of a better life in Sydney.
This offers a slow, low-key – and immensely satisfying – experience, and is particularly strong in its depiction of the institutional violence underpinning policing (in particular white policing over indigenous communities). Both intelligent and moving.
Romper Stomper, 1992
Authors: Ari Mattes, Lecturer in Media Studies, University of Notre Dame Australia