Reviews on Australian Film Industry
IMAGINED IDENTITIES: FOCUS ON AUSTRALIAN CINEMA
Mückler Hermann and Gabriele Weichart (eds). Forthcoming 2012.
Australien. Geschichte und Gesellschaft 18. bis 20. Jahrhundert. [Australia. History and Society from the 18th to the 20th Centuries].
Edition Weltregionen, Institut für Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte, Universität Wien [University of Vienna].
National cinemas are generally contrasted with a universal cinema which refers largely to US/Hollywood films. National identities are reflected on film through the use of distinctive symbols and narratives which convey hegemonic meanings underpinning a sense of collectivity and mutual recognition. The national cinema approach is useful in some ways, but in the case of Australia fails to grasp the complex interplay of narratives and myths which construct Australia in the broader historical context (cf O’Regan 2002). Australian films brim with complex meditations on the question of “Australianness”, rarely celebratory, more often full of ambivalence, silences, doubt, irony, parody and the embrace of failure.
There have been many book-length studies of Australian cinema (Pike and Cooper 1980; Shirley and Adams 1983; Moran and O’Regan 1989; Jacka and Dermody 1998a and 1998b; O’Regan 1996; McFarlane Mayer and Bertrand 1999; ; Rayner 2000; Moran and Vieth 2006). These works usually include historical elements, consideration of industry development, funding, genre, production and acting. This paper will not engage with industry issues, except where these have materially affected the kind of films being made, but rather will focus on the films themselves, pursuing a cultural analysis. Australian films do appeal to a system of conventional symbols and representations, but these are often inconsistent and contradictory, reflecting anxiety and traumatic residues of unresolved historical events and struggles over their memorialisation.
In an earlier paper (Hamilton 1991) I referred to the contradictory and ambivalent attitudes towards culturally constructed “Otherness” in Australian cinema. That paper was concerned with the dilemmas of representation with regard to the indigenous inhabitants (“Aborigines”) and the Asian immigrants who had settled much more recently. I proposed the use of the concept of the national imaginary to refer to the way contemporary social orders produce images of themselves against others through new screen technologies which circulate as commodities both internally and internationally. This followed from Benedict Anderson’s insights into the way imagined communities arise from the spread of representations through print media (1983) and has been widely applied in the context of contemporary mass media and national identity.
In the following discussion I will focus on the way the Australian cinema has engaged in a constant struggle for self-definition both with, and against, an outside world of Anglophone societies especially the United Kingdom and the United States. The suppressed presence of the indigenous Other creates a third element. Australian film seeks to perpetuate an identity as a “white” society, defining its inherent qualities as egalitarianism, fairness, courage in the face of impossible odds, abilities to survive in a dangerous physical environment, commitment to justice and a hatred of snobbery, fakery and elitism. Yet, in order to sustain these images, which make the Australian a “better kind of white man”, the suppressed presence of non-white alterity has increasingly demanded recognition. A crisis point was reached during the years of the Howard Liberal Government (1996-2007) with acts of violence and racism particularly against Muslims seemingly reflected in national policy. Hage suggests that the struggle over national identity reflects a “white fantasy” (Hage 1998). In cinema, the “white fantasy” has only slightly been displaced in the past decade or so. Most of Australian film history has reflected a kind of adolescent struggle against a parental order represented by the UK and the US, with occasional recognition of the problem of internal alterities. In the ambivalent silences of Australian film history, the question returns again and again: What is a “real” Australian?
Early cinema: 1890-1914.
A travelling German exhibition showed the first films in Australia in 1896, but filmmakers were soon at work in several arenas, experimenting with the potential of the new technology to tell both universal and specifically Australian stories. Some of the first filmmaking in the world occurred when the Haddon Expedition to the Torres Straits Islands, north of Australia, took remarkable ethnographic footage of an Aboriginal ceremonial dance in 1888. Four and a half minutes of this footage survives, some of which can be seen on Youtube. 
Pioneering anthropologist Sir Baldwin Spencer and his associate F. G. Gillen also grasped the potential of film for showing what Aboriginal societies and people did. First in 1901, and later in 1912, in the face of unbelievable difficulties many hours of film were shot as Central Australian tribesmen were inveigled into performing sacred ceremonies for the purposes of the camera (Dunlop 1983).
Later, as a feature film industry emerged, the conflicts between the immigrant settler society and the indigenous inhabitants were almost entirely ignored. Even when filmmakers began to address these issues the most sincere efforts at sympathetic narratives and characters constantly foundered on a reluctance to fully explore the dangerous terrain of racism and genocide which lay at the heart of the historical record. In the 1960s and 1970s, largely due to the efforts of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Studies, ethnographic reflection sought a dialogic relation using ‘participatory cinema’. This included indigenous people but did not belong to them (Bryson 2002). Only in the very recent past have indigenous people themselves been able to take up the camera and make their own films, to be discussed later in this paper.
Early Days: the Silent Era.
Prior to the beginning of World War One (1914-18), Australia had one of the largest film industries in the world. In 1911, 51 locally-made movies were released. A global market for films had sprung up, and Australian films were soon circulating in many exhibition markets. Silent movies had no language barrier. It was easy to present a film with live commentary in the host country’s language. Inter-titles, texts on screen between scenes, were also used to tell the story. The developing industry was interrupted by the war, and then the intrusion of the Hollywood distribution system, which arrived in Australia in 1915. By 1918 all the major Hollywood distributors had opened offices, and the import of cheaply made American film quickly monopolized the Australian cinema screens.
Nevertheless, locally-made films still attracted Australian audiences. If ethnographers began by making films of indigenous customs and practices, other filmmakers were not far behind in recording the customs and culture of the “white” Australians, who provided an endless source of fascination. The world’s first feature film was the quintessential Australian tale The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906). It has recently been partially restored and an excellent copy is available on Youtube. Information about the making of he film is also available.
Ned Kelly was, and remains, a great “underclass” hero in Australian legend, a bushranger of Irish origins who defended his family against the depredations of the colonial authorities. Bushrangers remained a popular theme in Australian film for many years and in many styles. The story of the Kelly gang was made over and again. Censorship was in place by 1920 as so many bushranger films depicted the bushrangers as heroes and denigrated the police and judicial system. For a time bushranger movies were banned by the police for encouraging and glamorising anti-social and criminal activities (Goldsmith and Lealand 2010 p. 91). Underclass heroes including convicts, bushrangers and urban and suburban criminals have occupied a central place in Australian cinema ever since. In the 2000s the “criminal” films included Chopper (Andrew Dominick, 2000), Dirty Deeds (David Caesar 2002) and Getting Square (Jonathon Teplitzky 2003). While convict origins were considered a source of shame by the ruling class British and their elite descendents, today a convict history is recognised as something to be celebrated, if only for the courage and endurance shown by the unfortunate convicts in the face of almost unbearable cruelty from their jailers. For the Term of his Natural Life (Norman Dawn, 1927) adapted from a popular novel by Marcus Clarke, was the earliest major film to establish this proposition.
Australian audiences sought their own self-reflection, one which might make little sense to international audiences. “Australianness” took on a particular quality. Although Australia by 1920 was becoming an increasingly suburbanised nation, with an affluent and largely British-identified middle class in its main cities, films did not take these people or their lives as subject. Even when the central characters were not convicts or criminals, they were usually uncouth, ill-educated and part of the poor working class or its rural counterpart. Australians preferred these films, which spoke to their own sense of self, although international audiences were more interested in films showing kangaroos, emus, and noble white bushmen.
A romantic comedy The Sentimental Bloke (Raymond Longford and Lotte Lyell 1918) based on a popular poem by C. J. Dennis was a big hit (Bertrand 1989; Brisbane 1991). Its characters were exaggeratedly low-class people living in the slums and tenements of Melbourne (although it was filmed in the Sydney slum area of Woolloomooloo). Its romance between the lead characters, “the Bloke”, a classic inner city larrikin and his lady love who works in a pickle factory was absurd, a parody of traditional romances. The inner-city slum theme remained popular for decades. The Kid Stakes (Tal Ordell 1931) told a charming tale based on a popular graphic artist’s work which appeared in the local Sydney newspapers. The main characters were a gang of young children wanting to enter their prize animal in a goat-race. The elite with their glamorous houses overlooking Sydney harbor provided the counterpart to the poor crowded tenements in which the children live.
Another popular series was known as the Dad and Dave comedies. The first On Our Selection (Ken Hall 1932) shows the Rudd family pioneering untouched bushland to develop a farm. Dad is a strong father figure, and Mum struggles to keep a civilized domestic environment in the rough circumstances of the bush. Dave, the son, is a simpleton, but one of the daughters is a strong bushwoman, capable and able to work hard and triumph against the odds. Dad and Dave re-appeared in the 1970s but the sense of anachronism was too strong for the late twentieth century and no more Dad and Dave films have ever been made (although one later film, The Castle, discussed below, owes much to the Dad and Dave sensibility).
These films and others like them began the customary depiction of “real” Australian characters through a kind of gross stereotyping, offering simplified images supposedly typically Australian although everyone in Australia recognises them as highly exaggerated and unrealistic. They become a kind of reverse parody, as if the viewer is able to laugh at the characters’ mistakes and misapprehensions because in spite of their similarities, they are not the same. In later years some of the most successful films internationally have utilised the same exaggerated parodic figuration most notably the hugely successful Crocodile Dundee (1986). Australian audiences took a kind of pride in identifying with this supposedly intrepid bushman, while recognising that its lead actor Paul Hogan was a famous local comedy figure renowned for his exaggerated “Australian” style and the events shown in the film were mostly absurd. Moreover, Hogan was also Australia’s official tourism representative (Rattigan 1988; Lucas 1998).
Crocodile Dundee can be seen as a kind of national advertising directed at the external world, mainly the United States. The first half features an American in Australia (the female love interest, played by Linda Koslowski) and the second half features an Australian in America (Mick Dundee in New York). In The Man From Snowy River (1982) George Miller had tried to do the same, employing a famous American star (Kirk Douglas) and playing with the conventional Western genre to the extent that it is often termed a “Kangaroo Western”.  The film is based on a much-loved Australian bush poem which many to this day can recite by heart. Although it did well enough at the Australian box office, some critics were scathing. Tom O’Regan described it as “ideologically bad, technically bad, masculinist, poorly scripted and shamelessly commercial” (O’Regan 1996: 137). The desire to meld with US traditions (and markets) was too obvious; the film went too far in its attempted seduction of a foreign audience.
Embracing defeat: the war film
In the creation of its imagined identity, Australian participation in war has been a leitmotif. While nations frequently draw strength from their war history, in Australia memory is revived not to trumpet victory but to celebrate defeat. Australians may have been on the winning side, but the moments which provide core film narratives reflect failure, and often incarceration, cruelty and death. The key element is the self-sustaining quality of the Australian troops, and their defiance of their superiors, usually depiced as effete British upper-class officers who have no idea how to manage a campaign. The fundamental value of male collectivity, the construction of authentic masculinity, and the ethics of mateship underpin the cinematic representation of these events. The First World War has provided continued inspiration for Australian film for eighty years now, although with significant transformations (Reynaud 2007).
Popular observance of military history in Australia is centred on the annual celebration of ANZAC day. ANZAC stands for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, and is held on 25 April each year to commemorate the anniversary of the Gallipoli landings in 1915. The motto of ANZAC Day is “Lest We Forget”. During World War One thousands of young Australians were called to defend the interests of the British Empire in the distant fields of battle in Europe and North Africa, where they usually joined the British working class as cannon fodder. The Australians, however, according to the legend, were able to overcome this destiny and rather than dying passively in the slaughter found ways to defy the odds magnificently.
Among the critical moments in Australia’s military history no event has been more formative than the story of Gallipoli. The popularisation of the Gallipoli story can in part be attributed to the sequence of movies taking this short episode as theme (cf Ward 2004). It is often thought that Charles Chauvel’s epic film Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940) began the process, conveying a gripping sense of the wartime experience at a time when the world was preparing for yet another World War. In fact, Forty Thousand Horsemen was not about Gallipoli, but depicted the amazing bravery of the Australian Light Horse in the attack on Beersheba in 1917, two years after the Anzac evacuation. Nevertheless, the film clearly refers to the context of Gallipoli, especially when the Turkish officers try to convince the Germans that the Australians are a dreaded foe who should not be underestimated. The fighting qualities of the soldiers, the strong commitment to each other through the bond of mateship and egalitarianism, and the larrikin qualities which are seen as a lack of discipline by the officers are all evident in Chauvel’s reconstruction.
Although Forty Thousand Horsemen focussed on the special qualities of the Australian soldiers, it did not question the legitimacy of the links with Britain. Australians at that time still largely regarded themselves as “British”, not merely in origin but in race. The violent racism of the Federation period remained well into the 1940s. If Australians were able to prevail at Beersheba, it was in some part due to the fact that their enemies were Turks, who were by definition not “white men”, and equally to the fact that their pioneer prowess at surviving in the hostile Australian bush had elevated them above the normal run of the Britishers who were hampered by their hidebound ideas of class and traditional custom. In this depiction, Australians were superior both to “Turks” and to other “white men” including Germans, as well as the British.
During World War Two the Australian film industry was given over mainly to propaganda and documentaries. Among the rare feature films was Charles Chauvel’s The Rats of Tobruk (1944) starring famous Australian actors Chips Rafferty and Peter Finch. Chips Rafferty also starred in The Overlanders (Harry Watt 1946), a British-Australian co-production showing a wartime cattle drive in the north of Australia under the imminent threat of Japanese invasion. This melded the Australians at War theme with the heroic bushman story, triumphing against the threat of an overwhelmingly superior enemy. The link to Britain, with Australians as loyal subjects, remained evident.
Some twenty years later Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli (1981) was considered a cultural event of enormous importance, renewing the meaning of ANZAC for another generation. Mel Gibson played one of the two central roles, beginning his movie career as the epitome of virtuous but defiant Australian masculinity, to be reiterated in his roles in the Mad Max movies until the Hollywood system snatched him away from his Australian purity.
Gallipoli won every major film award and proved enormously successful at the box office. It received Government support and remains a popular resource for teaching High School history. To some extent it must be regarded as an “official” statement of public culture. In Gallipoli new themes can be observed. The enthusiastic militarism evident in Chauvel’s film is replaced by a focus on individual character and the random and meaningless elements of wartime events. The film recounts the greatest failure of the entire campaign, where hundreds of soldiers perished in a few minutes. In many respects it is an anti-war film. War is shown as stupid and pointless, but the moral purity and superior qualities of the Australian heroes are undiminished. The film suggests that the real enemy was the despicable British, whose ineptitude resulted in the disaster that resulted from this phase of the campaign. Although the exercise was futile, the Australians nevertheless undertook it because of their own indomitable courage even in the face of certain defeat. Astute critics noted immediately that the audience was being manipulated into a specific construction of the historical record (eg Lawson 1981 and see further discussion in Reynaud).
Australian involvement in World War Two only came into focus decades later. In Tim Burstall’s Attack Force Z (1982) a group of Australian commandos launch a secret mission against Japanese forces in the Southwest Pacific. In Blood Oath ( Stephen Wallace 1990) Australian Prisoners of War (POWs) are subjected to torture by their Japanese captors. Not until 2006 did a film appear about the war in New Guinea. Kokoda (Alister Grierson 2006) depicted the extraordinary trials of the ill-trained and underequipped Australians during the nightmare latter phases of the war.
If few films were made about this major period of Australian military history, the almost complete lack of feature (i.e. non-documentary) films about any of the subsequent wars Australians were involved in is even more remarkable. No feature film reflects the Korean War or the Malayan Emergency, although Australians were engaged in both. Unlike the ANZAC campaigns, these wars did not lend themselves to the customary Australian self-depiction. The same was true of the Vietnam war with one exception – The Odd Angry Shot (Tom Jeffries 1979). It included a great deal of offensive language and nudity and was not well-received, largely being forgotten until the revival of interest in the films of the 1970s.
Several other war films carry the memorial burden more comfortably and allow the emergent sense of Australian distinctiveness to be celebrated even as the key characters fail. Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980) became an iconic film of the Australian renaissance, although it concerned a war which Australians had already forgotten (cf Hamilton 1990). The Boer War (1899-1902) developed the familiar theme of British perfidy in the reckless expenditure of the lives of “colonials” in its own self-interest. The British class system, the ethics of egalitarianism and the defiant courage and moral superiority of Australians were again themes underlying the construction of the film. The central protagonist of the film, known as “The Breaker” for his horse-management skills, is executed by the British in the end.
By 1980 Australian popular culture was significantly distanced from its British identifications. Being British no longer provided an automatic identity for Australians and the idea that Britain was the Mother Country became less and less prevalent. The 1971 British Immigration Act had removed automatic right of abode for Australian citizens. As British links faded, the United States loomed ever larger as an external source of security and identity. American popular culture had been absorbed through film and then television for decades. Most Australians felt the Americans had saved Australia in World War Two. The Americans were largely admired, although with some ambivalence. Then the flood of post-war refugees and immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s transformed the population mix. Refugees from Central and Eastern Europe settled in the cities. Greeks and Italians arrived, many establishing farms in rural areas and working on national development projects. They were in the 1970s joined by floods of refugees from Vietnam.
A protracted search was underway to create a viable sense of Australian identity. It was no longer possible to be proud of being a “white man” or to consider oneself British. At the same time, the extremes of masculinity, of mateship expressed in misogyny and drunkenness, was less and less tolerated. Women had emerged into new roles. They were increasingly employed in traditionally male roles. Married women no longer stayed at home. Organised feminism became stronger. The invention of the contraceptive pill saw the emergence of sexual liberation, while homosexuality came “out” and began to be re-created as “gay identity”. This was a very new, diverse and different Australia. The sense of unquestioned national identity was destabilised. What kind of a country was Australia to be? Cultural production reflected a nation no longer proud and confident but increasingly uncertain, defiant and often resentful.
Perhaps to compensate, the Australian Film Commission was established in the late 1960s to provide enhanced support for film production. A national image was needed, both at home and abroad. National identity as something to be consciously created became an increasingly accepted policy for arts and cultural production generally. The Commission went on to fund numerous films throughout the 1970s. The favoured film-style was a strong drama which reflected a positive vision of Australian culture and history. This highly modulated and civilized mode of national representation was at the same time undercut by a much more lively and defiant identity expressed in a number of films which offered at once a celebration and a parodic critique of “the real Australia”, undermining the middle-class liberal respectability emerging in the cities.
A significant body of films made between 1969 and 1975 on very low budgets celebrated the Australian vernacular in speech and action. Sometimes called “Ocker” films they were aggressively Australian and introduced slang and bad manners, and a concern with bodily functions (especially urinating and vomiting), excessive alcohol use, compulsive interest in sexuality, mindless violence and the revelation of all kinds of stupidity (see O’Regan 1989). The best known is probably The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (Bruce Beresford’s first film, made in 1972) where the humor comes from the use of vivid Australian idiom and a constant sardonic play on the way Australianness can overturn the respectability of Britain and its institutions. Loutishness and vulgarity were celebrated. Although the Film Commission funded some of the Barry McKenzie films, they were highly controversial and were a major factor in stirring up demand for a more restrained and respectable film industry which would reflect an Australian image to overseas audiences of which the rising middle-class could be proud.
Even more challenging were the independent low-budget films emerging from the lurid imaginations of fringe film-makers. These films were hard to access and were seldom shown in public but had an enthusiastic fan-base. If the Ocker films were disgusting, these were horrific in their revelation of an underside to the assumption of a picturesque national identity to be found in lovely landscapes and reconstructions of noble historical events. Sometimes called “Ozploitaiton” movies, they owed a debt to the underground movie culture of the US in the same era. Great examples were Richard Franklin’s Road Games (1981), Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Turkey Shoot (1982) and Russell Mulcahy’s Razorback (1984). Although they had a cult following in Australia they have always been far more successful overseas especially in video and cable-TV markets. Only recently have they been accepted as part of a legitimate Australian cinema history (Martin 2010). This restitution owes much to Mark Hartley’s film Not Quite Hollywood: the wild untold story of Ozploitation (2008) with its endorsement by cult director Quentin Tarantino.
The great film Wake in Fright (which had only a brief cinema run in 1971) can be considered a part of this group of films, although it was set apart by its origins and was, at the time of its release, considered “un-Australian”. Based on a novel by British writer Kevin Cook and directed by Ted Kotcheff (a Canadian who initially knew nothing about Australia) the film was filmed in and around Broken Hill, a remote mining town located in the semi-desert. It was entirely out of circulation for thirty years and had apparently disappeared. In 2004 a negative was found in a warehouse in Pittsburg in a shipping container marked for destruction (Caterson 2006). The film is now considered a triumph with its stark and terrifying representation of a kind of life beyond any urbanite’s imagination. It hinges on the anxiety of isolation in a harsh and foreign environment, as a respectable young school-teacher is forced to take up duties in a wild remote mining town. Events take him to the outer limits of Australian life, and into the gothic and gruesome darkness at the heart of what it really means to be an Australian (Rayner 2011). The people in this small town scratch a living from mining, spending their time drinking, gambling, and trying to find some solace in loveless sex including homosexual rape. The film takes apart the comforting myths of mateship, highlighting its coercive nature and cruelty. This fine film showed a side of Australia which nobody at the time wanted to recognise. The awful truth of a deep psychological malaise needed to be suppressed. The foreignness of director, screen-writer and British star also played a part in the rejection of the film. Urban audiences simply refused to believe that “that is really us”. 
By the 1980s the wish to sustain a respectable image of Australia came up against commercial considerations. The Government became less willing to fund a steady stream of worthy but unsuccessful films. In 1981 a new form of tax scheme (the 10BA) was introduced, making it very attractive for any individual or business to “invest” in Australian cinema. In effect it functioned as a tax shelter, but it did lead to many successes. If many critics found the AFC films insipid, the 10BA period led to a much more commercial and Hollywood inspired style, using elements of
 The earlier development of concepts around multiculturalism and the
representation of ethnic “Others” has been greatly complicated in the past decade by the rate of immigration from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, the former Yugoslavia and other source regions. These “other Others” have barely registered in Australian film which is now far more comfortable with the incorporation of “Asians” as normative Australians, or near enough. The discussion of multiculturalism in Australian cinema has barely begun, but see Aquilia 2000.
 Short clips are available at
 This George Miller is a Scottish director, not the famous Australian director of the Mad Max films.
 on-line version at http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/3.1/Hamilton.html
 The recent film Red Dog ( Kriv Stenders 2011) takes the outback mining town and rewrites the vision. The inhabitants are kind and generous, drawn together by common love for a fiercely intelligent and independent dog who nonetheless forms a tight bond with a handsome young American. This may mark the beginning of a new and positive vision of remote and small-town life, corresponding with the flight of many urbanites to cheaper real estate and less stressful lives in the country.