New Propositions

by Jake Wilson

We've heard it over and over: the value of the Australian film industry is that it allows us to tell “our” own stories and celebrate our achievements as a people. This nationalist project has been central to Australian cinema at least since the 1970s revival era ― but it's been looking pretty shaky for a while, certainly in the disastrous family reunion that was Baz Luhrmann's Australia. By now it appears to have faltered entirely, perhaps drawing its last breath along with Kriv Stenders' farting Red Dog. The internal contradictions of our national narrative seem impossible to ignore, while globalisation has ensured that for all our paranoia about defending our borders, culturally there's no clear line to show where “we” start and end. Is Jane Campion an Australian filmmaker? Is Mad Max: Fury Road Australian, in any way that counts?


This fracturing of national identity is the major fact about modern Australian cinema, creating a dilemma which local filmmakers have responded to in varying ways. Recent hits aimed at a middlebrow audience have tended to sentimentalise the relationship between white Australia and some imagined Other, Lion being the most recent and most commercially successful example. An edgier counter-narrative is implicit in recent grittycrime films in which Australian ugliness is personified by a mainly Anglo underclass, such as Animal Kingdom, Snowtown and Hounds of Love. Rarer are films which play on the tropes of nationalism in an openly critical or satirical manner: The Proposition, the two Wolf Creek films, and The Dressmaker perhaps deserve to be singled out.


Samson and Delilah
Sleeping Beauty


The most powerful counter-narrative of all has come from a new generation of Indigenous filmmakers, whose work ― even when not explicitly politically motivated ― undercuts more than two centuries' worth of colonialist mythmaking. Warwick Thornton's Samson and Delilah in particular deserves all the acclaim it has received, though it shouldn't be allowed to overshadow the considerable achievements of his peers, such as Beck Cole's tender Here I Am and Ivan Sen's hard-hitting Toomelah. Without doubt, these films represent the most important step forward for Australian cinema so far this century: by comparison, talk of a resurgence of horror and other “low” genres has been more hype than substance, though that may change if the success of Jennifer Kent's The Babadook helps more horror films by women get into production.


Questions of specific content aside, the problem with Australian cinema ― today as yesterday ― is that there isn't enough of anything: not enough investment, not enough imagination, not enough opportunity to take risks. Sustaining a career is still a challenge for most filmmakers, particularly those whose work has neither obvious mainstream appeal nor clearly defined social purpose. Witness, for example, the philistine reception given to Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty ― and the fact that we've had to wait seven years (and counting) for a follow-up. Still, a handful of genuinely individual Australian auteurs have managed to continue on their paths both here and overseas, among them Fred Schepisi (The Eye of the Storm), John Duigan (Careless Love), P.J. Hogan (Mental), Stephan Elliott (Swinging Safari), and Alex Proyas (Gods of Egypt) ― not forgetting the indefatigable Rolf de Heer, seen at his best in his collaborations with David Gulpilil.


The feeling persists that most of the richness in current Australian cinema is hidden beneath the surface, waiting to be dug up. Reasons for hope appear in odd places: in observational documentaries like Lynn-Marie Milburn's In Bob We Trust, in the micro-budget comedies of Timothy Spanos, or in the paradoxically retro avant-gardism of Melbourne's Artist Film Workshop. Much of the do-it-yourself energy which fuelled the Super-8 boom of the 1980s and '90s has presumably migrated to YouTube and other digital platforms, where grassroots work of all kinds is more accessible than ever before ― yet less visible, in one sense, than it would have been at an old-fashioned public screening. Maybe, in a far-flung corner of the Internet, something is stirring that will radically transform all our ideas about Australian cinema, or Australia itself.

Jake Wilson is a film reviewer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and the author of Mad Dog Morgan (Currency Press, 2015).

Published March 27, 2018. © Jake Wilson, February 2018