Category: Australian Cinema

The Australian Dream (Australia 2019)

Released online during June 2020 in the UK and Australia (where it was in cinemas in 2019), The Australian Dream was broadcast by the BBC and is now available on iPlayer for “11 months”. I recommend this documentary for any audience but especially for any sports fans during this period of ‘Black Lives Matter’. Having said that, I recognise that there are aspects of what the BBC blurb describes as an “inspirational story” that might not be understood in some cultures. I’ve read at least one prestigious reviewer in the US who didn’t ‘get’ aspects of the film.

Adam Goodes is an Indigenous Australian who became not only a major star in his sport, but also the holder of the ‘Australian of the Year’ Award in 2014. However, the casual racism that continues to plague Australian social and public life and Goodes’ own discovery about his family background and the history of his indigenous community eventually meant that he retired as a football player at least a couple of years earlier than he might have expected. His story is indeed inspirational, not only in how he became a great player but also in how he responded to both the praise and the racial abuse of football fans and social commentators.

Australia is a passionate sports nation, arguably one of the most passionate in the world. Australians are generally good at sports and they support local and national teams in large numbers both in the stadiums and on TV and on social media. There are four types of ‘football’ played professionally. The most watched and the wealthiest is what is colloquially known as ‘Aussie rules’ or ‘footy’ with a major competition, the AFL (Australian Football league), a competition of 18 teams attracting some of the world’s biggest crowds to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (the MCG) for league championship finals. ‘Aussie Rules’ has some similarities with Gaelic Football in Ireland but indigenous Australians have also claimed that a similar kind of game was played before the Europeans arrived. Australia also has Rugby League, Rugby Union and Association Football – ‘soccer’ in the US – but none of these has the playing and spectatorship base of the AFL.

This documentary is one of two competing titles, both released in 2019. I haven’t seen The Final Quarter but it is available online in the UK via iTunes. The Final Quarter uses only archive material to tell its story and it provides educational support materials (but only in Australia – see the official website). The Australian Dream does feature Adam Goodes himself and he is, in every way, the ‘star’ of the documentary. The film is written by the Indigenous Australian journalist Stan Grant, a distinguished figure as journalist and news anchor in Australia. He appears at various points in the film. The director is Daniel Gordon, the British documentarist who specialises in sports stories who I remember as the director of The Game of Their Lives (2002) about the North Korean national football team who competed in the World Cup Finals in England and gained many fans.

Adam Goodes (right) and his cousin Michael O’Loughlin, also an AFL player. They are wearing t-shirts showing the official flag of Indigenous Australia

The Australian Dream is a highly narrativised documentary, starting and ending with celebrations for ‘Australia Day’, an emotional moment for many indigenous Australians for whom the celebrations are painful reminders of ‘Invasion Day’ when Europeans first arrived in Australia. Adam Goodes is the hero of this story and there are recognisable ‘helpers’, ‘blockers’ and ‘villains’ in terms of a Proppian analysis of the narrative. But this isn’t necessarily a conventional narrative in which the hero attains his goal and rescues the princess in the tower. The real achievement for Adam Goodes is that he discovers himself and recognises his identity and that being able to do this helps him get through the racist abuse and resume his life as he wants to live it. He receives a great deal of support from friends, family and footy fans and also the administrators of the football game itself. The tragedy is that despite this, the words and actions associated with casual racism in Australian society generally can do so much damage.

I can’t comment directly on Australian racism. I can only respond to the representations offered by Australian film, TV, literature and broadcast media – and it looks pretty bad from that perspective. But I can recognise so much in Adam Goodes’ story from studying the attempts to stamp out racist behaviour in UK sport and especially in British football (e.g. what is now the English Premier League, the highest profile sport in the UK). In the last few years we have seen players like Raheem Sterling picked out for criticism in the tabloid press and on social media and the England team in Bulgaria in 2019 almost moved to leaving the pitch after a barrage of racist chants. They stayed and won 6-0, which is a good response but they shouldn’t have to face this abuse. The incident that sparked much of the controversy in The Australian Dream concerned a 13 year-old spectator at a major game, a girl at the front of the stand, close to the pitch, who called Goodes an ‘Ape’ when he came towards the fence. Stunned, Goodes asked for her to be removed and the stewards obliged. After the game Goodes accepted a telephone call from the girl, who apologised. He had the grace to accept the apology and to assure her that she was not the problem. She had heard this kind of language somewhere – it’s endemic in the society. But Adam Goodes can’t erase the incident and soon it was picked up by racists on social media and by Andrew Bolt, a TV pundit who accused Goodes of an over-reaction and of ruining the girl’s life. In this kind of repeated claim, the victim of racist abuse becomes responsible himself for the further abuse heaped upon him. Some of the critics of the film suggest it gave too much space to Bolt. I hadn’t come across Bolt before but he is familiar in that British TV and journalism features many similar characters. The only difference is that he appears calmer and ‘colder’ but his clear intentions are just as objectionable. Some critics have also suggested that there is too much use of Stan Grant in the film and I can see that, while Grant’s support for Goodes needs to be aired, the footballer is his own best advocate.

Adam Goodes in a promotional shot in 2013, celebrating a famous photo 20 years earlier in which an another Indigenous Australian pointed to his own skin colour

What is ‘casual racism’? I guess that the distinction is between ‘casual’ and ‘institutional racism’. For many years the spotlight was on attempts to fight institutional racism- the ways in which institutional structures had developed to exclude and marginalise people outside the mainstream (or in some cases the élite) in major institutions. That fight is not won yet but things have begun to improve. Ironically, the incident that sparked the racist backlash against Adam Goodes occurred in a footy game that was part of the ‘Indigenous Round’, a round of matches each season in which the contribution of Indigenous players to the League’s success is celebrated. The AFL itself has been supportive but has been undermined by some of the major figures in the game, whose racist comments have created the openings for the real fascists in the society to exploit. ‘Casual racism’ is not ‘casual’ for those who are most affected by it. Within football in particular, such comments have often been ‘excused’ or ‘de-fanged’ by renaming them ‘banter’, a concept referring to the way professional sports people play jokes on each other, insult each other etc. in the name of friendship. Banter is fine if everyone who plays the game accepts the rules. But banter can easily become deeply offensive and racial difference is very dangerous territory for ‘jokes’. In recent years, casual racism has also become part of the so-called ‘culture wars’ which have become a central poisonous discourse across social media and something exploited by the new right to devastating effect.

Adam Goodes is a remarkable man and I think many people will be moved by not only his dignified response to the attacks upon him but also by his emotional relationship with his mother, who he later discovers was part of the ‘Stolen Generation’ of Indigenous Australian children. Everyone should see films like this and ask themselves serious questions about how they behave on social media and in the decisions they make in their social lives. ‘The Australian Dream’ is an ironic and suggestive title that certainly demands investigation and reflection.

Mabo (Australia 2012)

Deborah Mailman and Jimi Bani as Bonita and Koiki Mabo

‘We Are One: A Global Film Festival’ last week offered a wide range of films ‘donated’ by various well-known international festivals, but they were only available for a few days. I headed straight for Mabo as a film which, although I knew nothing about it, seemed like a ‘must watch’. I have recently been introduced to various Australian films by the BBC4 screening of David Stratton’s 3-part series on Australian cinema. The series is on iPlayer for the next 11 months. I discovered major directors who were new to me and films that have had very little exposure in the UK. Perhaps the most important gap in my knowledge concerns Rachel Perkins and her production company Blackfella Films. Perkins founded Blackfella Films in 1992 and has since been joined by other filmmakers in making a range of feature films and documentaries for both cinema and TV.

Blackfella Films has been responsible for bringing Indigenous Australian stories to a wider audience both in Australia and internationally. I’m not sure how I missed the importance of this company. I realise now that at least one of Blackfella’s TV series, Deep Water (Australia 2016) has been on BBC4 in the UK. More surprising perhaps is that Perkins’ own films haven’t had a higher profile in the UK. Indigenous stories have mostly arrived in the UK via film festivals and occasional arthouse releases. Mabo is described as a ‘television movie’, aimed at a mass audience in Australia and telling the story of Koiki Eddie Mabo (played by Jimi Bani) as the Torres Strait Islander who became the central figure in a court case which overturned the legal precedent of terra nullius – ‘nobody’s land’. The Torres Strait Islands had been claimed by European ‘explorers’ in the late 18th century and subsumed into the British colonial territory of Australia since they were not constituted as a national state. This meant that Indigenous people who may have occupied their lands for hundreds of years before white settlement could not obtain rights for their own land under Anglo-Australian law. Similar issues arise in other countries that have been colonised and ‘settled’.

Koiki working on the railroad

Mabo is a film that has an engaging narrative and two great central performances and it tells a story that everyone should know. It isn’t without its flaws but I think these are mainly concerned with the problem of juggling three central narrative strands with different generic elements. First, this is a form of biopic of Koiki Eddie Mabo, following his development as a young man forced by circumstance to leave Mer/Murray Island in the 1950s and look for work in Queensland. He works on trochus boats (molluscs harvested for ‘mother of pearl’), track-laying on the railway and eventually as a gardener at a library. Here he begins investigating the history of the islands and meets two white characters who become interested in his story and together the trio formulate a local campaign which will eventually lead to a final legal victory 25 years later. As a young man Koiki meets Bonita, who he marries. Together they have children and Bonita works to support the campaign, but the marriage has many strains and pressures. Deborah Mailman who plays Bonita is one of the best known Indigenous performers in Australia on stage and in film and television. I remember her role in The Sapphires (Australia 2012). The struggles in the marriage form a second strand which perhaps should have developed into a family melodrama if there had been more time to focus on the children (the couple had ten in all). The third strand is the campaign itself and this did cause me some problems. I think legal dramas focusing on the courtroom are difficult to condense into easily accessed narratives. I lost my way in some of the debates about the traditions concerning family life and land rights in the islands, which were complicated by Koiki’s adoption at an early age by a different family member.

The campaign begins

The legal case required hearings in both the Queensland courts and the High Court in Canberra. For an outsider, the process appears to follow generic lines in that a ‘good result’ is more likely to be achieved at national/federal level rather than locally. Koiki had several problems as a young man in Queensland, including paternalistic but highly exploitative relationships with white employers, direct racism in the form of a colour bar (operating much as it did in the UK in the 1950s and in many British colonial territories) and further isolation as a Torres Strait Islander because he didn’t share language, culture or history with the indigenous peoples of Northern Queensland. Bonita Mabo was herself from a bi-racial background with ancestors who were coerced in a form of indentured labour from the Vanuatu group of islands to work in the Queensland sugar cane fields.

Getting to court

Because this film was a ‘telemovie’ it hasn’t been reviewed in the same way as international cinema features. IMDb carries only a World Socialist Website piece which has some good points to make but is very negative about the political importance of the film. Scanning reviews available from Australian media sites, it is apparent that the film was a political football at the time. The Australian, a Murdoch News Corp right-wing paper, claimed the broadcast was a ratings flop. It hides behind pay-walls like Murdoch’s UK broadsheet so I don’t know what this claim means. Other reports are more welcoming and more appreciative. Viewing the film and its context from a UK perspective is difficult because of lack of sufficient knowledge of Australian politics. I do remember the reputation of Queensland politics and racism back in the 1980s but I don’t know enough to follow all the arguments. Mabo is a ‘well-made’ mainstream TV movie. The script by Sue Smith, direction by Rachel Perkins and outstanding central performances by the two leads create a very watchable film that tells an important story. I haven’t mentioned the relatively starry cast of white actors who portray the lawyers and some of the employers and political figures but they also contribute to the quality of the storytelling. On the weekend when #BlackLivesMatter activists in the UK dumped a statue of a notorious British slave trader into the Bristol dock it was sobering to learn more about the history of racist exploitation in Australia.

A great victory image with Bonita and her eldest son

I can’t find Mabo on any UK streaming sites but Amazon UK are selling a Region 4 Australian DVD. There is also a film called Mabo – Life of an Island Man which I haven’t seen, but this is unavailable on Amazon. The Blackfella Films website lists other film titles made by Rachel Perkins’ company.

Judy & Punch (Australia 2019)

44251627870_111c2af240_o-h_2019

Judy punched

It’s an interesting tradition, the Punch and Judy puppet show, based as it is on violence, particularly domestic violence against women. Interesting because it became popular and, during my childhood at least, was regarded as fun for children. I loved it and ensured my kids had the opportunity to see it, safe in the knowledge that it wasn’t going to encourage violence but I wonder why such an anarchic figure as Punch came to be regarded as fare for children. He is a Trickster character, a necessary antidote to anodyne bourgeois values I suppose. However, we cannot ignore the violence against women which, for some, is a trope of masculinity.

Actor Mirrah Foulkes’s directorial debut, she also scripted, is a feminist take on the tale and, as such, is somewhat predictable but nonetheless welcome. If Mia Wasikowska, an actor I find a bit bland, lacks mischievousness, Damon Herriman’s Punch portrays the misrule inherent in the character well with added male self-pity and self-justification. Foulkes has wisely set the film in an unreal space, a village called Seaside, nowhere near the seaside but that’s where Punch & Judy puppet shows are most likely to be seen these days. The cast sport a mix of accents, Herriman’s is Irish and there are Australian twangs; no doubt late 18th century Australia was full of such eclecticism, but as Foulke’s is quoted as saying in the press kit:

[she] never imagined the film to be period strict, but rather “Totally other-worldly; I wasn’t interested in being bound by period. So I thought let’s see what we can find in Australia and just lean into the weirdness of that.”

So although the film was shot in Australia it isn’t set there. The postmodern elements of the setting are reinforced by what sounds like ‘Moog plays Bach’ on the soundtrack, which I think had some popularity in the 1970s. The first time the music appears it seems to be accompanying the puppet show though it soon becomes clear it is non-diegetic (not part of the narrative world).

I mentioned the narrative was predictable and I don’t think Foulkes was interested in adding complexity though it is a tribute to the filmmakers that the ending’s plea for the acceptance of difference works even if the righteous sentiments are a bit obvious. The anarchic humour is retained and there cannot be many films were the slapstick is combined with the death of a baby. As much as anything, Judy & Punch is a Grand Guignol narrative; I found it a difficult film to categorise.

Tom Budge does plenty with his role as Mr. Frankly, the insidious opinion-maker in village. Budge manages to convey the character’s insecure obsequiousness overlaying a vicious tendency (it reminded of Rik Mayall’s brilliant manifestation of a Tory MP, Alan B’stard).

The Nightingale (Australia 2018)

Aisling Franciosi as Clare

The Nightingale is ferociously good and for a second feature utterly remarkable. Writer-director Jennifer Kent had a career as an actor in Australian film and TV before making her stunning début film The Babadook (Australia 2014). That made her a name to watch and The Nightingale won the Special Jury Prize in Venice in 2018. Since then, despite strong word of mouth it has taken over a year to get a UK release and hasn’t figured as much in the recent discussions about ‘year’s best’ lists as it deserves. I can only think that the subject matter and the film’s brutal honesty have put some people off. It is matched only by Atlantique in my film viewing in 2019.

Sergeant Ruse (Damon Herriman) and the soldiers whose task is to establish the ‘order’ which will enable the colony to grow. (Photo by Matt Nettheim)

In 1825, the year that Van Diemen’s Land became an official British colony, a young Irish woman named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is desperately seeking her freedom. She has worked for long enough as a convict to be released as a free woman to join her husband (also Irish and a ‘freed’ convict) and infant. But Lieutenant Hawkins has been abusing her and treating her like his play-thing and he refuses to sign her release papers so she must continue in servitude. When Hawkins is visited by a senior officer, who finds the Lieutenant’s general behaviour shocking, all hell breaks out. A drunken Hawkins and his henchmen, Sergeant Ruse and the reluctant Ensign Jago, attack Clare and her family. Hawkins decides to march across wild open country to confront his superiors in Launceston and regain their trust. The three soldiers are joined by some convicts as porters and an Aboriginal tracker. Clare, as an unlikely survivor of the attack, sets out in pursuit with her own tracker. This is the period of the so-called ‘Black War’ with the Indigenous people of the island fighting back against the European colonisers in a form of guerrilla war.

Clare works in a form of indentured servitude

Hawkins (Sam Claflin) and Jago (Harry Greenwood)

Clare seeks revenge. I haven’t described what has happened to her, but the film is extremely brutal (18 Certificate). The ‘Black War’ was a time of genocide or, euphemistically, ‘ethnic cleansing’. The number of men in the colony greatly outweighed the number of women (white and black combined). It takes time for Clare, a Gaelic-speaking Irish woman, and Billy, the young Indigenous man, to realise that they are united against the British. In fact it takes most of the narrative for them to properly respect each other. He has all the local knowledge and skills and she has a horse and a musket and an overwhelming rage for vengeance. The film is so intense and bloody that I hid behind my hands on several occasions and when an isolated act of human kindness suddenly occurred I began to weep.

If I analyse the narrative with some distance I can see that it is a familiar tale of revenge in the form of a hunt/chase. I remembered a similar film from a few years ago, also set in the Tasmanian forest. The Hunter (Australia 2011) shares one or two elements with The Nightingale, but doesn’t dig quite as deeply into the history and the horror of ‘wild Tasmania’. Closer is a film like The Tracker (Australia 2002) and after I looked over that post, I realised that The Tracker shares an interest in songs as well as colonial history. Sweet Country (Australia 2017) is another important touchstone. These last two films both share a narrative with The Nightingale in which an Indigenous man outwits the coloniser but is ultimately brought down by the technology of the coloniser (i.e. the weaponry) and the coloniser’s confidence and arrogance, based on an assumed racial superiority and contempt for Indigenous peoples. I’m sure all colonial exploitation and repression has been and will be fuelled by the same two factors. Of course, the world may end before long because of the coloniser’s greed and indifference to the natural world. I imagine that Indigenous Australians might have lived in harmony with nature for the last 250 years if the Europeans had kept away.

Clare with Billy (Baykali Ganambarr)

Clare is ‘the nightingale’ of the title and her singing plays a significant role in the narrative. It is a terrific performance by Aisling Franciosi who is on-screen for most of the film’s running time. I did feel that I recognised her but I can’t say that the TV crime serial The Fall (2013-16) has stayed with me and that is where I would have seen her before. Now I see she has been filming a TV adaptation of Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus. She must have some chutzpah to take on the Kathleen Byron portrayal of Sister Ruth (looks a sensational cast). Sam Claflin is cast as Hawkins. I fear that I have misjudged his power as an actor. I found some of his early performances under-powered but I thought he worked well in Their Finest (UK 2016) and here he is terrifying. The third lead is newcomer Baykali Ganambarr as Billy, the Indigenous tracker. It seemed to me that he spoke English with what seemed to me to be a modern style/dialect. I wondered if this was deliberate by Kent – to suggest that the colonial oppression is ongoing? There were several credits giving information about the various Indigenous communities in Tasmania at the end of the film. I think one said that all the Indigenous actors in the film were from mainland Australia. The Indigenous population of Tasmania was effectively wiped out by the colonists (i.e. soldiers, convicts and settlers) by the late 19th century but now there are several thousand Tasmanians claiming Indigenous heritage through a history of mixed marriages.

Radek Ladczuk, who shot The Babadook for Jennifer Kent, frames this narrative in Academy ratio (1.37 : 1). Just as I didn’t notice the long running time (136 mins), I also found that I hardly noticed the framing because the tension was so great. Ladczuk also works with a palette of subdued colours in the forest, in candle-lit interiors and with costumes that emphasise the drabness of the colonial settlement – at least in the smaller settlements. It’s a shock when Clare meets some of the more moneyed classes in Launceston.

Since Jennifer Kent made her name with an innovative horror story, it is worth asking if this narrative has horror elements. I would say yes in the sense that not only is their excessive brutality but Clare is ‘haunted’ by the memories of the attacks and she has frequent nightmares – so much so that we do wonder if she hallucinates any of the events. Billy, too is affected by the sights he sees and the things he is forced to do. Sight and Sounds’ reviewer Nikki Baughan makes a perceptive comment when she concludes that Clare and Billy, unusually, do manage to have “wrought justice on their oppressors in a way that not many onscreen women and minorities are allowed to do”, but that they do not derive any pleasure or any relief from it. This is as she notes, “the most expertly landed gut punch of this astonishing, essential work”. I couldn’t agree more. This might be a hard film to find in a cinema but do try and see it.

Island of the Hungry Ghosts (Germany-UK-Australia 2018)

islandofthehungryghosts

Poh Lin Lee and daughter

Australian filmmaker Gabrielle Brady tells an important tale about the 21st century concentration camps where asylum seekers are processed in ways that dehumanise and are intended to act as a deterrent against others following. Her subject is Australia’s Christmas Island prison which represents the toxic attitude toward migration that many countries have; particularly Britain.

However she constructs the condemnation through metaphors: the millions of migrant crabs on the island and the Chinese folk who take part in ceremonies to guide the ‘hungry ghosts’ – that is those who weren’t buried properly – to peace. The amazing crabs, who migrate to the ocean to lay their eggs, are treated better by the authorities than people trying to find sanctuary in Australia. A ‘lollipop lady’ stops traffic to help them cross; roads are closed; sweepers escort cars to avoid squashing the crustaceans. In the other metaphor, Chinese residents create bonfires and chant to help the ghosts on their way; the asylum seekers are therefore characterised as hungry (for safety) ghosts (as they have no agency as they wait to be processed).

The key migrant narrative is shown through therapist sessions: Peter Bradshaw states these are recreations and as we hear a radio news broadcast stating that anyone talking to the media about detention centres could face up to two years imprisonment that is hardly surprising. It’s a symptom of growing authoritarianism in government that such draconian laws are passed; in the UK non disclosure agreements are increasingly used to avoid embarrassing information being given to the media. It’s a failure of democracy that those in power cannot be held to account.

Unsurprisingly the sessions are harrowing as Poh Lin Lee (playing herself) tries to help the traumatised migrants. Such therapy can only work long term and she is constantly frustrated by the authorities who refuse to give her information about the detainees and ignore her recommendations. She’s living on the island with her family and time is taken to observe their everyday life; I’m not sure what this adds to the documentary.

Brady is to be commended for the film but outrage is probably a more pertinent emotion and although it will manifest itself in audiences with compassion the film cannot work as a call to arms against the disgusting treatment of the most vulnerable in the world. I would have preferred more direct information but that is a light criticism as Brady has made the film she wants which is certainly worth seeing. MUBI.

Goldstone (Australia 2016)

image-20160607-31966-151u11g

Aaron Pedersen plays Jay, the Aboriginal detective

Goldstone is a stand alone sequel to Mystery Road (Australia, 2013) which was spun off into a TV serial this year. Written, directed and photographed by Ivan Sen, Goldstone is a gripping thriller making me keen to see his other work. Aaron Pedersen plays an indigenous detective, Jay, investigating a missing Chinese girl in the Outback. This particular place, as the place’s name suggests, is an expanding gold mine. Goldstone, however, is not somewhere most would like to visit as most of the buildings are prefabs and the local mayor, chillingly played by Jacki Weaver, keeps a corrupt grip to ensure the land is thoroughly exploited.

Outback is a place well beyond urban areas where Aboriginals can feel at home except where their land is being exploited by capitalism. Sen’s direction ensures that the land itself is almost a character. High (presumably) drone shots show the arid wasteland as a place of beauty and a spiritual old man (David Gulpilil) takes Jay on a river trip to a place that’s both beautiful and uncanny.

The film is strictly generic and there’re few surprises in how the narrative unfolds, particularly in Jay’s relationship with the young and only cop in town. However, it is brilliantly executed and thoroughly modern as exploitation of the land and sex trafficking are key issues of the narrative and of our age;  not just in Australia.

Pedersen’s superb as the alcoholic and traumatised maverick. When talking to ‘white folk’ he averts his eyes as if ‘knowing his place’ but, of course, is our protagonist hero who does the right thing. As this excellent review puts it, the film draws on the Western and Jay is a version of Eastwood’s Man with No Name character. Although we have the satisfaction of an action finale, it’s the conversations Jay has during his investigation that are most fascinating particularly with Weaver’s monstrous mayor. Her dead eyes convey her heartless soul whilst she smilingly distributes apple pies; it’s a brilliant performance. David Wenham is good too, wearing shorts and pulled up socks, as the mine manager who needs the mayor to bring out his full corruption.

Can’t wait to see Sen’s other work.