A number of years back I remember listening to a podcast (which I’ve tried to track down but to no avail, my apologies) that was interviewing a native Australian about the differences between the Australian Western and the American Western. According to this individual, while American Westerns tend to be defined by ideas such as expansion, progress, the taming and conquering of the land and American idealism (born out of lawlessness, liberty, and opportunity), Australians see “the west” as symbolic with death, struggle, isolation and natures relationship to man (as opposed to man’s conquering and taming of the natural landscape in the American Western). One of the distinguishing factors of Australian Westerns then is a more melancholic and introspective presence, especially when it comes to dealing with the impact of colonialism on the indigenous peoples of the land. There is a more readily available and recognizable humility present in the way colonialism confronted the wide open spaces, leaving it perhaps more open to conversation and relationship than the larger than life myth that we find in American Westerns, even if Australia’s cinematic and cultural history is mired by some of the issues we see in America in terms of the oppression and silencing of the indigenous peoples.
It was a fascinating and enlightening conversation not just because it opened my eyes to some key and important differences on a cultural and historical level, but because it opened my eyes to Australian Cinema. As a big fan of the Western genre, I was delighted to find a whole new Western culture to engage, but in truth that is proving to be just the tip of the iceberg in what is an impressive cinematic history and slate of films. And as I travel the country in film, if there is one major takeaway of my time in Australian Cinema it is the working paradox of a Country that has invested in true Australian films that Australians simply do not seem interested in and have not made efforts to see, opening up a wealth of conversation and thought about the connection of a people to (and their awareness of) their Country’s working ethos and narrative.
Australian Cinema and its Relationship To Indigenous Cultures
If I can come back to this thought regarding the Australian Western, while Australia’s relationship to the indigenous cultures (namely the Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples, recognized as one of the oldest living populations in the world… talk about a heritage) has had its problems (largely due to colonialism), its cinematic history has played a vital role in keeping an awareness of Australia’s relationship to these cultures at the forefront. And this is because one of the key injustices that occurred beyond their misplacement was the suppression of their language and practices, a vital part of their cultures survival. Given how the earliest films in Australian history documented and captured indigenous culture, it became a viable and valuable source later on.
This fascinating article (https://www.nfsa.gov.au/latest/history-australian-ethnographic-film) helps to underline the role, even if unintentionally, that early Australian film played in protecting some of this from extinction, and further the role Australia’s golden age of cinema (70’s-90’s and beyond) played in putting the camera “into the hands of the indigenous peoples.” As it writes,
“It was only when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander filmmakers, following Essie Coffey’s example, claimed and got the opportunity to represent themselves and their cultures and stories in film and television that the history of what really happened could come out and restore some balance to the record.”
What I would like to underscore here though is that it can’t be understated how much early Australian cinema afforded the Country a chance to discover and claim a clear and decisive narrative, beginning with The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906, to apply to their Country’s story, with good and bad, and the degree to which it helped form an innate awareness of its development, its relationship to the indigenous peoples, the challenges of colonialism, and the importance of investing in and protecting the future of Australian culture.
One of the reasons for this clarity was because of early efforts to unify Australian culture. The fact that this current New Wave of Australian Cinema could see such growth in terms of rediscovering and engaging that narrative is a testament to its consistent cinematic presence and strength of character, and also to the relevance of its early development and Western mythology.
And Yet… The Challenge of Australian Cinema
But even then, the paradox does persist. Australia’s ties to the British (still not quite an independent State, even if they, like Canada, choose to operate as one) and the close connections this created with the U.S. over time has historically proved to be a rather tall and ongoing challenge for establishing Australian Cinema and culture. The early unifying measures, through the establishing of the Australian Films and Union Theaters between 1910 and 1912, led to an unmitigated agreement to secure Australian cinemas for U.S. releases. While this bolstered numbers in the immediate, it is a measure that proved in the long term to run largely antithetical to its vision for building a strong presence of Australian film and domestic filmmakers. It went from a Country that can boast some of the earliest screenings of moving pictures (1896), (arguably) the earliest feature film ever made (The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906, or possibly even Soldiers of the Cross in 1899, if you are willing to count that) and the first major Film Studio ever built (Limelight in 1899 through the Salvation Army) to succumbing to the shadow of the powers that be (and even feeding them to a degree) over and over again.
“By 1929 a combination of forces – the introduction of sound films from overseas, an increasing stranglehold on the local market by American and British distributors, and the economic devastation caused by the Depression – signalled a serious downturn in Australian film production from which it would take decades to recover.”
– A. Pike (Australian Cinema)
This relationship would continue through the wars and post war landscape, finding every policy move and government change somehow feeding back into the seemingly necessary temptation to chase after the business of the growing industry domestically and abroad. In the interwar period you see this in the short lived establishing of Efftee Studios (which lasted from 1930 to 1934) and Cinesound Productions (lasted into the 1940’s), which tried to copy the “Hollywood model” under the newly established Cinematograph Films Act and were meant to invest in Australian film but ended up attracting more Hollywood films from America than giving space to Australian voices. According to most of what I read, the complexity of this relationship only grew more problematic once these British and American filmmakers started to film on Australian soil.
Consider this- the American Film Institute, Australian Council for the Arts, the Australian Film Development Corporation , the National Film and Television Training School, the South Australian Film Corporation, and the Australian Film Commission were all created to support Australian film both domestically and abroad, and every single one of these initiatives could not overcome the challenges of the global industry even with adjacent “film tax incentive schemes” and “legislative amendments” such as “The Special Production Fund.” Overcrowding of international features in Australian cinemas, dependence on co-productions, inability to properly advertise Australian films, foreign filmmaking using Australia to film, and increasing risk factors associated with funding Australian projects are all spoken about as part of the ongoing challenge. “Australian cinema, originally stimulated by the desire for cultural and social exploration through film, was becoming an industry predominantly predicated upon business concerns.”
At best, as one source suggested, the Australian film industry had come to depend on the odd Australian film hitting it big in America first, and only then would it find the space it needed to succeed back home. And in more recent years, attempts to invest more in the local film industry has also made it more difficult for Australians to gain access to international releases right away. So much appears behold to seeing what is successful abroad first and then bringing what works over for Australian audiences, which is still more often than not American film.
But ultimately the real problem was this.
“With theatrical production and distribution dominated by foreign companies, a whole generation of Australians were growing up and going to the movies but possibly never seeing an Australian film.”
– David Straton
A Neglected But Developing Cinematic Identity
But here is the upside to the Country’s dedicated approach to its local film industry. Although much of Australian Cinema simply wasn’t being seen, through the 80’s, 90’s and through the New Millennium it was still able to establish a real sense of identity. It was able to diversify Australian genres based on its unique emphasis on the Outback and survival themes, even venturing into niche horror territory (Outback Gothic). It was able to reclaim some of the indigenous focus that its early cinema was able to bring to the forefront, while also pushing ahead into stories that could reflect modern Australian culture and social concern with a real emphasis on Australian born stories and an intentional shift towards “urban and suburban dichotomies.”
“For much of the last half of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, Australia was a culture trying to establish and articulate its distinctive characteristics. The bush and the outback provided the iconography and values for this, and the bush-city dichotomy in the pre-1941 rural comedies and rural melodramas reinforced a mythology based on the virtues of mateship, sport, physical labor, and egalitarianism.
In the 1990’s it began to more confidently deal with contemporary Australian culture, with focus on urban and suburban life. As time went on, Australia became more and more diverse, and film was one of the key ways of capturing these changes (it used to be uniformly British).”
(Australian Film and Australian Culture)
Which is to say, the narrative is there, and the confidence to embrace this narrative and explore it already exists within Australian Cinematic culture. And even more so it is arguably thriving just waiting to be discovered. And part of the reason for this is the filmmakers themselves. Recognizing that they were forced to consider the international factor as part of the puzzle for convincing Australians to see Australian films, one author writes,
“For many producers this posed a challenge: how to make films which had an Australian character and flavour, but which also appealed to an international audience, beyond the historical-drama genre which had already proved so popular.
Film makers rose to this challenge by developing diverse styles and narratives as they explored different genres of film making and new presentations of the Australian character, landscape and mythologies.”
– Luke Buckmaster
Reflecting on a historical problem while using this same modern context, Ben Goldsmith wrote an excellent article about the necessity of building relational space rather than geographical space to help bridge this divide. He writes,
“The new geography of international film production is a geography of comparative economic stimuli as governments vigorously compete for production using various policy levers to assist migrating projects. This international turn changes the view of policy. Rather than the inward–focused policy vision that encourages introspection in Australian expression, and which dominated production assistance policies until the 1990s, much policy is now oriented outwards and made for the benefit of incoming international producers”
“In 1994, Thomas Elsaesser wrote that the concept of a national cinema onlymakes sense ‘as a relation, not as an essence, being dependent on other kinds of filmmaking to which it supplies the other side of the coin.’ Rather than understanding Australian cinema as a territory, Australian international cinema is conceived as a space of relations.”
These are good thoughts for an ever changing and evolving cinematic landscape. While I’m not entirely sure this addresses the problem of how the American ethos and identity can be both protected, built and embraced, it might offer an inroad, at least in a more immediate and proactive sense, for figuring out how to build towards a way to do this more effectively. In truth, current streaming trends, particularly Netflix which tends to dominate abroad, tend to mirror some of the same issues for foreign Countries (to the streaming companies), as they are driven primarily by companies that have no physical presence in those territories and little to no ties to local film communities. The money made from these projects don’t feed back into local economies in the same way an industry does, creating a weird and somewhat ambiguous space for these films to share as opposed to creating the kind of conversation and relationship the article speaks to above that can actually create a uniquely Australian identity and narrative.
In any case, regardless of how this future ends up being navigated, what I do know is that in my travels I have discovered an industry and a culture that is well worth saving, preserving and investing in.
Here is my list of films that I have watched on my journey, rated, ranked and reviewed:
Australian Film: A Bibliography
The last new wave by David Stratton
The Avacado Plantation
Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! A film documentary