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Elites and Battlers in Australian Rules and Walking on Water

Australian cinema, perceived as an international genre, brings to mind iconic landscapes, characters and stories which take hold in the memory as visual images. However, in Australian Rules (Paul Goldman, 2002) and Walking on Water (Tony Ayres, 2002), it is the voice and the breath that linger in the memory as aural images. In Australian Rules there is a transformation from a polyglot of vernaculars in the opening sound sequence to one clear voice-over at the end. In Walking on Water, everything important hinges on the breath, from Gavin's last strangled gasp to the breakdown and recovery of each of the characters involved in Gavin's final expiration. This chapter will explore the loss of identity and recovery of the voice, and the breath, in Australian Rules and Walkingon Water. Between them, the two films draw our attention to the reshaping of a transplanted Anglo-Celtic social imaginary in Australian cinema. Miriam Dixson argues that 'Australian identity still carries the marks of yesterday's British connection'.1 David Malouf qualifies that assertion by arguing that an experimental and open sense of identity characterises the Australian social imaginary because 'we are a bit of the motherland set down in a new place and left to develop as the new conditions demanded, as climate, a different mixture of people, changes in the world around us, and our reaction to them, determined'.2

This reshaping of the social imaginary by new conditions involves a politics of identity in a national context informed by tensions between the claims of history (the past) and social mobility in the new economy (the future). In both films, change in the social imaginary (and recovery from its most brutal exclusions) is evident in the merging vernaculars of'bush battlers' and 'cultural elites'. It is also implied in the context of an international, media-based politics of memory which speaks to contemporary experiences of dislocated identities based on nation, class, race, ethnicity or gender. Both films make it difficult to imagine a future built on a resurgent, populist desire for a unified national identity based on a whitewashed version of the British heritage.

Before addressing these issues, however, we need to recover some old ground in film politics in terms of the stand-off between culture and g commerce, art and industry, explored so thoroughly by Dermody and Jacka js in their formative study of 1970s and 1980s Australian cinema.3 Australian " Rules and Walking on Water were released in 2002 as part of a reprise of a cultural-intervention strategy by the public sector in political circum-

< stances that do not favour left-liberal initiatives. In partnership with the 2002 2 Adelaide Festival of the Arts, SBS Independent television (SBSi) initiated a u package of feature films which contest neo-conservative ideas of national Í identity, recent history and media memory. This intervention followed the

< success of Unfinished Business: Reconciling the Nation, a ground-breaking £ package of programs broadcast nationally on the multicultural television

< channel SBS overten days from 25 May to 3 June 2000. This package included nine new dramas and documentaries, six existing films, and live coverage of the Sydney Harbour Bridge walk. As a work of cultural intervention, Unfinished Business was compiled and broadcast to coincide with Corroboree 2000, Reconciliation Week and National Sorry Day.4 It was an ambitious and partisan moment of cultural intervention which had its origins in the release in 1997 of Bringing Them Home, the report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission on the Stolen Generations.5 Unfinished Business was the brainchild of SBSi's general manager, Bridget Ikin, a feature film producer best known for her work with Jane Campion. Ikin worked with commissioning editor John Hughes (an activist filmmaker who has since the 1970s worked across a range of genres inflected by political modernism) to put together Unfinished Business in conjunction with local filmmakers. During this period, SBSi made a significant shift in its conception of multicultural broadcasting, going far beyond its origins in multilingual radio programming aimed at non-English-speaking ethnic communities. This shift entailed a rethinking of nationhood in terms of Indigenous, white settler and migrant experiences which cannot be assimilated into a unified national identity or be contained within multicultural identity politics.

In 2001-02, Ikin followed up SBSi's success with Unfinished Business by negotiating an ambitious package of five feature films with Peter Sell-ars, controversial artistic director of the 2002 Adelaide Festival of the Arts. With the backing of SBSi and the Adelaide Festival, these low-budget feature films attracted funding from a variety of public sources including the AFC, SAFC, NSWFTO and FFC, taxpayer-funded organisations which are an essential part of the infrastructure of commercial film production in Australia.6 However, rather than a market-driven, commercial-industrial strategy, the SBSi-Adelaide Festival package is remarkable for its renewal of a 1970s strategy of cultural intervention under the auspices of multicultural television and a regional arts festival. This feature film initiative is all the more remarkable for attracting public funding under the neo-conservative L Howard government, whose attack on left-liberal 'cultural elites' has been E institutional as well as rhetorical. One of the reasons SBSi was able to imple- >. ment a left-liberal strategy for cultural intervention in a neo-conservative d climate has been its multicultural charter, which requires it to represent a T diversity of voices, including Indigenous and non-Anglo voices which are, L by and large, absent from commercial television and even the ABC. »

The SBSi-Adelaide Festival strategy of bringing together a variety of culturally motivated partners from the public sector (with some commercial commitment from the distribution sector) involves an activist ethos and an aesthetics of poor cinema.7 By adopting an interventionist rather than commercial ethos, the strategy reinvents a cinema of erfahrung (a cinema of reciprocal experience between filmmakers and audiences). This notion of cinema as a public sphere involving mutual recognition emerged in independent cinema in West Germany, the United States and Britain from the late 1960s. It helped shape an alternative, independent cinema of social activism, identity politics and personal experience in Sydney and Melbourne through the Filmmakers Co-operatives and other independent organisations during the 1970s.8 Three decades later, Unfinished Business and the SBSi-Adelaide Festival initiative revive this commitment to a dialectical exchange between filmmaker and audience, engaging with issues of national history, personal memory and identity politics of race, gender, ethnicity and class. At the same time, looking beyond the national, SBSi participates in the growing international phenomenon of a postmodern politics of memory and experience which, in late modernity, is more interested in 'present pasts' than in modernism's 'present futures'.9

This chapter argues that, between the resurgence of a cinema of reciprocal experience (or erfahrung) and a recent boom in media memory in traumatic and entertainment forms, the social imaginary of Australian identity and what Dixson calls its 'anchoring Anglo-Celtic core' has undergone significant shifts.10 Some of these shifts are evident in the way the past intrudes on the present in the contemporary settings of Australian Rules and Walking on Water. Unlike the majority of films in the 2000-02 cycle of Indigenous-settler-national history films, Australian Rules and Walking on Water are contemporary films set in recognisable locations, the former in a struggling South Australian fishing town, the latter in the affluent eastern suburbs of Sydney. These places are 'locales' in the sense that characters and events typical of those locales (for instance, a football Grand Final between the sons of sheep farmers and the sons of fishermen, won by the sons from the Aboriginal mission) are bound up in vernaculars which originate in those very times and places. In this sense, although the two films might appear to g represent a conservative opposition between 'bush battlers' and 'city navel-js gazers', both are concerned with the emergence of new vernaculars - as " idiom and architecture of post-national identities.11

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