Redeeming the Battler in Cunnamulla

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Depending on where you come from, Cunnamulla can be seen as a depressing portrait of ten Australians locked into lives as dry and dusty as the cracked earth of the inland plains which, against the environmental odds, continue to support the district's pastoralists and their sheep runs. Or it can be seen as a 'symphonic' montage of moments in the short-lived cinematic lives of ten characters who are 'basically just living'.20 The film opens to the sound of sheep dipping and closes to the sound of Chopin. If a rapprochement between redneck Australia, built on the sheep's back, and a cultured Australia, attuned to its European origins, is indicated by the soundtrack, then it is one that takes hold in the mind of the film's auteur, Dennis O'Rourke, rather than in the characters he creates through mise-en-scene and montage. For Paul, facing a prison sentence for a lifestyle built on break-and-enter, there is no culture in Cunnamulla. By 'culture' he means there is nothing in Cunnamulla to compare with the Aboriginal dancing and other things he learned during his stay in metropolitan Melbourne. If the outback stands for the sacred and for traditional Aboriginal culture in g the social imaginary, this is not how Paul experiences Aboriginality in Cun- 1 namulla. The same could be said for the other inhabitants of O'Rourke's g f observational documentary world. Unlike the social melodrama of Heart- g land, O'Rourke attaches no clearly coded set of universal meanings to his T cast of characters. E

Dispensing with a narrative structure, Cunnamulla has no time-frame g of events to structure meaning for the viewer. Relying on observational % techniques, O'Rourke's auteurist presence behind the camera corrupts the » documentary ideal of detachment and distance between off-camera filmmaker and on-camera subject. This corruption of documentary distance is an essential part of what makes the film an auteurist project. What matters to O'Rourke is the transformative power of cinema, a power that requires an artist rather than a social activist behind the camera and at the editing bench. What interests O'Rourke is the transcendent possibility of the filmed moment, the 'pure cinematic power' of'the landscape of the human face talking'. Whereas social melodrama edits for clear-cut political meaning as well as emotional affect, O'Rourke deploys affect, 'this emotional, sexual energy that drives us all', in the way he relates to his subjects through a conscious strategy of mutual vulnerability. For O'Rourke the power of the documentary lies in the tone or atmosphere captured by his 'recording angels', the cameras and microphones that do his bidding. They record sound and image, but they also do something else: they capture the moment, 'something that's in the air'.21

For O'Rourke, the characters in his film understand their role in this process. For him, it is this engagement between the apparatus of cinema, the eye of the filmmaker, and the screen presence of the characters that transforms observed reality into something meaningful. However, the intended meaning is not explicable. It happens symphonically, through formal variations on a theme. The first character introduced in the film is Neredah, married to Arthur, the town's taxidriver. The tone of the film is set by the static camera and microphone recording a corner of Neredah's kitchen, framing the landscape of her face, capturing the grain of her voice as she peers out through the louvres and tells O'Rourke the first of her stories, beginning with the one about throwing lollies out the window for the neighbouring kids. It's the repetition in her story of the throwing of the lollies that is arresting. It sets the tone for what is to come in Neredah's later scenes where she repeats the act of spitting as she tells another story of setting a young man straight by spitting on him in front of the crowd at a Bingo/Housie night. Neredah's storytelling style and something of her worldview is underlined again in g another scene where she relishes and repeats the word flogging as she tells js the story of encouraging a father to give his daughter a flogging with a fence " paling, immediately after his release from gaol for child abuse. Neredah is confident of a sympathetic hearing and neither the camera nor the editing

< makes any judgement about her stories. Rather, O'Rourke edits for an 'inef-2 fable' meaning, 'a meaning which I don't myself fully comprehend'.22

u At its most successful, what happens in Cunnamulla is that the audi-

< ence is forced to experience the enigma of each of its singular characters, of

< moments in their daily lives, shaped but not explained by social, economic £ and historical forces. The most forceful are the moments of stillness before

< the camera, moments in which the characters settle themselves in the frame and then proceed, in their own time, to fill the silence of being filmed with comments or stories or complaints which spring from the immediacy of their lives. Sometimes there is a conversation or argument with a friend, parent or neighbour, but mostly what happens is an act of composure, of self-possession, of self-disclosure before the camera. Whether this disclosure revives the shameful character of the ugly Australian or redeems the enduring character of the bush battler is a moot point. If the first view prevails, Cunnamulla becomes another far north badland in the national psyche. If the second view triumphs, Cunnamulla helps to solve an enigma in contemporary Australian politics. This enigma arises from the role of the battler in the politics of shame.

For John Grech, watching Cunnamulla with an international audience in Amsterdam at a documentary film festival, the film produced a familiar cringe of shame, translated into a warning about 'the real danger' of subjecting foreign audiences to 'the stereotypical structures of meaning that underlie this film'.23 Grech's chief fear is that the film is 'maintaining the myth that Australia is (or can still be) characterized by an outback colonial town'.24 Arguing against O'Rourke's claim that the film redeems the inhabitants of Cunnamulla, Grech laments the inability of anyone in the film (or 'Australians on the whole') 'to seek or give forgiveness' for the colonial legacy which continues to sap people's lives.25 Declaring that 'Cunnamulla reminded me of the things I ran away from in Australia', Grech does not pause to consider the rise of the battler as a much courted figure in Australian electoral politics since 1996.26

When One Nation won 23 per cent of the vote in the Queensland state election in June 1998, it signalled the return of the enduring figure of the battler under the banner of Pauline Hanson, whose popularity peaked after her maiden speech in federal parliament in September 1996. Through Hanson, the uncensored battler spoke out against the hegemony of an 'elite' cultural agenda supporting Aboriginal grants, Asian immigration, native title, and g multiculturalism. Just as importantly to her supporters, Hanson also spoke 1 out against bipartisan, neo-conservative economic policies and the sale of g Australian assets, companies and jobs.27 Although One Nation faded quickly g from the political scene, the return of the battler as a proud rather than T shameful character in national history owes much to Howard's fortuitous ® discovery, courtesy of One Nation rhetoric, of the electoral key to a cen- g tral enigma in contemporary Australian politics. Robert Manne identifies % this enigma as the problem of how to attract the battlers while keeping » on board the winners of globalisation. Manne believes that Howard's post-Tampa policy on asylum-seekers 'provided the solution to the riddle that had vexed the major parties over the past 30 years'.28 Howard's solution involved abandoning bipartisan support for a progressive cultural agenda, in place since the 1970s, by pursuing border protection policies which played on new anti-Muslim fears. Followed by September 11 and the war on terrorism, the Tampa incident took the heat off bipartisan economic consensus and enabled Howard to 'gazump One Nation and destabilise a Labor Party caught between its traditional working-class voters and its post-Whitlam professional middle-class support base'.29

The characters who disclose something of themselves to the camera in Cunnamulla are neither benign battlers in the Howard mould, nor shameful examples of the best and worst of Australia in Grech's reckoning. O'Rourke refuses to idealise the battler as the underdog in an international game stacked against the rural working class. Instead he exposes the battler to the steady gaze of his camera, inviting self-disclosure in the present moment of filming. These moments do not add up to an argument for redemption, as Grech might wish, or for political enfranchisement. Rather, what lingers is a contrast between the old inhabitants, set in their ways (there's nothing like a good flogging), and the young, still hopeful of a slightly better future (not going to prison, not getting pregnant at thirteen, not giving up on recording music). Grech argues that for this to be a palatable image of Australian identity for export, Cunnamulla needs to be contextualised by 'a hundred or so other films where people have managed to change their lives'.30 O'Rourke's point is that his film is precisely about people 'basically just living' their lives.31 If the shameless self-disclosure of these lives is intolerable for the viewer, that might be because the unconscious history buried in the message coming from Cunnamulla is that Aboriginality, in Langton's sense, as it is lived now by black and white Australians in this country town, is a potent space for a dynamic Australian identity, one that (as Hanson and One Nation demonstrated) cannot be relegated to a forgotten Queensland g badland forever.32 It remains to be seen whether this entangled, post-frontier js identity can be harnessed for long to a xenophobic border protection men" tality which does nothing to include the residents of Cunnamulla in the new borderless economy.33

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Responses

  • silke
    What happened after cullamulla documentary?
    8 years ago

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