THE FO­RUM

NICK BRYANT ON FRAM­ING AUS­TRALIA

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

SNAP­SHOTS of Aus­tralia’s mul­ti­plex na­tional per­sona are found in the reels of film that com­prise its cin­e­matic canon. The cel­e­bra­tion of the un­der­dog comes in hu­man and equine form ( Muriel’s Wed­ding, Strictly Ball­room, Phar Lap: Heart of a Na­tion); there’s the af­fec­tion and ad­mi­ra­tion for the bat­tler and the lar­rikin ( The Cas­tle, Kenny); the anger at im­pe­rial in­jus­tice ( Breaker Mo­rant); and the ven­er­a­tion of the bush and out­back ( The Man from Snowy River and Croc­o­dile Dundee). Cel­lu­loid cliches to some, per­haps, cul­tural touch­stones to oth­ers.

Peter Weir’s Gal­lipoli not only sanc­ti­fied mate­ship and the An­zac spirit but helped re­call and em­bel­lish those themes for new gen­er­a­tions of Aus­tralians, thus play­ing a part, in­ad­ver­tent or not, in the An­zac re­vival of the Howard years. Even if the Aus­tralian in­dus­try can­not nec­es­sar­ily boast a Mike Leigh or a Spike Lee, re­cent film­mak­ers have ex­plored grit­tier and more so­cially re­al­is­tic themes: the in­dige­nous ex­pe­ri­ence ( Rab­bit-Proof Fence, Ten Ca­noes), the im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence ( Lit­tle Fish, Ro­mu­lus, My Fa­ther), the refugee or ‘‘ traf­ficked’’ ex­pe­ri­ence ( Lucky Miles, Un­fin­ished Sky) and a range of An­glo-Aus­tralian re­sponses, whether it be mid­dle-class white guilt ( Jind­abyne) or low­er­class white na­tivism ( Romper Stom­per).

So few Aus­tralian films make it into gen­eral release that they be­come loaded with added cul­tural mean­ing, some­thing of an un­rea­son­able bur­den. Still, for the im­planted for­eign jour­nal­ist try­ing to make sense of Aus­tralia and its pop­u­lar cul­ture, watch­ing th­ese films is on an in­struc­tive par with wad­ing through the col­lec­tive works of Man­ning Clark, Don­ald Horne, John Pil­ger and Ge­of­frey Blainey.

So out of the two more re­cent of­fer­ings, Aus­tralia and The Com­bi­na­tion , which pro­vides more telling in­sights? The glib an­swer, of course, would be that David Field’s life­like de­pic­tion of a Le­banese fam­ily’s trou­bled as­sim­i­la­tion into con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralia is of far greater value than Baz Luhrmann’s height­ened ar­ti­fice and out­back kitsch. Cer­tainly, The Com­bi­na­tion of­fers more bang for the buck, that most fash­ion­able yard­stick. Yet if one also con­sid­ers the crit­i­cal and pub­lic re­ac­tion to the films, not just what they showed on screen, the an­swer is far from clear-cut.

At first glance Aus­tralia and The Com­bi­na­tion of­fer a study in con­trasts: the big bud­get against the small; the ex­pan­sive­ness of the out­back set­ting against the claus­tro­pho­bia of the sub­urbs, the grand, episodic nar­ra­tive against a more el­e­men­tal fam­ily saga. Aus­tralia was panned; The Com­bi­na­tion was ( tem­po­rar­ily) pulled.

Yet there are sim­i­lar­i­ties, too, aside from both be­ing cen­tred on an ‘‘ across the di­vide’’ ro­mance, that re­cur­ring lit­er­ary main­stay. Both

THE world on a Satur­day morn­ing ex­ists in a lo­cal hall where a group of women gather to dis­ci­pline their bodies and minds. It is not yoga med­i­ta­tion. Nor is it a fit­ness class fol­lowed by cake and cof­fee.

We are stu­dents of bal­let aged from 17 to 70 who have dis­cov­ered the in­ter­nal calm that comes from the mind’s con­trol over the body . . . and the knowl­edge that black tights are in­cred­i­bly firm­ing, no mat­ter how old you are.

The late­com­ers join us at the barre like ducks to a pond where we all syn­chro­nise. Plie and up, releve and down, all arms, heads and feet mov­ing in uni­son. Keep your cen­tre strong, don’t for­get the arms, now bal­ance . . . and re­mem­ber to breathe.

Our minds can­not sleep in on a Satur­day morn­ing al­though my fel­low stu­dents and I look a lit­tle weary. We have had a week of work, uni, child-rear­ing, hus­band-boyfriend wran­gling, and the bal­let stu­dio is our es­cape. At the barre we are quiet as we lis­ten to our teacher’s in­struc­tions, ab­sorbed in our fo­cus.

Even her ques­tions barely reg­is­ter a re­sponse but she knows we hear her. As the 11/ hours

2 progress, our eyes shine, our faces rise in colour and the dif­fer­ence in our ages is blurred, if not deal with episodes, the Cronulla ri­ots of 2005 and the Stolen Gen­er­a­tions, which chal­lenged the com­mon-held view of Aus­tralia, at home and abroad, of be­ing laid-back and happy, re­laxed and comfortable. Both are set in em­blem­atic land­scapes and both deal, in their vary­ing ways, with two of the coun­try’s ‘‘ fly-over’’ prob­lems: the long­stand­ing strug­gle among in­dige­nous peo­ple in the Red Cen­tre for rights and recog­ni­tion, and the on­go­ing quest among some of the coun­try’s most re­cent ar­rivals in Syd­ney’s west­ern sub­urbs for re­spect.

From the out­set, I should say — or per­haps that should read con­fess — that I thor­oughly en­joyed Aus­tralia and was not overly con­cerned by its im­ported Amer­i­can id­ioms, the hack­neyed dog­gerel of much of its di­a­logue or its self­im­por­tant ti­tle. Even though Luhrmann played with the his­tory, the land­scape and his orig­i­nal end­ing, I found it un­ex­pect­edly stir­ring. I sus­pect oth­ers, too, had this ‘‘ hate the sin, but love the sin­ner’’ kind of re­sponse.

Yet more en­light­en­ing than the film it­self was the re­ac­tion it pro­voked. I was taken aback by the depth of hos­til­ity to the film, and how bag­ging Aus­tralia quickly be­came fash­ioned into a badge of so­phis­ti­ca­tion. My vague sense be­fore the movie re­ceived its much-hyped pre­miere in Novem­ber was that Aus­tralia’s cul­tural creep for­got­ten. Endorphin release re­laxes us and we chat be­tween ex­er­cises and laugh with our teacher, whose ‘‘ I’m go­ing to keep it sim­ple this morn­ing’’ or ‘‘ Last time!’’ al­ways means the op­po­site.

We have been danc­ing to­gether for so long that our pri­vate jokes and idio­syn­cra­sies are al­most part of the syl­labus.

I look at the fresh-faced girls around me and I am im­pressed by their vi­sion and tenac­ity. I have seen them fin­ish high school and se­cure their cho­sen paths.

They ex­cel in all that they do. Even when their paths shift, they are not dis­cour­aged.

As an older per­son in the class, I am in­spired yet en­vi­ous. Here, I am ex­posed to a younger was more news­wor­thy than any lin­ger­ing feel­ings of cul­tural cringe, whether it came from the global pop­u­lar­ity of in­dige­nous art, the near uni­ver­sal ad­mi­ra­tion for Cate Blanchett, the lit­er­ary ac­claim for the em­phat­i­cally Aus­tralian nov­els of Peter Carey and Tim Win­ton or even the con­tin­ued de­mand for the ser­vices of Ric Birch, who set the gold stan­dard in Olympic chore­og­ra­phy. Af­ter Aus­tralia, I am no longer so sure.

I was also left think­ing that it is prob­a­bly time to re­name the tall poppy syn­drome the Nicole Kid­man syn­drome since she copped an in­or­di­nate and dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of flak. Th­ese days, the swift, sav­age and rit­u­al­is­tic cut­ting down to size ap­pears mainly to ap­ply to her. Judg­ing by the shrill re­ac­tion on talk­back ra­dio, Aus­tralia’s pre-em­i­nent box of­fice star has be­come pub­lic en­emy No. 1.

More au­then­ti­cally Aus­tralian than Aus­tralia, The Com­bi­na­tion is an im­pres­sive achieve­ment that owes much to its writer and lead, Ge­orge Basha. The Le­banese-Aus­tralian, who plays the role of the elder brother, John, grew up on the streets de­picted in the film and saw first­hand the glass­ings, brawls, drug and weapon deals, hits and drive-by shoot­ings that his screen­play faith­fully re-cre­ates. The film is ut­terly be­liev­able as a re­sult.

Oddly, per­haps the most con­trived part of the movie is also the most real: the in­ser­tion of news footage filmed at Cronulla on that jolt­ing De­cem­ber af­ter­noon in 2005. Its in­clu­sion feels al­most su­per­flu­ous, like a last-minute add-on. But, then, the film was not in­spired by the vi­o­lence in the Shire, it was only shaped by it. Five years in the mak­ing — the project got off the ground when di­rec­tor Field sold a sec­ond-hand car to one of Basha’s mates — the orig­i­nal screen­play dealt, with great pre­science, with the ten­sions that gave rise to Cronulla, rather than of­fer­ing a ret­ro­spec­tive.

In its use of lit­tle-known ac­tors and its ex­plo­ration of racial themes and gang sub­cul­tures, The Com­bi­na­tion re­minded me of a film about my own coun­try, This is Eng­land, Shane Mead­ows’s bril­liant, semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal de­pic­tion of post-Falk­lands Bri­tain. Might Basha have even gone one provoca­tive step fur­ther by jet­ti­son­ing the box­ing-in­spired ti­tle, The Com­bi­na­tion, and re­nam­ing it This is Aus­tralia?

this­life@ theaus­tralian. com. au For This Life guide­lines, go to www. theaus­tralian. com. au/ life­style.

Nick Bryant is the BBC’s Syd­ney cor­re­spon­dent. world where op­tions are end­less and noth­ing is im­pos­si­ble. They study, work part time, blitz ex­ams and go club­bing with their boyfriends on a Satur­day night. Some of them al­ready have fully-fledged ca­reers. World travel is un­der­taken at the drop of a hat while I, in my mid-40s, have yet to go through im­mi­gra­tion.

I pirou­ette along­side th­ese young teach­ers, doc­tors and pro­fes­sion­als-in-train­ing with learned tech­nique but I, in life, am off-bal­ance and un­sure. I am the per­son I used to hear about who dropped out of the work­force to bring up her chil­dren and is bat­tling to find her feet again.

In this ap­par­ently ac­com­mo­dat­ing world, fam­ily-friendly em­ploy­ers and work­able job sit­u­a­tions are prov­ing to be elu­sive. Then I re­mem­ber my­self in my 20s with a graphic arts qual­i­fi­ca­tion, an in­ter­state move, a great job, a new car and the oc­ca­sional boyfriend, and I re­alise th­ese girls will even­tu­ally be my age.

As we warm up to­gether en pointe, I know that noth­ing is im­pos­si­ble and that, ac­tu­ally, the op­tions are mine.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Saktor

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