NICK BRYANT ON FRAMING AUSTRALIA
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?
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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.