Who’s battling here? Some thoughts on the Barbican’s Australian Film Festival

Australian expats love it when the annual Aussie Film Festival at the Barbican rolls around. It’s a chance to escape home for an hour or two, eat Cherry Ripes and Burger Rings and lurk in the foyer, sneaking glances at the Aussie celebs that sometimes turn up. Plus you almost always bump into someone you know.

This year I only saw two films, Bran Nue Dae and Beautiful Kate. And I was enchanted and disappointed in equal measures. Let’s start with Bran Nue Dae. It’s a musical and tells the story of a young Aboriginal man who leaves boarding school to travel back to his hometown of Broome. It addresses racism, homelessness, displacement, alcohol abuse and incarceration… and it’s funny. Really, laugh-out-loud funny. Joyful music, over-the-top acting… you leave feeling optimistic about life.

Here’s a trailer. Hopefully it will at least get a DVD release here so you can see it for yourself. It’s perfect Friday-night-at-the-end-of-a-long-week viewing.

The next film I saw was Beautiful Kate. Essentially, it’s the story of a middle-aged man returning to the family farm to face up to his past, which includes a dead twin sister, a dead brother, and the murky circumstances of those deaths, all set against a backdrop of rural drought, isolation and misery.

It was saturated in nostalgic, golden hues, and featured every visual cliché of Australian film-making –  the Blue Heeler dog, the Hills Hoist clothesline, the decrepit farmhouse, the dried-up dam. The characterisation was equally tired – a sick, abusive old dad. Four female characters, three that existed purely to take their clothes off, the fourth a ‘good girl’ who worked at the local Aboriginal community; not that there was a single Aboriginal character in the story itself; they just made a nice backdrop.

Is director, Rachel Ward, said recently that women ‘should’ take their clothes off in films, because they have beautiful bodies, but it would be nice if she gave them a little complexity of character to balance out all that skin. Things reached the point of parody when the flannel-shirted brothers fought over their sister in a sheep-shearing shed. It felt empty, like something I’d seen in every other depressing, nostalgic, sentimental film about Aussie battlers. Obviously its easy to make comments from the peanut gallery, and it’s not altogether fair when I write this blog anonymously, but the peanut gallery is where I’m at, and quite frankly, I’m disappointed….. here’s the trailer

There’s a certain breed of Australians that love to see themselves as battlers. But the uncomfortable truth is that the only battling most Aussies do these days is off the couch for another glass of Margaret River semillon. It’s a rich, urbanised, rather well-fed country. The global financial crisis barely registered, thanks to China’s hunger for its natural resources. Its the world’s biggest carbon emitter per capita (just look at the size of the houses people live in, pictured above), and its equals America as having the most overweight population

Not that I’m complaining – it’s a lucky country for most and a largely peaceful and beautiful place (although the recent hijacking of the Australian flag by racist morons is worrying; utes covered in flags and stickers saying ‘Australia – love it or f*** off are a new and unwelcome development). I just wish more Aussie films would reflect the reality of Australia as it is today, instead of some clichéd, soft-focus dream of tough times on the farm. There is the occasional urban film, but it’s usually about good-looking junkies (Little Fish, Candy)… although Lantana was brilliant; it would be great to see more like it.

Interestingly, the only festival film that will be on general release in London (and opening at the Barbican this Friday) is Samson and Delilah, a love story about two petrol-sniffing Aborigines from central Australia. I haven’t seen it yet, but it won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and its director, Warwick Thornton, says ‘”if you want to tell the world what Australia is like today, you should watch Samson and Delilah”

Update: I saw Samson and Delilah the other night, and I have to agree with its director. He captured so perfectly white Australia’s often uneasy, guilty relationship with its traditional landowners, which is mostly expressed through faint discomfort, not so much outright hostility as a kind of awkward aversion of gaze while sipping a latte, before dropping 20 grand in some Aboriginal art gallery.

And he takes these characters that – let’s admit it – make us uneasy when we encounter them at the train station or drinking in the park – and shows them instead through the infatuated eyes of teenagers – as Delilah watches Samson dancing; as he watches her from his mattress by the fire. Sometimes it’s difficult to watch – there’s no soft-focus nostalgia here – but it’s also romantic and funny and very ‘un-actorly’. It’s quite restored my faith in Aussie filmmaking.

Here’s the trailer:

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