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You Can't Be What You Can't See: A Potted History of Ethnic Representation in Australian Films

Updated: Sep 12, 2019

by Steve R E Pereira

The history of Australian film is a history of tension around the representation of Australian culture.

The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) directed by Australian born Charles Tait and based on the life of Ned Kelly the iconic Australian outlaw was one of the first feature films anywhere in the world, and our very first Australian made box office hit. The film provided local audiences with an early example of Australian-ness that was to imprint itself on the consciousness of a fledgling nation. The film established the character of the bush ranger, an anti-establishment hero who escaped to the bush as a refuge from the exploitative authorities, a quintessential Aussie. The film, proudly parochial, used its Australian localisms to market the film very effectively to it's home-grown audience. The success of the film signalled a boom in the production of Australian films spawning a series of bushranger films. In that first decade after Federation, Australia produced over fifty narrative feature films that were distributed nationally.

The popularity of these films so concerned the authorities, who worried that romanticised and mythologised bush robbers would inspire anarchy, that they slapped a ban on the genre of films in 1912. The ban recognised the powerful social influence of the cinematic medium.

Arguably, as a relatively young settler nation the role of film, radio and television in the development of a unique Australian identity has been more impactful than on nations with more established cultural histories.

There was however, another agenda at play in the decision to ban the bushranger films. The establishment recognised the role that media can play in providing Australians with a distinct national personality and in developing a spirit of nationalism. The ban made apparent the prevailing establishment attitude that still perceived Australia as a British colonial outpost and gave no credibility or placed no value on the development of a local, Australian culture. Australia was British and would remain so.

Even in those early days there was that tension in Australian between the British antecedents and the development of a unique Australian culture.

Local films about local people and local stories kept popping up and proved successful. Another box office success of the period was Raymond Longford’s The Sentimental Bloke (1919). Based on the 1915 Australian poem The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke by C.J. Dennis, the film featured title cards written in the newly distinctive Australian working class vernacular and gave us one of the earliest cinematic representations of another iconic Australian type, the larrikin: an affectionate take on a working class, social disruptor.[1] Other noteworthy films of the period up to the war were those by Beaumont Smith who produced a popular series of rural comedies, based on successful stage plays about the Hayseed family.[2]

The Sentimental Bloke (1919) - Image: NFSA

Longford and Lyle, having established the popularity of working-class comedies in The Sentimental Bloke followed up with sequels Ginger Mick (1920) and The Dinkum Bloke (1923) and then the hugely popular melodramatic comedies On Our Selection (1920) and Rudd’s New Selection (1921). William D Routt’s analysis of the films of the 1920s and 1930s in The Fairest Child of the Motherland (1989), makes the point that the focus on many of the Australian films produced during this period was on family[3] and featured strong, independent women. These ‘bush women’, could hold their own against the landscape and against domineering men However, as Richard White points out, this was a very limited acknowledgment of gender equality as the women were only visible because they were valorised for their appropriation of masculine traits, “a kind of second-rate masculinity by being clever with horses or being a tomboy…”[4].

The popularity of these early films suggests that the Australian population were beginning to recognise and appreciate an articulation of unique Australian cultural signifiers as markers of our own distinct culture. We were learning to build our myths that would bind us together as an indigenous (though not yet Indigenous) culture.

However, an unfortunate ramification of the banning of the bushranger films was that it made space for a flood of imported films from the United States when Australian distributors and exhibitors realised that it was much cheaper to buy the product rather than produce films locally. This allowed for American film to begin domination of Australian screens[5]

In one of the first interventions to protect a nascent film industry, the federal government imposed a tax on imported film in 1914 which was however rescinded in 1918[6]. A Royal Commission into the Moving Picture Industry was established in 1927 and reported in 1928 but limited itself to recommending that cash prizes be given to Australian films.[7] A well-meaning attempt in 1935 by the New South Wales government to impose a quota system that required five per cent of all films distributed in the state to be of Australian origin proved too difficult to police.[8]

In his analysis of this period in The Decades of Survival: Australian Film 1930-1970 (1989), Stuart Cunningham comments that the impact of the Depression and the shifting allegiances occasioned by lead up to the World War II, Australian cinema was especially emphatic about making clear the continued allegiance to Britian.[9] The films of Charles Chauvel, for instance; In the Wake of the Bounty (1933), Heritage (1935) and Uncivilised (1936) are quasi morality tales about the dire consequences of attempting to severe ties to the motherland.[10]

Morality lessons notwithstanding, Australians returned themselves to the screens. In the 1940s, Chips Rafferty’s role in The Overlanders (Henry Watt,1946), Chauvel’s Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940) and The Rats of Tobruk (1944), established him indelibly in the popular imagination as the "Australian Everyman, in speech, action, and character, a ‘laconic man of few words and emphatic action.”[11] The Chips Rafferty character was becoming the quintessential Australian.

In the 1950s the conversation around organising and maintaining a distinct Australian identity was gaining traction. Cultural activists recognised the importance of film to nation formation and the need for government-sponsored industry to “unite its diverse, creole population and far-flung communities with their own local identities and histories by inculcating a specifically Australianist inflection.”[12] Tom Fitzgerald, the editor of the influential journal Nation wrote a manifesto under the nom de plume of Tom Weir for a national film industry ‘No Day No Daydreams of our Own: the film as a National Self-Expression'. Along with the work of cultural activists like Sylvia Lawson, the argument for the recognition of an Australian film industry and film culture as a project of nation formation was gaining momentum.

Driven by unions such as the Actor’s Equity, the AFPA, the screenwriter’s Guild, the Musicians Union, the Australian Society of Authors, as well as cultural activists such as Sylvia Lawson, Phillip Adams and H. C. Coombs,[13] lobbying groups campaigned actively for a government commitment for an institutional funding structure and training opportunities in the film and television industries. They argued that Australian film-making could not be sustained without government intervention.

In 1962/63 the findings of a Senate Select Committee on the Encouragement of Australian production for Television (referred to as the Vincent Report after its chairman), was mandated to consider the film industry. The findings stressed the urgent necessity that Australia export films which “present an adequate and comprehensive image of the Australian nation”.

The Australian nation was changing rapidly with expanding pools of migrants from the Southern European region. And an Australian film acknowledged that in a typically Australian way.

They’re a Weird Mob (1966)

A box office hit, They’re a Weird Mob (1966) was produced and directed by Britisher Michael Powell, but the film was based on a popular Australian novel by John O’Grady writing under the pseudonym Nino Culotta. Weird Mob follows the fortunes of an Italian immigrant also named Nino Culotta, who though a skilled journalist in Italy, has to become a labourer as the only work available to him in his new homeland. Nino is then set about the task of becoming Australian, a culture he finds as equally dense and confusing as they find him. To it’s tongue-in-cheek credit, the title refers to both new European migrants and old British settlers. However, in its casual racism and the chauvinism towards other cultures, the underlying message is very much of the time. Nino is only acceptable if he assimilates. The centrality of British Australian culture is unchallenged.

Media in its broad appeal and capacity for mass communication, is a powerful socialising agency, authoritative arbitrator and articulator of our concept of what constitutes nationhood and nationality. Drawing a group of disparate people together in an experience which draws on a shared experience of hopes, dreams, and fears offers them the opportunity to identify themselves as having a common culture.

A problem arises though as to who gets to decide what those singular cultural signifiers are and who gets to be part of that community and who does not. We know that political and cultural authorities legitimise themselves by establishing certain and only certain, mythologies as ‘tradition’ to socialise the population into accepting the hegemony of the governing and cultural elites. The standardisation of culture is one very important way of forming the nation-state, of founding cultural boundaries that then become political boundaries. The problem is the boundaries are set to keep certain people out just as much as they keep certain people in.

In Australia, the history of British colonisation and settlement has indelibly shaped the Australian national identity. The valorising of the British antecedents enshrined in the ‘White Australia Policy’ defined Australian nationalism in ethnonational terms. Australia was British and would remain so. When immigration was opened up to southern European and Asian migration in the 1960s, new migrants to the country were expected to assimilate to the ‘Australian’ way of life. Even with the influx of non-British migrants the resulting populist push to recognise the newly multi-ethnic population led to the adoption of multiculturalism as an official policy. However, 'multiculturalism' has had its shortcomings.

There is an acute awareness that race relations are at a particularly sensitive point in contemporary Australia. The daily news headlines foster anxiety about an influx of Chinese investment, the volatile, racially charged issues of ‘illegal’ refugees, global and local terrorism and the resultant schisms with Muslim communities, the strident rhetoric about the necessity/difficulties of ‘assimilating’ new migrants into ‘Australian’ society, and the continued systemic repression and marginalisation of Aboriginal communities are symptomatic of a deeply entrenched national anxiety about Australian nationalism and a national identity.

The principles and values of the Commonwealth Government’s multicultural policy and therefore the cultural policy for the nation guarantee the rights of all Australians to express and share (my emphasis) their individual cultural heritage including language and religion, the equality of treatment and opportunity[14] However, as the evidence indicates, Pauline Hanson and company are merely spokespeople – troublesome priests voicing unconscionable truths – for a well-entrenched and institutionalized system that has rendered the multicultural policy effectively toothless.

A front page story by Nicole Hasham in Melbourne’s daily broadsheet The Age on July 28 2016, ran under the headline ‘A bleak story: Human Rights Commission finds major bias against non-European Leadership’.[15] The article was reporting on the release on the 29th of August 2016 of the Human Rights Commission’s study Leading for Change: A blueprint for cultural diversity and inclusive leadership), which in a study of leadership trends in Australian business and educational institutions, revealed a pervasive bias against those of Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, African, Pacific Island and Latin American descent. The study discovered that even though over 32 percent of the Australian population had a non-Anglo-Celtic background, cultural diversity is not represented at senior levels of business administration or public service.[16]. The report’s conclusion is damming. “We found a bleak story for multicultural Australia…Australian society may not be making the most of its cultural diversity…Professionals from culturally diverse backgrounds report that organisations understand leadership in ways that privilege ‘Anglo’ cultural styles”.[18] The report added, “International research on leadership and race also suggests that in predominantly ‘white’ work environments, leaders who are ‘people of colour’(sic) may face disadvantages because they are not perceived as legitimate and because power inequities in organisations privilege ‘whiteness’"[19]

On the cultural production front, Screen Australia, the country’s official agency for supporting and promoting all modes of screen production, released a study examining diversity in Australian TV drama.[20] The study revealed that Australia’s much lauded multiculturalism is absent from our television screens. The study called Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on Diversity in TV Drama, analysed 199 dramas that aired between 2011 and 2015 and then further analysed 1,961 main characters in these shows looking for identifiable markers of diversity including ethnicity, gender identity, disability and sexual orientation. The diversity had to be apparent and unmistakable (therefore invisible disabilities and characters who could be mistaken for being Anglo-Celtic didn’t count) The study demonstrated that even though over 32 per cent of Australia’s population are of non-Anglo-Celtic background, only 18 per cent of the main characters analysed were non-Anglo-Celtic. What the study essentially discovered, was that the main characters in Australian drama were predominantly white, male, heterosexual and with no visible disabilities. [21]

When the Australian Film Development Corporation (AFDC) was established in 1970, the AFDC and its subsequent incarnation, the Australian Film Commission (AFC) were to play a crucial role in shaping an Australian film industry, celebrating locally grown talent and local content. Between 1972 and 1978, state-funded agencies were established in every state starting with South Australia in 1972 and Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia following between 1976 and 1978. The intention was support of both a film industry and the recognition of the cultural importance of the development and maintenance of a uniquely Australian voice through government subsidy and investment. There was an understanding either implicit or explicit that the government through the funding bodies would acquire an influence over the formulations and articulations of national identity and culture. In the 1970s, as Dermody and Jacka point out, “the feature film industry was largely a creation of government policy…the task of the AFC and before that the AFDC was to foster the development of an Australian cinema that was cultural enough and Australian enough…” [22]

What was exactly ‘cultural enough’ and ‘Australian enough’ was a matter of conjecture.

The 1970s in Australia, as in the rest of the western world, was a time of challenge to the establishment. It was a time of political and social experimentation and challenges to established social, moral and political values. Film production, with the support of multi-levels of Government funding available, went through a renaissance and there was a determination to move away from the conservatism of the previous generations and re-evaluate notions of Australian identity.[23] However, the films didn’t necessarily deliver on that determination.

Tom O’Regan identifies two types of films that characterised the films of the 1970s: the “ocker” film and the “quality” film.[24] The “ocker” films which became central to the public definitions of Australian film in the first half of the decade, were targeted at local audiences. As director Tim Burstall put it, “One of the best ways of getting an Australian audience to accept itself, one of the things we're fondest of, is the send-up. We're prepared to look at our life and laugh at it in a way that we're not prepared to look at our life and be serious about it."[25] Similar in its sensibility to It’s a Weird Mob, the ocker films celebrated the ‘vulgarity, philistinism and energy of an urban contemporary Australia.’[26] Anti-establishment and cynical of social institutions films like Stork (1971), The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, (1972) and Alvin Purple (1973) proved extremely popular, with Alvin Purple becoming the biggest Australian box office hit since On Our Selection in 1932.

However, the public sensibility turned against the rampant, sexual vulgarity of the ‘ocker’ films as representations of Australian culture. Critics and politicians alike demanded a less vulgar, more culturally elevated filmmaking in keeping with government support.[27] The result was what O’Regan calls the "quality film" and what Dermody and Jacka, rather dismissively refer to as the “AFC genre films: tasteful, safe and rather bland.”[28] Films like Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Sunday Too Far Away (Ken Hannam, 1975), The Getting of Wisdom (Bruce Beresford, 1978) and My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong, 1979) dripped in good taste and sensibility and in the process valorized a culture of nostalgia that was a further confirmation of the validity of Australia’s colonial past.

As the public sensibility turned against the ‘ocker films’ so did it respond to the ‘quality’ films. There was growing recognition that the films, as Graeme Turner points out, were 'beautiful, untroubling films', that 'they were politically conservative' and did little to reflect the contemporary lives of a cosmopolitan, middle class, multicultural society'. Felicity Collins commented on the films that they relied on the picturesque landscape shots to convey a 'nationalistic investment in the land as the template of a national identity...The white, masculine version of national identity which underpins the landscape tradition featured egalitarian, working-class mateship as the measure of true-blue Australian-ness.” [29]

The 1980s saw a shift in the government role in film production. An experiment in tax incentives to boost film production replaced state authorities as a principle source of funding and direct government involvement diminished from around fifty per cent of the production budget to about ten to fifteen per cent in 1982.[30] Fuelled by a commercial imperative and freed from the gatekeeping that a dependency on government subsidy inevitably entailed, the era was dominated by blockbusters Gallipoli (1981), The Man from Snowy River (1982), Mad Max 2 (1982), Crocodile Dundee (1986) which thrust Australian film on to global screens. These phenomenally successful and iconic films reinvigorated the white, settler, bushman archetypes both nationally and internationally.

In an aptly titled article, Graeme Turner in Whatever happened to National Identity? (Metro, 1994/5) remarks that the prevailing definitions of ‘Australianness’ made explicit in the 1970s and 1980s “were entirely consonant with those constructed through the radical nationalist tradition (Lawson-Furphy tradition) through the 1940s through to the 1960s.”[31] Brian McFarlane in Australian Cinema 1970-1985, concurring with Turner’s assessment noted "The images by which Australia is instantly recognized in the world at large are of men, of white (sic) men, and the establishment and promotion of these images has had certain corollaries...among these corollaries have been the suppression of the role of women...of the country's Aboriginal population and its history,[32]

There were a few films about migrants being made: Toula (Oliver Howe), Promised Woman (Tom Cowan, 1975), The Golden Cage (Ayten Kuyululu, 1975), Kostas (Paul Cox, 1979) and Cathy's Child (Donald Crombie, 1979). But with limited release, none of these films really registered with the mass of the Australian population.

Kostas (Paul Cox, 1979)

However, the proverbial winds of change were sweeping through the social system. The increasing urgency of recognising the cultural plurality of the nation in official discourse culminated in the 1989 National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia. The official position seemed to be that Australian national identity was to be defined as a loose association of cultures - all with equitable standing - pledging allegiance to the British Queen and the Australian flag, in that order. The problem was that that promise of equitable standing was compromised by the centrality of Anglo-Celtic culture in all institutions and social structures.

Crucially, in the 1980’s issues of race, gender and sexuality became areas of hot contestation. Image making or representation became a particularly volatile cultural minefield. The Anti-Racist movement in countries like the US, Britain, Canada and Australia, was committed, fundamentally to an articulation of individual identity as a necessary prerequisite for effective political intervention. Organising around the points of oppression with a goal of greater self-determination, ethnic communities, women, and queer filmmakers began producing work, which challenged the hegemony of the ideological and cultural power base which determined dominant, stereotypical representations.

The ability to challenge the mainstream has been very constrained. Funding for non-commercial projects has been extremely prescribed. The diverse minority cultures within a larger overtly homogenous culture didn’t claim enough of the market share to attract funding from the commercial mainstream dominated by multinational capital and the ‘bottom line’. On the independent front, where ‘independent’ production is highly dependent on public funding, there was, a telling absence of political will on the part of the public funders to support the untried and unsettling ethnic or minority voice.

The official adoption of multiculturalism as policy did introduce some shifts in the policy and priorities of cultural institutions in recognising equitable representation of marginalised communities in public spheres as a fundamental right. The establishment of public institutions like Channel 4 in Britain and SBS in Australia helped widen opportunities for access to production. In Australia, the crucial shift in Public policy was recognised in Creative Nation: Commonwealth Cultural Policy, the Keating governments visionary (in rhetoric if not in implementation) cultural policy, delivered in October 1994. Creative Nation confirmed not only government commitment to developing and nurturing an Australian voice in the arts but also recognised the plurality of the ethnicity of the Australian population.[33]

Encouragingly, the early part of the 1990s was to see some shifts in representation and broadened conceptions of Australian identity that did get the attention of mainstream audiences. Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom (1992) notably put Australia’s multiculturalism on the map in the cross-cultural love story between a good-looking Aussie boy and an ugly duckling Spanish girl, while Michael Jenkins’ The Heartbreak Kid (1993) featured a romance between an older, conservative Greek woman (Claudia Karvan) and her young Greek student (Alex Dimitriades). PJ Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding (1994) was a send-up of suburban dreaming, Kevin Dowling and Geoff Burton’s The Sum of Us (1994) celebrated working-class homosexuals, while Stephen Elliot’s The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (1994) made Australian icons out of drag queens.

Satiric but non-the-less affectionate explorations of plucky individuals going for their dreams against adversity (yes, variations on the Aussie battler) the films all ranked within the top five in box office hits for the year (Australian Film Commission Rankings) with local and international audiences, celebrating ‘quirkiness’, ‘eccentricity’ and ‘individuality’.

However, the film that set Australian’s talking was Geoffrey Wright’s Romper Stomper (1992), which despite or because of it’s controversy, registered second on the box office stakes in Australia according to the official Australian Film Commission rankings.[34]

The violent, confrontational film about a Nazi skinhead group set in the grim blue-collar suburbs of Melbourne created controversy because it wasn’t clear whether writer/director Geoffrey Wright was valorising or condemning the racist violence depicted in the film. Wright made a point of defending his depiction of the skinheads as being a part of the Australian identity, “They are a part of this culture, and they represent something about it – exaggerated, not pleasant, but nonetheless real.”[3 An uncomfortable film about an uncomfortable truth.

Romper Stomper (1992)

In an interesting, and admittedly encouraging development in audience perceptions, Priscilla and Sum of Us generated their own controversies. The depiction of the Filipino character in Priscilla was attacked in the popular press for its stereotypical portrayal of a Filipina woman as a sex-crazed, vulgar, gold digger. The controversy was recognised in The Age (10 October 1994) editorial which commented, “It is, perhaps a pity that the film with a message of tolerance and acceptance for homosexuals should feel the need of what looks like very much to us like a racist and sexist scapegoat.” Even the much-lauded acceptance of homosexuality in the films was not an unconditional one. As O’Regan reports about the films “There seemed to be a sort of white male mateship thing going on in which the rules are altered slightly to allow gay men and transsexuals in (as long as they are white), who are after all still ‘male’.

While in the 1970s and 1980s Australian cinema was mostly Australian produced, financed and focussed on Australian locations, the 1990s saw more internationally integrated projects in keeping with the change in governmental agendas that favoured greater international integration and competitiveness. Lisa French details in Patterns of Production and Policy: The Australian Film Industry in the 1990s (2001), that with the election of the Howard government in 1996 there was a reduction in government funding to the Arts sector. The Howard commissioned Gonski Report (1997) into the Commonwealth film policy was barely supportive of the industry, recommending only that the levels of funding be maintained at their current levels.

Left largely to the free market system, the Australian films most Australians saw were large multinational productions that almost entirely effaced any totemic recognition of Australian-ness. Though Peter Weir’s Green Card (1991) was directed by an Australian, had some Australian investment and had its post-production facilities in Australia, it was a French/Australian production, set in New York starring French actor Gerard Depardieu and American Andy McDowall. Similarly, Black Robe (1992) directed by Australian Bruce Beresford was an Australian /Canadian production set and shot in Canada, with a Canadian cast and Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) was an Australian/New Zealand co-production set in New Zealand.

The late part of the 1990s into the new century saw a variety of Australian films that reflected the broadening range of Australian culture. Nick Parsons’ Dead Heart (1996) was a contemporary take on the relationship between an Aboriginal man and a white woman. However, Aboriginal filmmakers were beginning to make films about themselves. There was Tracy Moffat’s expressionistic explorations of Aboriginal life and history in Nice Coloured Girls (1987), Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989) and BeDevil (1993). Rachel Perkin made Radiance (1998) and One Night the Moon (2001) and Ivan Sen Beneath Clouds (2001). David Caesar’s underrated Idiot Box (1996) explored suburban angst in the underclass as did Rowan Wood’s bleak The Boys (1998) and Gregor Jordan’s Two Hands (1998). Clara Law’s sublime Floating Life (1996) and The Goddess of ’67 (2000) looked at the multicultural experience. However, for the most part, these films were relegated to the art house circuit and made little if any impression on the Australian mainstream.

Aside from the multinational extravaganza that was Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, 2001), the big hits of the decade were the Working Dog productions of The Castle (Rob Stitch, 1997) and The Dish (Rob Stitch, 2000) both celebrations of Anglo-Aussie battlers. Both films have become iconic of the decade. Darryl Kerrigan’s catchphrase “Your dreaming” and “Can you feel the serenity” has entered everyday parlance, and the film is used as a point of reference for Australian culture.

Floating Life (1996)

The Castle’s popularity is worth a brief examination for what it says about the perception of mainstream Australia’s relationship with multiculturalism and the Indigenous community; all in all very little. Darryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton) is presented as the benevolent patriarch of the family served dutifully and dotingly by his wife Sal (Anne Tenney) and idolised by his three sons and daughter Tracey (Sophie Lee). In a nod to the plurality of culture, Sophie marries a Greek boy Con Petropoulous (Eric Bana). However, the nod is just a nod, Con’s Greekness is effectively effaced from the film. There is a brief scene of the wedding when Con’s parents are introduced and their cultural background acknowledged. Darryl Kerrigan in his parental speech, makes a joke about plates being smashed "this being a Greek custom and all”. He then goes on to say “You’d like your daughter to marry one of your own…and lets not beat about the bush, Greeks have a reputation” however all is well because “Anyone who loves our Trace as much as us, deserves our love” And so Con is welcomed into the family for having the good taste to love them. His parents disappear, never to reappear and there is no other reference made to Con’s ethnic origin. He has been absorbed, assimilated into the Kerrigan family and thus the Australian mainstream.

Just as troublingis the film's appropriation of the historic, paradim shifting Mabo court ruling that recognised native title for the first time. The parallel drawn between working class man Darryl Kerrigan trying to save his house from big business interests and the genocidal impact of the land siezures of the colonising forces runs dangerously close to trivialising Indigenous history for comedic intent. Speaking of his threatened house, Kerrigan says "This house is like their land, it holds heir memories...The land land is their stories, it's everything...This country has got to stop stealing other people's land." While this acknowledgment is laudatory in a film that is so deliberatelyt populist, the point is effectively undermined for the comedy pay off. The best that lawyer (Tiriel Mora) can say about the relevance of the Mabo decision to the case is "It's the vibe" and in the final analysis, the Mabo argument becomes effectively moot when the Kerrigan's win their case on a completely different point of law.

An epitaph on the century of filmmaking that defined Australian culture on the popular imagination both nationally and internationally has to recognise the almost complete absence of Aboriginal representation in the canon of popular Australian films. Films like Claude Chevel’s Jedda (1953), Lee Robinson’s Dust in the Sun (1958), Nichols Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), Henri Safram’s Storm Boy (1976), Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (all ‘white fellas’ making films about ‘blackfellas’) while garnering some critical acclaim, were largely box office failures and did not register with the majority of Australian audiences in any significant way.

Suburban Australia’s perceptions of the Indigenous population in film were only as peripheral characters, if they were visible at all, in the Australian landscape. Peter Krausz’s dispiriting analysis of Aboriginal representation in film Screening Indigenous Australia: An Overview of Aboriginal Representation on Film, notes that in over a thousand feature films produced in Australia, he could find only around fifty films that represented Aborigines in any way at all within the narrative.[36] The most mainstream Australia would have seen of the Aboriginal population would have been Paul Hogan’s appropriation of Aboriginal memory and culture in Crocodile Dundee (1986) where he acts, as Greg McCarthy pointedly notes, “as if he was a white (Aboriginal) native [where] the ‘real’ Aboriginal Neve (David Gulpilil) is portrayed as having lost his authenticity, as he is a 'city-boy'[37] Or else Australian audiences might remember the group of Aboriginals who encounter the drag queens in the outback and put on a musical in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. However, if that scene in Priscilla isn’t an argument that reconciliation is a possibility, then nothing is.

In the 1990s and early 2000’s we did have some sort of breakthrough. A small number of films dealing specifically with the migrant experience grabbed mainstream attention and made the crossover from the art house margins to the all-important top five of the Box Office stakes. Head On (Ana Kokkinos, 1998) and The Wog Boy (Aleksi Vellis, 2000), focussed on the Greek migrant community, Looking for Alibrandi (Kate Woods, 2000), and Love’s Brother (Jan Sardi, 2004), explored the Italian experience. Fat Pizza (Paul Fenech, 2003) isn’t specific about the ethnic territory it is covering. Fenech himself is of Maltese heritage though the running jokes in the film are mostly about the Lebanese.

Head On (Ana Kokkinos, 1998)

The films approach the issue of the migrant experience, employing a variety of genre conventions. Head On is a gritty, urban drama, Alibrandi is a family comedy (slash) drama and Love’s Brother is a romantic drama; while The Wog Boy and Fat Pizza are unadulterated farces. However, despite the varieties in approach, what is really interesting is what the films say about notions of being Australian, of national identity and belonging. It is worth taking a detailed look at these four films as to date (2019), no other Australian films from and about the ethnic migrant experience have had the same level of popularity and engagement with mainstream Australia.

Head On

Ana Kokkinos’ kinetic and confrontational Head On (1998) adapted from Christos Tsiolkas' equally visceral novel Loaded, was an unlikely success with Australian audiences. The focus on ethnic and gay issues are traditionally considered prime ingredients for box office poison so Head On’s mainstream success was surprising. The drawing power of its young star Alex Dimitriades, familiar to Australian audiences as the star of The Heartbreak Kid and the follow up TV series Heartbreak High (1994), accounts for some of the mainstream popularity as did advance word about the daringly explicit nudity and depictions of homosexuality.

The film went past the watershed $1 million mark within the first five weeks and ranked third in box office returns for 1998 (AFC Rankings) The film won five 1998 Australian Film Institute awards including Best Film for veteran producer Jane Scott (Shine, 1997) and Best Achievement in Directing for Ana Kokkinos. Despite some complaints about the unrelenting bleakness,[38] the reviews in the Australian mainstream press were generally very favourable, noting the film was an exciting representation of Australian film making and characterising it as daring and bold, [39] and ‘a shot of adrenalin straight to the heart of Australian cinema’ [40]

Set vaguely in the early 1980s, in Melbourne’s northern suburbs and the heart of the Greek immigrant community, Head On encompasses one day or what appears to be a very long night in the life of 19-year-old Ari (a tour-de-force performance from Dimitriades). A rebel with lots of cause, Ari is tortured by his homosexuality and the restrictive pressures of his extended Greek family. He spends the day as he apparently, does most days; smoking, sniffing or injecting any drug he can, having surreptitious and increasingly violent sex with a range of distinctly unsavoury men in equally unsavoury alleyways, and visiting an assortment of Greek relatives and friends including the cross-dressing Johnny/Toula (Paul Capsis).

The world that Ari inhabits is an extremely insular one, constrained very much within Greek community. The film makes this clear as it opens with the traditional sounds of the Greek tsiftiteli’ over a sequence of black and white photographs of Greek migrants arriving off the boats, intercut with present-day scenes of Ari dancing exuberantly at a family wedding. It is a community mired in a crippling nostalgia for the home country, the rites and rituals are centred around traditional feasts and the cultural references are determinedly homeland Greek – there is a constant theme in the film of rock music played by the younger generation being replaced by the ‘tsiftiteli’ favoured bys the older generation. The younger generation is in a perpetual state of revolt against the burden of expectation. Ari, in the monologue that opens the film says resentfully:

"They tell you that God is dead, but man they still want you to have a purpose. They say look at your parents, hard-working migrants. Hold two jobs, struggle all your life. Buy your kids a house. There, that’s purpose…"

Ari’s family lives in a state of barely contained violence. Both parents continually refer to their children as ‘animals’, living in mortal fear that their children will “make them the laughing stock of the neighbourhood.” In an early scene that sets up the family dynamic, Ari returns home after a night out to walk into a verbal and physical assault by both parents. “You filthy dog, you embarrass us” , the father Dimitris (Tony Nikolakopoulos) screams at Ari. “While you live under my roof you will do as I say”. A little later on in the film Ari’s sister screams at her mother “Stop living your life through us” on hearing the usual litany of “I sacrificed my life for you…” The mother’s response is to send the dinner plates crashing to the floor.

The danger of not conforming is, of course, is to be ostracised by the community. Ari, gets the message very clearly when his aunt deduces his homosexuality while reading his fortune in coffee grounds. Her response is emphatic. “…the cups don’t lie…I saw the face. My god, I don’t believe it! You are young Ari, don’t ruin your life. Find a girl, get married then it doesn’t matter what you do. Understand?” The Greek community’s attitude towards homosexuality and any kind of difference is made clear in the treatment of Johnny/Tulla and his father Vassili (Vassili Zappa) who have both become persona non-grata because of Johnny/Tulla’s out and proud cross dressing.

Ari has a love/hate relationship with his community. As much as he hates the constraints, he uses the Greek cultural touch points, particularly dancing the tsiftiteli, as a source of succour and seems to have no friends outside the community. Aside from the excursions to score drugs or to seek sexual encounters in seedy bathhouses, toilets or dark alleyways, Ari’s social circle consists of aunts, cousins, family friends and Greek bars. The one Australian we meet is Ari’s brother’s new housemate, the White, Anglo clean-cut, attractive Sean (Julian Garner), who becomes the impossible object of desire for the deeply conflicted Ari. There are occasional intrusions by other ethnic minorities. Ari’s younger sister is furtively dating a Lebanese boy, Ari has rough sex with Asian labourers and the taxi driver is Turkish. However, even these brief encounters are fraught with tension. “You don’t like your sister dating Lebanese boy”, the boy’s mother sneers at Ari when he shows up on her doorstep. On discovering that the taxi driver is Turkish, Johnny/Toula tells him “Your grandfather raped my grandmother” in a pointed joke referring to the ancient and ongoing political and social tension between Turkey and Greece and hence between Turkish and Greek migrant communities. In the universe they inhabit, the bitter joke is as one of the characters Ariadne (Katerina Kotsonis) articulates “Everyone hates everyone. The skips hate wogs, the wogs hate the Asians, and everyone hates the blacks.”

‘Skips’[41], ‘wogs’[42], ‘gooks’ (Vietnamese), ‘boongs’ (Koories), ‘chockos’ (anybody with dark skin), the derogatory names for ethnic groups litter not just Head On but Alibrandi, Wog Boy and Fat Pizza in their protest against and reclamation of ethnic stereotyping as a means of rejecting subjugation to the dominant hegemonic culture. It is an act of assertion. Steve Karamatsis (Nick Giannapoulos), the titular character of Wog Boy (discussed below) states this distinctly at the start of the film as he recounts being taunted as a child. “If that is what they are going to call me, then that is what I was going to be. The car, the clothes, the attitude…I dedicated my life to being the best wog I could be.” The use of the word ‘wog’, then becomes not only an act of defiant recognition but also an expression of ironic self-deprecation. “Think I’m a wog, how embarrassment”, one of his cousins says to Ari in a sardonic nod to Wog English. The community coalesces on its points of persecution. At its heart though, the label still carries the stigma of origins, identifying something foreign, dark and dirty. “Most Anglo women can’t stand the sight of us,” Ari says in bitter humour. “They don’t like the way we smell. They look at us, and all they see is a hairy back.”

Fighting their inchoate resentment, Johnny/Tulla says to Ari “We complain that Wogs have no guts…We have to stand up and shout”. In an uncomfortable and confronting scene as Ari and cousins head into the city to a night club, they drive through streets populated with ethnic types: bearded men, women in scarfs, Asian grocers, African shoppers. As they drive through, Ari screams out at crowds “Face it mother fuckers. You’re not in Europe anymore; this isn’t Africa….Pray to Allah…Pray to Buddha…it doesn’t matter, nothing will save your kids now, nothing. Fucking Wogs”. It is both a call to arms and a shriek of despair.

Anglo Australia is represented in the film as either the brutal force of the law or the unobtainable object of desire. At one point in the film, Ari and Johnny/Tulla, are pulled in by two policemen -identified in the credits as ‘Senior Constable’ (Neil Pigot ) and ‘Wog Cop’ (Fonda Goniadis). In the stark (“Fuck this room is white” says Ari) interrogation room, Ari and Johnny/Tulla are brutalised by the policemen but more disturbingly the Senior constable sets Wog Cop, who happens to be Greek against Ari and Johnny/Tulla in a twisted test of allegiance. When Johnny/Tulla (in full drag) confirms his name as Tulla, the Constable turns to Wog Cop and says “That’s your wife’s name isn’t it”, making a disparaging connection between the policeman’s Greek identity and Johnny/Tulla’s. The Constable challenges the policeman to prove himself by attacking Ari and Johnny/Tulla. It’s an implicit test of loyalty; his allegiances are either with the Greek community or with the forces of law and order and hence the establishment. It can’t be both. Forced to prove himself, Wog Cop screams at Ari and Johnny/Tulla to strip naked. Johnny/Toula pleads with him in Greek “Don’t do this. It’s not right.” The Senior Constable’s sneering response to Wog Cop is “You better help her along. Seems she knows you.” Humiliated into action, Wog Cop beats up on Johnny/Toula screaming insults at him in Greek, centred around the word ‘putana’ or whore. Ari looks on helpless and appalled. The Chief Constable is amused. He is above the fray in his Anglo superiority. The lines of power demarcation are made clear between Anglo Australia and the ethnic communities.

The chasm between cultures proves insurmountable in Ari’s relationship with Sean, the good looking WASPish boy. In western countries where White Anglo Saxon culture is the dominant culture and all else is marginalised as the ‘other’, the Anglo Saxon becomes the object of desire usually unobtainable. (see Woody Allen in Annie Hall, (1977), Interiors (1978), Manhattan (1979) or Spike Lee Jungle Fever (1991) and School Dayz (1988). Invariably the relationship is doomed. In Head On, despite the mutual attraction between Ari and Sean, the relationship crashes into the culture wall. At a crucial point, when Sean and Ari are having sex for the first time, Sean tells Ari that he loves him, a confession that Ari is unable to handle. He suddenly turns violent and the sex turns to a physical tussle with Sean eventually throwing Ari out of his room. The subtext of the scene seems to be that Ari is both so deeply closeted within his extremely homophobic community and so deeply self-hating in his ‘wogness’ that he won’t allow himself the possibility of a relationship with Sean.

Head On ends with Ari alone on the docks where a generation earlier his parents and thousands of other migrants disembarked off the ships from Europe (shown as archival footage at the start of the film), defiantly dancing the tsiftiteli on his own. His closing monologue is a rebellious declaration of his own mongrel identity. Caught between two worlds the Greek and the Australian, he remains defiantly neither.

"I’m a whore, a dog and a cunt. My father’s insults make me strong. I accept them all. I am sliding towards the sewer, not struggling I can smell the shit but I’m still breathing. I’m going to live my life. I’m not going to make a difference. I’m not going to change a thing. No one is going to remember me when I’m dead. I’m a sailor and whore, and I will be until the end of the world."

It is instructive that while mainstream Australia, welcomed the film as ‘new’, ‘daring’ or ‘exciting’, the Greek community were more ambivalent in their response. In some accounts the film was well regarded in Greece for giving a 'face to the new generation of Greeks seeking an independent identity and a way out of the clichés and stereotypes'[43]. Younger Greeks “living between two cultures have been hugging [director Ana Kokkinos] with gratitude at seeing their plight so acutely recognized.” [44] However, there were some attempts to distance the film from the community. In an article for Senses of Cinema titled Head On: A (too) personal view, Constantine Verevis recognised the central issue of the film as being a negation of the possibility of a Greek-Australian nationalistic construct, but complained that the film didn’t “speak to me, a Perth-born Kastellorizian Greek”. Vicky Tsaconas in Are Their Eyes Greek? (2000) also for Senses of Cinema, criticised the film in that it “presents and perpetuates stereotypes: the subservient Greek mother, the overbearing patriarchal Greek father, the …cocky, young Greek Australian man.”

The issue is that with so few films about ethnic minorities being made, every film bears the burden of expectation that films about ethnic communities would provide positive images to counteract the racism prevalent in the rest of the community. There is an assumption that the films that do get funding and produced and released will not only speak for the community but will do so in an assertive, empowering way. In one of the earliest British black films made, Isaac Julien and Maureen Blackwood’s The Passion of Remembrance (1986), a character states the issue succinctly when he comments “Every time a black face appears on the screen we think it has to represent the whole race” to which comes the response, “But there is so little space – we have to get it right.” [45] Whether Head On got it right or not, is perhaps a matter of perspective.

Looking for Alibrandi

If the debate is still out there as to whether Head On got it right, Looking for Alibrandi (2000) was a much less controversial crowd pleaser that apparently did get it right. The film ranked third in box office takings though admittedly not as right as The Wog Boy which came in second and was half as right as The Dish, which came in first. (The Dish’s taking at $16,880, 862 were double those of Alibrandi at $8,300, 547 (AFC rankings)

Adapted by Maria Marchetta from her hugely successful novel of the same name published in 1992, Alibrandi already had a huge fan base in teenage girls. The story of spunky Josephine (Josie) Alibrandi, a third generation Italian-Australian seventeen-year-old fighting the constraints of traditional family, sorting out the thorny issues of boys and figuring out what she is going to do with her life, had a built-in populist appeal, in a ‘Girl’s Own’ type story.

However, Josie and the Alibrandi world have a great deal more in common with the grungy, nihilistic Ari from Head On than one would assume.

For one thing, both Ari and Josie are outsiders to the communities they owe allegiance to. Ari is disassociated from his Greek community because of his sexuality, Josie (Pin Mirandi) because she comes from a family of cursed women as she notes at the start of the film. Shame and scandal plague the family. Josie’s mother, Christina (Greta Scacchi) got pregnant with Josie out of wedlock at seventeen, which got her kicked out of her house. As we discover later in the film, Christina herself was the product of the affair her mother Katia (Elana Cotta) had with an Anglo-Australian while her abusive (and sterile) husband was working the cane fields in northern Queensland.

However, it has to be noted that if Josie didn’t reveal this information directly to the audience, it wouldn’t have been apparent from the plethora of Italian family, friends and an entire network of spies that service the family. In the relatively sunny Alibrandi universe, the ostracisation experienced by Johnny/Tulla and his father in Head On because of Johnny/Tulla’s homosexuality, is an entirely different world away.

Like Ari though, Josie feels trapped by the smothering, prescriptiveness of the nostalgia-driven community and longs to escape. But where Ari gets trapped by his rage, Josie is admirably clear of purpose. In the opening monologue set at ‘tomato day' in her grandmother’s back yard, which like the opening wedding scene from Head On locates the film very specifically in the family and community, Josie tells us:

In case you’re wondering this is tomato day, or as I like to refer to it National Wog Day. You might think this is quirky and cute, but I actually find this really embarrassing. I mean you think they’d never left Sicily except that it was like 50 years ago. This might be where I come from but do I really belong here. That’s the past, and you can’t let the past run your life…I have got to get out of here…I’m not going to be trapped by them.

Trying to get out means firstly escaping past the grandmother and her network of spies perpetually on the watch for any misbehaviour that might sully the all-important family reputation. Secondly, it means negotiating the perils of Anglo-Australia, which is populated by barely cultured, repressive and racist establishment types. In the opening scene of the film when Josie complains about having to go through the painful process of hand making tomato sauce, her grandmother speaking in Italian says dismissively of her: “She is going to marry an Australian, and they’ll feed their children fish and chips.” Josie herself at one point tells Jacob Coot (Ned Manning) her other Anglo love interest, “You’re so lucky, you live without culture or religion, you just have to abide by the law.” The world outside family and community is a foreign place.