There have always been earnest concerns for the relevance and representativeness of the Australian cinema: over the past few decades since feature production was re-established, it has at turns been castigated for being too commercial, too conservative, then not contemporary or consensual enough. One of the great strengths which is displayed from the outset by Catherine Simpson, Renata Murawska and Anthony Lambert’s Diasporas of Australian Cinema is its determination to include – rather than exclude, categorise and judge – an array of alternative articulations and representations of contemporary Australia and its cinema. I deliberately avoid suggesting that Diasporas of Australian Cinema offers new perspectives on the definitions and transmissions of “Australianness”, as that term itself seems inadequate to describe the object and outcome of the films covered in this excellent volume, and the committed yet objective critical study of them it contains. The alternatives embraced here include a variety of film forms (documentary, short and experimental film as well as the feature), critical frameworks (documentary realism, postmodernism, post-colonialism, genre studies, auteur criticism, as well as a spectrum of socio-ethnic representations), and a challenging range of historical contexts (from the world of 1960s immigration in Michael Powell’s They’re a Weird Mob (1966) to propaganda of the World Wars such as The Hero of the Dardanelles (Alfred Rolfe, 1915) and Forty Thousand Horsemen (Charles Chauvel, 1940), to esoteric films emanating from diasporic filmmakers in the present day). Specific chapters include discussion of both representations of and filmmaking by Greek, Japanese, Dutch, Lebanese, Turkish, Indonesian and other minorities, and their often problematic and unequal accommodation within contemporary Australian cinema. If the goals aimed at here are laudable, the execution and accomplishment go further.
Toby Miller’s Preface, entitled “A Provocation”, ignites and helps to unify the debates within the succeeding chapters by providing a socio-political standpoint (Australian multiculturalism) from which these filmmakers can be seen to depart, with which they disagree, and which they strive to revalue. After detailing the pressures and the momentum of globalisation which have precipitated pervasive crises in ideas of belonging, reductive concepts of identity and the widespread retrenchment of human rights, Miller links these factors conclusively to the activity and significance of the Australian cinema, and how “the struggle for the redefinition and redeployment of these ideas, ideals and realities plays out on screen in a white-settler colony under erasure through difference” (p. 10). He concludes this forthright opening with a perceptive summary of the need for and practice of repeated and revised evaluation which diasporic texts engender:
Because texts accrete and attenuate meanings on their travels as they rub up against, trope and are troped by other texts and the social, we must consider all the shifts and shocks which characterize their existence as cultural commodities – their ongoing renewal as the temporary “property” of varied, productive workers and publics, and the perennial property of business people. (p.12)
Following on from this, part one, “Theories”, offers both targeted and comprehensive re-readings of some familiar films to create shifts and shocks of its own. The reappraisals in this section are redolent of the reorientation of texts and readings which the widening of cultural focus and relevance imparts, in line with how “the boundaries of Australian national cinema have evolved to reflect and encompass these changes and […] the maturing diasporic hybridity of its constituents” (p. 18). In their Introduction, the editors note the significance of the work of directors from non-English speaking backgrounds (such as George Miller, Rolf de Heer, Paul Cox, Nadia Tass and Yoram Gross) in the national cinematic output, within a context in which cultural difference gains its profile through examples or combinations of commerce and controversy (Romper Stomper [Geoffrey Wright, 1992]; Strictly Ballroom [Baz Luhrmann, 1992]). The other chapters in this section – Catherine Simpson’s on Lucky Miles (Michael James Rowland, 2007); Audrey Yue’s on The Last Chip (Heng Tang, 2006); Sonia Tascón’s on intercultural romance films; and Anthony Lambert’s on Journey Among Women (Tom Cowan, 1977) and Over the Hill (Peter Baynton, 1992) – reflect the potential of the volume’s shift in critical focus. The earlier films undergo a transformation in analysis and relevance as specificities of ethnicity are discovered in or applied to them. The endeavour carried across these chapters is further grounded by the “six types of diasporic Australian film” categorised in Simpson’s chapter, which again help to reread and redraw the boundaries of existing genres and eras of Australian production, through the windows of ethnic representation, characterisation, migration narratives and formal experimentation. (This aspect is usefully followed up by the inclusion of a “Diasporic Filmography”.)
By comparison, the chapters included in part two, “Representations”, are perhaps less unified, but offer up a similar range of classical and contemporary Australian films for reappraisal. Felicity Collins reinterprets the national type in the Ocker and “assimilates” the “wogboy” comedy alongside the pervasive depiction of the larrikin, whose migration she notes across decades and media, from sixties film to nineties television. In Greg Dolgopolov’s chapter, the consistent characterisation of the disruptive Russian immigrant in Australian films is compared with the displays of excess and melancholia marking Russian characters in international cinema. In identifying the attractiveness and careful deployment of images of opposing nations in war, Antje Gnida and Catherine Simpson provide a sobering coda to the reinforcement of the Anzac myth discernible in propaganda films such as Chauvel’s Forty Thousand Horsemen. The conception and characterisation of the Turkish enemy in the context of Australian historiography of the Dardanelles and in its cinematic offshoots are shown to carry special significance not just for subsequent patterns of immigration but also for the maintenance of key aspects of consensual national identity. In contrast, Rebecca Coyle’s balanced analysis of the divergent images of Japanese immigrants in Japanese Story (Sue Brooks, 2003) and Bondi Tsunami (Rachael Lucas, 2004) underlines their differences in finance, budget, style, critical reception and acceptance, while admitting their consistency in (cor)responding to abiding notions of Japaneseness and enduring problems in Australia’s relationships with Asian neighbours. Divergent style is also at the forefront of John Conomos’ discussion of the Greek influences and origins at work within the films of certain Australian filmmakers. For Conomos, the key factor is that “the Greek-Australian filmmaker is obliged to create a cinema which both contests the ethnic stereotypes of past Australian cinema and is, at the same time, cinematically self-reflexive” (p. 117). The drift towards hybridisation of style matches the multiplication of ethnic (and sexual) identities which characterises the family and community in Ana Kokkinos’ Head On (1997).
The final section, “Filmmakers”, provides revealing portraits of several key figures whose works illustrate the institutional and cultural problems besetting diasporic film production. By focusing on only a small part of a salient career, Marek Haltof’s examination of Paul Cox describes his marginal status in the Australian film industry in terms of his ethnicity, his philosophical outlook, his chosen form and style, and his highly personal emphases. These factors have constructed Cox (or, alternatively, have been the basis of his own self-fashioning) as an Australian auteur after a traditional, European pattern. Paradoxically, the Australian production environment against which Cox is seen to rail appears inseparable from and instrumental in the blended articulation of personal and universal issues which distinguish his films:
Some of Cox’s films […] could have been made anywhere, and their references to Australia and its uniqueness seem marginal. However, Cox maintains that his films could only be made in Australia because of the unique transnational connections his work represents. (p. 132)
Against the strong profile of Cox’s films, Renata Murawska’s rehabilitation of Sophia Turkiewicz’s Silver City (1984) for academic analysis provides a sensitive, specific counterbalance. Murawska’s contextualisation of the film’s narrative of Polish immigration and the background to its production amounts to a test case for minority ethnic representation. The social history of Murawska’s chapter is succeeded by Susie Khamis’ discussion of the immediacy in timing and style of Tom Zubrycki’s documentary films made within Lebanese Muslim families in the suburbs of Sydney. Crucially, these observational (and interventionist) films reveal and stress diversity even within a demarcated minority community, simultaneously emphasising and undermining the potential power of difference:
As complex portraits of a complex community, they actually highlight just how problematic the concept of diaspora is […] their paths are so fragmented that it is difficult to locate the diasporic content with too much precision or accuracy. (p. 156)
In a final counterpoint, Ben Goldsmith and Brian Yecies’ contribution on Sejong Park’s Birthday Boy (2004) notes the crucial presence of culturally-specific Korean content for the film’s proper interpretation, despite its wholehearted adoption by the Australian filmmaking establishment, and its success in international terms as a co-production.
In adding films to the canon of Australian cinema and contributing to its scholarship, Diasporas of Australian Cinema performs an extremely valuable role. This volume’s noteworthy achievement is not simply to bring an overdue emphasis to bear upon the multifaceted issue (in both senses) of an Australian diasporic cinema, but also to revive and revise debate on such early problematic examples as Powell’s Weird Mob and Chauvel’s war propaganda in the context of a thorough cultural and critical reorientation of cinema. The readings and re-readings it contains are authoritative without closing down the debates they initiate: this is a collection of essays in the best sense of the term.
Diasporas of Australian Cinema, edited by Catherine Simpson, Renata Murawska and Anthony Lambert, Intellect, Bristol, 2009.