Felicity Collins and Therese Davis’ Australian Cinema after Mabo joins other recent books on Australian film, such as Ian Craven’s essay collection Australian Cinema in the 1990s (2001) and Jonathan Rayner’s Contemporary Australian Cinema (2000), in their exploration of the changes in Australian cinema at the turn of the millennium. Whereas earlier studies had examined how Australian cinema had mythologised the nation and focused on the cultural nationalism of the 1970s Renaissance, these more recent works address the much more diverse and heterogeneous collection of films of the 1990s – films that display new structures, eclectic styles and engage with the questions posed by changing gender roles, ethnic and racial identities, immigration, globalisation and multiculturalism. However, unlike Craven’s and Rayner’s books (and more along the lines of Tom O’Regan’s 1996 Australian National Cinema), Australian Cinema after Mabo offers an overarching conceptual framework for rethinking antipodean national cinema, particularly the unsettled history of indigenous/settler relationships through the “vernacular modernity” of Australian films from the last 12 years.
What is unique about Collins and Davis’ contribution is that they link the concerns and changes in representations of Australian cinema in the 1990s and early 2000s specifically to the cultural impact of the 1992 Mabo Aboriginal Land Rights decision and the ensuing “history wars” of the 1990s. The Australian High Court’s judgment in Mabo and others vs. The State of Queensland was a landmark decision that effectively overturned the nation’s founding doctrine of terra nullius (i.e. an empty land belonging to no one before the arrival of British colonisers), a fiction which came to justify the European settlers’ colonisation of the continent and over 200 years of dispossession and racist oppression of indigenous Australians. As Collins and Davis make clear in their introduction, the study is not so much concerned with the political details of the Mabo case per se, but with its significance as a triggering event that brought to the surface of national consciousness a long, unacknowledged traumatic history. Collins and Davis are interested in exploring the cultural impact of the decision in forcing white Australians to confront a crucial blind spot in Australian national history, and the ways in which Mabo and other legal decisions reflecting changes in political discourse and public events of remembering, have created a paradigm shift that is visible in contemporary film. All of these events can be seen as symptoms of an ongoing effort to wrestle with an unfinished past and the ways in which history has been told and visualised through repressions and elisions.
Collins and Davis treat Australian cinema since 1992 in the context of competing historical accounts over unresolved land rights disputes and Aboriginal sovereignty, which reveal a persistent ambivalence among white Australians towards recognising the shameful violent history of Australia’s foundation as a white British colony. Rather than abandoning the notion of a national cinema altogether in an era where old notions of national unity based on myth have become problematic, if not obsolete, Collins and Davis retain the idea of cinema “as an arbiter of national identity”, reconceiving it as a more dynamic, open-ended “public sphere” in which the historical memory of colonisation and settlement in the wake of the Mabo decision might be staged and mediated. A key concept in their approach is the idea of “backtracking” in both a geographical and metaphorical sense. Through their analysis of a range of films made after 1992, Collins and Davis see a persistent return to the “well-worn ground” of earlier Australian film, particularly the prominence of landscape as a defining feature of Australian cinema, and they discuss how classic icons and stories have been reimagined in contemporary terms.
Collins and Davis draw on a range of theorists and critics of modernity and film, including Walter Benjamin, Miriam Hansen, Patrice Petro, and Thomas Elsaesser. This approach allows the authors to conceptualise Australian history and cinema as discontinuous, an experience of shock, and a dialectical collision of past and present rather than as a linear and cohesive trajectory. Of particular significance for Collins and Davis is a recent turn in film studies towards trauma theory by Cathy Caruth and Janet Walker:
this new body of theory concerns itself with the processes of remembering and transmitting memory of catastrophic, overwhelming events, in particular political historical events, such as the Holocaust, race crimes, rape in war. A traumatic memory is distinguished from other modes of memory by its peculiar temporality: a memory that unexpectedly emerges only some time after the traumatising event or episode in the form of a flashback or nightmare (p. 146).
This theoretical approach to history, memory and representation becomes a productive way to analyse and establish links between disparate films that nonetheless coincide in their belated response to the repressed guilt and shame occasioned by the violent formation of the Australian nation.
Australian Cinema after Mabo is divided into three sections that each reflects a different aspect of the authors’ larger argument about the changing definition of Australian cinema in both local, national and global terms, and its “belatedness” in engaging with a repressed traumatic colonial history and memory. Each section comprises three chapters that provide a close reading of a wide range of individual films – feature films, documentaries, television dramas – which illustrate for the authors three key issues of contemporary Australian cinema: 1. the film industry’s commercial and cultural strategies to respond to the politicisation of history in Australia; 2. the “aftershock” of the Mabo decision and its influence on the representation of landscape as a traditionally mythic space; and 3. the role of trauma, grief and mourning in the cinema of a nation that is still struggling to define itself both in relation to and independently from Great Britain and that is responding to the changing landscape of Australia’s multiethnic society.
In the opening chapter of the first part, entitled “Australian Cinema and the History Wars”, Collins and Davis lay out the central concepts and critical approach to their subject, and then focus on three different films made in 2002 – two features Black and White (Craig Lahiff), The Tracker (Rolf de Heer), and one documentary Black Chicks Talking (Leah Purcell) – in order to introduce the issues of historical remembrance, storytelling and myth, and cinema’s address to the audience as witness to the contemporary effects of terra nullius.
The second chapter is devoted to a discussion of the ways in which contemporary Australian cinema situates itself between appealing to a local and national audience and competing on the global stage as an international genre defined by the Hollywood blockbuster, a tension that is exemplified by the art-house appeal of Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil and the international success of iconic star Russell Crowe. Collins and Davis employ Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, 2001), The Dish (Rob Sitch, 2001) and Lantana (Ray Lawrence, 2001) as examples of post-Mabo films that negotiate the need to satisfy both local and international tastes by cannily employing commercial-industrial rather than 1970s cultural-interventionist strategies, but manage to retain an Australian “flavour”.
The conception of Australian cinema as an “international genre” through the appeal of nationally specific icons and their revision is further developed in chapter three: an exploration of two films with contemporary settings, Australian Rules (Paul Goldman, 2002) and Walking on Water (Tony Ayres, 2002), which were part of a 2002 partnership between the Adelaide Festival of the Arts and SBS Independent television (SBSi) to institute a broader conception of multicultural programming. Australian Rules deals with a football team that challenges the traditional white male’s exclusive code of mateship, and Walking on Water focuses on the urban elite that is nevertheless marked by the complexities of class, gender, ethnicity and sexuality. Collins and Davis see evidence in both films and their representations of specific communities of a rethinking of nationhood beyond a traditional Anglo-Celtic notion of identity. While both films capture a contemporary mood of social mobility and self-invention made possible by historical amnesia, they also contain a persistent element of loss and grief that indicate the powerful hold of past barriers of class and race that are not so neatly overcome.
In the final chapter of the first part, the authors focus on the award-winning biographical documentary, Mabo – Life of an Island Man (Trevor Graham, 1997), a film that traces Eddie Mabo’s struggle for land rights as an “intimate history” whose “viewing is not simply an act of social recognition but a rite of bereavement” (p. 64). The documentary embodies the challenges of representing Aboriginal lives and the fight for land and sovereignty that have traditionally not been recognised under terra nullius. For Collins and Davis, the film makes visible the tensions between a public acknowledgment of the end of terra nullius and the continued effacement of Aborigines as individuals, and the ongoing violence committed by non-recognition of the original trauma.
While the first section of the book attempts to cover a complex range of critical concerns to situate Australian cinema in its current multiplicity and outward-looking orientation, the second is more tightly focused on landscape and the complex history of indigenous-settler relations. According to Collins and Davis, contemporary cinema uses traditional landscapes to re-imagine the colonial past. Similarly, they argue that recent film narratives are not edenic, melancholic or heroic, but register the traumas of history. Three chapters focus on the emblematic settings of the desert landscape, the country and the city, offering cogent analyses of feature films and television series such as Oscar and Lucinda (Gillian Armstrong, 1998), Heaven’s Burning (Lahiff, 1997), The Last Days of Chez Nous (Armstrong, 1992), Yolngu Boy (Stephen Johnson, 2001), Heartland (ABC-TV, 1994), Cunnamulla (Dennis O’Rourke, 2001), The Castle (Rob Sitch, 1997), Vacant Possession (Margot Nash, 1995), Radiance (Rachel Perkins, 1998) and others.
In the third and final section, Collins and Davis elaborate on the central theoretical focus of the book – the politics of trauma, grief and mourning as necessary stages in white Australia’s development towards a recognition and redress of its own amnesia, violence, ongoing resistance to racial and ethnic integration, and nostalgia for a simple story of the past. They begin their discussion with Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002), the quintessential post-Mabo film, because it directly engages with the traumatic history of the Stolen Generation, the long practice of forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their families. The film about three Aboriginal girls’ escape from the white mission, their trek across the desert and return to their family attracted conflicting responses from both the left and right critics, became the subject of a television documentary, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (Darlene Johnson, 2002), and clearly hit a nerve in the history wars debate. Collins and Davis compare the film to earlier versions of the lost child trope in The Back of Beyond (John Heyer, 1954), Walkabout (Nicholas Roeg, 1971), and Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975), reading it as an inversion and revision of the white settler child story:
Unlike the tragic ending of Walkabout, where the Aboriginal boy rescues the girl and boy only to take his own life in despair, Rabbit-Proof Fence offers a powerful image of the Aboriginal survival of colonial violence and subjugation. In doing so, it inverts two centuries of the representation of Aboriginal people as a doomed or dying race, a group of people who have no place in modernity (p. 143).
Collins and Davis discuss in detail the paratextual elements of Rabbit-Proof Fence – director Phillip Noyce’s return home and directorial intentions, production, critical reception, and public response – in order to assess how this film might work as a form of “communal remembrance and mourning” and thus open up a dialogue on the story of the Stolen Generation.
The remaining two chapters concern two sets of films that offer different emotional responses to the legacy of a divided nation and its colonial past. Three coming-of-age films – Looking for Alibrandi (Kate Woods, 2000), Head On (Ana Kokkinos, 1998) and Beneath Clouds (Ivan Sen, 2002) – are examined for their representation of a new generation of young Australians, often from immigrant backgrounds, who express a desire to “escape history” and the social shame associated with racial or ethnic differences. By contrast, the films of the last chapter, Japanese Story (Sue Brooks, 2003) and a package of five short films supported by Film Australia and the Indigenous Unit of the Australian Film Commission Dreaming in Motion (2003), indicate for Collins and Davis examples of an “affective cinema”. This allows viewers to engage in the kind of sustained work of grief and mourning for the crimes and false myths of the past that the authors see as necessary for Eurocentric Australians to acknowledge and overcome their emotional and cultural insularity and to arrive at a true reconciliation with and reparation of past traumas.
Throughout the book, Collins and Davis make a strong case for the reverberating effect of the Mabo decision. The book’s greatest strength is its intertextual approach to cinema as a “public sphere” in which narratives of belonging, politics, aesthetics, geography, and psychic investment in national myths intersect and play out in complex ways. The authors’ arguments are most persuasive when applied to films that directly deal with Aboriginal-White relations and the issues of trauma, history, and memory, such as Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Tracker, Black and White, One Night the Moon (Perkins, 2001), Yolngu Boy, and Beneath Clouds, all films that could only have been made after Mabo. In this context, it is interesting that the authors do not discuss Aboriginal artist Tracey Moffatt’s bedevil (1993), made only a year after Mabo, a film that in many ways anticipates the concerns of the book, the haunting of history and landscape by past traumas, a discontinuous and multi-strand narrative that forces the viewer to confront his or her own complicity in historical amnesia. The film may have come too early in Australian cinema’s belated response to the effects of terra nullius.
The Mabo connections Collins and Davis make to other films are perhaps more oblique and elusive, indeed some readers may find them debatable. However, as the authors argue in their discussion of Japanese Story, contemporary Australia is undergoing a broader shift in cultural sensibilities, a greater openness to and awareness of Australia’s cross-cultural connections, which include internal race relations and transnational ties in the Asia-Pacific region.
The authors end on a cautiously optimistic note in their vision of contemporary Australian cinema as a public arena where other stories about the past and present can be told, where mourning the past and envisioning a different future and identity are a continuing process:
[T]here may be ways in which the time after Mabo and the time after colonialism (for Indigenous and settler peoples alike) are currently being experienced as mimetic spaces for inventing the future, creatively sustained by a keen sense of departing from (but not forgetting) a traumatic colonial history (p. 186).
Whether films in the post-Mabo period are indeed a forum for collective mourning and reparation is an open question because it is hard to measure the long-term and transformative effect of films on the viewing public’s consciousness.
Overall, the book is a provocative and timely look at the ongoing struggles to define a more inclusive vision of Australian national identity. Clearly written and accessible to a wide readership, Australian Cinema after Mabo will be fascinating for anyone interested in new approaches to Australian cinema and for those scholars generally engaged in questions of nationalism and culture, cultural geography, and trauma, memory and history.
Australian Cinema after Mabo, by Felicity Collins and Therese Davis, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004.
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Australian Cinema in the 1990s, by Ian Craven (ed.), Frank Cass, London and Portland, 2001.
Australian National Cinema, by Tom O’Regan, Routledge, London and New York, 1996.
Contemporary Australian Cinema: An Introduction, Jonathan Rayner, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2000.