When thinking about the history of Australian cinema, many people might associate 1994 with only The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott) or Muriel’s Wedding (P. J. Hogan). However, it is Alkinos Tsilimidos’ Everynight… Everynight that has lingered in my memory. The film is a rugged, low budget adaptation of Ray Mooney’s play about Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison in the early 1970s. It follows Dale (David Field), a young man awaiting trial, who is sent to the gaol’s infamous H Division for disciplinary reasons. Like other prisoners, he breaks rocks with a sledgehammer and is subject to vicious, arbitrary beatings by the guards (including being raped with a truncheon upon arrival). After being charged with a minor infraction, he removes his clothes and declares that he has “resigned” from the system that has incarcerated him. Eventually he convinces the other prisoners that this form of intellectual disobedience will enable them to successfully resist the regime that dominates their every movement.
One of the compelling elements of Everynight… Everynight is its factual basis. Dale is based on Mooney’s friend, Christopher Dale Flannery, who later became better known as a contract killer (“Mr Rent-a-Kill”). His initiation into H Division in the film draws from a real-life ordeal that reputedly lasted seven hours. This systemic brutality was known colloquially as “The Bash”; it became the focus of a 1973 judicial inquiry. While the film is very much an actors’ piece in keeping with its theatrical origins, its stark visual style complements the grim narrative through black-and-white cinematography, static camerawork and extensive use of shadows. Tsimilidos creates a bleak look that is as unrelenting and oppressive as the prison routine it represents.
The most important moment for me in the film comes after Dale’s decision to ignore his surroundings, but before the prisoners’ defiant taunting of the most sadistic guard, Berriman (Bill Hunter), during the final act. Dale is seen in his cell, imploring his fellow prisoners to also “resign”, but also berating them for failing to do so. In the first shot he comically accuses them of giving him fleas (because they are “dogs”, or informers). In the second shot, he outlines a scenario in which he will be murdered by the guards for his dissent, but it will be made to look like suicide. In the third shot, Dale lies on the floor, pleading under the cell door. His voice is barely a whisper: “Resign. Resign.” Why does this moment resonate? Partly it is because this lonely, abject figure seems to have reached his nadir. Dale’s previous attempts to physically resist and then comply with his tormentors have failed: the violence and injustice have continued. His latest tactic seems entirely futile, a feeble gesture that seems destined to end in his resignation, his acceptance of utter defeat.
Yet isn’t the fragility of Dale’s tactic also the source of its strength? The guards’ power resides in their ability to discipline the prisoners through a framework of rules and procedures that are impossible to comply with: this is surveillance par excellence. Any departure from the norm, whether accidental or deliberate, provides an opportunity for exemplary punishment. Dale’s exhortations to resign may seem merely rhetorical, but he understands that recognition of any aspect of the penal system is tantamount to obedience and complicity. His power emanates from his simple refusal to be made a subject of and by this structure. Once he persuades the other prisoners to join him, the power relations shift markedly. When the prisoners collectively harass Berriman verbally from their cells, he becomes powerless to impose order; the lunatics are in charge of the asylum.
My allusions to the work of Michel Foucault are, of course, intentional. Readers may recall that Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (John Hillcoat, 1988), which conspicuously draws on Foucault’s highly influential Discipline and Punish (1). In my view, however, Everynight… Everynight develops a far more successful exploration of the issues that concerned Foucault. And while Ghosts may be the better known film, for me Everynight… Everynight belongs to an alternative history of Australian cinema, forming part of a counter-memory if you like. Confronting and idiosyncratic films may have had a higher profile over the last decade of Australian cinema, but they seemed harder to locate when Everynight… Everynight appeared. Yet while 1994 was the year of Muriel, Priscilla and Lightning Jack (Simon Wincer), there were also other stories besides the dominant account of quirky comedies. For example, Eternity (Lawrence Johnston) and Only the Brave (Ana Kokkinos), both wonderful films about marginalised figures, provided a tonic for those who had overdosed on confectionery. Gaining access to this unconventional cinematic archive, though, perhaps required a small act of defiance, a silent whisper in which one pledged to “resign” from the prevailing cultural discourse. This is how and why I remember Everynight … Everynight.