What does it mean to be an Australian? Like some other countries, Australia was colonised by the British for many years. How difficult is it to build a sense of identity in a post-colonial context, when most of the land’s history is rooted in another country’s culture?
1. Post-colonial identity and the Australian New Wave:
The general idea of a post-colonial identity based on similarities and differences to the British Empire is forwarded by the Irish author, Gerry Smyth, who sees this as a recurrent phenomenon in Irish literature[i]. As a post-colonial country, Ireland has been and still is in a constant quest for identity. Who are the real Irish?
This theory could be applied to many post-colonial countries and especially Australia and its film industry. In the 1970s, Australian cinema tried to offer a new image of the national identity: “the film industry became part of a semi-official project of nation formation in the 1970s”[ii]. The Australian New Wave tried to show to the rest of the world the new face of Australians, a face as different as possible from its European origins.
In 1970, the Australian federal government helped to finance the development of the cinema industry with the “The Australian Film Development Corporation Bill” and the creation of the Australian Film Television and Radio School in 1972. According to Benito Cao: “The revival began when the Federal Government decided to fund Australian films as part of an effort to assert the nation’s cultural independence, transforming cinema into the cultural flagship of Australia”[iii]. This lead to a number of low budget movies, in which the sexy, gory, ugly and scary prevailed[iv]. One of the goals of this cinema was very probably to build an image of the Australian as different to the sophisticated English man, an image of a “confident nation ready to break free from the cultural dependence from England”[v].
On the other hand, other movies of the new wave do not at all picture the Australian in this way. Yet these movies, (far better in content and aesthetic) also had the goal of picturing Australians in terms of differences to the British, underlying at the same time the similarities between the two cultures. Such could be said of movies as Gallipoli or Picnic at Hanging Rock.
2. Rejecting and Affirming British Roots:
Both Gallipoli and Picnic at Hanging Rock tell stories tied to British history. Weir consciously chose historical periods that are important both for the Australian and the British. Picnic happens just a year before Federation (in 1901). Half of the characters appear to be British, and the influence of the empire is still very present. In the boarding school for instance (which is already a symbol of British domination), pictures of the Queen are consciously shown to the viewers.
In Gallipoli the historical period is even more important. It pictures the courage of Australian soldiers helping the British army during First World War. Weir chose here a perfect subject to link the British and the Australian, even after independence.
The characters also are constructed to underline the differences and the similarities between the two cultures. In both films, the main characters are young. In Gallipoli, the youth finally dies for a cause he does not even know. According to Jonathan Rayner in his book The Films of Peter Weir: “Isolating the characters from their circumstances in a form of dramatic irony (by rending them ignorant of the causes and horrors of the war) strengthens the sense of the lost generation’s innocence and the growth of the national awareness since the end of Imperial obedience”[vi].
In Picnic, the characters illustrate new Australia versus the old Empire. Mrs Appleyard, the old British schoolmistress is the opposite of the young and beautiful Miranda who disappear forever. During a school trip, Miranda escapes from her dominant mistress, climbs the “hanging rock” and never comes back.
Could this be a metaphor of the ties between Australia and England? Could Australia, as a young country full of dreams, be able to be completely free from its links to England? Maybe Miranda voluntary committed suicide in this authentic Australian landscape to cut her ties with the rules and authority of Europe. As the swagman in the unofficial national anthem “Waltzing Matilda” (by Banjo Patterson) she maybe preferred to die rather than being caught and stuck forever with the authority.Waltzing Matilda, unofficial Australian Anthem sang by the country singer Slim Dusty
Both Gallipoli and Picnic pictures Australia as a rural land. The characters are people from a rural background, from what could be seen as ‘real Australia’. In Picnic, nature finally gets the girls and never gives them back to society. Nature’s revenge upon humans figures as if the land was the primary essence of Australia, and not its inhabitants. By taking away three women from the boarding school, the land seems to have taken back the girls who are the closest to Australia, and to leave the old British stunned by their inefficacity.
Nature slowly takes the girls. Watch until the very end!
In Gallipoli, Weir also emphasizes the beauty of Australian landscape. As Marek Haltof says, “[landscape in Gallipoli] typifies the ‘real Australia’ and establishes the differences between Australian and European culture”[vii]. One of the scenes shows Frank and Archie meeting a man in the desert on a camel (which is very surprising to a foreign viewer).Archie and Frank lost in the desert – meeting a man with a camel
3. Mocking the British:
Weir has no animosity against the British. He is aware they have a shared history, and a shared culture. Yet he gently mocks the British and their habits, which becomes a way to promote the Australian culture. In both films, the British are seen as completely useless when facing important problems. In Gallipoli, British officers drink their teas while Australian troops are massacred by the Turkish. In Picnic, Weir also plays on the cliché of the British having their cups of tea. While the girls are still missing, the policemen (who probably represent the British rules) take pictures of themselves as if they were really trying to look for the girls whereas in fact, they are just having tea.
… And ridiculous:
Even when they are trying, the British are still inefficient. In Picnic, Michael, the young British boy wishes very hard to find the girls, but he cannot, and this is probably because of his Britishnness, which does not allow him to go very far on the rock. He is not as strong as the Australian boy (Albert); he does not drink wine from the bottle and he gets hurt while climbing the rock.
The young English teacher who hides herself behind her piano when she is scared is ridiculed too; both in her accent in her way of talking (she has a strong posh accent).
Frank and his friends in Gallipoli take pleasure in mocking the British troops in Egypt, by wearing the same clothes as them. For the viewers, the British become the “monocled and moustached cynics[viii]” to laugh at and to blame for the death of Archie.
In these two films, Weir has built an Australian identity based on the ties between England and Australia. He does not reject these ties but he creates an image of the Australian by showing both the cultural and historical links with England and their differences. He constructs Australianness by comparing it to his vision of Britishnness. He probably gives a better image to the world of the Australian than what was spread by a majority of the movies of the new wave[iv]
[i] See Gerry Smyth’s introduction, p.4
[ii] See Benito Cao, p.1
[iii] See Benito Cao, p.3
[iv] To have more examples of movies made in Australia after 1970, see the documentary “Not Quite Hollywood” directed by Mark Hartley.
[v] See Benito Cao, p.3
[vi] See Jonathan Rayner’s idea of innocence and dramatic irony in The Films of Peter Weir on p. 121
[vii] See Marek Haltof article on the Australian identity in Gallipoli, with a closer look at the paragraph on landscapes.
[viii] See Marek Haltof article on the Australian identity in Gallipoli, with a closer look at the paragraph on the “anti-British feeling”.
[ix] To have more examples of movies made in Australia after 1970, see the documentary “Not Quite Hollywood” directed by Mark Hartley.
Cao, Benito. “Beyond Empire: Australian Cinematic Identity in the 21st century. Studies in Autraliasian cinema, 6:3, pp. 239-250. 2012. Web. 16/12/13
Haltof, Marek. “In Quest Of Self-Identity. Gallipoli, Mateship, and the Construction of Australian National Identity” Journal Of Popular Film and Television 21.1 (1993): 27. Communication and Mass Media Complete. Web. 23/11/13
Rayner, Jonathan. The Films of Peter Weir; 2nd edition. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003. Print.
Smyth, Gerry. The Novel and The Nation. London: Pluto Press, 1997. Print.
Not Quite Hollywood. Dir. Mark Hartley. Madman Entertainment, 2008. Film.