By Benjamin McKay
As part of the year-long My.Oz festivities (that celebrate 50 years of friendship between Malaysia and Australia), a selection of recent films from Australia were screened over two days to full houses at Suria KLCC’s Tanjung Golden Village Cinemas. It was Malaysia’s own Australian Film Festival, and I was particularly curious to see how these films might resonate amongst cinemagoers here, and what elements in these films spoke to a sense of communion between the two countries.
The Festival opened with a screening of Darren Ashton’s bitingly amusing mockumentary “Razzle Dazzle” (2007) that stars some notable Australian performers – including Kerry Armstrong, Ben Miller, Nadine Farner and Denise Roberts.
Set against the competitive world of children’s dance ensembles, “Razzle Dazzle” explores a range of issues associated with contemporary Australian life with satire and irony. A delightfully awkward build-up to a performance by the members of Mr Johnathon’s Dance Academy, one such dance ensemble, sees them ultimately dancing in a triumph of political incorrectness as the young performers “liberate”, onstage, the women of Afghanistan. While not to be taken seriously, the film does touch upon the rather naïve worldview held by many Australians towards those different than themselves.
Satirical mockumentaries can often seem slightly cruel and judgmental, but Ashton’s “Razzle Dazzle” is, at heart, a sincere and affectionate look at quirky characters. The pushy stage mother that Kerry Armstrong brings to the screen with panache is a figure of horror, but the actress does not play the role as a cliché; we sense, hidden beneath the surface, a three-dimensional woman who has the capacity for unrealised goodness.
Malaysians in the audience seemed to enjoy the manner in which the film gently and affectionately satirizes its subject matter, and I was pleased that, here in Kuala Lumpur, there was an audible recognition of the many amusing idiosyncrasies that shape contemporary Australian identity. Both nations have heightened senses of irony; the choice of “Razzle Dazzle” as a Festival opener was inspired.
Peter Cattaneo’s “Opal Dream” (2005), set in the outback opal-mining centre of South Australia’s Coober Pedy, concerns two young children and the impact that they have on a whole community. The film is a morality tale told with plenty of heartfelt sentiment, and while its story – of a narrow-minded community finally redeeming itself through the example set to them by young people – has been done before, we’ve rarely seen it done with such grace and individuality. The idiosyncrasies that are apparent in the characterisations of “Razzle Dazzle” are again explored here. Deft performances by Vince Colosimo, the beguiling Jacqueline McKenzie and the two young stars of the film, Sapphire Boyce and Christian Byers, help make this a surprise treat of the Festival program.
Heavy doses of the laconic humour that seem to permeate even the most serious of Australian films are apparent Rob Sitch’s “The Dish” (2000). Based on the true story of Australia’s involvement with the Apollo XI moon landing in 1969, this film looks back to a period in national life that seems quite innocent and endearing now. The relationship between Australia and the Unites States is nicely touched upon, through some gently paced performances and a liberal smattering of warm humour. Sam Neill gives a career defining performance. The earnest pomp and circumstance of small-town Australia is dealt with intelligently – and the film’s art direction helps to recreate the era with nostalgia and wit. I was pleased to have had an opportunity to see this film again.
But the great find of the Festival was Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr’s astonishing “Ten Canoes” (2006). In narrating a tale from northern Australia’s indigenous past, this film has, in interesting ways, stretched the narrative capacity of the medium itself. The convoluted, slowly paced oral storytelling tradition – so beautifully voiced by the now iconic David Gulpipil – is married to the formal elements of the work. This is, quite simply, a beautiful achievement – and, for Malaysians, it provided a rare and captivating glimpse into the treasures of Australian indigenous culture.
The picture’s effective demonstration of the wit and humour of indigenous Australians was evident in the warm reception that the film received here. In its unique rendering of indigenous Australian life, the film’s ultimate success is its revelation of universal truths about humanity. “Ten Canoes” was a truly wonderful achievement to screen in honour of the friendship between Australia and Malaysia.
On a less satisfying level, Ray Lawrence’s “Jindabyne” (2006) shows great promise – but it is promise largely unrealised. Adapting Raymond Carver’s ethereal and haunting short story “So Much Water So Close To Home” to the Australian rural context is not without possibilities, but I fear that the added moral and ethical tone of the film, when it treats issues of black-white relations in Australia, ultimately adds little to that all important subject. A group of fishermen on a weekend retreat discover the body of a dead woman – an Aborigine – in a river. They proceed with their fishing trip, and do nothing until the trip is over. The film then charts the moral outrage and confusion that this case prompts in the community from which these men hail.
Australian cinema does need to deal thematically with the sad legacies of hate and misunderstanding that have so often marred relations between indigenous and nonindigenous Australians. But the manner in which “Jindabyne” does so left me cold. There is a desolation at the heart of the film that does nothing to explore any sort of true redemption. The ending – when members of the fishing party and their families finally attend an indigenous ceremony of mourning for the dead girl – looks contrived, and the lack of a resolution at the film’s end – it fails to resolve the fate of the girl’s killer – left the audience feeling cheated. I also felt that the manner in which the camera lingered on the dead girl’s body objectified her in ways that surely must be at odds with the supposed message of the film as it later unfolds.
“Jindabyne” did, however, generate some lively after-screening commentary from many of the Malaysians in the audience that I spoke to – and such discourse is, of course, a good thing. A number of people told me about their overall experience of a day watching films from Australia; the consensus was that, while they told Australian stories in uniquely Australian ways, they also dealt with issues of humanity that reverberate universally.
That so many of the films also celebrated humour and irony – a particular connection between the peoples of Australia and Malaysia – made the selection of these films a fine tribute to 50 years of friendship between the two countries. Sharing mutual visions of who we are, in the spirit of seeking similarities and recognising the values we may all have in common is a fitting way to mark diplomatic relationships, and I only trust that such events will continue to take place long after the Merdeka year celebrations are over.
And one last hope: “Ten Canoes” needs to be screened more widely, here. That it has received the nod from censors is a good thing, so this is my plea: that this major work gets seen by more Malaysians.
First Published: 14.08.2007 on Kakiseni