Australian Identity in Film Essay

The pursuit of a fixed definition to the Australian identity has been a controversial journey, and the identity remains as elusive as ever today. For that reason, the theme of the 2009 Brisbane Film Festival will be Australian Identity in Film – A Retrospective, as we hope to explore the ways in which Australian feature films have helped shape the complexities and diversity of Australia’s culture and identity. In particular, the festival will explore the diverse representations of homosexuals in Australian film and how this has influenced society’s perception and acceptance.

For many years, Australian film has formed a consistent stereotype for men; that is, the typically macho outback Bushman. He was a strong, tough figure, albeit harmless, who in time moved from the dangerous bush to the footy field, accompanied by a beer and a token Sheila. However, by the 1990s Australia was somewhat obsessed with broadening depictions of Australian society, and began to challenge this stereotype by putting homosexuals into the spotlight. With the emergence of films such as Strictly Ballroom and Bootmen, diversity in Australian masculinity had become apparent in film.

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Two films in particular that exemplified Australia’s developing acceptance of homosexuals are The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and The Sum Of Us. Although these two films differ markedly in their portrayals of homosexuality, both promote the theme of accepting alternate definitions of homosexuality and sexual minorities. The releases of both films were revolutionary, and coincided with Sydney’s first Mardi Gras; a festival for homosexual people.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), directed by Stephan Elliot, follows three eccentric drag artists as they journey through the Australian desert on an invitation to perform at the Alice Springs Casino. On the way ‘Tick’, ‘Felicia’ and ‘Bernadette’ face issues of prejudice and intolerance. The film directly confronts the Crocodile Dundee ideology of the heterosexual outback male, as these same types of men are often depicted in Priscilla as aggressive, violent and extremely narrow-minded. The film also insists upon the naturalness of its characters, despite their ‘unnatural’ appearance.

The Sum of Us (1994), directed by Kevin Dowling and Geoff Burton, is about a sporty, beer drinking, homosexual bloke Jeff and his understanding heterosexual father Harry, who share an extremely open relationship. The film deals with their battle against an un-accepting society. The Australian identity was indeed characterised in both films, as they show the range of homosexuality which is now acceptable in Australian society. The scene that best demonstrates this theme in Priscilla is the one in which an Indigenous man invites the three drag artists to visit his camp, where they put on a spontaneous show.

After initial reservations, the camp responds enthusiastically, symbolising the mutual love for music and dance shared by both cultures. This is the director’s subversion to ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ definitions; the audience expects the Aborigines, as ‘naturals’, to reject the ‘unnatural’ appearance of the drag queens, as society often does. Therefore, when the Aborigines openly accept the drag artists, the terms become meaningless, and the two marginalised cultures collaborate in a poignant, cheerful anthem to survival.

The incongruity of the drag queen’s extreme aesthetic of artificiality and ‘unnaturalness’ juxtaposed with the natural, barren desert landscape works in surprising harmony and creates visually outstanding scenes. The ‘unnatural’, dramatic characters and the vast, natural land works so well together that it further supports the theme of accepting what might seem ‘unnatural’ to Australian culture, therefore influencing Australia’s view of homosexuals and, in effect, shaping our nation’s identity.

Directors Dowling and Burton manipulate the elements of film in The Sum of Us to demonstrate a different version of homosexuality. The scene in which the homosexual representation is most evident is one of the first scenes, where Harry and his son are having dinner. Jeff displays the defining characteristics of the typical Aussie bloke with which Australian men can identify; aside from the fact he is getting ready to go out to the pub to meet a new man. The pair break away from the stereotype early in the scene when Jeff wears a napkin so as not to spill anything on his shirt.

The directors cleverly manipulate the use of language to suggest that, despite the fact that they both break the usual mould, the characters are still Australian; one of the first things Jeff says directly to the camera is a casual “I’m rooted”, meaning exhausted. Jeff and Harry’s relationship is portrayed more like a friendship, filled with acceptance, love and laughter. The relationship is made realistic through frequent arguments about insignificant things, which are always quickly resolved. There are no non-diegetic sound effects in the background; the mood is set by silence.

This is a tool used by the directors to emphasize the theme that if the world could accept homosexuals as freely as Harry does with his son, it would be a quieter, more harmonious place. Harry talks openly to the audience of Jeff’s sexuality, as well as asking his son questions about his love life, questions that any father would ask their straight son about a girlfriend. Unlike the exaggerated homosexuality in Priscilla, The Sum of Us chose to represent homosexuals in the stereotypical view of an Australian male.

Also unlike the drag artists in Priscilla, Jeff is surrounded by a sense of acceptance, togetherness and love; this is depicted through body language, facial expression and the mannerisms of the characters. The men sit at either end of the tidy dinner table, possibly the directors’ way of indicating the division of the two sexualities and the meaningless of it. The use of direct address to the audience runs the risk of becoming somewhat artificial, however due to the characters’ familiarity in their Aussie dialect it is successful in making the audience feel as if they are intimately involved in the scene.

This technique is unconventional and breaks away from the traditional idea of a realist dramatic comedy, which could be seen as the film breaking away from the mould of traditional cinematic depictions of homosexuals. Dowling and Burton used casting to illustrate their representation of homosexuals. Russel Crowe is typically macho; he’s athletic, honest and blunt. This makes him the driving force of the theme, as he is homosexual yet is still the conventional Australian male. This interpretation of dinner is very Australian in that it is honest with its own simple refinement.

The contrasts within the scene of homosexual and heterosexual males, both stereotypically Australian, clearly indicate the sexual minorities becoming acceptable in Australia. Although Australian film hasn’t completely let go of its footy-playing, beer-drinking, singlet-wearing male, as society progresses and values change new characters begin to emerge. The drag queens Tick, Felicia and Bernadette, and Jeff, the homosexual Aussie bloke, represent a revolutionary element of our Australia identity; the recognition and acceptance of all types of homosexuals.


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