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SIGNALS AMONGST THE NOISE

By Hunter Cordaiy

This column, written during the 44th Sydney Film Festival, uses that important cultural event in our region as a starting point for a continuing discussion on the relationship between cinema and national identity.

As all the world's voices seem to be on the screen in Sydney during the Festival it is important to also remember that any nation has many 'worlds' within its borders and moving image is the most accessible platform for those worlds to find their identity or voice. Their success in doing so will reflect on the capacity of the film industry to provide creative outlets for a range of social and political constituencies which need to find a means of expression.

Access to moving image culture (and production) is determined by its structure in the broadest sense - resource ownership, educational opportunities, audience acceptance - and these typically have an historical curve to their development. This is amply confirmed by George Millerís 40,000 Years of Dreaming, made as part of a BFI series for the centenary of cinema, and premiered at the 1997 Sydney Film Festival.

The film traces the development of Australian cinema through the number of 'voices' it has presented in the first 100 years. Miller's position is that cinema is a form of public 'dreaming' and that the songlines of aboriginal society are mirrored in the songs or voices of cinema as the expression of a collective (national) identity.

Whilst this doesn't quite hold together as a theory (it is more pertinent to see cinema as the latest extension of a series of technologies which have enabled collective expression, and indeed film is the technology most susceptible to change for the sake of survival in the face of public response) it does make a simple hook on which to hang the notion that film speaks to a variety of social constituencies and in that way can be used to begin to define a nation.40,000 Years of Dreaming looks historically at the emerging themes of Australian cinema - the landscape, bushrangers, war, heroes, comedians, girls, class, sexuality, immigration, and urban society. The topics chosen parallel the evolution of a sense of an Australian society in the simplest terms. Of course the complexity of a rapidly emerging nation such as Australia is reflected across all the arts, and Miller's film rarely acknowledges the existence of painting, fiction or poetry as rich sources for film narratives.

For example The Man From Snowy River ( 1982 [another] George Miller) was an epic poem before it was as a film, and the seminal Picnic at Hanging Rock was published in 1901, over 70 years before in 1975 it secured Peter Weir's prominent position in the new wave of Australian directors. . These texts come to the screen with an existing set of understandings and meanings, which are often altered when adapted for cinema. That does not mean, however, that their social concerns and audience empathy are always transferable across generations.

There is also an important distinction to be made between the historical 'updating' of literature by contemporary Australian cinema, and the voices of original screenwriters. As an industry we trust our directors more than our writers, and the apprenticeships of screenwriters has tended to be submerged within that of the director. This will need to be changed if the industry is to be considered as mature.

What Miller's film describes is the evolution of an industry and latterly, a Renaissance in the best sense of the word - a genuine rebirth of creativity which has helped define our idea of ourselves as citizens and individuals.

It is hard to imagine now the impact of the premiere screenings of Picnic At Hanging Rock, or the first Mad Max (George Miller, 1979) visions of Australia's past and future far beyond the static oil paintings of the national galleries or the narrow history with which that generation had been educated. They began the process of constructing a national identity on the screen, and now, we are faced with the emergence of a second generation of film-makers, (Samantha Lang's presence at Cannes this year is the clearest signal so far) and they give an immediate and fresh impetus to the industry.

As production resources and the skills mature the Australian industry is structurally changing into a more studio based business along the American model. This provides an unique opportunity to broaden the subjects presented on our screen. (There is even a forum at the Sydney Film Festival which takes on this generation gap.)

The visual quotes in Miller's film highlight some of the new territories which the next generation of film-makers should be encouraged to explore - cinematic studies of landscape such as shown in Sons of Matthew (Charles Chauvel, 1949), or Back of Beyond (John Heyer, 1954), should now encompass ecology; curiosity about migrants as seen in They're a Weird Mob (Michael Powell, 1966) or Silver City (Sophia Turkiewicz, 1984) should develop into films which show a variety of migrant voices and their specific stories over several generations; the complex problems of aboriginal peoples as in Jedda (Charles Chauvel 1955) or The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (Fred Schepisi, 1978) should evolve into a series of films made by aboriginal directors which reveal a perspective on Australian experience that white film industry has not been capable of expressing. (The recent compilation, From Sand to Celluloid, is an impressive contribution to this process.) Convergence of delivery systems will also support this diversity though television will have to loosen its narrow programming structures if it is to take full advantage of what cinema has to offer. There are some hopeful signs - Struck by Lightning (Jerzy Domaradzki, 1991) inspired a drama series on SBS featuring down syndrome actors, and The Heart Break Kid (Michael Jenkins, 1993) continues to have a life as a drama series Heart Break High set in a multi-cultural suburban high school.

The emerging second wave of Australian film-making will bring to our screens a new perspective on our sense national identity and social directions, or as Miller's film concludes, new 'signals amongst the noise'. To fail at this crucial moment, to take the path of least resistance - imitation of the studio system without a critical edge in adapting it to local conditions - would be to lose sight of how many voices are yet to be heard on Australian screens.

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The Well's director, Samantha Lang, above

Says Cordaiy: "It is hard to imagine now the impact of the premiere screenings of Picnic At Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)[below], or the first Mad Max (George Miller, 1979) visions of Australia's past and future far beyond the static oil paintings of the national galleries or the narrow history with which that generation had been educated. They began the process of constructing a national identity on the screen, and now, we are faced with the emergence of a second generation of film-makers, (Samantha Lang's presence at Cannes this year is the clearest signal so far) and they give an immediate and fresh impetus to the industry."


Picnic at Hanging Rock


The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith

". . . the complex problems of aboriginal peoples as in Jedda (Charles Chauvel 1955) or The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (Fred Schepisi, 1978)[above] should evolve into a series of films made by aboriginal directors which reveal a perspective on Australian experience that white film industry has not been capable of expressing. (The recent compilation, From Sand to Celluloid, is an impressive contribution to this process.). . . "







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