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Cultural Diversity in
Australian Independent Film

Ten Years After, Ten Years Older
(Anna Kannava)
Any decidedly placed idea concerning cultural difference risks informing itself with the very act it is constantly railing against: closure. And so, in titling this piece Alike/Unalike, I hope to outline the various forces at play in the domain of non-Anglo films and film-makers; the differences and the similarities. For difference is the fuel of separatist philosophies, whilst similarity points the way towards reconciliation and equality.

My focus will be on independent film (shorts, docos, experimental film, some features, made by independents, students and 'underground' filmmakers) because, despite Australia's consciousness of multiculturalism, there is surprisingly little non-Anglo mainstream film produced. Just as women feature-film directors are scarce (Gillian Armstrong and Jane Campion being two of the few), there is a nationality imbalance as well. The main exception, Paul Cox, is more independent/art-house than mainstream, along with Sophia Turkiewicz and Rivka Hartman. Others, like John Tatoulis or Philippe Mora, are fully immersed in the mainstream, but one wonders if they have retained any inherent, special difference. Nadia Tass, for example, shortened her name, and her real-life Greek friend/inspiration-for-a-film became Malcolm.

If there is to be any increase in the number of ethnic mainstream feature-film directors, it will come from the younger, 'independent' brigade. Already there are signs to suggest this, as a number of highly regarded film-makers have just made their debut feature, or are about to: Luigi Acquisto, Alesksi Vellis, Tracey Moffatt, Solrun Hoass.

Thematically, mainstream film has fared slightly better. Apart from the obvious (mainly stereotypical) character here or there, a number of films have dealt directly with immigration and assimilation themes in particular. Superior to Michael Pattinson's entertainments Moving Out and Street Hero, there is a trio of films from the 70s: Promised Woman (directed by Tom Cowan), Cathy's Child (Donald Crombie) and Kostas (Paul Cox). Two of these three films feature imported Greek actor Takis Emmanuel, prefiguring the co-production days of the 80s. Co-production films are interesting because they extend themselves thematically from assimilation (clash of the other culture with Australian culture) to acceptance (the other culture as a given): Island (Paul Cox), The Prisoner of St. Petersburg (Ian Pringle). These films give more directly the full flavour of the uniqueness and specialness of the other culture, but they are barely "Australian" films.

We therefore have to look to independent film to provide cultural diversity. For in the independent film area, of course, commercial pressures are eased, allowing for not only a greater volume of multicultural issues, but for the description and exploration of such to be far more genuine and interesting. Needless to say, there is also a greater number of non-Anglo-Celtic artists given the opportunity to express themselves in this field.

Leading the way is the output from the graduates of Swinburne Institute of Technology's film and television course. Many short dramas have been produced in recent years dealing with the migrant experience in particular. The films are noteworthy for either their gentle, observational feel (Spaventapasseri by Luigi Acquisto, Adventures in Paradiso by Piero Colli) or their cathartic, emotional power (Boss Boy by George Viscas, Il Frutto Del Nostro Lavoro by Elvira Vacirca). All the films are beautiful statements of integration and acceptance in the face of loss and displacement.

The same theme of creating a harmony between different cultures is found in the work of Australian Film Television and Radio School graduate Monica Pellizzari. Her award-winning Rabbit on the Moon, despite its conventional and showy style, is a tremendously moving account of a little Italian girl's growing up in a mixed environment. Like Spaventapasseri, Rabbit is shot in black and white and set in the 60s, facilitating the sense of loss and change. Pellizzari's other films, Veto Nero and No, No Nonno, revolve around older people and are set in current time.

The Italian/Greek experience finds its most striking breakdown, however, in Ettore Siracusa's Natura Morta. An elderly man living in Essendon attends an exhibition of photographs of Sicily and then goes home and peacefully dies to the sound of his grandchildren playing in the back yard. It is a sublime film, filled with what one may term "grace". In this sense, it is more mature than those films dealing only with issues of racial disharmony, cultural identity, etc. Siracusa has also made The Occupant, with and about writer Peter Lyssiotis, and is currently making a film titled Home Scenario - Italians at Home.

Non-European culture is much scarcer in Australian film. The influx of Asian groups has resulted so far in only Ziyin Wang's New Gold Mountain which is about the trials of a Chinese student in Melbourne. In time there will be more films by and/or about Asians, and with it, hopefully, a greater expression and understanding of the rich, mystical nature of Eastern culture in general. (Laleen Jayamanne's A Song of Ceylon hopefully points the way.)

Then there is the question of Aboriginal culture. Not placed under the multicultural rubric generally, this indigenous culture is for all intents and purposes a "different" culture to the dominant Australian one. Aborigine Tracey Moffat has come to the fore in recent times as a talented independent film-maker. Whilst Nice Coloured Girls is a smart-arsey depiction of the manipulation of a sugardaddy, Night Cries is more humane and more understanding of tensions and pain in relationships. Then there is Essie Coffey's documentary My Survival as an Aboriginal.

And the peoples of Indonesia, New Guinea, etc. - are they a part of Australian multiculturalism? For the record, in any case, Australian documentary film makers have attempted sincere expressions of these peoples' cultures, in films such as Celso and Cora (Gary Kildea), The Sharkcallers of Kontu (Dennis O'Rourke) and Joe Leahy's Neighbours (Bob Connolly/Robin Anderson).

Going down the production ladder to experimental film and personal, essayistic film forms, interesting things begin to happen. The constraints of narrative and documentary disappear, and the films become deeply personal and probing. Anna Kannava's Ten Years After, Ten Years Older, for example, is a document of the film-maker's visit home after ten years in Australia. The same impulse informs Dirk de Bruyn's Homecomings, which is a beautifully casual diary film. De Bruyn (apart from a further personal film Conversations with my Mother, is primarily a materialist experimental film-maker, his cultural background not really playing a part in his work (the same applies to two other major experimentalists, Paul Winkler and Nick Ostrovskis.)

One other cross-cultural essay film needs to be mentioned here, by David Perry, who is another committed experimental film-maker, and who is purely Australian - the remarkable, outreaching Letter to Russia.

The case of this film is not unusual. There are other films informed by a strong sense of non-Australian culture made by Australians - for example, Brian McKenzie's Winter's Harvest (about Italian families slaughtering pigs) and Georgia Wallace-Crabbe's Holzwege Wood Roads/Wrongways (about an imprisoned German war criminal). By the same token, in recent times there have been non-Australian film makers tackling distinctly Australian themes: Pauline Chan with The Space Between the Door and the Floor, Bill Mousoulis with Between Us, and Kay Pavlou with The Killing of Angelo Tsakos. In the latter film, which is a powerful examination of the police killing of a youth, the question of nationality plays no part at all.

And going down to the bottom rung of the production ladder cheap, "no-budget" work being done on Super-8 things become more complex. Here there is no reliance on conventional forms, making the films either purely visual or wildly polymorphous. The work of George Goularas, Mark Zenner and Heinz Boeck is therefore quite void of specific cultural-difference themes, yet one still senses that their background being different has influenced their work, giving their films a European "feel", if nothing else.

No doubt there are differences between Australian culture and, say, German or Indian cultures, and one could generalise and list those differences. To then submit those differences to an evaluative categorisation, however, would be a tenuous and arrogant venture. As I have already stated, to raise something is to necessarily suppress something else. In terms of different cultures, it would be (for the minorities) like fighting racism with racism. The situation, in any case, is that the profoundest themes are unavoidably universal and timeless.

Still, cultural diversity is crucial. Film-makers may be unalike (in terms of cultural background) but they are also alike (in terms of their value). In the area of independent film, there are a number of films which deal with multicultural themes and/or give non-Anglo film-makers the opportunity to express themselves. One hopes that mainstream film can take up on this lead, because, from all apparent evidence, it remains sorely imbalanced.

Bill Mousoulis April 1991
This article was first published in Art Link, Vol 11, No. 1, Autumn 1991.