Nitram

A Love Letter to the Australian Films of 2021 and an Announcement for the Future

They say that limitation breeds creativity. They’re not wrong.

A year ago, I made the decision that from January 2020 onwards, I would only write reviews for Australian films. After a health scare that continues to terrify me like nothing else, and leaves doctors more than a little perplexed, I became a little bit obsessed with the notion of having a ‘legacy’. Call it ego, call it arrogance, but I have a desire to leave a mark on the Australian film industry, and the notion that I was possibly going to shuffle off without ever being satisfied that I’d been able to support an industry I care deeply about left me bothered.

The notion of our own mortality has been thrust into our daily consciousness as we awake each morning to escalating figures of lived lives transformed into numbers counting the growing death toll from this unceasing pandemic. We can’t help but look at one another and think ‘when will it be my partner? When will it be my mother or father? When will it be me?’

Creativity keeps us alive. It keeps us connected. It affirms our existence and provides meaning to our mortal journey. Collectively, creativity creates a culture, and a culture creates a community. It also helps us address our societal struggles that we find ourselves tangling with. Through the art of Australian cinema, I was further able to question, interrogate, analysis, and embrace Australian culture, with all of its pride and problems.

I hope you’ll come with me on this journey as I recount some of the Australian films that have lingered with me the most in 2021.

As 2020 cascaded into 2021, I found comfort in the long untold history of Afghan cameleers with Roderick Mackay’s Western, The Furnace, reminding us that while the impact of colonisation wreaked havoc upon the Indigenous population of this place labelled Australia, the land provided a ground for community amongst those brought to Australia by the promise of hope, prosperity, or by the forceful hand of slavery. This notion was echoed later in Corrie Chen’s masterful SBS series, New Gold Mountain, a show that presented the equally untold history of Chinese migrants seeking gold and a new life in Australia. The question of who got to tell stories rung through my mind, as I pushed back against Stephen Johnson’s role as director of High Ground, I further reckoned with my own cultural identity, stating:

I’m well aware of the optics of a White writer critiquing an Indigenous narrative film and highlighting the non-Indigenous creative team behind it, but I want to stress that I’m doing so to question that if the Australian film industry is serious about seeking out greater diversity amongst the creative teams on films and television, then they also need to strengthen the ability for Indigenous voices to tell their own stories on screen.

High Ground is, by all accounts, a masterful film, one that leaves an impact like no other. It addresses an aspect of Australian history that reminds us that while us white folks in positions of power like to throw around the word ‘reconciliation’ like it’s an act of healing that’s already taken place, the reality is, we’ve never had conciliation in Australia (as further highlighted by the Australian governments outright rejection of the Uluru statement), so we can’t begin the process of reconciliation at all.

High Ground

The Australian film criticism sphere is drenched in whiteness, and dominated by the stench of masculinity. I’m part of that cloud and while there’s precious little I can do to change my own identity, I can at the very least elevate those who deserve a place in that cultural landscape. This is why, when it comes to a film like High Ground, I defer to Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman, Teela Reid, with her essay on the film on IndigenousX. She closes her piece by saying:

This film will ignite the spark in your heart for justice, but are you prepared to continue the conversation beyond the storyline to heal the unfinished business of our nation’s story? 

“Walk with us.”

https://indigenousx.com.au/high-ground-highlights-the-power-of-storytelling-to-heal-our-history/

And with that in mind, I urge my fellow white critics and readers to embrace this notion and ask yourself what you can do to heal this country in 2022.

The notion of who got to tell what stories has echoed in my mind throughout 2021, and using the platform I have with The Curb, I was able to interview the utterly brilliant team behind the short film, Sparkles, producer Cody Greenwood, director Jacqueline Pelczar, and the star and writer of the film, Tina Fielding. It was a joyous interview, done remotely (like the majority of my interviews were this year, a blessing that I’ll be forever grateful for), but with the energy these three great women had together, it felt like I was in the room with them. Tina wanted to tell her own story as a 30-something queer Downs Syndrome woman, and tell it she did. Sparkles embraces queer freedom, highlights systemic prejudice in the world, and proudly announces the arrival of a grand, great new voice. It was all the more exciting to see Tina win the Outstanding Achievement in Writing at the WA Screen Culture Awards, a worthy and deserving recipient.

I took that notion of ownership of stories into each of the interviews I did throughout the year, with Girls Can’t Surf director Christopher Nelius providing one of the most self-reflective responses yet:

The next thing that was very important to me was that if I’m going to be a guy telling the story, that I need to surround myself with the right women in significant roles in order to do it. So I knew I wanted a female producer (Michaela Perske). I knew I wanted a female editor (Julie-Anne De Ruvo). And I was lucky enough to know my editor Julianne for 20 years, we’re mates we’ve worked together before. And she’s also really brilliant writer as well. She agreed very early on to cut it. 

So I felt a bit more like I wasn’t just being a dickhead bloke by wanting to direct it by surrounding myself with the right people. You know, a cinematographer was a woman (Anna Howard), production manager (Kiki Dillon), woman, researcher, a woman. That’s not really for the optics of it. They were the best people for the job.

By giving the women of Girls Can’t Surf the space to tell their stories, and filling the creative team with women too, the film itself became a stronger, more emotional affair. The notion of who is the ‘true author’ of a film was challenged time and time again throughout the year, with the default setting of having the director or writer being the one ‘sole’ author being swiftly thrown out the window when it came to top tier documentaries like Laura’s Choice and Strong Female Lead.

With Laura’s Choice, mother and daughter co-director team Cathy Henkel and Sam Lara stepped into the unexpected role of story custodians for mother and Grandmother Laura Henkel. In one of the most powerful films of 2021, Laura’s Choice details a layered story of Laura’s decision to engage in the process of voluntary assisted dying, enlisting Cathy and Sam’s help on the way, and in turn, transforming them into activists and champions for life. The humour, joy, compassion, and life-affirming narrative of Laura’s Choice reminded me that this was not solely Cathy or Sam’s film, nor is it solely Laura’s film, but instead, as states across Australia made voluntary assisted dying legal, it became even more clear that this was a film that had many authors, even if they were directly involved or not.

Laura’s Choice reaffirmed the need to embrace our lives while we have them, but to also respect end of life care and the decisions we make when our time on this planet comes to an end. The joy that Laura has for life, and the comfort that comes with her choice shows her living a life of freedom and ease, knowing that she is able to leave with the compassion and support of her family, helping push away any notion of this being a morbid or horrifying tale. It’s in Laura’s Choice that I found comfort in the notion of dying, and reassurance that my own personal life choices were the right ones. We can’t help but question ourselves, in our actions, in our world views, in our day to day processes, because we are self-reflective beings, and for some of us, we seek assurance or comfort in the arts and culture we consume and enjoy. Whether it’s film or TV, games or music, theatre or street art, the emotional reaction that these entities have seeps into our lives and enriches who we are as people, and ideally, as a society.

When I write about culture or the arts, I do so with a left-leaning mindset, as I’m sure many of my critical brethren do. Maybe that’s a hopeful, misguided world view, but given the manner that the Australian arts scene has been obliterated by Covid and neglected by the Australian government under the dull roar of the sound of cold November Rain, I find a little bit of comfort in the notion that we are a progressive, supportive bunch.

That notion was challenged by the critical Australian politics-focused doco, Strong Female Lead, which essayed the media and political reaction to Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Arrogant politicians parading as makeshift artists who would look at Blue Poles saying ‘my kid could paint that’ scrawled misogynistic signs that spewed horrifying bullshit like ‘ditch the witch’ on the grounds of the peoples house. Director Tosca Looby and editor Rachel Grierson-Johns criticised that era perfectly in this essential film, utilising the tools of film to criticise our broken society at a time where the spotlight of misogyny in politics was brighter than ever before.

Throughout the year, I’ve been fortunate to interview a wealth of great people who have helped shape the Australian film industry, from Bruce Beresford to Mark Leonard Winter, from Erik Thomson to Jonathon Alley, but it’s Rachel Grierson-Johns and Kylie Bracknell who stand as some of the most powerful interviews I’ve done this year. Rachel’s discussion about the role of women in politics was a significant moment, leading to this quote that rings in my mind:

We needed to say, ‘look, girls, there is change happening around the world. And, it’s happened here, and it’ll we’ll get another female leader later on, we’ve just got to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.’

Strong Female Lead documents the power of the people, both for good and bad, showcasing the manner that toxicity can triumph and destroy a government and pollute a society with caustic beliefs. In some regard, the controversial and feared Nitram equally essays a toxic world, one that fails to provide a foothold for those with mental health struggles to get the help they need. Both films work in unison as a warning siren for the world to come: Strong Female Lead addresses our misogynistic society, reminding us of what the women of the world have endured, and yet, of the hope that hangs in our future in the emerging women leaders around the globe; and then Nitram, which closes on the chest-tightening realisation that the events that took place in Port Arthur in 1996 could happen again, as Australia has more guns now than we did then. Our past informs our future, and for many of us, it’s through the medium of film that we can glean what might happen, like some backroom tea leaf reading.

My interview with Kylie Bracknell left me grateful for every moment I get to spend talking with these magnificent creative minds. Her work on translating Fist of Fury into a Noongar-dubbed version called Fist of Fury Noongar Daa echoes the work Manuelito Wheeler undertook to translate Star Wars into Navajo, and brings an action classic into a new genre reading. Filmmakers like JJ Winlove sought to change and transform the medium of cinema, but it’s Kylie’s work with Fist of Fury Noongar Daa and the theatre presentation of Hecate that shows how fluid cinema can be, and how it can morph into a medium that helps keep a culture alive and bring history and vibrancy to a wide audience. The drive to keep First Nations languages alive and reaffirm the cultural identity in Australian society is at the core of Kylie’s work, and it’s a notion that many Australian artists would benefit from embracing in their creative entities.

The cultural identity of Australia on screen was something that I found myself grappling with as Hollywood production after Hollywood production further set up shop down under, hoping to find some kind of sanctuary in our occasional Covid-free bubble. With Mortal Kombat, Godzilla VS Kong, Shang-Chi, and Love and Monsters, amongst the TV productions of Clickbait, Nine Perfect Strangers, and La Brea, all utilising the Australian landscapes to tell distinctly un-Australian stories, I couldn’t help but ask whether Australia was becoming the Vancouver of the southern hemisphere.

This rush to reflect on how Australia is presented on screen carried through my mind as 2021 continued its belligerent attack upon us all. Robert Connolly’s The Dry sought to tear apart Scott Morrison’s Australia in a devastating manner, while Madeleine Martiniello’s Palazzo Di Cozzo charmed with its reminder that modern Australia is a nation built of migrants who made a place for their nationality in this culturally diverse landscape, and then elsewhere, I looked further back in time, to the stoner-esque mania of Go to Hell!! and then a fever-drenched delirium deep-dive into a personal favourite, Welcome to Woop Woop.

For critics, getting a quote on a poster or a trailer is career-defining stuff. When I was quoted on the poster for the excellent drama, Streamline, I was stoked, it’s a great film and I hope that my words helped push people to seek it out. But, that was nothing compared to when a quote from my 2020 review of Andrew Dominik’s masterpiece, Chopper:

a sign that Australian cinema can reach monstrous heights of glory

was emblazoned upon the screen in bold yellow text for the anniversary release of the film in cinemas. I’m still a little shaken by that, if I’m being completely honest. To know that people are reading your work, and it carries an impact, means something. To have your words recognised as worthy of celebrating a film, that’s something else altogether.

There was a point earlier in 2021 where it looked like reaching an audience for The Curb would disappear completely because of a news media ban on Facebook brought about by the actions of the government. I didn’t sleep well that week, and still question our place on that infernal site, and wrote a piece about finding a place in the digital world. Our media landscape now relies almost exclusively on traffic from social media, and no matter how hard we push against these repulsive beasts, it is simply how we have to operate.

But through focusing on Australian film and doing the interviews I’ve done, I’ve grown to realise that Facebook or no Facebook, there is an audience for this kind of writing, and the industry itself craves these kinds of discussions. I am, of course, not alone in this endeavour, with critical colleagues over at Screenhub, the masterful minds writing for Metro, the folks over at Filmink and Flicks.com.au, and so many more all contributing to the greater conversation about Australian film and culture.

I’m continually inspired by my good friend Matthew Eeles who runs the pre-eminent place for all things Australian film, Cinema Australia, and will always look up to his work and dedication for the industry as a whole. If I could have one ounce of the impact that Matt has, I’ll be satisfied.

If you’ve made it this far, then thank you for your time in reading my words, and the words of everyone else on The Curb. I couldn’t have made it through this year without the support of Nadine, Nisha-Anne, Christopher, Hagan, Digby, David G, David N, Scot, BD, and more. Your words and support mean more than you’ll ever know.

That limitation I set for myself paid off as a few months ago, looking forward to the future with some kind of renewed sense of hope and stability, I considered the fragile nature of the internet. It is, as much as we may deny it, a transient, impermanent entity that we engage with. Nothing is forever on the internet, even though we say it is. This website, like many that have come before it, will one day drift away into the digital ether, forever lost to a digital void, and with it will seep away the reviews and interviews that we have collated throughout the years.

With that in mind, I am proud to announce that I am working on my first book: The Australian Film Yearbook: 2021 Edition.

I have the echoes of a dream rattling around in my mind, where in twenty years’ time, a budding Aussie film fan heads to a second-hand book store and finds a dog-eared copy of the yearbook in the Film & TV section, picking it up and digging into a review of We’re Not Here to Fuck Spiders and is suddenly rabbit-holed onto a journey of exploration and discovery. If I can do my bit to help champion Australian films, to help put the indie filmmakers and short films in the history books, then I’ll have felt like I’ve done my part in supporting and championing the thing I’m most passionate about: Australian cinema.

Over the past few months, I have been embarking on interviews, collating reviews, gathering written pieces from filmmakers, and ultimately celebrating and documenting the Australian films that have been released during 2021. These will be collated into the first annual book that will document the Australian film industry, its filmmakers, and their work each year going forward.

This will be made available via a crowdfunding campaign in January 2022, with more details to be announced in the new year. I’m proud of the work I’ve put into the book so far, and I’m genuinely honoured to have been able to interview some of the great creative minds that have worked on Australian films this year. From the short films to the features, from the documentaries to the genre-flicks, I am genuinely excited to share this celebration of Australian cinema with the world, and to help introduce readers to a world of hidden Australian cinema.

Keep an eye on The Curb for all the crowdfunding details in January, and follow us on social media if you haven’t already: Facebook / Twitter

For now, be kind to one another, and watch Australian films. You’ll feel better for it, I promise.

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