The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, 1994, Stephan Elliott (Foto: National Film and Sound Archive of Australia)

Film Continent Australia

April 4 to June 4, 2019

The Austrian Film Museum devotes its next retrospective to an entire continent: this spring and summer, we will be focusing on Australian narrative feature films.
Even though some are deeply rooted in the collective memory – think of Crocodile Dundee, Muriel's Wedding, Babe, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert or the Mad Max tetralogy – on the world map of cinema, Australia remains terra incognita rather than well-explored territory. Taking this into account, our retrospective includes more than 50 feature films: for the first time in Austria, it will be possible to see key works as well as obscure and seldom seen films made in Australia during the last 100 years together on the big screen.
What exactly is Australian cinema? The question of an authentic cinema has been at the core of local film production and film criticism from the very beginning. It's a little-known fact outside the Commonwealth that Australia boasted one of the most bustling film industries worldwide between 1900 and 1911. As early as 1906, before the same developments reached the shores of the USA or Great Britain, the first narrative feature films were made in the colonies that had just declared their independence. Popular genres such as the so-called "bushranger films" paved the way for Hollywood's Western wave and many of its themes. This initial boom was followed by an economic decline from the mid-1910s on, which determined the identity and self-image of the "Australian film nation" for a long time to come. Australian cinema was first of all at war with itself: Waves of artistically controversial works and international surprise hits took turns with periods of no production. The local box office dominated by American films, Australia had to face the hard facts: a steady brain drain of film professionals towards the USA and England.

The question of what makes its cinema genuinely "Australian" aims straight at the conflicted heart of the nation. Australia is a land of contradictions and dichotomies: a Western, Anglo-Saxon democracy closer to Asia and the South Pacific than it is to its motherland; a nation proudly defining itself through the emancipation of its (penal) colonies from the Empire and still conflicted about the extent of the injustices inflicted upon its Indigenous Peoples well into the present; a highly developed, urbanized industrial nation unabatedly invoking myths of the untamed, wild nature of the outback and the bush.
These dichotomies – freedom and slavery; system and outlaws; city and country; civilization and wilderness; black and white, the familiar and the foreign – run like a common thread through our program. Films made by visitors to the red continent in the 1960s and 1970s epitomize this fact particularly well: Englishmen Michael Powell (They're a Weird Mob) and Nicolas Roeg (Walkabout, shown in our March tribute to the director) or Canadian Ted Kotcheff (Wake in Fright, perhaps the ultimate outback film). These films' unadjusted gaze allows them to look deep into the collective subconscious of the country from the outside. The tradition continues to this day, as seen in the films of Dutch-born Rolf de Heer (Tracker and Charlie's Country).
The majority of films in our show date from the 1970s and 1980s, when, as a result of a first new wave of auteur filmmakers (poetically called the Australian Film Renaissance) funding programs for film development and production were introduced and a great number of Australian productions flooded the cinemas. The "big names," of course, are all represented in the retrospective with key works: Peter Weir, Phillip Noyce, George Miller, Bruce Beresford, Gillian Armstrong and Jane Campion. But there is also much to discover: non-household names (at least outside Australia) such as Tim Burstall, Fred Schepisi or Paul Cox, as well as mavericks and anarchists like Albie Thoms and Philippe Mora, whose films oscillate between Dadaist art, pastiche and trash.

Trash, that is to say, Ozploitation (a portmanteau of Australia and exploitation) is another crucial catchword. Ghosts and the supernatural, crude humour, hidden as well as explicit, raw violence are important motifs in Australian folklore. Our show demonstrates how the Ozploitation wave dealt with core issues of Australian identity and mentality. Sex comedies like Alvin Purple or The Adventures of Barry McKenzie both celebrate and parody the male mateship self-image. The "unspoiled" Australian wilderness, taken from its traditional owners, becomes the setting for ghost and horror films, including classics like Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock as well as the key Ozploitation works Long Weekend or Wake in Fright.
Our selection illustrates how fluid the boundaries between auteur and commercial cinema were in 1970s Australian cinema: Some films by leading directors like Peter Weir (including his masterpiece The Plumber) or Bruce Beresford are classified as Ozploitation. Borderline cases such as Tom Cowan's wild, feminist historical piece Journey Among Women – a radical counterpart to Picnic at Hanging Rock – were successfully marketed as exploitation films.
Also included in the show are productions that added a specifically Australian touch to traditional genre formulas: Western (Mad Dog Morgan), martial arts (The Man from Hong Kong), biker movies (Stone) or horror in its many varieties (from Patrick to Howling III). And, naturally, George Miller's Mad Max series, which brings together a myriad quintessentially Australian moments and motifs: the myth of outlaws and rebels, the love of trash, fancy dress and pop culture, rough masculinity, mateship and much tougher women, techno fetishism and "bush mechanics" junk aesthetics. And the endless, sunburned land (even if filmed in Namibia instead of the Australian outback, as in the case of Fury Road).
Is this an exhaustive representation of Australian cinema in all its facets? By no means. Even if this show is a sizeable contribution to the visibility of filmmaking in the "film continent Australia," there is still much to discover. For example, the most recent, "second new wave" of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islande auteur films, whose emergence in the 1990s is represented by key films such as Tracey Moffatt's beDevil or the omnibus film Sand to Celluloid, and the rich and enormously diverse tradition of documentary film, essay film and ethnographic cinema, which we will explore in the years to come.

The retrospective is kindly supported by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA) and the Australian Embassy in Vienna.

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