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Frame capture from The Proposition (2006)
Frame capture from The Proposition (2006)

In honour of the wide New Zealand release of the excellent Australian film Balibo this week, I am going to re-publish the following piece, which originally ran in August of last year, at the end of Dunedin’s International Film Festival.  This is also the first episode in the ongoing (and marginally popular) series ‘Cinema as Exorcism’, more of which can be found here, here, and here).  Balibo tells the story of a number of Australian (and one kiwi) journalists who get caught up in Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1979 and tells that story with a keen eye for both detailed realism and for the ways in which the most important lessons about national identity are often learned far away from home.  If you want to support the existence of tightly-crafted,  t0ugh-minded, politically and socially relevant cinema, go and see Balibo, even if its portrait of journalism as relevant social action, sadly, appears badly dated.

Inspired by two very good Australian films that screened down here at the International Film Festival, this is the first of what will (hopefully) be a series of posts dealing with film and various aspects of spectrality (and thanks to Deane for this last word).

These two very different films hammer home something that has been increasingly clear in the past few years: Australia, as a nation, is attempting through the cinema to shed the shackles of its national ghosts, or at least bring these spectres into the full, harsh light of day.  This is more than simple katharsis, it seems, bridging over into some more elemental; expiation maybe, even exorcism.  Australia – or at least Australian art, as the Australian government seems to be committed to continuing its long history of criminal behaviour – is engaged in a collective exorcism.  This is true, I suppose, of only those people who make these films or the people who choose to see them instead of Transformers. Perhaps this needs a further clarification, as this exorcism is largely confined to the ghosts of Australia’s European past.  The long plight of the Aboriginal peoples is still largely consigned to the darkness, or is subject to well-meaning but ultimately hollow official attempts at apology.  Something like Philip Noyce’s film Rabbit-Proof Fence, for all its striving nobility, simply doesn’t pack the emotional punch and the raw sense of wrongness that characterises the film-as-exorcism.

Jonathan auf der Heide’s remarkable debut Van Diemen’s Land recounts the story – such as it is – of eight convicts who escaped from the brutal penal colony at Macquarie Harbour in Tasmania in 1822.  Of these eight men, only one, an Irish thief named Alexander Pearce, would be found a number of weeks later, claiming to have killed and eaten a number of his fellow prisoners to survive.  The authorities were loath to believe Pearce, choosing to believe instead that Pearce was covering for his friends still at large.  It muddied the water considerably when Pearce escaped again a few years later and was found with human flesh in his pockets, despite the fact that he still had other things to eat.  He was hanged.  Almost two hundred years later, the filmmakers take Pearce at his word, taking us with the group as they are slowly whittled down by hunger, by malice, and by the sheer fact that they were all city-dwellers in the wilds of an unforgiving, uncaring island.  Eschewing the temptation to hammer the scant source material into a standard narrative form, the film instead evokes something of the experience of the men involved: the days bleed into another endlessly; the men themselves remain largely indistinguishable; the world is reduced eventually to an endless tract of damp forest; the bursts of violence are sudden, messy, and uncomfortably brutal.  It is an unsettling vision of the world, made all the more alien by Pearce’s Gaelic voiceover.  This is harsh, essential humanity at its very worst, the long, sad plight of imperfect men placed into an inhuman situation by circumstance and by the ambitions of others.  This is, the film makes very explicit, what made Australia, and by extension the whole of the British Empire; it was built on the suffering of untold hundreds of men like Pearce, sent to the ends of the Earth for the heinous crime of stealing six pairs of shoes.  Pearce is neither villain nor hero.  In the film, he simply is, and the film confronts the audience with his image, his voice, and his ghost, perhaps hoping that it will simply fade away now that its eternal bloodlust has been dramatised and made clear for all to see.

The other film that leads me in this direction is Robert Connolly’s Balibo, based again on historical incident and on the lives of real people.  The film tells of six Australian journalists (one of whom was a New Zealander) on the ground during the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor.  The film is structured almost as a mystery, following the journey of Roger East, played as both a lion in winter and as a faded revolutionary by a superb Anthony LaPaglia, as he follows the trail of five younger colleagues, who witnessed the early days of the invasion.  In stunningly recreated period detail, we see these hapless young men struggle to capture evidence that would prove to the world that Indonesia was ramping up an illegal invasion of a sovereign nation that had only recently gained its freedom from Portugal.  They paid for this dream with their lives, and the film spares us very little of their terror and the ignominy of their final moments in a deserted cinder-block house.  The film is as much about Australia turning a blind eye to the invasion (in which as many as 183,000 people were killed) as it is about the invasion itself. At the end of Balibo, East is captured when the invasion begins in earnest.  He chants a desperate mantra – ‘I’m an Australian, I’m an Australian’ – trying to save himself from execution.  He fails and is gunned down unceremoniously.  He fails also to convince the audience that his nationality can (and should) save him, and Connolly leaves little doubt that some of the responsibility for the invasion should be laid at the feet of Australia and its opportunistic foreign policy.  The final images, triumphant archival footage from East Timor’s eventual independence from Indonesia in 1999, do little to erase the feeling that this film, like Van Diemen’s Land, is grappling with the ghosts of colonial guilt and with Australia’s uneasy relationship with its past.  The film opens with a title card that is rare in that it is so unequivocal: ‘This is a true story’.  Not ‘Based on true events’ or ‘Inspired by actual events’, but a blunt assertion of historical truth, making this even more of a punch to the gut, even purer an act of exorcism.

Tracing this trend a few years into the past, John Hillcoat’s painfully brilliant Aussie Western The Proposition, released in 2006, is perhaps the paradigmatic case of this kind of filmmaking.  Less an Unforgiven-like deconstruction of the tropes of the genre, Hillcoat’s film is more of an evisceration of every shred of dignity from the frontier.  With a script by Bad Seed singer Nick Cave (who provides the score along with Warren Ellis, the violinist from Dirty Three), the film mines an almost biblical vein of filth and violence on the borderlands of nineteenth century British civility.  The film closes on an image of two bearded, filthy Irish immigrants sitting in the sands just outside a displaced, genteel English house at the edge of the Outback, staring out into the future.  The psychotic Arthur Burns (played with a sociopathic refinement by Danny Huston) is dying slowly, facing the endless nothingness.  Arthur asks his younger brother Charlie (played by a gauntly intense Guy Pearce) the question that has plagued every modern person since Hamlet: ‘What are you going to do now?’  Charlie, having killed Arthur in a futile bid to save the life of their angelic younger brother, is left to face the future forever trapped between savagery and civilisation.  That the brothers end the film staring away from the English house and into the wilds speaks of a profound emptiness and a deep unease at the core of Australia’s sense of its own European history.   Incidentally, walking out of the theatre after seeing The Proposition, I overheard the best impromptu film review ever: a young woman behind me turned to her friend and said in a shaky voice, ‘I thought I was going to vomit the whole time that was playing’.  This is elemental, haunted, and resonant filmmaking.  This is expiation.

Australia’s spiritual and geographic neighbour New Zealand really hasn’t delved into its own past in quite this fashion – save for a few brilliant exceptions like Geoff Murphy’s Utu (1983) – and I suspect New Zealand’s puritan underbelly and its continued reverence for both the British Empire and for its own (small) part in that Empire will prevent this from happening.  While there are kiwi films that are willing to admit that New Zealand society is underpinned by an almost impenetrable darkness – see Brad McGann’s 2004 In My Father’s Den for an outstanding example of this – and even films that dramatise and make visible this dark core – see Robert Sarkies’ 2006 Out of the Blue, arguably the best film ever made in this country – there is little evidence that the wholesale historical exorcism that we see in Australian film is anywhere close to the surface.

This is a shame; we need to do this, and soon.

The only thing perhaps that we can change is the past and we do it all the time.

Ninian Smart

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