Australian Film > Venkatasawmy > Conclusion

The Hybridity of Filmmaking in Australian National Cinema: Formulating a Cinematic Post-diaspora

Rama Venkatasawmy

Hons Dissertation Murdoch University

How "national" is Australian national cinema?

Writing about the 'national' of a cinema is undoubtedly either a brave or a foolish undertaking because of the dangerous pitfalls into which an author can tumble. It is often difficult to distinguish, for example, when one is addressing society or political culture but not necessarily (or even to the exclusion of) 'nation-ness'. (Hayward, 1993:ix)

Any form of cinema could theoretically be created without reference to an audience. Yet, cinema has never been an isolated entity but a significant paradigm within a larger social system. Films cannot possibly deny and ignore the audience. Identification, in any possible form, is always a prerequisite to the process of film viewing. The audience can and does often determine the content and form of cinema by using the cinematic knowledge - progressively acquired through viewing practices - to evaluate films or, in other words, to decide what is "good" and what is not. Commercial success or failure, often at odds with critical or academic evaluation, can become a relevant indication of identifications and positions adopted with regards to a particular film.

In spite of the influential role of the State in shaping the national cinematic apparatus, there is definitely a significant degree of interaction between Australian cinema and its audience, an interaction wherein they mutually encourage or discourage each other's cultural values, identities and myths they might nurture.

If for the domestic spectator it is more a matter of identifying with this or that character or stance and recognising certain experiences, in the international context, a national cinema will be perceived as presenting or projecting an identity, a narrative image of an entire country. (Elsaesser, 1989:6)

The above comment was made by Thomas Elsaesser (1989) specifically about the predicaments of the New German cinema but it can be applied to Australian cinema. There is always the possibility that such a comment might be appropriated and taken as a cue by some to argue for the imperative of an homogeneous national cinema. But this nationalist-oriented attitude is not as redundant as it might first appear. It is likely to elicit a productive oppositional reaction: what does "national" actually imply and, by extension, how can a film be "fair dinkum Aussie" these days?

In his discussion of national identity, Paul Willemen (1994) emphasises the notion of cultural specificity as a national issue in film studies:

the boundaries of cultural specificity in cinema are established by governmental actions implemented through institutions such as censorship and its legislative framework, industrial and financial measures on the economic level, the gearing of training institutions towards employment in national media structures, systems of licensing governed by aspects of corporate law, and so on. For the purposes of film culture, specificity is a territorial-institutional matter, and coincides with the boundaries of the nation state. [my emphasis]

(Willemen, 1994:209)

Willemen has observed that the effectiveness with which national socio-cultural formations determine particular signifying practices and régimes is not addressed. Consequently, he proceeds to argue that 'the relation between a concern with national identity and the specificity of a cultural formation' (Willemen, 1994:210) could constitute an area of confusion. Identifying the concern with notions of "Australianness" - in cultural rather than cinematic terms - and with national identity as being previously a temporary component of the dominant registers of Australian cultural specificity, Willemen (1994:210) suggests that

[t]he specificity of a cultural formation may be marked by the presence but also the absence of preoccupations with national identity. Indeed, national specificity will determine which, if any, notions of identity are on the agenda. So the discourses of nationalism and those addressing or comprising national specificity are not identical. Similarly, the construction or the analysis of a specific cultural formation is different from preoccupations with national identity. I would go further and suggest that the construction of national specificity in fact encompasses and governs the articulation of both national identity and nationalist discourses. (Willemen, 1994:210).

It should be noted that the Australian cinematic post-diaspora I have formulated did not particularly focus upon the re-presentation of the current socio-cultural "messiness". It was more concerned with the "messiness" of hybrid Australian filmmaking practices which, by extension, made the Australian socio-cultural "messiness" more accessible to international audiences. Considering the exposure of and attention to Australian films on Festival horizons, it is likely that "messiness" will become what the (cinematic) identity and narrative image of Australia are perceived to be internationally. At a micro-level, Australian cinema can but does not necessarily embody an homogeneous set of practices focussing mainly upon concerns of national identity. It should be considered more in terms of a network of multi-faceted practices which conflict at various levels in attempting to visually materialise re-presentations of "Australianness".

As explained previously, the condition of post-diaspora is activated by hybridising processes intrinsic to the adaptation of displaced diasporic peoples within their adopted land or country of residence. So, Salman Rushdie is primarily British in terms of upbringing and education but colour, ethnicity and name constitute a perpetual reminder of his Indian roots and ancestry. In the formulation of a cinematic post-diaspora, I have identified similar principles as pertinent to Australian filmmaking.

Period films, bush films and suburban social realist films were necessary at some stage. They allowed local filmmakers and audiences alike to get a grasp of different forms of "Australianness" in the inevitable search for a coherent and concrete national cinematic identity during Australian cinema's "revival" era. Simultaneously, this kind of "soul-searching" fuelled international audiences with certain stereotypical ideas of Australian films and Australia at large. By the late 1980s however, Australian myths of the bush slowly eroded away although without fading out altogether. Period films became somewhat passé - the kind of thing filmmakers do not usually make twice. Suburbia has increasingly been recognised as heterogeneous and sometimes multi-cultural rather than homogeneous and simply "White-Anglo-Celtic".

According to Anthony Smith (1995:1)

[w]e are constantly being reminded that the globe we inhabit is becoming smaller and more integrated. Everywhere closer links are being forged between the economies and societies of our planet, and everywhere formerly independent states and nations are being bound by a complex web of interstate organizations and regulations into a truly international community.

This would be relevant to Australian filmmaking which has become more diverse, heteroclite and "messier" than ever - an indication of acceptance of the necessity to operate as an international "player". "New" trends and tendencies of filmmaking have indeed become primordial within the contemporary international cinemascape which is one in constant motion, not converging towards homogeneity but diverging into multiplicity and hybridity. A quick look at cinema festival venues should confirm this. For example, Quentin Tarentino's Pulp Fiction (1994), a commercial product of Hollywood cinema was awarded the Best Film prize at the Cannes Festival which is usually considered as the penultimate domain of Art cinema and resistance to Hollywood. At the American Academy Awards in 1996, Michael Radford's Il Postino (1995) and Chris Noonan's Babe (1995) were not nominated under the Foreign Film Category but under local categories, that is with the same status as their American counterparts. The ambiguous identity of these two films - are they Italian and Australian respectively, or something else? - suggests the need to focus upon the hybrid nature of the changing national and international cinemascapes. They are not as clear-cut and ascetically compartmentalised as they might have been thought to be.

Inevitably, internationalisation blurs national boundaries and the hybridity of genres, narratives, casting and even of festival venues, problematises rigid categorisations attempted by various debates within the parameters of national cinema. My analysis of certain Australian films should have indicated the increasingly problematic institutional dynamics of Australian cinema. The traditional tools provided by a rigid concept of "national cinema" have become anachronistic in dealing with the hybridity of Richard Franklin's Brilliant Lies (1996), Clara Law's Floating Life (1996), Rolf de Heer's The Quiet Room (1996) or Scott Hicks's Shine (1996) for instance.

Australian films in the 1990s tend to display various degrees of "Australianness", and cinematic homelands turn out to be somewhat "omnipresent" within their structures - narrative, generic, technical or otherwise. To go a step further, it could be argued that practices "belonging" to cinematic homelands are gradually being assimilated and eventually naturalised into the Australian cinemascape which is simultaneously expanding to accommodate more filmmaking practices from elsewhere. Hence, this would imply that a pure form of "Australianness" or an ideal Australian content in filmic terms, if ever it were located, could not quite remain the same for long. Foreign or external elements are always moving and blending into - some might say "invading" - the Australian cinemascape, adapting to it as well as transforming it.

Isaiah Berlin (1991:13) suggests that

[t]he notion of the perfect whole, the ultimate solution, in which all good things coexist, seems to me to be not merely unattainable - that is a truism - but conceptually incoherent; I do not know what is meant by a harmony of this kind.

This is so appropriate to the predicaments of the Australian national cinema. There can never be a totally homogeneous Australian national cinematic apparatus. It can only operate and evolve by means of mixing, by "allowing" foreign or external elements to infiltrate its structure. Hence, the relevance of the principles of hybridity, as proposed through the formulation of a cinematic diaspora/post-diaspora, lies in the acknowledgement of various forms of such mixing (and their sources) and, by extension, of the inevitable redefinition of "national".

My focus upon the fragmentation and internal diversity of Australian national cinema has allowed for a particular redefinition of "national" which implies that multiplicity, heterogeneity and hybridity have always already been part of the construction of the nation and national identity. The national cinema apparatus reflects such a state of things both cinematically, in terms of hybridised filmmaking practices, and filmically, in terms of re-presentations of socio-cultural hybridity. As Susan Hayward (1993:x) points out

[c]oncepts of nation and national identity, when they are perceived in terms of socio-political processes and the cultural/cinematic articulations of these processes, inevitably mean that cinema speaks the national and the national speaks the cinema.

However, the various debates about the issue of a fully homogeneous Australian national cinema - as expressed by Phillip Adams, Sylvia Lawson and Bob Ellis amongst others - cannot be ignored nor too hastily dismissed.

Following the line of argument that national identity and cinema are always already heterogeneous formations, attempts at homogeneity in the shape of nationalist-oriented interventions, both on film and in print, could then be seen as inevitable diachronic reactions to specific events in the history of Australian cinema. Hence, debates would seem to have flourished around the time of the Interim Report of the Film Committee to the Australian Council for the Arts (1969) as well as throughout the (AFC) "era" of Australian cinema "revival". In a nutshell, the main concern was then which direction should be adopted in order for local filmmaking to be really "national" or "Australian".

The next wave of debates occurred primarily just after the mid-1980s. Recession and the departure of many of the New Wave filmmakers led to the discussion about what went wrong with the AFC "era" and how to get this idea of a national Australian cinema back on the rails. Such interventions, as nationalist-oriented as they might be, are nevertheless important because of the oppositional or conflictual reactions and perspectives they are bound to attract. Indeed, the essential dynamics of the interaction between, on the one hand, what I consider to be the constancy of heterogeneity and, on the other hand, the diachronic attempts at nationalist-oriented homogeneity are vital for preventing stagnation and allowing productivity and creativity within the whole structure.

A national cinema can also be defined in terms of its comparison with other cinemas. For reasons of language difference for instance, the French or German national cinema might be perceived to be distinctly French or German. But this kind of reasoning is too weak to validate on its own the identification of any national cinema. Language can well be different but genres of film remain transnationally similar. Hence, because it is mainly an English-based cinema, Australian cinema is obviously going to be compared to Hollywood as well as, to a certain extent, British cinema. Yet, even the comparative method is bound to be problematic. Hollywood and most national cinemas enjoying a similar status as Australia's are also undergoing changes in terms of the diversification and hybridisation of their industry and products. For example, other than its obvious mainstream component, Hollywood incorporates within its structure Art and Internationalised formats and styles of filmmaking too. This would again suggest the obsoleteness of more traditional definitions of "national". There does not seem to be any kind of "monolithic" cinematic entity left to suit a national cinema which would be unwilling to acknowledge its own transformations, diversity and hybridity as well as that of others. Thus, according to Hayward (1993:304)

change is a last essential ingredient to a measuring of the national of a cinema. Change is of course crucial to all national cinemas because of what it says both about its nation's contemporary history and for what it reveals about its longer-term past. Change occurs predominantly, but not exclusively, in two ways: either it is external to the nation and happens through cross-fertilisation, or it is internal and in response to cultural change that can be as much economic as social or political.

Phillip Adams (1995:xi) writes that '[n]ot only is film a frail medium but Australia's grasp on film has never been strong. We have lost our industry before and we may well lose it again'. His comments indeed appear very pessimistic in relation to my discussion about hybridity within Australian cinema. The presence of so many Australian films at Cannes in 1996 and the increasing transnational production of films on the Gold Coast are signs of vitality and good health which cannot be ignored. Such signs keep the industry in operation: foreign currency is coming in, industry personnel is working, contacts are being made, new opportunities are being created, films are being produced and distributed. As a cinema of perpetual beginnings, Australian national cinema has had its high and low tides like many other cinematic apparatuses but it is not bound to disappear. Contrary to the opinion of Adams (1996), the cinema industry in Australia is alive and well: it is unlikely to be lost and has a promising future in the light of what could be described as the second New Wave of Australian cinema in the 1990s.

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New: 16 December, 1996 | Now: 29 April, 2015