The Conflicted Australian

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How Australian Films Represent National Identity 


Film media plays a crucial role in cultivating national identity. This concept applies to all nations, but my focus will be on Australian film. I will begin by elaborating on how film and national identity are intrinsic to one another. I will then analyse two films – The Dish (2000) and Romper Stomper (1993) - explaining how one encompasses the traditional folkloric qualities of rural Australian communities while the other challenges, subverts and contradicts such images often promulgated and glorified.  To answer a broader question, it is very true that film, like literature, is effective not only in promoting but constructing national identity, or in this context, Australianness.

The media is "deeply implicated in the formulation of our understandings of what the range of meanings lying behind the label 'Australian' might be" (Jakubowicz 1993, p. 86). This means much attention is placed on capturing Australia's "mythic qualities", which are utilized artistically for entertaining, educating and linking Australian citizens with a sense of interconnectedness.

While not all films are made for this purpose, the type I refer to are presented specifically as "Australian stories", becoming what Elder describes as "national narratives". The purpose of these narratives is to "reinforce a feeling of national connection between citizens and a connection with a particular historical past" (2007, p. 26). Such films encourage a positive nationalism: the sharing of beliefs, ideals and values within a community.

These narratives are often based on historical stories. While not always historically "factual", they are nonetheless used for stirring patriotic sentiment, a person's sense of nationalism, which "bonds them together in a common love for their shared nation" (Elder 2007, p. 26). This is what Rob Sitch accomplished with The Dish in 2000. Based on the events of the 1969 moon landing by American astronauts, this film diverts from the global context usually affiliated with this kind of story. The focus, instead, is the small town of Parkes in central New South Wales. 

Situated eccentrically in the centre of a sheep field – (something Sitch identifies as being overtly Australian) – a radio telescope is selected by NASA to relay signals from the space shuttle to Houston. In portraying this famous event through the local context of a small country town, The Dish adopts what has long been considered a common feature of Australian narratives. That is, the "grafting of the local onto the international, and the international onto the local" (McGregor 2002, p. 401), which evokes an identity corresponding with and rising from a larger global context. Like New York City in many American films, like London in Love Actually (2003) and Tokyo in Lost in Translation (2003),  the town of Parkes is almost a character itself in Sitch's film. 

Placed under the spotlight of a worldwide event, with NASA and the rest of the world depending on this previously unknown town, Parkes and its townspeople symbolise 'the new kid on the block', who may have bitten off more than he can chew.

The film's central characters are distinct – (and distinctly Australian) - caricatures. National audiences are encouraged to see "typical Aussies" in them with such scenes as when, under the weight of responsibility, they play cricket on the surface of the dish. While comical and ironic to an Australian audience, this also projects the well-known "Aussie" tropes of 'larrikinism' and 'sportsman' to an international audience. 

The film can be seen as creating ideas of Australianness effectively whilst crafting its themes through the generically broader filter of a romantic/historical comedy. Sitch, like many filmmakers, writes his own interpretations of Australianness "into the existing universal language of cinema" (McGregor 2002, p. 401), conveying a story that is specifically and characteristically Australian, yet presenting it through conventional structures - rendering it accessible to an international audience. The success of this approach may be observed by the fact that it fared well with international audiences. Esteemed, late American critic Roger Ebert addressed the shifting of contexts from the global to the local, writing of the film's characters, "resigned to thinking of themselves as provincials in a backwater, they're thrilled and a little humbled by their role on the world stage" (Ebert 2001).

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