The 50th anniversary of Picnic at Hanging Rock, and a campaign to recognise Indigenous local history takes shape.

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Before I had ever set foot in Australia, my friend recommended a film to me – one that had made a great impression on her as a teenager in America: Picnic at Hanging Rock. ‘It is one of those rare horror films that are not grotesque,’ she said.

Knowing my love for this kind of cinema, her tip sparked my curiosity, leading to study, as well as tourist encounters, with this iconic natural wonder.

Today Peter Weir’s 1976 adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel enjoys cult status. During my year of exchange in Melbourne in 2013, there were exhibitions, creative non-fiction pieces, and newspaper articles devoted to it. Last year the film was showing in theatres nationwide, and recently it was announced that Fremantle Media and Foxtel are planning to film a six-part miniseries. The story has experienced a kind of renaissance.

Weir’s film was one of the first commercially successful Australian films that presented self-consciously Australian stories to an international audience. The image drawn in this film – as in so many others belonging to the Australian New Wave cinema – is of a young nation haunted by the uncanny.

Lindsay herself had set out to write a national novel, one that she claimed she dreamed and then wrote down ‘like a demon’ within a month. The story, as well as its creation process, are steeped in mystery, which probably adds to its engraining in the national psyche.

Lindsay had set out to write a national novel, one that she claimed she dreamed and then wrote down ‘like a demon’ within a month.

The novel recounts the mysterious disappearance of three adolescent girls and a schoolteacher at the face of the volcanic rock formation, and the subsequent breakdown of individuals at the girls’ college. Although one of the young women is found unconscious after several days, she cannot bear witness to what happened, unable to remember. The Rock is implicitly represented as having ‘swallowed up’ young girls and a teacher, causing the dismemberment of the elite school.

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Recently a campaign has tried to intervene in the obsession with the film. The ‘Miranda Must Go’ project wants to take action against the inscription of the story on the Rock, aiming for non-Aboriginal Australians to ‘Remember our troubling past, remove the white vanishing myth and rethink the stories we tell at Hanging Rock.’

Cleft-BW-A3Artist Amy Spiers started the campaign to draw attention to the fact that people mostly associate the lost schoolgirls with the Rock when the real loss and displacement story is of Aboriginal people in the area.

These stories remain obscure, barely touched upon in the Hanging Rock visitor centre, and when people are trying to find information about the Aboriginal history of the Rock, it is very difficult to piece anything together. It is believed that the Rock was an important inter-tribal ceremonial meeting place, and a significant landmark on the boundary of three different groups – the Wurundjeri, Taungurong, and Dja Dja Wurrung.

The campaign will host an ‘Anti-Picnic’, a creative protest at the Rock on Valentine’s Day.

But why should a popular film be responsible for forgetting history and suppressing Aboriginal heritage?

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In an interview with ABC Radio National, Amy Spiers explained the film’s responsibility for this silencing of history:

All the prompts in that area around tourism say ‘Come experience the mystery’… There are no prompts in the landscape that make you think of the real traumas, the fact that all the Aboriginal people in that area either died of smallpox, or were murdered by settlers, or displaced and moved to missions… I think that contradiction is worth noticing and maybe shifting the narrative is a way of finally coming to terms with our difficult past.

Spiers’s artistic interest in monuments directed her to research how Germany commemorates the Holocaust through memorials. She stumbled upon a planned project by the German artist Horst Hoheisel, who proposed to demolish the Brandenburg Gate – Berlin’s landmark of Prussian and German history – grind it up and spread it over the four-acre site for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which was under construction a few hundred yards away.

Spiers then asked herself how Australians could confront their difficult past. The most effective way to commemorate the absence of Aboriginal presence at the Rock, she came to agree with Hoheisel, is through absence: ‘Hanging Rock is already a monument to absence,’ she told ABC Radio. ‘What I’m trying to do is shift the understanding of whose absence this monument should commemorate.’

She suggests here that taking away something that is dear to people – like the story of Picnic at Hanging Rock – would be a kind of necessary sacrifice. Creating an empty space could make room for thinking about the actual history of the place and the consequences of attempted genocide. A space deliberately left empty is a gesture towards the unknowable.

But does this mean we should wipe out all references to Picnic at Hanging Rock?

To answer this question, I think we should consult the story itself.

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Scholarly articles have discussed the novel and film extensively. For decades, critics and scholars had analysed Picnic at Hanging Rock for themes such as classicism and feminism, taking little notice of Aboriginal absence or presence. Since around 2010, however, readings that see themes of Aboriginal displacement have come into focus.

For a long time I have been preoccupied with how the story constructs nature – by which we often mean the essence of things or the non-human – with references to Australian culture. It deserves attention, I believe, not because the story is bad or should be censored, but because it is complex, ironic, and critical. And because it shows how Miranda is truly made to appear as a kind of ‘white indigenous myth’, as Kathleen Steele describes in in her 2010 article, ‘Fear and Loathing in the Australian Bush: Gothic Landscapes in Bush Studies and Picnic at Hanging Rock. This myth enables some people to feel connected to the land because stories make places seem familiar and convey ownership, however the story does this self-consciously by presenting the disastrous consequences of this endeavour.

The film constructs nature as a mirror to society. This inscription of nature can be seen quite blatantly with the example of swans representing ‘whiteness’. The film dramatises the loss of three girls and a schoolteacher; however, characters obsess about the death of one young woman only – Miranda. Michael Fitzhubert, who incidentally sees the girls from afar before they go missing, suffers the greatest trauma of her loss. He has continuous visions of Miranda as the white swan. (Significantly, there is a complete absence of native black swans.)

The film dramatises the loss of three girls and a schoolteacher; however, characters obsess about the death of one young woman only.

The story is almost devoid of Aboriginal characters, except for a black tracker, who is brought in from Gippsland to help the search party. But this character is given no dialogue, and he is quickly replaced by a bloodhound and eventually by Michael, who finds one of the girls.

Toni Morrison has remarked that in a society preoccupied with race and identity politics ‘there is no escape from racially inflected language, and the work writers do to unhobble the imagination from the demands of that language is complicated, interesting, and definitive.’ This observation rings true for this Australian tale, in which language and nature are infused with cultural conflicts of its time. Just as Miranda is aligned with white swans, the Rock also has an identity: it is portrayed as monstrous.

The novel describes the Rock as a ‘living monster’. In Latin, monstro means to show, or reveal. As the film continues, the Rock is revealed capable of reflecting ‘white’ monstrosity: while Mrs Appleyard, headmaster of the girls’ college, had always maltreated the orphan student Sarah, it is the stress of the Rock incident that brings out the extent of her cruelty.

With its turn of the century setting, Picnic at Hanging Rock reconstructs a time in which the doctrine of terra nullius was naturalised – a time in which Aboriginal absence was never questioned. Yet, implicitly, the story suggests that the Rock comes to stand in for Aboriginal presence, one that is unsettling for white settlers.

With the presence, power and attraction to the Rock, the story appears to appropriate the Aboriginal relationship to Country by imitating Aboriginal stories – if albeit with a catastrophic ending: the loss of lives, murder, suicides, fires and the collapse of the school. Literary scholar Ken Gelder has observed that successful occupation of the land is often accompanied by narratives of its collapse. Thinking through the plot makes the film’s role in Australia – its nation-building and touristic effect – all the more interesting.

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How do you shift the narrative when people remember the fictitious loss of settler schoolgirls but none of the actual history?

At first sight, Miranda Must Go seems to aim at censoring the story. But, as I came to understand, this is a deliberate provocation. Once you pay attention to the campaign and visit its website, it becomes obvious that it is not so much about removing the Miranda story than shaking things up.

Spiers provocatively chose a Lenin-like sculpture of Miranda, which is in the process of being dismantled by a crane. She is reflective, however, about this provocation and absurdity of this proposition.

In an interview she told me:

It would be quite difficult in actuality [as] there is no physical monument to be removed from Hanging Rock as there was in the Rhodes Must Fall or Black Lives Matter campaigns. I’m an artist, after all, and I’m particularly tickled by the idea of removing Miranda symbolically by persuading Anne Lambert, who played Miranda in Weir’s film, to enact a ritualistic removal from Hanging Rock. The idea is a thought experiment.

The campaign does not pretend it is the story itself that must go but its monumental status at the Rock and in people’s minds. After all, a story is not a monument. Miranda Must Go does not destroy the story but adds to it, prompting people to reread, re-watch and listen for things previously unseen.

The campaign’s goals are pragmatic: to uncover the story of Aboriginal losses, survival and stories of the Rock. But it also wants to retell Picnic at Hanging Rock by fostering awareness of its colonial implications. These newly gained insights could be made accessible to the public – in schoolbooks, tourist information and the Discovery Centre.

Thanks to the campaign, efforts to shift the narrative are already underway: in a recent article, the Age quoted the Wurundjeri elder Annette Xiberras, who said that references to Picnic at Hanging Rock could stay but more Aboriginal information should be added, such as that before white settlement the Rock would have been used for corroborees and initiations.

Rebecca Solnit recently wrote that works of art that accompany you through the decades are ‘wells in which you can keep dipping. They remind you that what you bring to the work of art is as important as what it brings to you. They can become registers of how you’ve changed.’

Picnic at Hanging Rock has been seductive, ambiguous and critical enough to serve as such a well. The story still indicates how society changes: the guilt of dispossession first occurred in a hidden and coded way, before unsettledness was openly articulated. Miranda Must Go is part of this ongoing story.

Fifty years after the publication of Joan Lindsay’s iconic novel, the campaign is a reminder that it matters what stories we tell. Stories shape reality and have tangible results.