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The first essay in the new series ‘Wake in Light: On Australian Film’ examines Lion and the immigrant experience in our cinema.

Image: Allstar/Screen Australia

Image: Allstar/Screen Australia

Australia is a migrant’s country, but you wouldn’t know that from Australian film. The lives of new Australians remain a largely unexplored vein of storytelling in our cinema.

When I saw the trailer for the six-time Oscar-nominated Australian film, Lion, I thought it might buck that trend. Here was an adoption story of Saroo Brierley, an Indian-born Australian man played by Dev Patel, tracing his past and balancing his identity. Twenty-ish years after his departure from an orphanage to a suburban Hobart home, Saroo longs to know his history. He remembers the faces and voices of his mother, Kamla, and his brother, Guddu, but not the name of his hometown. So he embarks on a reversal of the trip that brought him to his adoptive parents to find his other family.

What Lion does is take a culturally rich story and apply the conventions of middlebrow Western, feel-good cinematic storytelling, the same conventions that Lion’s producer Emile Sherman has cracked and honed in another true-story film, The King’s Speech.

What did it feel like to move from rowdy Calcutta to dead-quiet Hobart in the 1980s? The film doesn’t tell us, aside from having sparkly-eyed Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) tour Saroo around their house, pointing out the television and other appliances. What did it feel like to return to the country and the life that Saroo almost forgot?

It’s not clear from the final chapter set in India, which plays out with the pre-imagined, quick-edited gloss of a Lonely Planet travelogue or Coldplay video clip, rather than a culturally specific piece of cinema. Despite being real people, Kamla and Guddu remain abstract characters inhabiting the roles of noble, selfless peasants. Even Rooney Mara’s Lucy, an anonymous-girlfriend type, never exists beyond the realm of cartoon, only appearing in the narrative when Saroo needs a little character development and to push the plot forward.

The sight of Nicole Kidman in tight, teary-eyed close-up, staring into the middle-distance, recounting a childhood dream in which a brown-skinned boy approaches her in a field is not just cringe-worthy and benevolently racist, it is also a romanticised and unquestioning vision of overseas adoption.

Lion misses the chance to delve into the nuances and complexities of adoption from the developing world, and the resulting complications in character psychology, which are whisked over in favour of a predictable story arc where loose ends are tied, subtext is made explicit in the form of dialogue and happy conclusions are imminent. It’s a film of naive intentions.

Lion misses the chance to delve into the nuances and complexities of adoption from the developing world.

While most filmmakers present preposterous plotlines and make them compelling with masterful storytelling techniques, Lion takes a true story and makes it entirely unbelievable. It reminded me that while ‘multiculturalism’ used to be the buzzword that ‘diversity’ has replaced, both can be shallow concepts that neatly and cosmetically collapse ‘minorities’ into an otherwise unchanged white majority.

This is why Lion is such a great shame. The political conversation about migration in Australia has for two decades been hijacked by choked slogans about ‘illegals’ and ‘boat people’. But there are all types of migration – different ways of seeking asylum, overseas adoption, failed migration, ceaseless moving migration, reverse migration, and, going way back, convict transportation.

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How could such an essential component of this country’s national identity be so absent from the screen? What presence of the immigrant experience is in Australian cinema? Searching for these stories, I found that the existing instances fall into three main streams: coming-of-age family melodramas that play out using pre-delineated storytelling conventions; comedies that place foreigners in a zone of discomfort to be laughed at by a white audience, or that hinge on broad stereotypes; and crime films centred on ethnic crims, fusing non-Anglo ethnicity with criminality.

The 1966 comedy-romance They’re a Weird Mob is the ground zero of immigrant stories in Australian cinema. In the Directory of World Cinema Australia New Zealand 2, scholar Mark David Ryan traces the film as the first of many that revolve ‘around international protagonists, or “outsiders”, who struggle to acclimatize to Australian society/culture, which is typically outdoors, masculine and low-brow.’

The film, which is a fish-out-of-water comedy about a hapless Italian called Nino recently moved to Sydney, fails to characterise him beyond being a foreigner. Nino emerges as a childlike, honest, mistake-prone man whose lack of familiarity with such phrases as ‘your shout!’ is played for cartoon laughs, which are underscored by an anonymous Aussie Bloke narrator who drops in and out almost randomly.

Though this film has its admirers in scholarship and criticism, it is the kind of film that I find almost impossible to parse today: it makes no sense as you are watching it unfold, and is a stupid, terrible beginning to the entire theme of immigration experiences in Australian film. In all fairness, however, They’re a Weird Mob stereotypes local-born Australians and Australia itself as much as newly arrived citizens, playing as a bizarre nationalist propaganda vision of a free, friendly, happy country.

More recent comedies like Wog Boy (2000), its sequel Kings of Mykonos (2010) and Fat Pizza (2003) also trade in the broadest of stereotypes. Think of Paul Fenech’s Pauly Falzoni, a Lebanese man obsessed with chicks and cars, mouthing off in his rip-off Playboy bunny T-shirt. In these kinds of gross-out parodies, the imaginary Australian mainstream remains untouched and intact.

A longer branch of ethnic crime films approach the familiar stereotypes from the viewpoint of suburban dysfunction, often inadvertently amplifying mainstream anxieties about the failures of multiculturalism. In Serhat Caradee’s Cedar Boys (2009), about second-generation Lebanese–Australian youth in Sydney’s south-west, cars are stolen, drugs are sold and people are assaulted in nightclubs.

Batoul Amahz, also writing in the Directory of World Cinema Australia New Zealand 2, says that Caradee ‘attempts to tell a tale where acts of crime arise from social, cultural and political circumstances and from the victimization of the characters as a result of their ethnic background…Yet Cedar Boys, and often the crime genre more generally, reduces ethnicity to crime, and crime to ethnicity. [It] does not account for the potentiality that Lebanese Australian individuals are neither villains nor victims.’

Characters from migrant families are recurrently the petty thieves, drug dealers and organised crime ring runners.

The instance is not isolated: David Field’s The Combination (2009) and Rowan Woods’ Little Fish (2005) also locate crime primarily in migrant communities, while scholar Greg Dolgopolov (in the same World Directory text) observes that ethnic criminals appear in films that aren’t in the crime genre, noting Tony the Yugoslav in The Wog Boy, Anton the Russian in Paul Cox’s Salvation (2008) and the Greek kidnappers in Nirvana Street Murders (1990).

This might not be a problem were it not the dominant trend. But across such films, characters from migrant families are recurrently the petty thieves, drug dealers and organised crime ring runners. Rather than talk back to those stereotypes or work from the closely-observed, difficult details of life, the ways these characters and their arcs are written drills further down into type.

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There exists a smattering of more sophisticated dramas based on moments in the lives of second-generation Australians, including Richard Flanagan’s well-received film The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1998). ‘I think it’s really good that we’re starting to see a few more films about the immigrant experience,’ said David Stratton, himself an escapee of England. ‘We saw Floating Life last year but otherwise you’ve got to go right back to Silver City for fine films that deal with such an important aspect of who we are today.’

Silver City is an AFI-award-winning 1984 drama about a group of Polish postwar immigrants stranded in what were known as silver cities – the sprawling hostels (which eventually morphed into today’s detention centres) where new citizens arrived and waited, sometimes for years, to be directed into society, while they paid off the Australian government for the cost of being brought here.

As new friendships form, love affairs spark and jobs on the outside are found, the initial separation of migration reveals itself to be one of a stream of separations: the film unfurls migration as a ceaseless process rather than an event in the life of an individual. It sets aside these ideas, however, as well as the fascinating historical context of this period in Australian history, for a less convincing love triangle centred around a young woman called Nina and her best friend’s husband.

The director, Sophia Turkiewicz, returned to these themes in her personal documentary Once My Mother (2013). With her Polish-born mother, Helen, fading into dementia in a nursing home and drifting between Polish and English, Turkiewicz can no longer ignore the mysteries that led to her abandonment at age seven in an orphanage.

Her quest returns her to her mother’s hometown in Poland, whose bordered shape has shifted since Helen’s jolted departure after World War II. Along her journey, Turkiewicz’s voiceover narration speaks to her mother directly: ‘I’m losing you, I’m losing the woman who once was my mother.’

Though Helen’s childhood home and town hold nothing but sorrow, she longs to know the contours of her own mother’s face: her childhood memory has failed her and no photos remain. She left motherless and never returned, with no documents ever marking her existence; she came to Australia a foreigner, but should she return to her original place today she would rebound a stranger. Here, the yearning is to know one’s story; the reality is the impossibility of knowing what narrative you are in while you are in it.

Richard Roxburgh’s Romulus, My Father and writer-director Tony Ayre’s Home Song Stories were released in 2007 and follow such similar storytelling paths it is difficult write of one without the other. Both are memoirs of Australians who moved here as children. Based on Raimond Gaita’s memoir, Romulus, My Father traces Gaita’s childhood in 1960s rural Victoria with his European-born parents, while Ayres tells his own story of coming from Hong Kong to Melbourne in the 1970s.

Like Once My Mother, maternal abandonment and betrayal rise up as a corollary of migration trauma. In both Romulus, My Father and Home Song Stories, the initial trigger of dislocation turns to parental failure and female suicide, as seen through the eyes of sensitive boys who yearn for the full embraces of their mothers’ love.

Floating Life (1996). Image: Hibiscus Films

Translating such naturally dramatic material from first-person literature to the cinematic sphere risks descent into melodrama and requires a new sensibility. As cinemagoers, we know the genre we are in instinctively – in these two cases, autobiographical family period dramas – and we know the conventions that will be used. In these films, the stories unfold as we expect them and the plots arc forward heavily, with few moments of cinematic abstraction; complexity is jettisoned for convention.

Though it doesn’t seem to me a great film, in Anna Kokkinos’ Head On (1998) I found more variation. Based on Christos Tsolkias’s novel Loaded, it features Alex Dimitriades as Ari, the son of Greek immigrants, experiencing intersections of queer sexuality, generational rifts and cultural drift that are increasingly difficult to reconcile.

These intersections are interesting to me as they reach over easily segmented understandings of identity; the film showed me how different communities are similar. Cinematically, Greek music is woven into the fabric of the film and its script in a way rarely heard in most contemporary cinema, sounding out in low-ceilinged Greek bars and Ari’s family’s kitchen. The final scene of Ari dancing the tsifteteli solo against Melbourne’s overcast, sprawling skyline, joining the paths of identity crossing within him, is a transcendent moment.

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Romulus, My Father, Head On and Home Song Stories are coming-of-age narratives, capturing moments of trauma and change that divide a life into ‘before’ and ‘after’. The recurrence of this type of story, related to the immigrant experience, seems significant. I was also struck by how unusual it is to see subtitles in Australian film, which shouldn’t be the case given our nation’s linguistic diversity.

Talking about the immigration experience onscreen is another way of talking about diversity, one of Australian film’s biggest conversations – and at worst, buzzwords – today. Who writes and tells the stories? Who has a voice? Who controls the film industry in Australia? So many migrants, so many diasporas, so few of their stories onscreen. The conversation about diversity is not just about casting – the faces that appear in films – but about the kinds of stories that we wind up watching, the themes and experiences explored, the new aesthetic avenues for cinema to move towards.

Who writes and tells the stories? Who has a voice? Who controls the film industry in Australia?

The films of Macau-born Clara Law point down one of those avenues. A chronicler of the Chinese diaspora, Law has an Australian output of two films, The Goddess of 1967 (2000), about a visitor to Australia, and Floating Life (1996), whose title beautifully alludes to a feeling of suspension between countries, identities and generations. Law tells the story of a Hong Kong family spread across the world. Its Australian branch lives in a what looks like a display home, and they are shot in mostly wide, detached long-shots that suggest a shiny suburban unreality: a quarter-acre, cul-de-sac SimCity.

Floating Life looks different to most Australian films. For all its restraint and distance, the film holds both anxiety and patience in every frame, and exudes real pain, not just of the exhaustion of adapting to a new culture and having no place to put down your burden, but of living and losing things – it speaks to a more universal hunger for belonging. I wonder if this feeling of floating through life also comes from being in a place like Australia that withholds its history from itself, that doesn’t seem to have a basic grasp of what history is.

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I am writing today as a long-descended Anglo-Celtic immigrant, and I think Australia would be a very different place if other convicts’ great-great-great-grandchildren identified as at-home migrants too. Watching the films in this article I was rarely thrown deep into the feeling of what it is like to move and never go back, for my children to never know my parents or grandparents, to have my heart cut between places to which I turn and return in my mind. I know this is what my English and Irish descendants must have felt with the social death that accompanied their enforced movement via the transportation system.

For others, what of the freedoms of leaving the past behind, or breaking and remoulding your lineage? What of those who move entirely willingly? And all the other experiences of coming and going?

The clashes of convict culture have been presented as struggles against authoritarianism and injustice.

While Australia is a convict-settler country, this aspect of our history isn’t generally thought of as a type of migration. Rather the clashes of convict culture have been presented as struggles against authoritarianism and injustice: the poverty-clenched underclass led by the likes of Ned Kelly and Michael Howe rising up against the demented sadists of Her Majesty’s police and various state governments, including in the land that Saroo’s suburban streets of Hobart paved over. The complexity of these stories, as well as the adoption of people like Saroo, can’t be contained in the Hollywood storytelling logic that Lion holds onto, a logic in which all questions are answered and loose ends tied.

How telling that those who migrated from the shores of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales as convicts are treated as true Australian citizens, fighting for a fair go, while other migrants are all but erased from the screen. This part of Australia’s founding myth – that those with Anglo backgrounds are not migrants but Australians – has insidiously taken over the country’s cinematic output.

I say again this as the descendent of migrants, as a person who thinks of herself as a local-born visitor to an Aboriginal continent. Imagine how different Australian cinema would look if just a sliver of that thinking was permitted onscreen?