Diasporas of Australian Cinema.
Edited by Catherine Simpson, Renata Murawska, and Anthony Lambert.
Fishponds, Bristol, UK: Intellect Ltd., August 2009. Paper: ISBN 978-1841501970, $40. 128 pages.
Review by Sarah Pinto, Centre for Australian Indigenous Studies, Monash University
Australian cinema seems to be enjoying yet another renaissance in 2009. After several years of apparent darkness, during which critics and commentators lamented the state of both box office receipts and filmic quality, a number of films have arrived on screens to much local success, including Academy Award winner Adam Elliot’s claymation feature Mary and Max, which opened the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, and Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah, winner of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival’s Caméra d’Or (for best first feature). Of course, these (and others) have come in the wake of Baz Luhrmann’s epic Australia, which brought with it a great deal of local and international attention, good, bad, and otherwise. As many film historians will know, however, this year’s “renaissance” is one of several since the industry’s revival in the 1970s, and demonstrates, yet again, the degree to which local filmmaking attracts public anaylsis in Australia. Indeed, at times Australian films can seem swamped by the ongoing debates about the local industry that inevitably swirl around them. This analysis is certainly important, particularly given Australia’s limited funding opportunities and the heightened sense of local film’s importance to the nation’s identity and character. But I’m less convinced that this should be at the expense of closer examinations of the films themselves, not for verdicts on whether they constitute “good” or “bad” cinema, but for a consideration of their storytelling and engagements with the worlds of their release, Australian or otherwise.
This is precisely the project of Diasporas of Australian Cinema. Using diasporic hybridity as its central motif, this collection sets out to do two things: to address an absence of collected works on diaspora in cinema generally and national cinemas specifically; and to demonstrate the importance of “diasporic qualities” to Australian cinema (17). The collection begins with a theoretically-engaged Introduction where the editors provide two substantive arguments for the significance and importance of their diasporic approach, one historical, the other political: that ideas of a “transient, diasporic collective” are increasingly being attached to the Australian state (18); and that discussions of inclusive identities that allow for the possibility of multiplicity and “national cultural heterogeneity” (27) are particularly important at a time when calls for homogeneity have once again returned to prominence in Australia.
The collection itself is divided into three sections. The first, on theories, draws on and extends the discussions of the Introduction, with a particular focus on the specificities of diaspora in contemporary Australia. Both Catherine Simpson and Sonia Magdelena Tascón gesture, for example, towards the potential for contemporary Australian diasporic films to function as interventions against the increasing homogeneity of official conceptualisations of Australian identity at the turn of the twenty-first century, led particularly by the conservative federal government of former Prime Minister John Howard. In doing so, both pieces talk in some detail of the Howard Government’s deliberate move away from policies of multiculturalism that were so significant to Australian culture and identity in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the politics of multiculturalism more generally. These discussions point to what I think is one of the greatest strengths of this collection: the way in which it revisits, and perhaps re-opens, a conversation about multiculturalism, a conversation that has been largely closed down in recent times, and not just in Australia.
This discussion continues into the section on representations, particularly in Felicity Collins’ nuanced opening chapter. Collins considers the ways in which the “diasporic, multicultural or wogsploitation” comedy film engages with the conventional Anglo-Celtic Australian “national type” – the “ocker,” the “larrikin,” or the “decent Aussie bloke” (75). According to Collins, the wogboy, as an active agent in these films, manages to assimilate and appropriate, trumping the ockers that have traditionally dominated Australian comedies. More often, however, the chapters in this section – engaging with Italian, Greek, Russian, German, Turkish and Japanese diasporic representations – show cultural and ethnic “others” mobilised simply in support of the definition of a (contrasting) Australian national identity. I was particularly drawn to Antje Gnida and Catherine Simpson’s chapter on the depiction of Turkish and German enemies in Australian war films, which they argue have helped produce and reinforce “conservative myths of nationhood” around the figure of the Australian soldier (95). It is only in Ana Kokkinnos’ powerful Head On (1998) that “’other’ remains ‘other’” (121), as John Conomos’ chapter on Greek-Australian cinema argues. As the first section made clear, films have the potential to intervene, dispute, and disrupt; but they can also be implicated in the political needs of nation-states, even when they might appear engaged with diasporic, transnational, or multicultural critiques.
It’s not surprising, then, that this collection’s final section on film-makers brings with it a critique of diaspora, most particularly in the chapters by Susie Khamis and Ben Goldsmith and Brian Yecies. Both these chapters focus on film-makers whose films exceed notions of diaspora. Focussing on two participatory documentary films by Tom Zubrycki, Khamis considers the complexity of the Lebanese Muslim community depicted in Zubrycki’s films, a complexity she argues cannot be neatly explained by the term diaspora (147). Similarly, Goldsmith and Yecis’ discussions of Korean-Australian filmic collaborations, and especially the animated short film Birthday Boy (Sejong Park, 2004), consider film that are simultaneously diasporic, Australian, and transnational (168).
Taken together, these chapters reveal a vibrant and important diasporic cinematic tradition in Australia. The collection both engages with and critiques its central diasporic concept, which gives it a methodological and theoretical strength that extends beyond its national focus. And although the individual chapters could have engaged with each other more productively, Diasporas of Australian Cinema works cohesively as an edited collection. I was, however, left wondering about the usefulness of – or need for – an exclusively national framework in studies of diasporic cinema, particularly given the editors’ definition of Australian cinema as a “loose,” open category (17), which, for me, destabilized the cohesiveness of the book’s project. Nevertheless, reading this collection has reminded me of the importance of cinema to identity and culture, and sent me back to the films themselves, which is surely a good thing.