By Tara Judah

With adrenaline and urgency Kriv Stenders’ Australia Day hit the cinema screen. No moral compass for another ten or so minutes in. Meanwhile, everyone’s running and the sounds of panicked breath in surround sound suture me into the onscreen efforts for escape.

There are plenty of things to run away from in Australia; racism, abuse, exploitation and a desire for vigilante justice among those Stenders points to in his tense political drama. Taking one of the most loaded terms in Australian history as its titular provocation, Australia Day asks us to think about what one might be running towards – and whether ineffective systemic management of inbred injustice can amount to anything more than a dead end.

Multiple mini narratives, with inter-connected characters, reveal deep rooted social tensions between fractured racial and ethnic groups; a young Indigenous Australian girl is harassed by a group of white Australian males draped and dressed in fabric bearing the Union Jack accompanied by the Southern Cross, “Happy Invasion Day – it’s fucking ours now!”; an illegal Chinese immigrant, forced to work in a black market brothel escapes only to find herself thrust back into the arms of her oppressor when a white Australian male shows a little but not enough empathy – the language barrier is one issue but his own agricultural woes; no decent rain for five years, no money for feed, changed minimum fat scores for export for China, mean he can’t afford to run let alone defend and prosper from his land; a young male immigrant falls at the unrelenting violent feet of a white Australian male’s sense of vigilante justice when he is caught with a young white woman. But each of these circumstances are marked by some form of misunderstanding. If only the white Australian male could step outside of his (privileged/powerful) experience.

Stenders, keen to know what would happen if he did, peeks under the bonnet of an Australian suburban nightmare, only to find violence and violation therein. Sweeping aerial shots reveal a vast expanse of quiet banality; no sign of blood or conflict from above. But the bird’s eye view doesn’t allow the appropriate perspective; when seen from above things appear to calm and collected, but a sideways glance reveals the cracks. Running from violence – domestic, pimped and bigoted –  the individuals are desperate for the so-promised borderlessness of Australia’s vast landscape, but continually find themselves boxed in by its violent self-made spaces. From the solace of a suburban home an estranged mother might return to, if she weren’t dosed with drugs from another white man, to the promise of the police station’s upholding of law, order and justice to the non-authorial settlement of a familial home, each interior space should be a place of protection and safety, just as the sovereignty of this so-called nation should serve all its inhabitants. Only it doesn’t.

Vehicles are also posited as dangerous, even if they are predominantly what enables movement across the great vacant spaces of the country’s vast terrain; the first death occurs when a police car is in pursuit of a speeding vehicle; another car serves as the site where an unconscious woman and suspicion of foul play are found; an unsuspecting man in a ute drives in literal and figurative circles trying to help but also trying to evade responsibility for anOther. The problems are varied and, in some ways, complex, but can also be reduced to the simplest of political wedges: a refusal to engage.

Empathy and respect for the most basic of human rights and equality of all human life could solve most of the problems presented, on a narrative level. Even the sort-of protagonist police officer who is dismissed for the day but can’t keep away from her case knows that she must push beyond the systemic management processes if she is to save another life, prevent another injustice and enable a better future, in any way. The law is presented as wholly ineffective, perhaps because it is the most obvious embodiment of the white Australian male.

Our aligning officer, Sonya Mackenzie (Sonia Sebbens), is mixed race, and it is evidently her Indigenous roots and her understanding that the role she plays within the white man’s world is not leverage enough to save a younger generation of women of colour. If she wants to do better, which she does, she must take off her uniform, start running and use the very same urgency that propels those persecuted around her to stop the persistent annihilation and obliteration of their agency and existence. There doesn’t have to be a dead end around every turned corner, and Stenders ties up his loose ends with hopeful, if slightly unrealistic results. Mackenzie helps save multiple generations of Indigenous women, but only after she has inadvertently contributed to the death of one.

The real terror, then, that the film alludes to, is that we can’t effectively hold the white man to account in his current post as possessor of power. We must, however, press on in our continued efforts to outrun his large, looming shadow.

Director: Kriv Stenders
Writers: Stephen M. Irwin, Stephen M. Irwin
Stars: Burgess Abernethy, Will Allen, Elias Anton
98 min