By Tara Judah
Growing up in Melbourne, there were two things I wanted to do on my eighteenth birthday: get my driver’s licence so I could get the hell out of the suburbs, and get the hell out of the suburbs.
At this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, the programme that first caught my eye, and that continues to win me over with its intelligent and entertaining questions around gender and identity, is Pioneering Women. Presented in association with the National Film and Sound Archive and co-curated by critic and broadcaster Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, the programme’s intent was to shine a light on, “amazing and sometimes under-seen Australian should-be classics directed by women and made in the 1980s and early 1990s.” The catalogue of cinema’s “should-be classics” is vast and the curators who champion those titles should be praised; our rediscovery of the past is every bit as important as our endeavour to unpick the present. The programme’s strength lies in its diversity, showcasing stunning new digital restorations alongside original film print rarities and positing iconic Australian filmmakers including Gillian Armstrong and Tracey Moffatt alongside lesser known but equal talent, such as the remarkable Laurie McInnes, whose feature film debut screened in a cinema for the first time since its original theatrical release in 1993. Broken Highway, a film I had, growing up in Australia in the ‘80s and ‘90s not only never seen but never even heard of, is now burned into both my retina and my soul.
Broken Highway is an extraordinary film. It is identifiably Australian, in both its sound and for its themes. Our accent, my accent – the most and maybe the only thing that is easily read of me as an Australian signifier now that I reside permanently in the UK – surrounds the film’s not-quite Australian protagonist, Angel (played by Canadian-Australian actor Aden Young). It cuts through long stretches of silence or direct sound with aural acridity. Thematically, the film’s chief concern is alienation as a symptom of mashing complex identity politics into confined man-made spaces and then stretching them breaking point along seemingly endless, unyielding horizons. McInnes has it permeate every frame, each composition feeling more spatially contorted and communicably uncomfortable than the last. Yet, somehow, it also offers the deftly crafted aesthetic of experimental and art house cinema: the felt weight of scarce light as it dances across the faces of some, leaving others untouched and undesirable, covered in sweat, dirt and shadow. Characters are measurably condemned or offered petty salvation by how much light is allowed to cross their browbeaten faces; a fitting metaphor for the ways in which film history and its champions shine a light on some films, not others.
Cars cannot help here: McInnes shows them rusting, burning and unable to fulfil the purpose for which they were built. Movement is restricted in her nightmarish landscape where toxic masculinity is king. In the instances where movement is permitted, it is also doomed, depicted as inherently destructive. Vehicles refuse to move in symbolic silence: getting the hell out is unlikely as these men are trapped in an eternal, unrepentable image of themselves.
I suppose I thought that getting my driver’s licence would mean that I could get away from everything I didn’t like about myself: the suburbs in my bones. Getting in my car offered me anywhere. But even anywhere is somewhere.
Broken Highway also boasts two Australian superstars among its lead cast: Claudia Karvan (High Tide (1987), The Big Steal (1990) and The Heartbreak Kid (1993)) and Bill Hunter (Gallipoli (1981), Strictly Ballroom (1992) and Muriel’s Wedding (1994)). But McInnes cast the familiar in both literal and symbolic new light, in roles that didn’t fit with the new wave of Australian quirkiness that was breaking through around the same time; Strictly Ballroom (1992), Muriel’s Wedding (1994), The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (1994). McInnes wasn’t on message, and maybe that’s why this film, and her career, fell into relative obscurity. Six years later, she made her second feature film, Dogwatch (1999). Another I had not heard of, let alone seen. More surprising perhaps than with Broken Highway as, at the time, I was eighteen years old, free to leave the suburbs in my car and visit inner city art house cinemas. But I guess it’s difficult to get the hell out of wherever it is you are confined to.
The problem of being boxed in has a long history in Australia, especially when it comes to the arts. As part of their MIFF Talks series there was a panel discussion around parity and equity in the industry. Pioneering Women: In Conversation (watch the full video recording here), saw Claudia Karvan, Nadia Tass, Gillian Armstrong, Ana Kokkinos and Clara Law, moderated by filmmaker and pioneer in her own right, Sam Lang (who served on the taskforce for the Gender Matters Initiative rolled out by Screen Australia in 2016), talk about their work, experiences and hopes for the future.
It was Tracey Moffatt, unable to attend but undeniably present through her brief but powerful statement, who spoke out clearly and piercingly about wanting to be seen first and foremost as an artist: someone who creates poetry and speaks to the human condition, who plays with form and is inventive, and who is not only viewed and evaluated through the lens of gender, race and politics, but whose work is read for its artistry. Ana Kokkinos took Moffatt’s statement as if it were a call to arms and continued the rallying cry citing Simone De Beauvoir, reminding the room of how a woman is expected to eliminate her subjectivity if she is to speak for and about ‘all’. It says a lot, Kokkinos declared, about what stories are privileged and who is privileged to tell them,
I want to assert my freedom, my right to freedom, to be unshackled by sexist notions of femininity, and that I have told and will continue to tell stories that exist, and speak to the human condition … stories by women are more urgent than they have ever been because they speak profoundly to the human condition, they speak to all.
What the discussion revealed was how this new wave of artists and practitioners, who were fiercely building and deconstructing in the ‘80s and ‘90s, struggled against boxed in notions of who they were talking about and to. Not every female identifying filmmaker is addressing or reflecting on social constructs of and about women. There are such great distances between where we are put and where we want to go. I am learning that mine are spread across more arid plains than seventeen-year-old me ever knew.
In viewing some of these truly remarkable classics back up on the big screen (unfortunately, I was unable, during in the festival, to see them all) that the depictions of toxic masculinity, class warfare and other bubbling tensions around identity politics and their role in perpetuating inequality pierced my heart, calling my understanding of my own fractured Australian identity into question.
I was a child in the 1980s and a teen in the 1990s. I had not been back to my birthplace of England at that time and I was, as I understood it, Australian. I now live in England and consider myself British first. But, the casual way that characters used racial slurs in Nadia Tass’ broad comedy The Big Steal (1990) was sickeningly familiar, transporting me right back to my primary school playground. Likewise, the strong sense of community yet dangerously inescapable, confined spaces at the caravan park in Gillian Armstrong’s High Tide (1987) also made me shift in my seat as it recalled summer holidays with my best friend and her family in Rye. The seaside town was pleasant enough and there was something exhilarating about heading to the rec hall or just wandering around and finding other kids to play and flirt with when the boredom set in. But there was also a terrifying and odd, impending sense of doom that came with rainy afternoons and her family’s arguments, or people who looked at you a little too long and a little too interested, and those far from private shower blocks that provided the only moments of solace to be found. I wished I had a car, then.
When I was a child, the car was so much more than just transport. It was also a way to escape the heat; middle class suburban homes didn’t have air conditioning in the ‘80s and ‘90s and when it was thirty-five degrees at night we’d all pile into the family car and go for a drive. We didn’t even go anywhere, just somewhere, because, I guess, that was the only place to go.
When I was sixteen I spent my meagre life savings on a 1966 Morris Mini Deluxe. I spent two years practicing driving it and parking it with my mum in tow. When I turned eighteen I got my licence – and I got the hell out of the suburbs.
What struck me most during MIFF was how little has changed. In The Big Steal, Danny Clark (Ben Mendelsohn) turns eighteen and wants two things: Joanna Johnson (Claudia Karvan) and a Jaguar. It’s a simple conceit but the painful truths are told in earnest and elevate the film far beyond the typical realms of teen comedy. What Danny wants is superficial and material on the one hand, but they’re also his search for personal freedom on the other. It’s not just any car and it’s not just any girl: Joanna is from an affluent family, and her father just so happens to drive a Jag. It is the class and lifestyle they represent – things Danny doesn’t live and can’t just have – that he yearns for.
Returning to Melbourne for the festival was strange. The city was never my home. When I lived there and when I visit, I stay with my mum, in the outer suburbs. They are some 30+ kilometres outside of the city. Each day, travelling to and from the festival’s venues, the city dwarfed me with its unattainable yet crushingly present affluence. There is something pervasive and even assumed about class within the industry I work in and, even though I can never get to there, I somehow go to there all the time. There is something unsettling about participating in a life and class to which you do not belong simply because, when you turned eighteen, you did well in your endeavour to get the hell out of where you were.
Danny’s desire for a girl and a set of wheels may have all the hallmarks of dude cinema, but it spoke to me in the way that Moffatt and Kokkinos spoke of artistry: as symptomatic of, about and to the human condition. For me, a film festival is an invitation to go somewhere other than the lived experience I know. This year, the invitation extended to an achingly re-lived experience of somewhere I thought I knew.