AUSTRALIA DAY: Mixed Messages
Australia Day is a Crash-style drama that contrasts 3 different minorities facing persecution and racism on the backdrop of Australia Day.
The usage of the title ‘Australia Day‘ is one of purposeful controversy. Much like the usage of the title “Birth of A Nation” for Nate Parker’s 2016 much-aligned slave revolt picture (taking the title from the controversial 1915 DW Grittith movie), the title Australia Day, and its representation within the film’s narrative, highlights its provoking nature.
Directed by Kriv Stenders, the director behind one of Australia’s biggest local hits of all time, Red Dog, a film which celebrated traditional Australian values, has now made a movie that demonises the dark side of Australian culture. A far distance from his previous genre work in Kill Me Three Times, Australia Day is a Crash-style drama that contrasts three different minorities facing persecution, revenge and racism on the backdrop of the iconic but controversial Australian day of celebration.
As a display of Australia’s changing cultural attitude towards diversity, especially in the media, the three different stories (that are mainly visually and thematically linked rather than narratively) kick off immediately, with a montage of the different persecuted characters running. This is a sequence that demands instant audience attention and introduces an immediate sense of escalating anxiety through a series of constant cross-cutting between scenes that would make Christopher Nolan proud.
Whilst the film is effective in keeping this constant state of momentum and never slowing down (the two hour run-time glides pretty quickly, which is unusual for an Australian drama), it’s examining these various plot threads, and the elements contained within them, is where the film really falls apart.
On a narrative level, setting the film on Australia Day plays absolutely zero part in any of the stories occurring, apart from some obvious cues delivered by a series of convenient news broadcasts. It seems like the only reason the film chose to set its events on this date was to increase the political poignancy without the script actually providing the necessary material to deserve it. It feels like a bad Christmas movie, where a screenwriter takes a basic family plot, sets it around Christmas time, and then they’re automatically given a solid background and thematic connections without the script having to do any extra work to achieve this, because the backdrop does all the heavy lifting.
Three Stories, One Problem
Despite trying to avoid racial stereotypes, Australia Day ultimately falls for the other kind: genre stereotypes, and looking at the three stories individually shows just how hollow and generic each thread is when presented on its own. Now I understand that it’s unfair to examine these intertwined stories by themselves, (part of the power of The Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas is how they perfectly edit the different timelines together into something that is way better than its individual parts), but their glaringly predictable story beats and foreseeable character arcs immediately strip these stories of their supposed thematic depth.
The first story details the misadventures of Persian-Australian Sami (Elias Anton), a teenager who has been accused of drugging and raping the sister (who barely exists as a character herself) of Dean (Sean Keenan). Immediately off the bat we are introduced to one of the film’s many one-note characters, someone who only exists to represent a population of angry, white young male racists, who fuel Australia’s current intensifying racism.
Whilst it’s fine to have a character represent a larger issue (it’s done all the time in cinema), but to have this person purely exist for this function strips him of any other personality or nuance. Although the film can’t exactly get into the fine details of systemic racism, what it can do (but doesn’t), is give us characters with motivations and complex backgrounds to help translate these messages across to the intended audience. Even if it’s something ridiculously simple as Dean’s character having being attacked by a Persian-Australian in the past, yes it’s a pretty basic motivation, but it at least gives one layer to the character to make the viewer understand his existence within the film’s universe and the reasons behind his actions.
Dean is introduced with a weirdly incestuous moment with his sister that the film never addresses or touches on again, which just adds to the overwhelmingly two dimensional feeling of his character. Why focus so solely on one particular character? Because he is actually a prime example on the hollow feeling that every major character in the film has, and how they each merely function as furniture for the writing’s curation of particular events.
Starting the Conversation
You can’t say that the film is merely the start to a larger conversation on race, then give concrete answers to each of the movie’s different narrative strings. That’s the major factor that is lacking here – a sense of complexity and intelligent ambiguity. The issues that are tackled are important, but they are complicated, and if you’re using the big screen to try and shed light on these issues, then the narratives themselves should be just as complex and messy. You need to give the audience something to think about and dissect themselves, whether it be the reasons behind key character decisions (Do the Right Thing), if the ending was the right idea (Snowpiercer) or even just some controversial scenes/themes that generate continued discussion (Moonlight).
Bryan Brown’s segment is just a half-assed attempt to make a more politically-relevant version of the “kick-ass old man” subgenre that was kickstarted by Charles Bronson in the 80’s and popularised by Liam Neeson thanks to Taken. Brown just happens to save Lan (Jenny Wu), an escaped member of a Chinese prostitution ring. Not only does Brown’s character inhabit every single stereotype of the old man saviour character (ambiguous disease that’s killing him, a child that he’s trying to reconnect with, references to “back in the day”, having some form of military background and continued access to a wealth of fire-arms), but his motivations to help out Lan are completely missing.
The third segment is centered on Mackenzie (Shari Sebbens), an Aboriginal cop who is chasing down 13-year old April (Miah Madden), a frightened child who is on the run after killing her abusive father and getting into a car accident caused by Mackenzie’s cop car. This plot attempts to address themes of indigenous abuse and how they’re represented in the media, but the narrative is built-upon so many coincidences and unfortunate stereotypes that it becomes just as expendable as the other segments.
I can’t call this film disingenuous with its messages, as witnessed during the film’s Q&A, Kriv Stenders and the film’s producers share a sense of sincere dedication about what they’re trying to say with the film. The problem is that these messages are delivered so obviously and blatant, done through a series of flat characters and clunky dialogue, that it all comes off as ham-fisted and cloying. The major weakness is easily its script, which constantly undercuts its good intentions, despite all the actors involved trying to elevate the material above the PSA-level of writing they’re stuck with.
There’s absolutely nothing aesthetically (the cinematography is shot like a basic soap opera) or narratively, that demands a theatrical watch. Produced by Australian cable service Foxtel, this honestly feels like something that was intended to be released straight to the dominant cable service, a starting-off point for a new series of decently-budgeted original programming by Foxtel, rather than one of the key Australian feature films of the year.
Australia Day: Conclusion
The one word I would call Kriv Stenders’ Australia Day is relentless. It’s non-stop in its continuous momentum, kicking off with a running montage that introduces a fast-paced kinetic style that never really lets up during its two hour running time. But Run Lola Run this is not. It is also relentless in its need to be politically relevant, which is delivered through its basic, one-note characters and incredibly ham-fisted dialogue.
When a young drug-dealing male teenager states “Brown skin can do just as much damage as white”, not only is it a terribly written line from the get-go and an obvious attempt to have a shareable quote to highlight Australia Day‘s thematic depth, but it’s not in any way an organic or believable statement to be said from that character in the film.
You can’t introduce a character as an irrational, emotionally driven brawny male who then delivers carefully curated statements that should be brandished on some dour Twitter update. This is just a representation of how clunky the movie’s attempts at being politically poignant are.
A series of predictable story arcs, rudimentary characters and simplistic viewpoints on racism continuously weaken the good intentions behind the creation of Australia Day. There’s no feeling of cynicism behind its creation, and its attempts to address diversity and Australia’s cultural problems is noble, but the film is way too fleeting to really address anything in a thoughtful manner.
Australia Day is currently running on the Australian film festival circuit. Alex Lines saw the film at Melbourne International Film Festival.
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