Tall poppy syndrome will hurt Australia

Robert C. Johnston.


australia film 2CRITICS and the media have been scathing in their attacks on Baz Luhrmann’s film, Australia, and unfairly so. It is disappointing that we have again succumbed to Australia’s infamous societal flaw – the tall poppy syndrome. Is it because it is such an ambitious project that commentators have felt the need to jump on the band wagon and pick the film to pieces in an over-analytical and negative way, tainting the would-be movie-goer’s view before they have even seen it? Do these commentators actually want this film to be successful here and overseas? Do they want a flourishing Australian film industry or would they prefer only overseas films to be shown in cinemas in Australia? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Luhrmann could easily have made your safe, typical American love story, starring Americans, and loosely tied around American historical events. His production company would have made a tidy profit and everyone would have been happy. But no, he took a leap of faith and made a multi-million dollar Gone with the Wind style sweeping romantic Australian saga in a bid to boost a floundering domestic film industry currently dominated by edgy yet crass low-budget dramas full of dysfunctional characters scripted to swear every second word. Take the time to read the hundreds of names listed in Australia‘s closing credits and think about how this film has changed their lives. Why must Luhrmann, his film, and its actors, be so vilified?

I actually liked Australia. I felt proud that someone had made a film that had the ability to penetrate the international market and showcase our great nation to the world. In my mind’s eye I could see cinema audiences in places like Los Angeles, Berlin, and Tokyo, drinking up the breathtakingly beautiful scenery for the first time, not realising that Australia was a land of such contrast. I could imagine overseas viewers being surprised to learn that the Australian mainland had come under direct attack in World War Two. I hoped viewers would have a new awareness of the era of the stolen generations.

australia film 1The movie has been picked apart for its historical inaccuracies. Germaine Greer has made her stance clear by calling it “fraudulent and misleading fantasy”. Ever heard of poetic licence? American directors, whether right or wrong, have long used it in ‘historical’ films to great effect. It’s clear from the quite satirical opening scenes that this film is not a documentary. It’s a period love story with a message. Sure, not all the facts are correct. As an historian, I was quite surprised to see Japanese ground troops invading Melville Island, an event which never happened. Sitting in the audience, though, I found myself wrapped up in the story and hoping that the Australian Army would send an amphibious landing force to attack the enemy on Melville and avenge the bombing of Darwin.

Greer bitterly nit-picks every detail of the film’s coverage of Indigenous Australians, and yes, she has many valid points. But she has failed to realise that what Luhrmann is trying to do is raise the global awareness of the plight of Indigenous Australians, and I believe he will succeed in doing so. There is nothing wrong with him using plot devices (for example, the Drover’s dead wife) to get this message across. Greer writes that “unforgivably, Luhrmann has Nullah express himself in a cutesified stage version of pidgin.” Does it matter? Luhrmann is trying to make the film accessible to an international audience. And if we give the movie a fair go, it might just have a chance.

On a related note, while Nicole Kidman may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I think her particular style suited this role, and having seen the film it’s hard to imagine another actor playing Lady Sarah Ashley. And yes, she shouldn’t have played the didgeridoo on German television – I’m sure someone will soon label the fiasco, Didgeridoogate. But give her a break. She didn’t know. And it appears Hugh Jackman didn’t know either, otherwise he would have made a quick-witted comment and offered to play it in her stead. Not all Indigenous Australian peoples consider a woman playing the instrument a taboo, and just because she is acting in a film containing Indigenous themes doesn’t mean she is expected to know every cultural intricacy. How would she have known unless she had come across the situation previously? Is it illegal to sell didgeridoos to women in souvenir shops? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a label warning of the taboo. Indeed, I remember in primary and high-school having Indigenous Australian performers come to our school, and students and teachers, male and female alike, were always encouraged to get up and have a go on the instrument. I think it’s fair to lay off Nicole about it. She (and the rest of us) will know for next time.

So why do internationally renowned Australian directors and actors want to make big budget films in Australia rather than elsewhere, especially when they can expect to be treated like Luhrmann and Co have been? Well, they won’t need visas for one thing. But they are also passionate Australians, seeking to give all Australians a global voice. If we are not careful, we will drive any home grown talent who have made it to the international stage to only make films overseas, where they will be more warmly accepted and appreciated. The tall poppy syndrome will not just hurt the film Australia, but, in the long run, the nation too.

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