Australian feature film stories are too parochial. I have already written about how our stories could be made more original and more substantive. Today I will advance why our stories need to be universal as well.
by Steven Fernandez
Some (if not most) local screenwriters see themselves as champions of local culture when they write loads of “G’day mate” dialogue in their scripts. They think that they are being stalwart defenders of charming “dinkum Aussie” characters when they write the same-old, same-old, rustic larrikins who are shallow and hardly evolve.
The problem with these over-done elements is that they are superficial and largely meaningless to the international audience. And, like it or not, this audience matters a lot. Why? Because without overseas success an Australian film has almost no chance of making a profit.
Without overseas success an Australian film has
almost no chance of making a profit.
But what can we do to turn this around?
In short, we should stop perpetuating empty local stereotypes and start telling stories on the basis of universal themes. Themes that everyone – including the overseas market – can relate to. Two larrikins speaking ‘Aussie’ and drinking beer by a billabong do not cut it by this measure. Unless, that is, there is a deeper context to this scene that is in fact universal.
For example, perhaps one of the men fears losing his wife to a more refined rival. Or, alternatively, he has a son or daughter who adamantly does not want to carry on the family farm after he dies. To make this second example less hackneyed, you can have the father himself conflicted about how much future his farm really has.
We should stop perpetuating empty local stereotypes and
start telling stories on the basis of universal themes
If you really must load your script with “G’day mate” dialogue, then at least have your characters deal with challenges that the world can immediately relate to. Do not write or make a film that has little relevance to an overseas viewer. No matter how important you think it is to put local idiosyncracies on a pedestal.
Let’s take the specific example of racism. Suppose we want to craft an Australian story around this universal theme. And to do so without resorting to over-done elements or shallow characters. How could we go about doing that?
Well, I can immediately think of two different ways.
The basic idea would be for some English infantryman to get lost in some east coast bush and then find himself rescued by the very “savages” that he has been ordered to hunt down. You can have the familiar clash of cultures tension here, as well as the slow and grudging respect that grows within the soldier as he learns of the more elegant aspects of their culture.
To make this story less trite, you can show the indigenous culture having brutish and distinctly un-noble aspects. For example, in the way that their women are treated. In fact, on that basis, it is arguably more convincing that the pale-skinned stranger would actually succeed in winning the heart of the spunky huntress.
Simply because he treats her with comparative respect.
Do not write or make a film that has little relevance to an overseas viewer.
This story could be made less predictable (as well as historically more accurate) by having the local tribe lose on the whole. Mind you, you need to be very careful when doing that. In particular, you must still have the film end with hope rising. So the colonial military must not win easily. At a minimum, the tribesmen need to go down fighting heroically. And, in addition, both the hero and the huntress must manage to escape into deeper woods. (So that hope still rises.)
Additional tweaks could be made to this story to separate it from all the “white man goes native” films we have seen before.
What is your view on the stories told in Australian films?
Do you have an opinion? We’d love hear it in the comments!
Steven Fernandez is a writer-director of short films and theatrical shows in Sydney, Australia. He is currently writing Human Liberation – an epic novel and screenplay package set in mythic ancient Greece.