Australian Cinema


Unit coordinator: Dr GaRRy GiLLard
Office hours: Wednesday 1400-1530
This week's readings |This week's screening
Romulus, My Father (Richard Roxburgh, 2007) official site for the film; Australian release 19 July 2007; DVD available 5 December 2007; 105 min. - feature screening this week - after the presentation

Additional viewing
I can't show you enough Australian films in class, so you might get hold of say one a week to view yourself. This week, for example, you might see the all-time classic Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975). The ending might surprise you.

Lecture/Screening: Thursday 0930-1230
I'll normally chat to you, usually with filmic examples, for about 50 minutes, and then I'll show you a complete film during the remaining two hours.

I expect that you will stay and watch the feature film each week. One of the main points of tutorials is to use the text we have just seen in discussing it as an example of the topic for the week. It also provides material for you to write about. The viewing conditions are not cinematic, of course: we have to use video projection, but the point is the study of the film, not merely cinematic enjoyment - though of course you may experience that as well: I certainly hope so.

Tutorial participation is assessed, but I hope you will want to participate out of interest anyway: after all, you have chosen to take this unit. Tutorials, set down for ninety minutes, are on Thursdays, at 12.30pm and 2.00pm, both in SS2.038, up the hill in the Social Sciences building, and on Friday at 11.30am and 1.00pm, both in ECL1.034 - actually on the extreme SE corner of the Library building - go around the outside of the building to find the entrance.


In a previous life as a teacher of Literature, I wrote some lectures for units I was teaching called Narrative Fiction 1 and 2 (now called Narrative Fiction and Film). I transformed them into a book, Empowering Readers: Ten Approaches to Narrative which was published by Wakefield Press in Adelaide in 2003. For this unit, I thought I'd do it the other way around: write the book and then use it as the textbook to support the weekly presentations: so I did. I haven't been able to persuade anyone to publish it, so I've had it printed in house. After I wrote it, Moran & Vieth's book appeared in 2006 (which meant that it is now extremely unlikely that my book could be published, as they are so similar), and I decided to use that in 2007 as the primary textbook, and reorganised the unit following its structure. However, I found that students didn't actually use the book much, so in 2008 I've relegated it to 'recommended' status, and made my book the principal textbook. It may not be any better, but it's certainly a lot cheaper! :)

History and structure
[T]he only way it [making films] is going to work is if Australians start taking gambles and do the unusual pictures that the Americans won't. We don't have the money, we don't have the manpower, we don't have the movie stars to compete with expensive American films head on. All we are left with at the end of the day is lower budgets, ingenuity, freedom and imagination. (Stephan Elliott - emphasis added)
This unit, MCC231 (formerly H231) Australian Cinema, was taught by Tom O'Regan for fifteen years, from 1984 to 1998. I started teaching it - together with Tom for the first year - in 1998. Until 2003, this unit was based on Tom's book Australian National Cinema. This book would still be useful, of course, if you happen to find a copy somewhere. As it was the textbook for about eight years there should be some second-hand copies about.

I radically revised the unit for its 2004 offer, with a new orientation: instead of Tom's focus on "national cinema", the main approach is now through genres, or, as I like to say, types of Australian film.

The major change for 2005 was to drop the week on social problem films and replace it with a look at road movies in Australia. In 2007, as there is a chapter in Moran & Vieth on this type, the presentation on social problem films was reinstated, and the road movie has gone (tho you can still read and write about it).

For 2006, there were other changes, dropping a genre or two and introducing some survey topics. I looked at the notion of the unity of Australian Cinema, using some of Tom O'Regan's ideas. And to conclude the unit, I examined some developments in Oz film as the last millennium was coming to an end, and as the new one is beginning. Those presentations are still available and easily accessible from the index page. I originally thought (in 2004) it would be handy to have an introduction and conclusion, Weeks 1 and 12, with the assessment in Week 13 (because for that we have to be in the lecture room for a couple of hours). Which left ten weeks, and alliteration settled it: there had to be ten types of Australian film. Since then, we've been losing "types" here and there, in favour of taking a larger view.

In 2007 we had a new textbook, Albert Moran & Errol Vieth 2006, Film in Australia: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, and the unit followed the (alphabetical) structure of that book; however, it's now only 'recommended', as I said. The teaching semester was also reduced by one week in 2007 (until 2006 there were 13 weeks in a semester) and the final assessment is now in Week 12.

The major change for 2008 is to put some emphasis back on what the stories in the Aussie films are about, and so I've set up a central block in the unit in which the approach is not through genre but through theme - or subject, or culture, or problem, or what you will. You'll see that the films we look at in this block are concerned with some of the (social) problems that are dealt with in Oz fillums.


My background is more in literary than in media studies. My first research degree was on African Literature, and my second on a Cultural Studies topic. However, I do have the advantage of being old enough to have "been there" at the beginning of the so-called "renaissance" of Australian film, about which I was and still am very enthusiastic. I admit I've never been involved in making a film, but I have made it my business not only to view but also to acquire a copy of almost every Australian feature film available. I've bought almost every Oz DVD as it became available.

People learn what they need to learn and what they want to learn. I try to provide an environment in which learning can take place; the rest is up to you. I hope to learn from you too. Briefly, that's my "philosophy" as a teacher/learner.

I was publishing regularly in Screen Education, which is published by Australian Teachers of Media, and my next book was to have been published by ATOM as a collection of articles on the "Film as Text" curriculum set for Year 12 in the various states of Australia. Some of the articles I've written for Screen Education turn up in the reader for the unit. Most of them have been published in ATOM's online shop for purchase - but you'll get them for free.


The main activities involved in this unit are watching and talking and writing about Australian films. These are so obviously good things as not to require justification. So the first objective is to gain a better understanding of the nature of Australian cinema.

As an organising idea, we'll use genre, so I guess that's a second objective, to learn more about what genre is and what genres there are (and what is a genre film). But genre is a means to an end, mostly, rather than an end in itself.

A third objective is to see what we can discover about things Australian, using this organising principle. What do particular types of film reveal about Australian society and the Australian character; indeed: the Australian? What you conclude about that I'll mostly leave to you, but I will keep raising the question.

All three of these objectives are brought together in this quotation from Andrew Higson.

... the concern is with what the films are about. Do they share a common style or world view? Do they share common theses, motifs or preoccupations? How do they project the national character? How do they dramatise the fantasies of national identity? Are they concerned with questions of nationhood? What role do they play in constructing the sense or the image of a nation? One of the most productive ways of exploring national cinema from this perspective is in terms of genre analysis, for the processes of repetition and reiteration which constitute a genre can be highly productive in sustaining a cultural identity. (Andrew Higson)


A fourth objective is simply to see as many Australian films - or parts of them - as possible. In addition to the one a week I show, you might try to see another one or two a week, say, with students in this unit, or a friend or two. You might also be able to go to first screenings of Australian films as they are released (tho I wait for the DVD myself).

The films that we have screened and are screening this year also continue to change. In this respect we are a little constrained by what is available in a purchasable or borrowable medium: that is, by what we can buy, beg, borrow or hire. Thirty years ago we would have had only 16mm films to show. Then we moved onto videotape, with a brief dabble in laserdisc. This year I'll show all films from DVDs. In another year I might be showing everything off a hard disk.

In past years I've shown White Fella Dreaming: A Century of Australian Cinema (Dr George Miller, 1996) in this first presentation. But at 57 min. it takes up most of the "lecture" time and it seems like a lazy option, instead of preparing my own material. It still is an excellent introduction to Australian cinema up to 1996, and I wish I could give each one of you a copy. Miller organises by subject rather than genre, but it's still a taxonomy of a kind. At least you can see what films Miller includes in his compilation by looking at the page I've provided.

For the main screening for this first week I look for the latest quality Australian feature film to be released on DVD, and usually show the one that won best film at our Oscars, the Australian Film Institute Awards. In 2006, I wanted it to be Look Both Ways (Sarah Watt, 2005) but as it won three major awards at the AFI Awards 2005, it was still in the cinema in the second week of January. So it had to be Little Fish (Rowan Woods, 2005), which was that year's heroin film, as Candy (Neil Armfield, 2006) was the drug film of 2006.

In 2007 we had something completely different, Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr, 2006) which was judged the Best Film of that year by the members of the AFI, the Australian Film Institute - which has the same acronym, unfortunately, as the American Film Institute - the awards of which are, however, the rough equivalent of the Oscars given by the (American) Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In 2008 we have Romulus, My Father (Richard Roxburgh, 2007) which as well as Best Film also won Best Actor for Eric Bana and Best Supporting Actor for the New Zealand/Hungarian actor Marton Czokas. (While I think of it: I happen to be writing this paragraph on 2 January 2008, when there is an article in The Australian newspaper by Lynden Barber (p. 12) in which he reports on negative views on scriptwriting for Australian films: "'It's not a dramatic film,' says Stoneking. 'There's so much about it that you want to like but it just never quite gets itself started, the energy doesn't really build.'")


It might be useful to differentiate genre - which is typically something that comes along later when someone like me wants to put artistic works like films into groups - from a genre film - which is what someone (not at all like me) sets out to make. At the risk of over-simplification, it might be useful to think of the latter, the genre film as an industrial creation, made with the intention (if not always the main one) of making money, by working (albeit creatively) in the film industry. The extreme examples, in the Hollywood context, would be those series - some of which are so-called "franchises" - like Spider-Man, where the producers, having had one financial success, embark on a series of follow-ups, in the hope of continuing the flow of income. So we have the three Terminator and Indiana Jones films, four Alien films, six! (now) of Rocky, six of Star Wars, and so on! Audiences know pretty-well exactly what they're going to get, as they are going to see the same type of film as they saw before.

Genre, on the other hand, often emerges as an idea after the members of the genre have already appeared. Perhaps the clearest example of that is the films noirs produced in American in the 1940s. When they first appeared they would have been regarded as dramas or thrillers (in the older sense of the word) or crime stories. They were not identified as a particular type of film until after the (Second World) War (1939-1945) and then by French writers - hence the name. The French had not been able to see the films until Liberation, after 1945, much of France being under German occupation until that time. Clearly, these films were not made in the 1940s to a "noir" formula, as the idea and the term had not been thought of until much later.

Perhaps the clearest example of a genre film series in Australia is the Mad Max series, including the first Mad Max ([Dr] George Miller, 1979), Mad Max 2 ([Dr] George Miller, 1981) and Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome ([Dr] George Miller & George Ogilvie, 1985). More recent films made by Australians which are clearly following a generic formula include Undead (Spierig Brothers, 2003) and Saw (James Wan, 2004). We'll look at more films like these in the week on horror/SF.

For contrary examples, where generic assignations have been given to films after the fact, I'm delighted to be able to give you some instances from very close to home. An Honours student whose research I supervised, Stuart Moffat, wrote an excellent dissertation in 2001 for a well-deserved award of First Class on the notion of the "Dark Film" in Australian Cinema. This was an adaptation of the film noir genre to the phenomenon of a small group of films which appeared in the second half of the 1990s, as the new millennium approached. (Stuart is doing his PhD at La Trobe.) Similarly, David Thomas undertook a study of "Australian Gothic" for his First Class Honours degree in 2001. The idea did not originate with David: it was proposed by Dermody & Jacka (1988) and taken up as "New Australian Gothic" by Jonathan Rayner (2000) [who examined David's PhD dissertation] - but David was the first to write about it in an exhaustively scholarly way; and we were successful in having a report of the result refereed and published in Metro. David has now been awarded his PhD.

Finally, another of my PhD students, Helena Sharp, was awarded her Honours degree in 2005 for her take on the "woman's film" in the context of Jane Campion's work: another very successful reworking of a generic idea. We did not, as I hoped, publish part of this; but we did together write and publish something about one of Campion's films: The Piano.

References: cf. the reader

Bordwell, David & Kristin Thompson 2004, 'Film genres', Chapter 4 of Film Art: An Introduction, seventh edition, McGraw-Hill, New York.

Dermody, Susan & Elizabeth Jacka 1988, The Screening of Australia: Anatomy of a National Cinema Vol. 2., Currency Press, Paddington.

Derrida, Jacques 1992, 'The law of genre', Glyph, 9, 1979: 176-323; repr. Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge, Routledge, New York: 221-252.

Foyle, Lindsay 2004, 'A real character at heart', The Australian, 17 December: 14. [on Syd Nicholls and Fatty Finn]

Grant, Barry Keith 1986, 'Introduction', in Barry Keith Grant ed., Film Genre Reader, University of Texas Press, Austin: xi-xvi; 791.43015 FIL 1986

Grant, Barry Keith ed. 1986, Film Genre Reader, University of Texas Press, Austin; 791.43015 FIL 1986

Laseur, Carol 1992, 'Australian exploitation: the politics of bad taste', Continuum, 5, 2, 366-77.

Mast, Gerald, Marshall Cohen, & Leo Braudy 1992, 'Film genres' [introduction to the section], Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, fourth edition, Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford: 429-434. [There are fifth and sixth editions, the sixth edited by Braudy & Cohen.]

Moffat, Stuart 2001, Into the Darkness: The Evolution of a Dark Film Style in Australian Cinema, Hons dissertation, Murdoch University, Perth.

Neale, Steve 2000, bibliography, Genre and Hollywood, Routledge, London; 791.43 NEA 2000

O'Regan, Tom 1989, 'The enchantment with the cinema: film in the 1980s', Albert Moran & Tom O'Regan eds, Australian Screen, Penguin, Ringwood: 118-145.

Petzke, Ingo 2004, Phillip Noyce: Backroads to Hollywood, Macmillan, Sydney.

Pike, Andrew & Ross Cooper 1998, Australian Film 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production, revised edition, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Rayner, Jonathan 2000, Contemporary Australian Cinema: An Introduction, Manchester University Press, Manchester.

O'Regan, Tom 1996, Australian National Cinema, Routledge, London.

Sharp, Helena 2004, Re-viewing Jane Campion and the Woman's Film, Hons dissertation, Murdoch University, Perth.

Thomas, David 2002, New Australian Gothic Cinema, Hons dissertation, Murdoch University, Perth.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig 1953, Philosophical Investigations, Macmillan, New York.

Wood, Robin 1977, 'Ideology, genre, auteur', Film Comment, 13, 1, January-February: 46-51; repr. Barry Keith Grant ed., Film Genre Reader, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1986: 59-73; 791.43015 FIL 1986.


Stephan Elliott, quoted in an interview with Jan Epstein 1994, "Stephan Elliott: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," Cinema Papers, 101: 4-10, 86; this quotation: 86 [emphasis added].

Andrew Higson 1995, Waving the Flag: Constructing a National Cinema in Britain, Clarendon, Oxford: 5; as cited in Jonathan Rayner 2000, Contemporary Australian Cinema: An Introduction, Manchester University Press, Manchester: 21-22.

New: 17 February, 2002 | Now: 19 December, 2010