Australian Cinema – research essay

The Australian film industry’s vacillation has seen a greater desire for international appeal. Our national mythology has appeared and disappeared within our cinema, awaiting contemporary reappraisal. The success of the Australian Film Commission during the 1970s and 90s placed Australia’s films on the global market, pushing filmmakers to condense Australia’s national mythology to be more accessible internationally. In reaction to this movement, the ocker film relied on local audiences’ understanding of Australian archetypes. This mode of cinema can be seen within Muriel’s Wedding which leans on the ugly Australian character, as well as the isolating nature of Australian culture. With larger markets waiting overseas, the context-reliant Australian film is deemed largely redundant, save for a few titles. The concept of a global film containing Australian touchstones is perhaps less jarring and more appealing to an international market. However, appropriation of Hollywood’s generic tropes protrudes due to lack of authenticity. Rather, the use of a nationless context in Mad Max: Fury Road allows for subtle entries of Australian-isms whilst maintaining widespread appeal. Lastly, whilst globalisation may see the death of Australian national cinema, the industry’s inconsistent, fragile foundations do not correspond with a global market. Diversification of the industry to better complement contemporary Australian national identity is fundamental to global appeal. Lion as a mode of cinema is instrumentally appealing to a global narrative, functioning in an Australian context whilst gaining financial and critical successes internationally. Challenging Australian national cinema through global narratives such as those of diasporas can bring the industry in-line with modern Australian identities, whilst maintaining an accessible Australian point-of-view.

Australian National Cinema is defined by a desire to establish itself as a viable industry. Whilst outputting an average of 21 productions and co-productions per year, contending “with Hollywood dominance… simultaneously a local and international form” (O’Regan, 1996, p. 45). Our national cinema is determined by a sense of structural fragility, “dependant on outside help” (O’Regan, 1996, p. 47) whilst attempting to emulate the American film industry which “[casts] an equally long shadow in economic terms” (Rayner, 2000, p. 2). Australia’s yearning to appeal to international audiences is a relatively new feat, reflecting a desire to produce financially and critically successful films with wide appeal. However, prior to this shift towards a more global audience, Australia’s national cinema has played out variations of foundational mythologies. The predominant representations of Australian nationhood is “linked indelibly to enduring colonial, cultural associations” (Rayner, 2000, p. 8). Furthermore, these cinematic representations presented to Australian audiences “too often begin (and end) with images of the prevailing, consensual social structure, reinforcing power bases associated with gender and ethnicity” (Rayner, 2000, p. 8). The dominant cultural values pertaining to a postcolonial Australia through cinema was “at large of men, of white men… both in cultural products and in the life of the country” (Rayner, 2000, p. 9). Early national films such as Heritage and Uncivilised are reminiscent of our foundational mythologies in their efforts to cover up, ignore and appropriate indigenous narratives. Furthermore, prior to the rebirth of the national cinema during the 1970s, narratives which placed significance on white males “suppressed the roles of women” and “neglected the country’s Aboriginal population and its history” (Rayner, 2000, p. 9). Moreover, Indigenous representation in foundational mythologies reduced Aboriginality to being a part of the landscape which frame white settler narratives.

Though the maintenance of a national identity through cinema can push self-reflection onto audiences, market context is fundamental: “The aim of a national cinema is one of producing a local presence in both the local and international markets” (O’Regan, 1996, p. 44). National mythologies, however, are not necessarily limited to white settler stories, with significant touchstones placed within secondary narrative elements such as character and landscape. Following the collapse and rebirth of the industry, the Australian Film Commission gave way to more complex insights into national mythologies. A notable entry into the AFC genre is Peter Weir’s Gallipoli which successfully made use of ANZAC mythology. Specifically, the film examined “local stereotypes and mythology such as good Australians-bad foreigners, the myth of innocent Australia, the attributes of Australianness versus Britishness” (Haltof, 1993). Moreover, Weir successfully plays upon positive components of Australian self-image which resonated with audiences at the time of release. The film was well-received locally, arguably due to its successful portrayal of “national history being properly represented” (Freebury, 1987, p. 7). For its time, Gallipoli’s was a high-budget production with “costs around $2.5 million” (Freebury, 1987, p. 7) and was “the most expensive national production ever made” (Freebury, 1987, p. 7). The film was financially lucrative both locally and overseas, notably working as a successful war genre piece. Gallipoli’s use of landscape as a filmic convention is one that is rudimentary to Australia’s film mythology: “combining themes of isolation and landscape, Weir accentuates an aspect central to Australian mythology and self-identity” (Haltof, 1993). Furthermore, whilst appealing to an international audience, Weir’s film accomplished the maintenance of a national identity whilst bringing previous understandings of foundational mythology under scrutiny.

In abject defiance of the AFC genre, the 1970s saw the emergence of ocker films which relied on local audience’s Australianness through modes of context-based humour. Applied as a label to “denigrate and to a lesser extent celebrate, particular films… and kinds of social behaviour” (O’Regan, 1989, p. 76). Characteristics of ocker consisted of an “unabashed celebration of the ‘Australian’, particularly the vernacular, whether in speech, content, or action” (O’Regan, 1989, p. 76). Most significantly, ocker films relied on and were “explicitly geared to a local audience” (O’Regan, 1989, p. 76). Additionally, this period is considered a “‘frankly commercial’ film policy in Alvin Purple and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie” (O’Regan, 1996, p. 179). Elements of ugliness and vulgarity are rudimentary to the function of the ocker film “based upon gross exaggerations of Australian vulgarity and boorishness” (Rattigan, 1988, p. 150). These ocker films relied on private investment, further distancing themselves from the quality-seeking AFC. Whilst the AFC sought out “a nostalgic rural Australian beauty” (O’Regan, 1989, p. 80), ocker films demonstrated “vulgarity, philistinism and the energy of an urban, contemporary Australia” (O’Regan, 1989, p. 80). Entering a market dominated by Hollywood product, ocker films were “not so easily incorporated within, not bound by, the traditional spaces of cinema” (O’Regan, 1989, p. 85). Australian consumers were embracing local product as a result of identifying with authentically Australian ocker films. The everyday Aussie bloke is a presiding archetype in the ocker film, connecting with “the periodic remaking of the indecent larrikin who flourished again for a brief, unrestrained and gleefully anti-social… ‘ocker period’” (Collins, 2007, p. 89). Surrounding the archetypal male is often a group of male friends, providing the male protagonist with every social function except romantic or sexual intimacy. In keeping with the functions of masculine homosociality in Australia, the significance of mateship “is embedded not only in working-class values but is constitutive of Australian male self-image” (Haltof, 1993). In the ocker film, mateship is presented as a regime which “celebrates individual masculinity to its connection to a dominant masculine economy” (Lucas, 1998), the equilibrium which surrounds the protagonist’s journey. However, ocker films’ reflection of cultural and social norms limited the perspectives and stories being told. The focus on masculinity as the norm is rarely challenged within the ocker period, but strands of the ocker can be found referenced decades later in The Castle, Kenny and Muriel’s Wedding.

The 1990s saw the Australian Film Industry continue to push towards a Hollywood-class industry. Tax incentives and privatised investments saw “steady production of Australian features… averaging 27 per year and peaking at 38 features (worth $166 million)” (Reid, 1999, p. 9). Additionally, this decade demonstrated the clear link between local and international markets, with globalisation “on the tip of every film producer’s tongue” (Reid, 1999, p. 8). The end of the 1980s saw the image of the Australian film industry “hit a low… industry wisdom was that an ‘Australian’ tag at the box office or video store was a liability” (Reid, 1999, p. 10). Successes in the early 1990s including Strictly Ballroom, Proof and Romper Stomper saw international distributers “looking at the possibilities of financing films in Australia and selling them around the world” (Reid, 1999, p. 12). Whilst this new presence of international distributors proved somewhat advantageous for Australian filmmakers seeking further funding, “attracting international investment into most Australian projects [remained] very difficult” (Reid, 1999, p. 14). Considered low-budget comparatively to Hollywood standards, the average budget for Australian features shot in the 1990s was $3.8 million (Reid, 1999, p. 17). Further, the saleability of these small-budget productions to international markets varied, “screened in crowded markets alongside more expensive productions from other industries” (Reid, 1999, p. 17). In some cases, cheaper productions were “attractive to international distributors because of their capacity for profitability” (Reid, 1999, p. 17) which was certainly the case of Muriel’s Wedding which was became “the third most profitable film in the world of that year” (Reid, 1999, p. 17).

Muriel’s Wedding functions within Australia’s national cinema landscape whilst simultaneously subverting its limited conventions. Initially, Muriel Heslop fails consistently to keep up with the status quo of her social surroundings in Porpoise Spit, “particularly in her failure to look and act like her peers” (Reid, 1999, p. 57). The significance of marriage in this film is enduring, with “wedding imagery saturating” (Mackey, 2001) Muriel’s surroundings. Muriel’s home life is volatile at best, driven by her “abusive bully” (Bullock, 2011, p. 119) of a father. Muriel witnesses the effect that this has on her mother, who absent-mindedly uses their large microwave oven to “make the cups of tea demanded by her family… a powerful statement about the failure of progress and technology to liberate her” (Bullock, 2011, p. 118). Much of the audience’s fondness for Muriel lies within the relatability of her excruciating social interactions, especially through her mortifying social rejection at the beginning of the film. This dismissal brings her to the brink of hysterics, confirming that she may, in fact, be ‘nothing’. Muriel’s obsession with marriage as the ultimate end-goal drives much of the humour and sorrow, catching the bouquet and preserving it, longing for a wedding, as well as the social acceptance that she believes accompanies this. Notably, P.J. Hogan’s defiance towards generic conformity brings about a sense of “generic confusion” (Morris, 1996) to both audiences and characters. Muriel is under the guise that her narrative journey follows that of a “‘fairy-tale romance’” (Morris, 1996) or, rather a standard romantic comedy. Muriel’s priorities change when she follows her ex-friends to Hibiscus Island where she meets Rhonda. Muriel leads Rhonda to believe that she is engaged, “for it fits with Muriel’s desire to be married and her belief in marriage’s power to make her ‘somebody’” (Mackey, 2001). However, through coming to know Rhonda who is defined by her independence from their home town, Muriel is emboldened at the prospect of leaving the goal-oriented social hierarchy behind. Muriel, renaming herself ‘Mariel’, runs away from her family home with their stolen money and moves in with Rhonda in Sydney. There, Mariel begins a more genuine life padded by her increasingly hazardous lies, “[inventing] the gruesome murder-suicide threatened by her imaginary fiancée” (Bullock, 2011, p. 119). A new status quo is acquired, with Rhonda and Mariel’s happiness together centralised. This new equilibrium is shattered when Rhonda receives her cancer diagnosis, with the two of them facing the threat of having to return to their old lives in Porpoise Spit. Mariel “immediately retreats to the ‘safety’ of her delusions, trying on wedding gowns while inventing tales of imminent matrimony” (Bullock, 2011, p. 121). Rhonda, in a moment of desperation admits that she is terrified of having to return to Porpoise Spit, resulting in Mariel’s biggest lie of all is assuring Rhonda that this wouldn’t happen. When their world destabilises as Rhonda’s cancer returns, Mariel. As Mariel departs their union for an arranged marriage, Rhonda is damned back to the town she so despises, her independence stripped away. Mariel’s mother’s suicide brings her out of her delusion, “realising that her obsession with weddings is as delusory as her father’s dreams of becoming a politician” (Reid, 1999, p. 58). Muriel chooses to leave her marriage despite sparks of growing compassion, saving Rhonda from her doomed fate in Porpoise Spit. Sustaining the narrative as a romantic comedy, “the women zoom off into their new lives, ‘Dancing Queen’ playing in the background as they scream goodbye to all that has trammelled their spiritual growth” (Bullock, 2011, p. 122). Muriel has become the person who she wanted to be, regardless of a wedding. The Australian national cinema trope of the homosocial is present within Muriel’s Wedding, though reversed through a female lens, widening its accessibility. Subversion of genres which lie within Hollywood cinema proved enigmatic for the film, as “the combination of dark and light… confounded many people” (Reid, 1999, p. 58). It was difficult to tell where the humour lay within the script, especially without context: “investors and buyers who read the script did not believe the mix would work on the screen” (Reid, 1999, p. 58). Upon distribution, Muriel’s Wedding’s “gross Australian box office reached a high of $15.8 million, making it the seventh highest grossing Australian film ever” (Reid, 1999, p. 68). Internationally, the film earned “19.2 times its budget, taking a total of US$57.5 million” (Reid, 1999, p. 69). Moreover, the successful distribution of Muriel’s Wedding provided insight into the specificity of Australian culture and humour, with “commentary about Australian life and values… presented the story in such a way that attracted the interest of audiences from countries all over the world” (Reid, 1999, p. 78). Demonstrated through its “‘gaudy’ visual style, the ‘outrageous’ humour” (Reid, 1999, p. 76), Muriel’s Wedding is uncompromising in its Australianness, adding to its overall success within the Australian national cinema landscape.

The successes of Australian national cinema in the 1990s sadly did not sustain into the new millennia. Having had a taste of the possibilities of astronomical financial gain through international funding and co-production, the spirit of the independent Australian film is all but lost. Moreover, it seemed that Australians were less likely to consume Australian product, and “while most national cinema producers face difficulties in their home market, this same domestic box-office is generally crucial to all national cinemas” (O’Regan, 1996, p. 43). Through the early 2000s until now, Australian films struggle to maintain details of national identity, let alone receive substantial funding. Australian films must meet a degree of accessibility to be considered for “international involvement, whether by way of direct investments, co-production” (O’Regan, 1996, p. 44) or simply funding from government bodies within Australia. Namely during Australia’s contemporary film period, Australian cinema has struggled to attain equivalent levels of specificity within genre when projecting a national identity. A new wave of genre films released worldwide which draw “upon well-established genre conventions and often in the vain of Hollywood film-making… far removed from projecting Australia, or the national identity agenda which has shaped Australian cinemas since the 1970s” (Ryan, 2012, p. 142). The industry’s difficulties regarding genre and Australian specificity are intensified by “hurdles such as the cultural status of genre, limited scale and enterprise structures, tensions between culture and commerce, and problems around reception in domestic markets” (Ryan, 2012, p. 152). Drawing upon hybridity, films such as Daybreakers, Happy Feet and Moulin Rouge push against recognisable Australian touchstones. However, this withdrawal of national landmarks present within Australian genre films could lead to a non-specific cinematic national identity, producing homogenised and inauthentic to the genres composed by Hollywood. No longer considered a national cinema, the hybridity of postnational cinema sets a challenge to the Australian film industry, only viably through uniqueness and generic specificity.

The Australian film industry’s shift towards a non-specific postnational cinema saw the ideal distribution landscape for George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Miller’s original trilogy explored generic conventions of science fiction and post-apocalypse film making, as well as the Australian Gothic. Futher, the Mad Max trilogy was instrumental within the local industry, “making small changes to a formal system, subtly transforming it in the process” (O’Regan, 1996, p. 209). Fury Road sees a decided elevation of these themes, heightening them through an action setting. “Technically an Australian-US co-production” (McFarlane, 2016, p. 46), this follow-up was considerably more expensive than its predecessors with a budget of US$150 million. George Miller desired the maintenance of the Gothic element of the red Australian landscape, production took place in Namibia rather than The Outback, “the awe-inspiring landscape through which Furiosa and Max are making their way through” (McFarlane, 2016) still maintaining authenticity. Although the Mad Max’s foundations lie thirty years ago, the breadth of Fury Road’s narrative reflects contemporary feminist ideology, far out-stepping and subverting cohorts within the action genre. Set in an albeit alien world, Max Rockatansky is captured by Immortan Joe’s War Boys and used as a blood bag, incapacitating him as the audience’s expected hero. A result of water and oil wars, this world is the amalgamated result of “toxic masculinity and its complicity in capitalist exploitation of both resources and bodies” (Boulware, 2016, p. 3). The film’s undeniable hero, Imperator Furiosa is introduced in sync with Immortan Joe, the world’s simplistic parameters impressing no impact on the heightened stakes. Furiosa’s hero’s journey is central to the narrative, her “goal is to transport [Immortan Joe’s wives] to the Green Place, a matriarchal utopia she was kidnapped from as a child” (Bergen-Aurand, 2016, p. 4). The film’s “feminist revisions to one of the most aggressively masculine genres” (Boulware, 2016, p. 1) brings it through as an even more compelling allegory within the post-apocalyptic genre. Furthermore, the film’s characters persistently asks the question ‘who killed the world?’ with a clear answer in mind: “definitely not a rhetorical one, and the answer is abundantly obvious: Immortan Joe, and everything he represents” (Boulware, 2016, p. 5). The film’s closing sees each individual within the once-marginalised group change and achieve their goals. Furiosa uses her mechanical prosthetic arm to kill Immortan Joe, “weighed by the symbolism of her female masculinity and the embodiment of her disruption of the patriarchal commodification of organic bodies” (Boulware, 2016, p. 16). Max chooses to stop running from his past, saving Furiosa and “allowing her to claim her place as liberator of the oppressed” (Boulware, 2016, p. 17) as she rises above him and he blends back into the crowd. Littered among the spectacular set-pieces are unmistakable Australian details, especially within the language and casting are strikingly to a local audience. Although these specificities remain unnoticeable to international Audiences, they add to the jarring landscape of the film. The film performed exceptionally at the box office, earning $21 million locally and $US378 million internationally. Perhaps more prominently, the film received six Academy Awards, although the film’s distribution did not coincide with awards season. Mad Max: Fury Road remains a perfectly executed example of an Australian postnational film, still maintaining Australian specificity.

Although a push for non-specfic, postnational Australian films can mean greater accessibility and profitability internationally, this homogeny could ultimately lead to the death of national cinema. However, with much of Australian national cinema’s stories being limited to white, usually male characters, there is an opportunity to diversify to better match global audiences. In contrast to films of the ocker period, Australian cinema has an opportunity to appeal to broadly multicultural Australian audiences through global narratives. Linked to an “identity crisis” (O’Regan, 1996, p. 292), Australians’ “continual questioning of who we are is the essence of [contemporary] Australian nationalism” (O’Regan, 1996, p. 292). A new world cinema provides answers within placing “emphasis on the cultural diversity of the audience” (O’Regan, 1996, p. 292), creating new mythologies and norms. A diasporic perspective can incorporate many untold stories of “cultural formations that have developed within a specifically Australian context” (Simpson, Murawska, & Lambert, 2009, p. 15). In step with “Australia’s specificity as an immigrant society” (Simpson, Murawska, & Lambert, 2009, p. 15), Australian details and touchstones are not lost through this mode, with opportunity to produce new, more appropriate representations of Australian culture. An example of this utilisation of diasporas is Lion which deals directly with a struggle with national identity. Half of the film is presented in Hindi and Bengali, a rare feat for Australian cinema. Lion relies on hybridity and perspective, whilst also reckoning with global themes of family and motherhood. Additionally, whilst about national hybridity, the story maintains a distinctly Australian perspective and voice. The film became the fifth-highest grossing film at the Australian box office with widespread appeal, proving that tales of diasporas have potential to change the industry, whilst still maintaining Australian specificity. Lion’s distribution was executed impeccably, beginning at Toronto International Film Festival and accompanying the awards season circuit. Its principal distribution overseas had Australian audiences anticipating its local release which were closely accompanied the Academy Award nomination announcements. The film grossed $29 million locally, the fifth highest grossing Australian film. Internationally, Lion’s earnings were modest with US$140 million earned. Although Lion certainly blends in with a global cinema landscape whilst maintaining an Australian sensibility. Moreover, as globalisation pushes filmmakers to contribute to a global film culture, global narratives can certainly make such a contribution worthy and accessible.

As Australia’s national cinema evolves away from that of its turbulent predecessors, the struggle for identification within Australian narratives is undeniable. With the ocker period encapsulating social cultural and social norms of the 1970s, resistance and subversion of its conventions remains within their succeeders. Whilst the novelty of Muriel’s Wedding was locally and internationally profitable, cinematic nationalism proved difficult for local audiences to accept. The emergence of a postnational cinema could be followed by the death of Australian national cinema, especially following the profitability of Mad Max: Fury Road. However, the maintenance of Australian touchstones within postnational cinema is fundamental in the prevention of a homogenised, non-specific cinema. Though Australian national cinema may be dying, reflection of Australia’s contemporary society through representation and diasporic narratives is key to local and international appeal, whilst forging a new path for Australian national cinema.


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Completed and assessed Semester 1, 2017



Published by Ella Pace

Ella is a film critic currently working and studying in Melbourne, Australia.

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