AUSTRALIA DAY, Australia, 2017. Starring Bryan Brown, Shari Sebbens, Sean Keenan, Elias Anton, Kee Chan, Isabelle Cornish, Carolyn Dunphy, Daniel Webber, Miah Madden, Matthew Le Nevez, Simon Alrahi. Directed by Kriv Stenders. 98 minutes. Rated MA (Strong themes, viiolence and coarse language).
There is quite a lot going on in Australia Day. More than a lot. In fact, there are three stories in one – as well as the background of January 26 in Brisbane.
While Australia Today has been celebrated throughout the country for a long time, there have been hesitations and protests, especially about January 25 being the last day of freedom for indigenous people on this continent. With only 50 years of history of aboriginal rights since the referendum of 1967, there are still many issues that can surface quite powerfully about Australia Day. Then there is the reality of so many migrants, Chinese from long ago and more prevalent in recent times, the post-war European migrants, the Vietnamese in the 1970s and 1980s, and refugees and migrants from Middle Eastern countries… How do they participate in the ethos of Australia Day?
The screenplay for Australia Day takes up race and ethnic issues as well as offering a continuous background, especially from television coverage of celebrations, sunny and raucous, as well as family and picnics. There is a Chinese story. There is a middle eastern story. There is an indigenous Australian story. Throughout the film we begin to see some connections, tenuous in many ways, between the three stories – with a fine, small but significant, connection in the last few minutes of the film.
There is a lot of running in the film, a lot of chasing. A young aboriginal girl is running from the police. A young man from a middle eastern family is being pursued by white locals. A Chinese woman is escaping from sex slavery. This running and chasing motif extends throughout the whole film giving it a dramatic urgency.
Caught up in the Chinese story is Bryan Brown as a farmer whose land has been repossessed by the bank. He has suffered from drought, the effect on his cattle and their destruction. Often in the background – and then, outside the window of his flat in Brisbane, the Minister for Trade is promoting an agreement with China that is to be signed that afternoon. The Chinese woman hails him down in the street and gets into his car.
This kind of story has been prevalent in Australian films, in the important film The Jammed about sex slavery, but also a theme in the recent Goldstone as well as in the background of Top of the Lake, China Girl. The girls are truly slaves, prostituted by ruthless owners. Can an ordinary, decent enough Australian deal with this situation? Despite his being played by Bryan Brown, it seems that he can’t. But he is a man of conscience and must take a stand and make an effort.
The middle eastern story is about young drug dealer, his dominating mother, his upright father, and the younger brother being tangled with a local girl and being pursued by her brothers, one sadistic, the other with a conscience. This is a revenge story. It is also a possible peace and reconciliation story – not explicitly tied to Australia Day but important in terms of the longer inhabitants of the land since 1788 accepting newcomers who are racially, culturally and religiously different. Some interesting comparisons could be made with the Australian film, Down Under, set in the racial riots in Cronulla.
The indigenous story has its heart-rending aspects. Two young girls have been abandoned by their mother who is a drug addict in the Brisbane streets. The father is brutal and they react violently against him, killing him, taking a car, being pursued by the police – in fact, by an indigenous policewoman (Shari Sebbens) who knows them, their grandmother and the difficult family situation. She is asked to stand down from any enquiries in the search for the girl, April (Miah Madden) but she feels that she must, tracking down where the girl might have gone to find her mother, catching up with her at a desperate moment.
While we might have seen these issues in these stories before, they are worth telling again. There interestingly acted in the film is been directed by Kriv Stenders (the Red Dog films as well as the miniseries, Wake in Fright).
Foxtel films Release September 21st
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.