Close up: Historian Graham Shirley of Australia's NFSA

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Alexander Barlow speaks to historian Graham Shirley of Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), who presents ‘Outback on Screen’ at the National Museum this month as part of its ongoing World Cinema Series, followed by a special presentation of Australian filmmaker Mel F Nichol’s super-rare film of Singapore in 1941 at Objectifs.

First published on 8 Aug 2011. Updated on 8 Aug 2011.

Why has there been such an enduring fascination with the Outback among Australian filmmakers?
‘For many white Australian filmmakers, the Outback has been a region of intrigue, a stupendously huge, unknowable, untameable tract of land, and in portraying it these filmmakers have often captured the dissonance many of us have felt with the Australian landscape since European settlement in 1788. Since the late 19th century, when most Australians were already living in coastal cities and suburbs, the Outback has been revered in nostalgic as well as awe-inspired terms, becoming part of the nation’s mythology. I think, in many ways, how filmmakers have seen the Outback has been pivotal to the way in which Australians see themselves.’

Films like Walkabout and Wake in Fright seem to use the Bush as a dark allegory for white Australia. How has its presentation in film evolved over the years?
‘I think it has evolved in feature films from an exotic, otherworldly backdrop where conflicts between pioneers and Indigenous people, or conflicts between settlers and the environment – especially in the form of drought, bushfires and flood – have been played out. Wake in Fright [Ted Kotcheff, 1971] represented a new departure point for the Outback on film, one in which Outback isolation has warped notions of male comradeship into an endless round of binge drinking, gambling, despair and cruelty to animals. The theme has continued to grow progressively more interesting through films as diverse as Sunday Too Far Away [Ken Hannam, 1975], Mad Max 2 [George Miller, 1981], ‘Crocodile’ Dundee [Peter Faiman, 1986], No Worries [David Elfick, 1994], The Tracker [Rolf de Heer, 2002], Dark Water [David Nerlich, Andrew Traucki, 2007], Cactus [Jasmine Yuen Carrucan, 2008] and Red Hill [Patrick Hughes, 2010]. In most of these films Outback isolation triggers human catharses with a relentless, almost supernatural influence.’

Wolf Creek was panned for being a tasteless Texas Chain Saw Massacre rip-off. Do newer films build on traditions or take away from them?
‘Newer Outback films have continued to build on post-Wake in Fright traditions rather than an awareness of trends prevailing before the Australian feature film industry went into temporary decline in the 1950s and ’60s. Wolf Creek [Greg Mclean, 2005] was based on two real-life stories and Evil Angels [1988] – one of a number throughout Australian film history to deal with children vanishing into the Outback – was based on another factual story that had already been the subject of intense media speculation. Newer Outback films continue to build on an awareness of post-1970 traditions: Red Hill, a small-town western thriller, was reviewed in Wake in Fright terms, and the crocodile attack films Black Water and Rogue [Greg Maclean, 2007] had been preceded by the similarly themed Dark Age [Arch Nicholson, 1987]. Another wild-beast predecessor was Razorback [Russell Mulcahy, 1984], which told of a gigantic wild boar with a taste for devouring people from the Outback.’

You’re charged with finding lost Australian films. Was the Mel F Nichol work a discovery that you made in that role?
‘I discovered the Mel Nichol footage when I was researching a Film Australia documentary series, Colour of War – The ANZACS [Paul Rudd & Ben Ulm, 2004]. One of my colleagues asked if I knew anything about a 40-minute film of Singapore and Malaya that they had found at NFSA, but which had no provenance. When I viewed it, something seemed familiar, and I re-listened to an oral history that I had recorded with Mel Nichol in 1984. The moment Mel said that his Kodachrome coverage of Singapore and Malaya had included footage of the Australian Army’s General Gordon Bennett meeting with a Chinese officer at a Malayan rubber plantation, I knew exactly what it was. Realising when it was shot – in the year leading up to Japanese occupation – made me realise how unique and valuable this film, with its emphasis on day-today life in the streets of Singapore, continues to be’.

Graham Shirley’s ‘Outback on Screen’ is at the National Museum on 9 Aug. ‘Singapore in 1941 – A Kodachrome Record’ is at Objectifs on 10 Aug.

By Alexander Barlow
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