There's a real joy in seeing your city on screen | Katie Cunningham

I’m less interested in the sweeping shots of Bondi beach or the Sydney Opera House than I am in the sights that feel everyday

There’s a scene in the new movie Babyteeth that was filmed at one of my favourite restaurants. When it came on screen in the cinema, I tapped my friend on the shoulder and whispered, “That’s Ron’s Upstairs!” – proud to have recognised its wood-panelled walls and twisting plastic grapevines.

Babyteeth is full of familiar sights. It was filmed in the middle of a Sydney summer to a backdrop of deja vu-inducing streets, skylines and drinking holes. I spent a lot of the movie either straining to read the name of a train station blurred in the background or trying to figure out which suburb the spectacularly bougie family home at the centre of the film might be in (wherever it is, I would like to live there). Babyteeth was wonderful in its own right but I especially enjoyed it because it let me play my favourite game: Sydney spotting.

The joy of seeing Sydney on film is a taste I’ve acquired over time. Growing up, I consumed a diet of mostly US content, where teen dramas were set in palm tree-fringed high schools that looked nothing like the place I trotted off to every morning. If I did watch something locally made, it was mostly filmed either on Ramsay Street, the sets of Australian Idol, or a lighthouse in Victoria where strange things happened. I lived somewhere that never got the silver screen treatment and (as I’m sure many Australians who live outside inner-city Sydney or Melbourne do) felt perpetually unseen.

Moving to Sydney as a young adult meant I could bask in the small, simple pleasure of seeing my city on screen for the first time. Stumbling upon places I’d only seen in movies felt exhilarating: I squealed the first time I drove past Kincoppal, the private school that was the backdrop to Looking for Alibrandi’s class warfare, and still point it out to whoever I’m in the car with on trips to the harbour beaches of Vaucluse. My introduction to Kings Cross had been in scenes from Two Hands and I still remember how electrified I felt walking down the Golden Mile for the first time as a fresh-off-the-leash 18-year-old.

Heath Ledger in a scene from Two Hands
Heath Ledger Two Hands, filmed on Darlinghurst Road in Kings Cross. Photograph: Two Hands

Today though I am less interested in the sweeping shots of Bondi beach or the Opera House than I am in the places that feel everyday: glimpses of Central station, the 370 bus, George Street or rows of terrace houses. The Foxtel series Love My Way was great for this: Claudia Karvan said part of her vision for the show was that it be shot on location around Sydney, unlike her previous vehicle, The Secret Life of Us, which had been filmed on a set. The first time I watched Love My Way I was living in Alexandria, the same suburb that was home to two lead characters, and I loved imagining that the drama of the show was playing out in parallel lives a few doors down. Visiting other filming locations elicits a different reaction: Centennial Park will always be the spot where a central character died and thus, A Sad Place.

The white-walled house from Love My Way
The white-walled house from Love My Way. Photograph: Daniel Hughes

I’m not alone in this: I know a few Sydneysiders who have made pilgrimages to the white-walled Dover Heights home in Love My Way; one friend recalled to me the thrill she got as a kid driving past a Marrickville rooftop that featured in Strictly Ballroom. I wonder if people from Los Angeles or New York feel this same excitement, or if it only happens when you live somewhere where cinematic appearances are rare enough to be a treat.

Because “real” Sydney movies still feel like special delights. Many of the versions of Australia we get on screen – Crocodile Dundee, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, anything Tim Winton-esque – paint a rose-tinted version of this country often at odds with the real thing. Stories of larrikins and true-blue blokes never really resonated with me, but, when the camera lingered over Glebe basketball courts in Babyteeth, that felt like home.


Katie Cunningham

The GuardianTramp

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