Why is Australia so keen to reward films full of staggering misogyny? | Andy Hazel

The passion projects of the Australian film industry are overwhelmingly produced by men – and overwhelmingly tell stories that debase women

As a member of the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts, I, along with hundreds of other members, have had the opportunity to watch all 38 films eligible for the 2018 best feature film category at this year’s Aacta awards.

Most of the attention will be on films that received a wide theatrical release, such as Sweet Country, Ladies in Black, Breath and Boy Erased, and showcases for Australia’s visual effects teams such as The Lego Ninjago Movie, Black Panther and Peter Rabbit.

But what tells us more about the state of Australian cinema are the smaller films that received government funding, and idiosyncratic passion projects.

It’s hard not to ask why, in an era when Australia boasts some of the world’s best visual-effects artists, actors, technicians and production teams, we are seeing such staggeringly unimaginative and dated misogyny.

The micro-budget noir Indigo Lake sees it necessary to (spoiler alert) torture, murder and unceremoniously dispose of every major female character in an entirely predictable tale of an underworld kingpin who hires a handsome artist to draw a portrait of his young girlfriend.

Innocent Killer follows a serial murderer who seems to have no method to their madness beyond a drive to kill women.

The protagonist of Rabbit is violently abducted and tortured in order to discover what happened to her sister, who was also violently abducted and tortured.

1% is another “Shakespearean” examination of the frailty of Australian masculinity told via bikie gangs, ceaseless aggression and shootouts in which female characters, according to Guardian Australia’s Luke Buckmaster, “reassert the patriarchal, moth-eaten narrative that women are the truly devious, deceitful and disloyal of the two sexes”.

Even an ostensibly inventive film like Watch the Sunset, about the toll of the ice epidemic in regional Victoria – shot in an 83-minute single take – feels the need to up its dramatic stakes by having its female characters raped, beaten, screamed at and shot in front of children.

None of this is to say that Australian cinema needs to be censored, that their male characters don’t get a rough time too or that the violence isn’t decried. Violence is often necessary to tell a compelling story about ice addiction, organised crime or a serial killer. But that there are so many dead and debased women in this year’s Aacta longlist of feature films suggests writers are bereft of original ideas and film funding organisations are rewarding them. (The federal government’s funding body Screen Australia only contributed completion funding to one of the aforementioned titles, 1%.)

These films don’t come out of nowhere. In each case, a producer chose it, a director decided to work the ungodly hours to realise it, and at least one financier decided to direct money to this film over others. In the case of some, that money was hard-won from an increasingly small pool of government funds.

A still from Strange Colours, directed and written by Australian film-maker Alena Lodkina.
A film like Strange Colours, directed and written by Australian film-maker Alena Lodkina, feels like a triumph against the odds. Photograph: Sydney film festival

So why are people compelled to tell these stories, and why are funding bodies compelled to fund them? Audiences aren’t lining up to see them; few of these films will even find distribution. Women make up 52% of cinema audiences and they’re opting for blockbusters like Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, A Star is Born and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again or smaller films like Book Club, Lady Bird and Ladies in Black.

And plenty of the longlisted films do have interesting and well-developed female characters. Donna McRae’s Lost Gully Road, Christopher Kay’s Just Between Us, and Tony Prescott’s The Pretend One, Alena Lodkina’s Strange Colours and Mairi Cameron’s The Second are all fantastic examples of innovative directors telling unusual stories on tiny budgets. Each feels like a triumph against the odds – but, as with so many Australian films, they’ll be difficult to find.

Academic Deb Verhoeven’s research shows that the majority of Australian films are produced by men who consistently decline to work with women in the key creative roles of producer, writer, director. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that of the producers in competition for the 2018 best feature Aacta award, 66% are male. It’s an issue Screen Australia is attempting to address via its Gender Matters strategy.

Verhoeven argues there will be no change in this power dynamic “until there is a different distribution of the film industry’s finite resources” and incentives for meaningful collaboration between men and women.

The success of female-driven films like Oscar-shortlisted The Dressmaker, Jennifer Kent’s prize-laden horror The Babadook, and forthcoming The Nightingale demonstrate the value of backing films with women in key creative roles. In the case of the first two, those films were financial and critical successes; the latter is already one of the most awarded and anticipated films of 2019.

This week’s announcement that all Australian films selected for the Sundance film festival revolve around female characters, and half are directed by women, show that change is coming, though in an industry this vast, change is always slow.

Perhaps 2019 will be the year that Australia’s film industry finds, funds and promotes films in which women aren’t sacrificed to tell unedifying tales of brutality. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the stories we’re telling ourselves.

• Andy Hazel is a freelance culture writer


Andy Hazel

The GuardianTramp

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