What makes a movie "Australian"?

Last week I was lucky enough to attend the two AACTA award ceremonies celebrating all that is fantastic in Australian film and television. From the luncheon which recognised the skill of our technical craftspeople, to the televised evening event which focused more on the acting awards, it is inspiring to spend time reflecting on just how skilled, innovative and committed our screen practitioners are. It was particularly exciting to see Rebecca Barry’s documentary, I Am A Girl, nominated for four awards. The WeirAnderson Foundation was a proud supporter of this beautiful film; the recognition of Rebecca and her team was well deserved.

But it wouldn’t be awards season without a bit of controversy and there has been much debate this week about the film that swept this year’s AACTA Awards, Baz Luhrmann’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby.  Gatsby is a $100m-plus studio film based on the iconic US story and stars three key non-Australian actors. It won 13 AACTA awards, much to the chagrin of various commentators who queried both how it could be considered an Australian movie, and how rational it is to have such a huge film competing against other films such as The Rocket, a $1m indie film with mostly first-time actors.    

I will admit upfront that I am a huge fan of this version of Gatsby: it moved me and it entertained me. In my view, Lurhmann and Martin’s film beautifully brings to life a story that might be set in Jazz Age USA, but whose themes are extremely relevant in post-GFC Western society.  Reverence of wealth for its own sake, celebration of excess, the unquestioning rewarding of wealth with privilege without the equivalent responsibility. In an aspirational society, these are issues we are still grappling with nearly 100 years on from the events depicted in Gatsby. 

Regardless of issues of thematic relevance, is Gatsby an Australian film? I say yes, absolutely.  Not only was every frame shot in Australia, not only were the bulk of the incredible special effects rendered in Australia and not only were the bulk of the cast Australian, but the film was absolutely under Australian creative control. Aussies Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce wrote the screenplay (based on Fitzgerald’s novel), Luhrmann directed and produced the film, and Catherine Martin, also a producer, created the look and feel that was so critical to its depth and heart.

It can’t be the case that for a film to be considered Australian it can only be set in an Australian environment with Australian characters. We live in a globalised world - what is critical is an Australian perspective on that world. Storytellers have always looked to the classics for inspiration to tell stories that will make sense of their own environment and the issues they face. Australian theatre is full of re-interpretations of classic works, from the Greeks, to Shakespeare to Wilde or Coward.  Classic themes and classic stories can mean something new for each generation, and it is parochialism at its worst to argue that we can’t aspire to tell those global stories. 

If we want to challenge how Australian Gatsby is, surely the same arguments can apply to The Rocket, a fabulous story by Australian filmmakers shot on location in Laos, with Laotian spoken throughout. There has been little such debate about The Rocket, suggesting that the concern around Gatsby is much more about its status as a studio-funded picture. Given the challenges faced by English language Australian films which must compete in a globalised environment, I find this really puzzling. If Australian filmmakers can convince large international studios to fund them to make their projects here in Australia, employing some of the best actors and screen practitioners the world has to offer, and allowing them the opportunity to bring their perspective to the screen, then surely we should be congratulating them?  Gatsby is a fabulous showcase of what the Australian screen sector can deliver. We should all be very proud of it.