Politicians want films to promote Australia - but nicely.
Peter Slipper, an Australian member of parliament, is calling for a review of the American marketing campaign for the film Rabbit-Proof Fence, which tells the story of thousands of Aboriginal children who were taken from their mothers and placed in state-controlled ‘welfare’ camps. Slipper claims the ad campaign will make Australians look like racists.
Miramax, the company distributing the film in the USA, has decided that the film’s sensational subject matter is its strongest selling point. So it is printing promo posters with the huge tagline ‘WHAT IF THE GOVERNMENT KIDNAPPED YOUR DAUGHTER?’ – a reference to the Australian government policy of removing Aboriginal from their homes, which ran from 1905 to 1971.
Slipper claims the Miramax angle is ‘sensationalising, misleading, and grossly distorting’ – but his indignation seems a bit hypocritical. He is a member of Australia’s ruling conservative party – the misnamed Liberals – which currently faces accusations of sensationalising, misleading and grossly distorting facts about asylum-seeking refugees in order to win last year’s federal election.
During the election campaign, the Liberals claimed that refugees wanting to enter Australia had thrown their children into the sea – and backed up the claims with doctored photos. These scare stories proved to be popular with Australia’s edgy post-11 September electorate, but they have now been exposed as fabrications and a full Senate inquiry is underway.
But more interesting than this is how Slipper’s reaction shows how reliant Australia has become on creating a political image for itself through its films. In the past, governments of all kinds used cinema as a propaganda tool – and it seems that some modern Western democracies are still at it.
Since the early 1980s, smash hits like Crocodile Dundee and Moulin Rouge, and offbeat favourites like Muriel’s Wedding and Strictly Ballroom, have won Australia international celluloid-cred, and a highly saleable image of being a partly sophisticated, partly wacky, all good-clean fun-in-the-sun kind of place.
And, though Australia’s big hits were often about talking pigs, globe-trotting crocodile killers or sequin-covered ballroom dancers, nobody in Australia, certainly nobody in government, leapt to explain the discrepancy between the films’ content and the real situation back home.
On the contrary, politicians have championed these films. But it seems that when a big-release film concerns dubious race-relations and disgraceful state behaviour, palms start sweating – and non-central government members initiate a spin campaign to make amends.
As I have argued before on spiked, Rabbit-Proof Fence is a mediocre film, a primary-coloured melodrama that doesn’t ask too many questions and makes the entire saga of the ‘stolen generations’ look like the misguided work of a couple of loony English colonials (see Thought-Proof Fence). The film depicts the stolen Aboriginals as Australian heroes, fighting against an unspecified enemy. It doesn’t seek to explain why ‘white’ Australia ignored, and tried to wipe out, the country’s indigenous population – a fact that largely created the fault-line dichotomy of race-relations in Australia today.
Tellingly, Slipper thinks it’s a great film. ‘I haven’t got a problem with the way that Rabbit-Proof Fence was promoted in Australia. I think it was fair, reasonable and balanced’, he said. ‘All I’m asking is that there is an honest representation of those sad events that happened in Australia over so many years.’ In other words, ‘here’s a perfectly gutless film about the “stolen generations” that doesn’t make anybody in Australia look bad – let’s not go and spoil it with some belligerent promotional campaign’.
Slipper has asked Miramax to change the posters, which are yet to be distributed. But Rabbit-Proof Fence is not a state-produced documentary, or a propaganda film, or a production of the Australian Tourism Board. It may be based on a true story, but it’s a commercial film that seeks commercial success.
So hopefully, Miramax won’t listen to Slipper (his negligible profile makes it doubtful they would), because it would be a shame if cinema and government-driven patriotism were forced to meld – especially in a nation that’s as free, open and non-racist as Australia claims to be.
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