Jindabyne: a guilt-trip from Down Under

The latest big film from Australia wants to be a deep study of the country's racial politics, but it's just a shallow take on a classic short story.

Guy Rundle

Topics Culture

According to the critics, Jindabyne is ‘Australian cinema at its finest and most mature’ (1), ‘an unnerving film of unfathomable insight’ (2), ‘a world-class contemporary movie’ (3). Australian cinema seems to come of age every time a competently made film is released, but Jindabyne, the new release from Ray Lawrence, director of Lantana, is the pretext for new standards in hyperbole.

A story of death, marriage and race in a small New South Wales town, it may well garner a similar reaction when it goes on UK release this week. Jindabyne is worth seeing – but not for the story itself, or what it wants to tell you about Australia. Rather, it’s the rapturous reaction this ultimately shallow film has received that unintentionally expresses the deep confusion in which Australian cultural politics is mired.

With its beautifully shot vistas of the Snowy Mountains region, Jindabyne looks like a quintessentially Australian story. In fact it’s an adaptation of a story by US writer Raymond Carver, So Much Water So Close To Home.

Carver, a Mid-Western writer who died in 1988, is held to be the greatest talent in the style known as ‘dirty realism’ or ‘K-mart realism’ – the chronicling of working-class life in rustbelt America, detailing the small victories and losses of life amid freeways, malls and tract housing. In the story, a group of men go on a much-looked-forward-to fishing trip and immediately upon arriving at the river, find the body of a young woman in the water. Concluding that there is nothing they can do for her, they tie her ankle to a tree with fishing twine and continue their weekend of fishing, reporting the death only when they return home.

The story is told in retrospect by Claire, the wife of one of the men, and picks up after the incident has become public and all hell has broken loose, as the men are calumnied for not respecting the dead. The incident has thrown Claire into a deep reflection of her life – not only because she feels ambivalent towards her husband, but because she finds that the incident fails to impart any deep meaning to her – and that absence of feeling seems to be telling her that life is passing her by, sliding into grey indifference. She attends the young woman’s funeral, but nothing signifies. Claire reconciles with her husband – but nevertheless wakes up that night and asks, ‘how could you?’ and the story ends.

So Much Water is a classic and takes a powerful hold on many of its readers. Carver adapted the Chekhovian style of writers like John Cheever – whose subject was the New England haute bourgeoisie – to people whose lives had been reduced to a similar sense of stasis and ennui, by the collapse of industry. In doing so he explored the gaps and absences in such lives, the moments when things fail to add up.

Jindabyne follows much of this plot faithfully, save for one crucial shift – whereas the dead woman in the story is white (her name, ‘Susan Parker’, is so generic as to be anonymous), the dead woman in the film is Aboriginal. Suddenly a story about the failure of meaning in life becomes charged with a highly specific, even allegorical meaning instead – the fraught conditions of race-relations in contemporary Australia. As the conflict over the men’s inaction gathers, the uneasy black-white relations of the town break out in open hostility. Whereas in the story, the funeral was held at a non-descript chain-store parlour, the climax of the film is a traditional Aboriginal smoking-out funeral ceremony, charged with ancient and ritual meaning. Claire’s husband goes to the chief elder of the group to seek his forgiveness – and the man spurns him.

The original story gained much of its power from the fact that it dealt with universal cultural dilemmas, those that every human society must deal with. It explored such questions as what men owe to women and what the living owe to the dead, as expressed in a particular time and place (indeed it was a reversed form of the Antigone myth). The introduction of racial difference cuts off that relation to the universal and maroons the film in its time and place, collapsing the layers of meaning in Carver’s story into an allegory confined and limited by narrow political concerns.

Given that the film’s director and writer must have felt the story had sufficient power to merit spending three years making a screen version of it, how is it that they could have so fundamentally misunderstood the source of its power?

Culture wars in Australia

The answer is tied up with the manner in which the culture wars have played out in Australia over the past fifteen years. This focuses on the degree to which many Australian artists and writers have taken up a relatively narrow and unreflective position – as the ‘conscience of Australia’ – in an era dominated by the culturally conservative Howard government.

John Howard’s election as Australian prime minister in 1996 marked the end of a period of liberal social democracy that had begun in the early 1970s. For a reasonable majority of Australians, this period was marked by a shift in the dominant historical narrative of relations between the country’s European settlers and the aborigines. The inherited idea that the latter were a primitive and inferior people, doomed to be replaced by white modernity, shifted to the belief that the 1788 settlement of the continent marked the invasion and destruction of a distinct people with a legitimate culture.

In the 1990s this issue was thrust to centre stage with two incidents. The first was the outcome of the Mabo case at the Australian High Court. This ruled that groups of indigenous Australians (Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders) could claim land ownership (‘native title’) where they could establish a continuous association with the land and a verbal chain of right to it. The second was the revelation of the ‘stolen generations’ – the explicitly eugenic government programme of the 1910s to 1930s (and extending to the 1960s) to dissolve the aboriginal race, by removing children from aboriginal families, thus making it impossible for communities to sustain themselves.

These two key events prompted a shift in campaigning by aboriginal leaders. ‘Black liberation’ dominated the 70s, and moved into increasing talk of a process of black-white ‘reconciliation’ and a demand for an official government apology for the ‘stolen generations’ policy. By 1994, the Labor prime minister, Paul Keating, associated himself publicly with the ‘reconciliation’ process and an argument that white Australia had to own the oppressive nature of its past.

By the time this occurred, however, the social liberal period of Australian politics was coming to an end – in part hurried on by Keating’s neo-liberal economic reforms which had decimated many white working-class communities. As Keating became increasingly associated with the pursuit of excellence, historical identity and racial issues, he was also perceived as increasingly distant from everyday economic concerns. He garnered a support bordering on devotion from Australia’s artistic community, and a loathing from many of Labor’s traditional base.

Liberal (ie, Conservative) Party leader, John Howard, was thus elected on a platform of opposing political correctness, and urging Australians to be more ‘comfortable and relaxed’ with their history and identity. He gleefully jumped on two issues that allowed him to demarcate a change in Australian life – he refused to offer a government apology for the ‘stolen generations’ policy (offering a statement of regret) and enforced the now notorious policy of ‘mandatory detention’ of asylum seekers in desert prison camps, often for years at a time.

Attracted to the aboriginal

Both policies met with substantial public support, but were anathema to the artistic and cultural community – who also felt a sense of fundamental dislocation with the direction Australia was taking. Increasingly, many people were less fussed about the issues – national cultural independence, the creation of a republic, a new flag – that had drawn cultural producers and other classes together in alliance.

In parallel with the slow-grinding political campaigns against mandatory detention and the continued wretched state of many aboriginal communities, many Australian cultural creators began to suggest that the Howard government did not represent the ‘real’ Australia, whose essentially progressive nature, they suggested, corresponded pretty exactly to the liberal, cosmopolitan views held by the cultural community itself.

The cultural community – overwhelmingly inner-city people living substantially in the globalised media-space that connects London to New York to Berlin to Sydney, far more than to their own hinterlands – were attracted by certain features of the aboriginal community. In particular, they were drawn to the fairly strong survival of a kinship culture in which mutual obligation, reciprocity and at-homeness in the wilderness were constitutive of individual subjectivity and meaning. The rich landscape of aboriginal cultural life provided an ‘other’ to the standard dilemmas of the postmodern inner-city – a sense of isolation, attenuation, a lack of shared meaning and groundedness, of a sense of ‘the real’.

In the UK, Germaine Greer has been the most visible exponent of the idea that one can import a bit of aboriginal meaning into a deracinated life, alleging that, when visiting Australia, she is always met by an aboriginal welcome committee, from an aboriginal nation (this term is used rather than tribe) that has adopted her (to date, no such committee has been traced).

Trapped in victimhood

Thus, the particular complexities of aboriginal life and politics became obscured by the uses to which they were being put, as a sort of ‘fund’ of meaning that could give an instant charge to texts, whose execution was otherwise distinctly ordinary. Not only did this deaden the capacity of many artists to respond to the distinct hypermodern world they actually lived in, it also obscured the way in which aboriginal politics was becoming trapped in a role of victimhood. The demand for an apology dragged on, until it became a form of aboriginal self-subjection to the unbounded will of the settler – rather than taking sovereignty by claiming it, aboriginal leaders and their white supporters became trapped in a mode of petitioning for the grant of their own identity.

Relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians ceased to be one (major) issue among many, and became a myth of original sin rather than a grisly episode in the global spread of colonialism. And the fact that many Australians, living their lives in the increasingly non-specific suburban space of the globalised West, did not feel a strong relationship, either negative or positive, to this history, was increasingly taken – by the cultural community – as an instance of moral failure, which should invite large-scale condemnation.

This is the cultural-political atmosphere from which Jindabyne has arisen, and of which it is an expression. Carver’s story of a distinct working-class world has had its meaning stripped away, leaving the bare plot details within which has been placed a new content – the primacy of race as a social category. This is the only content that identity politics can really connect with. Where the story was, among many other things, an invitation to consider why many people feel their lives to be atomised and isolated, questioning why people are not joining together in common circumstance, Jindabyne sets out to argue that the model for collectivity is over there, held only in a society retaining pre-modern features. Presenting itself as a fearless self-analysis of national dilemmas, the film is, in fact, profoundly conformist and unreflective – more an expression of the narcissism of cultural producers who claim the role of national conscience than it is of a fearless critical imagination that makes for great art.

Jindabyne opens in the UK on May 25.

Guy Rundle is European editor of the Australian political magazine Arena.

(1) Jim Schembri, Age, 21 July 2006

(2) Rachael Turk, Inside Film, 1 July 2006

(3) Leigh Paatsch, HeraldSun, 20 July 2006

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Topics Culture


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