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I remember a period in the 1990s when everything from Hollywood seemed to arrive in pairs. The genre of lava-spewing disaster movies was virtually non-existent until 1997, when Dante’s Peak was released, followed quickly by Volcano. A mysterious array of doublets followed, including two Dalai Lama movies (Kundun and Tibet), two animated films about insects (Antz and A Bug’s Life) and a couple of space-journeying end-of-the-world blockbusters (Armageddon and Deep Impact).
The Australian film industry operates on a much smaller scale than Tinseltown, of course, but that’s not to say we can’t provide some double-ups every now and then. Take, for example, a pair of documentaries exploring the career of the great Australian footballer Adam Goodes: first The Final Quarter, which premiered at Sydney film festival in June and recently aired on Channel 10; and now The Australian Dream, which played as the opening night film of this year’s Melbourne International film festival.
Any person of sane mind would acknowledge that Goodes, who was in effect booed out of the stadium and retired prematurely in 2015, was a victim of racism. One of the benefits of the Senna-like approach undertaken in The Final Quarter, being entirely constructed from archival footage, was that it appeared to allow parties, such as Andrew Bolt and Eddie Maguire, to hang themselves with their own words. Just a few years down the track, it is already clear that history has condemned them.
In The Australian Dream, both Bolt and Maguire receive a decent amount of screen time, appearing in interviews conducted for the film. In the case of Maguire this decision from the director, Daniel Gordon, almost works, given he says what might, at a push, be considered something vaguely approaching contrition. But in Bolt’s case, the ideologically charged commentator has been handed yet another platform to dig his heels in, to double down, to once more present himself as a purveyor of truth, bravely going into battle against the bleeding hearts.
At one point Bolt tells us, with a straight face, that when the crowd booed Goodes this was “their contribution to the debate”. These moments cheapen the film with “insights” derived from baseless contrarianism. Maguire meanwhile confusingly suggests that his infamous King Kong joke was a result of being overworked; he appears to have mixed up his words, you see, when trying to make a point about black minstrel shows. Or something.
Part of the scope of The Australian Dream is to rewrite and correct Australia’s problematic history. In this context it is an unusual decision to give a podium to the kinds of people who have been in control of the narrative for so long.
I would love to see a film exploring the highly interesting and dignified Goodes life story in detail. Instead Gordon, and writer Stan Grant, have more ambitious ideas in mind for The Australian Dream, indicated by the title and expressed visually through the film’s first juxtaposition. Gordon cuts from an aerial view of sun-parched desert to the image of a footy stadium, its immaculate bright green grass illuminated in the night sky.
This transition argues that there is a deep connection between the recreational public ritual of sport and deeper things, such as our people and our land. Just a few minutes in, the film broaches the debate around Australia Day, and the country’s infatuation with sport, as well as briefly looking at Goodes’s formative years. This is a documentary that’s constantly making connections, always reaching for new ideas and expanding its hypothesis.
This kind of ambition is sometimes to its own detriment, given there’s material here for at least half a dozen movies and some of the meatier subjects are given short shrift. The pacing – in the first half especially – is brisk and inelegant, with many interview moments chopped up to the size of a single sound byte. Most of these interviews were filmed in front of generic passé-looking grey backdrops, which reminded me of the kinds of daggy backgrounds sometimes used in professional family photographs.
Grant’s on-screen presence only really makes sense, from a structural point of view, towards the very end, when the title is explained through integration of his powerful 2016 speech about discrimination, colonisation, and, indeed, the “Australian dream”. The director has a habit of cutting to the writer in order for him to explain (always eloquently) the meaning of the scene we just watched, which is a little on the nose.
The Australian Dream tells rather than shows, going against the classic film-making dictum. But it speaks loudly and articulately, dropping the kind of truth bombs that smash your heart to pieces. At one point Grant explains that the successes of his life have been achieved despite, rather than because of, the “Australian dream”. What an intensely sad hypothesis: that even a dream can be the realm of the privileged.
The Final Quarter is, for me, a superior film, with a clearer purpose and a sharper style. But this one is very good too: emotive, inspiring and argumentative, driven by a clear desire for justice and equality.
Source: The Guardian
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