Australia Day is the official holiday – National Day – of Australia, celebrating the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the British to Port Jackson in New South Wales. It is a controversial holiday for many reasons, especially for the indigenous peoples of Australia. It is this day that was chosen as the titular background for the newest film by Kriv Stenders, an Australian writer, producer and director, who has dipped his toes into the uglier sides of Australia already with his past projects such as Boxing Day (2007), Lucky Country (2009) and Red Dog (2011) – the latter was a massive hit. The genres of his previous works are varied and do not exclude comedy, but the director’s direction hinted that sooner or later, a more realistic drama would probably land on the ‘menu’. And it did – Stenders joined hands with Stephen M. Irwin, an Australian novelist and screenwriter, to create his newest project, a drama with hints of a thriller – Australia Day, which received its international premiere at the 22nd BIFF.
The whirlwind beginning of Australia Day immediately announces that we are to see a fast-paced, chilling drama – the first thing we see is an erratic sequence with despair-laced (and to varying extents, bloodied-up) young people, on the run for various reasons. April (Miah Madden), an Aboriginal teen, is trying to outrun the cops after a car crash. Lan (Jenny Wu), a young Chinese woman, attempts to flee her captors – it is immediately clear that they belong to an illegal, underground Chinese organisation. Sami (Elias Anton), from a Middle Eastern family, tries to escape from being captured by a couple of suburban, angry, young white brothers who accuse him of drugging and raping their sister. 3 different underdog stories with seemingly zero connection get more and more complex at an unnerving fast pace – Lan seeks help from a random driver-by, Terry (Bryan Brown), who seems to have enough problems even without an escaped Chinese sex slave on his hands, while April desperately searches for her missing mother as she is chased by Sonya (Shari Sebbens), an Aboriginal police officer, who wants to help the girl and the terrible predicament she landed in. In the meantime, Sami is tortured by the brothers, one of whom has decided to be the judge, the jury and the executioner, while the other brother faces the violence with doubts and an obvious dislike – and that is before Sami’s mother and brother decide to spike up the curve of violence. Racial and sexual violence escalate as we can only watch in horror, hoping for a moment where our nerves will stop getting frayed by the fast-paced chain of soul-slaying moments of human despair. And this is the first in a series of faults that make this films so, so hard to watch.
It all starts with the structure – each of the three stories would suffice for a film of its own, and the screenplay sets us up with a total overflow of information and events that make the entire story impossible to swallow. Even though the final wrap-up veers away from total darkness to offer little slivers of hope, the viewer walks away from the film with a bitter outlook on Australia that will take a while to change. Is this really the current state of things? Young Aboriginal girls cannot walk down any street without facing one sort of sexual violence or other, while racial tensions are overflowing and everyone is either encouraging others to pay back violence with violence, contemplating suicide or violently shouting about the injustice of it all, while the police is trying to cover it all up or works at a snail pace – is that really the current reality of Australia? The film sets out to firmly establish it as such and given the general story development, the few, brief moments there at the end of the film, where justice has small victories, feel high-handed and not realistic at all.
It feels that both the writer and the director had bitten off more than they could chew, and it’s a pity, really. The cast performances are not bad, and with some rework, instead of one underdeveloped, overly-packed feature, we could have watched three solid movies with ample room of story development.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © ZDF Enterprises