Australian National Identity and Cinema (Milena Maldonado, Australia)


Like children attached to our mother’s nipples, we have developed a growing dependency on the media. From cultural knowledge and education to entertainment and interpersonal connection, we source most of our societal nutrients from it, and with the rapid expansion of the film industry, the debate on whether cinema influences society or vice versa has never been more relevant. The relationship between the two is an ongoing conversation, a constant exchange of ideas, and a continuous flow of products and reactants. It is a synthesis and decomposition, a mutual influence. Often an educator and an activist, cinema can teach us about history, expose us to diverse cultures, and bring attention to pressing social issues. It can inspire audiences to take action and create social change. Cinema conditionally influences our attitudes and behaviours by portraying messages, ideas, or values in a particular way, shaping our perception of and response to the world around us. It is a powerful medium that can have a profound impact on society, influencing us not only as individuals but also as communities and cultures. Thus, when we talk about Australian National Cinema, we are not only discussing the industry’s number of influential and award-winning films over the years; we are examining the nation’s culture and national identity.

The Australian film industry has a rich history. Dating back to the late 1800s, it has been conversing with the Australian public for a good while. In their mutual exchange of products and reactants, Australian National Cinema has played a crucial role in shaping the country’s national identity and vice versa. Still, vast and varied, Australian cinema and national identity remain difficult to define and contain, so I must refer to my analysis as a partial exploration of some prevalent aspects of the industry and National identity. After all, when breastfeeding, we can only focus on one nipple at a time.

Australian National Cinema is significantly characterized by its fascination with the Australian landscape, the nation’s colonial past, and its multicultural identity. In recent years, the industry has shown an effort to tell diverse and authentic stories that reflect these characteristics, following a distinctive style stemming from realism that is often unconsciously self-reflective. The influential film Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) is one that perfectly exemplifies these attributes.

Directed by Phillip Noyce and based on the book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara, the film Rabbit-Proof Fence addresses themes that are central to the country’s history and national identity. Set in Western Australia in 1931, the film tells the true story of three young Indigenous girls who escape from a government-run settlement designed to assimilate them into white Australian culture. Noyce’s film portrays the harsh reality of the Stolen Generations, a period of Australian history when Indigenous children were taken from their families and forcefully placed in institutions or with foster families to assimilate them into white culture. A powerful indictment of the Australian government’s policies of assimilation and the devastating impact they had on Indigenous communities, the film addresses a significant aspect of Australian national identity. Exploring the prominent themes of colonialism and assimilation, Indigenous culture and identity, and resilience in the face of oppression, the film’s representation of Indigenous people, and use of Indigenous music and soundscapes contribute to a distinctively Australian way of representing the country on screen.

The film depicts the experiences of three young girls of mixed-race Aboriginal descent who are forcibly removed from their families and sent to a government-run institution intended to assimilate them into white Australian society. The film not only highlights the cruelty and injustice of this policy but also portrays the resilience and strength of Indigenous culture in the face of adversity.

As seen in Rabbit-Proof Fence, cinema plays a huge role in the shaping and reinforcement of Australian national identity. Living abroad in Australia, I have learned a great deal about the differences and similarities between the way the country is represented on screen and the way it represents itself through the people. I’ve also been frequently asked: “is America really like the movies?” I then tend to explain that there is more to America than rich L.A. influencers and New York businessmen. Now think about this: if you were to watch this film outside of Australia, how much of the country would you really be seeing? It would teach you specific cultural ideals about Australia that would become your basis for understanding the nation’s identity. This is precisely why the importance and impact of the big screen should not and must not be underestimated.