Director: Kriv Stenders
Starring: Bryan Brown, Jenny Wu, Shari Sebbens, Miah Madden, Elias Anton, Sean Keenan
Typically Down Under Flix eschews films currently in cinemas, but I thought I’d make an exception for Kriv Stenders’ Australia Day, which is in limited release and has simultaneously made its video-on-demand debut via Dendy Direct and the Foxtel Store. Stenders’ film has divided both viewers and critics, with Luke Buckmaster in The Guardian and Blake Howard in Daily Review nicely encapsulating some of the key criticisms leveled at the film.
Australia Day is the second Stenders film to date with a deeply ironic title, the first being Lucky Country. Taking its cues from multi-storyline, ensemble misery mosaics such as Paul Haggis’ Crash and using as its backdrop a day traditionally of celebration – but increasingly one of national contention – the film chronicles three intersecting dramas unfolding across Brisbane. In one thread, an Aboriginal teenager (Miah Madden) kills her abusive guardian and goes on the run from the authorities, with a sympathetic Indigenous officer (Shari Sebbens) in pursuit; in another, a group of young white men kidnap a young Muslim man (Elias Anton) wrongly accused of drugging and violating one of their sisters; and in the third, a cattle farmer who’s gone bankrupt (Bryan Brown) crosses paths with a young Chinese woman (Jenny Wu) just escaped from a prostitution racket.
In pulling back the veneer of Australia Day celebrations and shining a light on the dark underbelly beneath, Australia Day presents an unflattering portrait of the country and some of its cultures and subcultures. At times this portrait is overwrought and dependent on stereotype, and aside from news stories unfolding on TV screens or radios in the background or the odd glimpses of festivities, the film doesn’t present a vision of “normalcy” (as loaded and abstract as that term is) to serve as counterpoint to and offset the events onscreen. The result is a film that, as cinema is wont to, fixes and cements a particular vision of contemporary Australia on film, one made seemingly more sweeping and definitive by its choice of title.
But provocation is part of the film’s modus operandi. Australia Day‘s thematic turf has been mined elsewhere – for example, last year’s Down Under explored white Australian/Muslim relations, The Jammed explored sex trafficking, and a bevy of films from Beneath Clouds to Samson & Delilah have explored the struggles of contemporary Indigenous youth – and the brevity with which these disparate themes are dealt with here (each comprising roughly a third of the film) perhaps does them an injustice. Yet the packaging of all these threads together makes a loud, clear statement: these issues are not isolated and cannot be compartmentalized, either artistically or culturally. Australia Day is big, didactic, muscular Oliver Stone-esque filmmaking, albeit on an Australian budget rather than an Oliver Stone budget. It never quite grips or elicits a gut chemical reaction to the degree a Stone film would, but it poses plenty of provocative questions to chew over without presuming to answer them.