Floating LifeWinter’s Harvest (1979 Australia 38 mins)

Prod, Scr: Brian McKenzie, Angelo Gigliotti Dir: Brian McKenzie Phot: Wolfgang Kress

Australia Has No Winter (1999 Australia 55 mins)

Prod Co: Habibi Films Filmmakers: Sherine Salama, Amos Cohen

Floating Life (1996 Australia 95 mins)

Prod Co: Cineplex Odeon Films/Southern Star Entertainment Prod: Bridget Ikin Dir: Clara Law Scr: Eddie Ling-Ching Fong, Clara Law Phot: Dion Beebe Ed: Suresh Ayyar Prod Des: Chung Man Yee Mus: Davood A. Tabrizi

Cast: Annette Shun Wah, Annie Yip, Anthony Wong, Edwin Pang, Cecilia Fong Sing Lee, Toby Wong

You wouldn’t know it switching on to Neighbours or Packed to the Rafters (or the ABC on any night, in any time-slot, for that matter) but the post-World War II industrialisation imperative which resulted in the settling to Australia of immigrants and refugees from across Europe is one of the great turning points in our history. From this history stems the first strikes at the edifice of the White Australia Policy, the transformation of our cities, and the beginning of conceiving an Australian character who can trace her or his heritage back to Apia, Athens, Rome, Beirut or Khartoum as much as to Mparntwe or Gariwerd, or to Manchester, Galway or Glasgow. This seismic cultural shift has not occurred without conflict, tension or struggle. The three films in this program trace a development of something that could be called “the politics of multiculturalism” across two decades, a time through which multiculturalism went from being a progressive bipartisan expression of Australian identity to a more recent critique which has seen the concept assailed by conservative nationalism from one side and a redefinition of culture beyond race and ethnicity to encompass categories of gender, sexuality and lifestyle on the other.

Brian McKenzie’s 1979 film, Winter Harvest, is a cinéma vérité documentation of a ritual that has its roots in a rural, pre-modernist Europe. An Italian family slaughters a pig and from that one carcass they will create a store of food that will feed three generations for a season. We see the killing of the animal in all its brutality. The collective activity that ensues results in soups, in stews, in smoked meats and sausages, a larder that across a weekend overtakes and dominates a suburban Melbourne garage. It would be a mistake to interpret McKenzie’s film as a simple celebration of cuisine and culinary history, a reaffirmation of that old standard, “Wogs are good for this country because they’ve brought all this great food”. Well, we are and we did but Winter’s Harvest suggests that there is also a communality and an ethics to the dinner table that may be lost in the transition of a migrant culture from the village to the urbanised industrialised world. As the final part of this remarkable documentary makes explicit, the real savagery is not the killing of the animal we have witnessed in the opening scenes, but the sanitised technology of mass production that removes our connection to the meat that finally ends up on our plates. That is the real cruelty. Thirty years after it was first made, Winter Harvest still resonates in linking cultural history to questions of ecology and sustainability. In that sense, it is even more relevant.

Loss and exile, hope and possibility, these are the twin narratives that cannot be separated from any understanding of the migrant and refugee experience. Sherine Salama and Amos Cohen’s compelling documentary, Australia Has No Winter, traces the arrival and settlement of a mixed Serbian and Croatian family who are refugees from the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. A profoundly humanist politics is at play in this film. From the outset we enter Australia and witness it through the eyes of the newly arrived migrants. Disoriented but excited, initially their world is bordered by the walls of their public housing flat. Viewing Melbourne through their eyes – as they negotiate the necessities of shopping, of finding work, of navigating the public transport system and dealing with the welfare bureaucracies – the familiar becomes strange. Through their first year in this “new” country we are confronted by the father’s depression and alienation, buoyed by the mother and the daughters increasing comfort and pleasure in finding refuge. This oscillation between exhilaration and profound sadness is one that all migrants and children of migrants to this country understand. The reality is that though it is a central narrative of the Australian experience it is one that rarely has been depicted in our fiction films. Australia Has No Winter takes place in working class suburban Melbourne localities that are familiar to us from myriad Australian film and television dramas and comedies. Salama and Cohen’s documentary revitalises these spaces, and though at the heart of the film is a determined commitment to stay focussed on the realities of one family’s experience, we are also reminded of the silences and exclusions of our filmmaking practice. The “local colour” so often at the edge of the frame is now at the centre (and this is also true of Winter’s Harvest). Let us not be fooled into perceiving this form of documentary practice, rooted in community and activist politics, as a no longer necessary corrective. Australia Has No Winter was made for television but the truth it reveals demands a questioning of the evasions in all our screen and literary culture. The refugee family in this documentary are not at the margins or in the shadows but part of the centre of something designated as “Australia”. This emergence still retains potency, is still an imperative.

Clara Law is a migrant herself and a great Australian filmmaker. We’ll make this call: her 1996 feature film Floating Life is one of the most underrated films ever made in this country. A family relocates from Hong Kong to the edges of Sydney suburbia, to live with their daughter. Another daughter has migrated to Germany. If Australian cultural life has been defined in the last third of the twentieth century as a flight from the suburbs, Floating Life situates its mise en scène firmly in the landscape of McMansions and newly developed housing estates. Just as in Australia Has No Winter, we view the supposedly familiar and mundane anew and to our surprise we find great beauty there. The cinematography by Dion Beebe is a knockout, and we do experience the newcomer’s amazement at the intense antipodean light. The house itself becomes a living character, a wondrous and strange playground after the tight claustrophobic confines of Hong Kong. We cannot think of another film that has so viscerally conveyed the experience of finding oneself in a new environment, the tentative beginnings that lead to the creation of a new homeland. Loss and exile also define the familial relationships at the heart of Floating Life. How can they not when the family is dispersed across three continents? Anthony Wong, Annette Shun Wah, Annie Yip, the whole cast are terrific. Language too is a character in this film, the cadence of Asian-Australian English, the weave between English and Chinese. It is a reminder, if a reminder is needed, of the poverty of sound and dialect in Australian film. It is not only the faces, the look of our screen culture that betrays the grim unrelenting dominance of the whitebread; it is there also in the sound of too many of our films. Floating Life was released the year of John Howard’s election as Prime Minister of Australia. Law’s third film in Australia was the documentary Letters to Ali, about the brutalisation of a young Afghan refugee who was locked up in a detention centre. This is where the turn against multiculturalism and towards a regressive nationalism led us. Floating Life feels like a promise yet unfulfilled in our cinema.

Tens of millions of dollars, a huge expenditure of time and labour were involved in creating a film called Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008). We have a friend who has a great joke. When he was in Madrid at the end of 2008 and someone at a bar asked him where he was from he replied, “Baz Lurhmann’s Australia”. The irony, the very sad irony, is that in 1993 an exceptional Australian filmmaker called Tracey Moffatt created a work about this land and this culture that attempted to create a new iconography and mythos about what Australia was, what it is, and what it could be. Her film Bedevil imagined an Australia that was both wog and Aborigine, as much Asian as it was European, a film which revealed that our legends and ghosts are indebted to urban popular culture as much as they are to a rural desert landscape. The crucial difference between Moffatt’s film and that of Lurhmann is that in Bedevil the central experience of colonial and racial exploitation is something all of us from non-Indigenous heritage have to acknowledge, we all have to take responsibility for the ghosts in Australia’s past.

Where are we from? We are from “Tracey Moffatt’s Australia”. Though they are all vastly different films, that is the Australia to which Winter’s Harvest, Australia Has No Winter and Floating Life belong.

About The Author

Spiro Economopoulos is a film programmer for the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and is on the selection committee for the Melbourne International Film Festival. Aside from spending a lot of money on music his main passion is cinema.