“If I can’t make the kind of film that I want to make, then the hell with it.” – Peter Weir
Often called the Australian Film Renaissance, this movement is largely credited as the artistic force that singlehandedly revived the fading originality of Australian films. Starting out in the early 1970s, the Australian New Wave churned out fiercely honest and delightfully imaginative works over the next couple of decades that introduced Australian cinema to a worldwide audience.
After the Second World War, the Australian film industry had severely declined but a new generation of filmmakers focused on manifesting their dreams on the big screen. The films from this period were marked by their uncompromising vision and directness in tackling cinematic representations of violence, sexuality and the universal problems of the human condition.
One of the leading figures of the Australian New Wave, Peter Weir, recalled in an interview: “There was really no culture here when I was growing up. No great collections of paintings, and very little in the way of philanthropists, such as in your country, who would take their ill-gotten gains and spend it on art as their way of atoning.”
He added, “It sounds curious to say, but the landscape, nature itself, was probably the biggest influence on me, particularly being here in this great empty country and living by the sea as I did. I think that was my art gallery. It was an era when children were always ordered outside, and you could just wander off, go down to the bay. Boredom can be a tremendous advantage for anybody with imagination.”
As a part of our weekly spotlight on world cinema, we revisit 10 essential films from the Australian New Wave in order to understand how fresh creative forces facilitated the revival of Australian cinema.
The 10 best films of the Australian New Wave:
Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff – 1971)
One of the earliest and finest examples of the Australian New Wave, Ted Kotcheff’s seminal psychological thriller is based on Kenneth Cook’s eponymous 1961 novel. Set in Outback Australia, Wake in Fright presents the case of a young schoolteacher who grapples with the concepts of morality and meaning. The master negative of the film was thought to have been lost but this cult-classic was successfully restored in 2004.
“I wanted to recreate what I felt and saw – the heat, the sweat, the dust, the flies,” Kotcheff said. “I said to the set designer and the costume designer, ‘I don’t want to see any cool colours. I don’t want to see blue or green. Ever. On anything. All I want is red, yellow, orange, burgundy and brown. All the hot colours. On costumes, sets, everything.’ I wanted people to watch the film and be unconsciously sweating.”
Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir – 1975)
Probably the most iconic and famous work from the film movement, Peter Weir’s brilliant adaptation of Cliff Green’s 1967 novel tells the story of a group of schoolgirls who mysteriously disappear while out on a picnic on Valentine’s Day. It is a film that manages to unsettle the viewer without resorting to the overused tropes of the horror genre.
Weir revealed, “My only worry was whether an audience would accept such an outrageous idea. Personally, I always found it the most satisfying and fascinating aspect of the film. I usually find endings disappointing: they’re totally unnatural. You are creating life on the screen, and life doesn’t have endings. It’s always moving on to something else and there are always unexplained elements.”
Sunday Too Far Away (Ken Hannam – 1975)
This 1975 film contains most of the important elements of the Australian New Wave, presenting a fundamental isolation that overwhelms the audience when contextualised within the framework of the unforgiving landscape. It stars Jack Thompson as a gun shearer who typifies the Australian male culture.
The film was a critical and commercial success, making $1,356,000 at the box office in Australia. It also won three 1975 awards from the Australian Film Institute, including the coveted Best Film, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories.
The Devil’s Playground (Fred Schepisi – 1976)
A semi-autobiographical work that is deeply personal and moving, The Devil’s Playground follows the coming-of-age story of a boy in a conservative Catholic seminary. It asks relevant questions of faith and sexuality, questioning an individual’s agency over his own body when subjected to religious restrictions and moral codifications.
Schepisi commented, “I don’t have cinema precedents, I just don’t. I’m not stupid enough to believe that they’re not absorbed, but I don’t follow one style of film-maker. The material dictates its needs. The thing I would say about The Devil’s Playground is I watered it down because, in fact, it took me five years to get the money together and over half the money was mine, and I had to put in that much money again to get it out. I had to hire the cinema. Nobody liked the film until I got it out there, which I find rather remarkable.”
My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong – 1979)
Set in rural Australia in the late 19th century, Gillian Armstrong’s stunning period drama is based on Miles Franklin’s novel and tells the story of a talented woman who wants to be a writer but is stifled by the normative prejudices of society and romance. My Brilliant Career received several awards and nominations, including Oscar and Golden Globe bids.
Armstrong said, “What I always hated, from very early on in my career, was how I was always labelled as a ‘woman filmmaker’. I wasn’t just labelled as ‘Gillian Armstrong, Director.’ I felt it was sort of sexist and patronising that you don’t say before Phillip Noyce ‘male director’ and the questions that I was asked were always about women in my films, as though I’m not actually a three dimensional artist, instead I’m only a person who was put on Earth to make sickly promos about women.”
Mad Max (George Miller – 1979)
The influence of George Miller’s original 1979 sci-fi film on the genre can hardly be overstated. Mad Max paints a mesmerising picture of a dystopian future where violence and societal collapse have become integral to the landscape. Mel Gibson stars as Mad Max, the only remaining link to the value systems we are familiar with and the nihilistic void of this new land.
Miller explained, “I was very interested in the character and in the way that the Max stories are told — basically they’re allegorical stories in the same way that the classic Western was that. Max is a character who gets swept up into this story who is that sort of wanderer in the wasteland, looking for some sense of meaning in a very stark world.”
Breaker Morant (Bruce Beresford – 1980)
Beresford’s 1980 historical drama questions the infinite hypocrisies of war through the story of three military officials who were court martial for their war crimes. The film was a hit at the Box Office and won 10 awards from the Australian Film Institute, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay as well.
Beresford clarified, “I wasn’t interested in making these men out to be heroes. I wasn’t trying to whitewash the situation. What I was interested in was the moral responsibility in times of war…The film never pretended for a moment that they weren’t guilty. It said they were guilty. But what was interesting about it was that it analysed why men in this situation would behave as they had never behaved before in their lives.
“It’s the pressures that are put to bear on people in war time… Look at all the things that happen in these countries committed by people who appear to be quite normal. That was what I was interested in examining. I always get amazed when people say to me that this is a film about poor Australians who were framed by the Brits.”
Bliss (Ray Lawrence – 1985)
Ray Lawrence’s brilliant 1985 comedy-drama launches a powerful philosophical investigation of the dichotomy of life and death. It follows the near-death experience of a man who is convinced that he is in hell after surviving a heart attack. Bliss has a unique place in the Australian New Wave because it deviated from the realism of its predecessors and anticipated the modernist experiments of the ’90s.
Lawrence did not make another film for 16 years after Bliss came out. He explained, “I was working on a lot of other projects but unfortunately none of them managed to get financed. There were a quite number over the years: Tracks, which was based on the book by Robyn Davison; Sweetlip, which was set it the tropical north of Australia, a murder mystery; and Machete, set on the west coast in a desert town. This story was the start of my interest in the male, female differences. They all made it to final draft.”
The Year My Voice Broke (John Duigan – 1987)
One of the best Australian coming-of-age films of all time, The Year My Voice Broke explores the challenges of adolescence through the account of Danny, an awkward teenager living in rural Australia who falls in love. Based on Duigan’s own experiences, this 1987 masterpiece won the Best Film Award from the Australian Film Institute.
In an interview, Duigan said, “My main area of study at university was philosophy and I contemplated the idea of actually going to Cambridge and doing a doctorate there, but ended up choosing to work in the film industry instead. I think that interest in ethics has always been an abiding one for me and, to an extent, has some sort of resonance in many of the films that I make, though not all of them.”
Celia (Ann Turner – 1989)
A dark and quasi-surreal tale of the loss of childhood innocence, this 1989 Australian horror film focuses on the curious case of a young girl who copes with the terrors of the real world by making up her own ones. The film also indulges in relevant political commentary, examining the communist witch-hunts and the “Red Scare” of the 1950s.
Turner reflected, “What stands out for me most is the depiction of childhood, in all its happiness and horror, played out through suburban, everyday activities, set against a political backdrop. I like the blend of the personal and political. The main interpretation that I had on the film’s release, and travelling internationally to film festivals, was how universal the experience of childhood is – crossing borders and generations. At the time, that took me a little by surprise, as I’d written so specifically about an Australian childhood.”