Reclaiming Uncanny Spaces: Australian Landscapes from the New Wave to the New Indigenous Cinema

Creator's Statement

The challenge of the video essay format in an academic context is how to use it to communicate complex ideas and arguments. Invariably, the form seems to raise questions of what it is that actually makes a video essay ‘academic’? And, whether voice-over, on-screen text, or seeking to allow images to speak for themselves offer the best approach. These questions are highlighted when working in the video essay format, as well as when viewing essays in the field. The challenge of this video essay then, was how to achieve its key goals, which were: first, to distil a complex psychoanalytic analysis of two films, Picnic at Hanging Rock (Weir, 1975) and The Last Wave (Weir, 1977), into a succinct, comprehensible audio-visual summary; and second, to illustrate what I read as a contemporary response to that argument offered in three films by Indigenous Australian filmmakers: Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah (2009), Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires (2012) and Ivan Sen’s Goldstone (2016). These three films, along with a range of TV series and programs by Indigenous creators, have emerged from a number of initiatives by Australian national broadcasters, funding bodies, and training institutions, as well as from production companies such as Rachel Perkins and Darren Dale’s Blackfella Films. They are part of a critically and commercially successful body of work by Indigenous Australians, and are considered here for the alternate representation of the Australian landscape they offer to the two New Wave films of Peter Weir as read by Douglas Keesey.

Keesey’s argument uses Freud’s notion of the uncanny to describe the troubled representation of the landscape in Weir’s early Australian films, particularly as it relates to the dispossession of Australia’s Indigenous population. Since Australian federation in 1901, white writers, and (later) filmmakers, have relied on the outback as a central metaphor in the defining of the national identity. Settlers, bushman, and ANZACs (Australia New Zealand Army Corps)—as well as their shadow figure, the criminal bushranger (see Ned Kelly)—have all been key in the construction of the white, male, Anglo-Saxon national identity, as evident in films such as Gallipoli (Weir, 1981) and Crocodile Dundee (Faiman, 1986). Each of these figures has had a relationship to the Australian outback as a key component of that identity, however, in contrast to the cowboys of American mythology, for instance, whose role is to tame the frontier and make it safe for women and children, Graeme Turner has shown that the heroism of the Australian protagonist results from merely surviving it. For Keesey, the dangers and threats posed by ‘the outback’ that have been central to the construction of the Australian identity become for Weir, an uncanny reminder of the dispossession of Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants. In this video essay, I have attempted to present a succinct sketch of Keesey’s argument using selected text and excerpts from Weir’s films, followed by excerpts from the concluding scenes of three films by contemporary Indigenous filmmakers that articulate responses to the theme of dispossession. The goal was to provide a clear contrast between Weir’s characters’ uncanny habitation of the land with that of some contemporary Indigenous characters’ experience of it, which, while complex and still troubled by dispossession, remains hopeful and at moments, even redemptive.         

Campora’s video essay productively illustrates how videographic studies can extend on, and even amend, ideas within existing scholarship, in order to reflect for subsequent changes in both cinematic representations and the critical methods for exploring them. In this case, the ideas and focus are related to the presentation of homelands in Australian cinema, as framed in relation to white or Aboriginal characters. The article Campora initially illustrates – Douglas Keesey’s “Weir(d) Australia: Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave (1998)” – is very much of its time, in the sense of using psychoanalysis (Freud’s notion of the uncanny) as the grounds for analysis of how landscape is presented in two of Peter Weir’s films. What Campora succeeds in doing via a more current film methodology (the practice-based video essay) is to efficiently map out Keesey’s interpretation, and to demonstrate how subsequent 21st century cinema (by Indigenous filmmakers) has reworked those same spaces. This is an important addendum, reflecting the very overt changes in representation that can result from recent initiatives to diversify film production to include more films by Indigenous artists, ones focused on their stories, and including their distinct experiences of Australian landscapes.

The scenes in both sections are well chosen, persuasively encapsulating the sharp contrasts between characters’ relationship to the land in, say, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Samson and Delilah (2009), The Sapphires (2012) and Goldstone (2016). Both parts present young women being initiated into the dramatic Australian vistas by older, maternal figures, with the anxieties of those in Hanging Rock giving way to the warm welcome home of an Indigenous girl. This video essay has further value as an educational tool, which could serve as an entry-point into the complex interrelations between diversity in film personnel and the potential impact on everything from narrative to mise-en-scène. For those of us at a literal distance from such spaces, this study – and the films it examines – highlights the importance of these ongoing cultural and political issues, within the audio-visual space of a videographic study. 

This video does what I think all good audio-visual scholarship should do, by allowing the viewer / listener to “feel” the argument on an emotional level, as well as understanding it on an intellectual one. Campora both illustrates and enacts the haunting of the landscape, as well as the “uncanny” reminder of Indigenous dispossession and white guilt that (as is argued in the cited scholarly texts and the video’s written accompaniment) come to the surface of Weir’s films. The clips have been well selected and edited to communicate this, in an interplay of image, sound, on-screen text, and written exegesis.

As a result of this enactment of a scholarly argument, the video then allows indigenous filmmakers’ work to respond to this discourse around Weir’s films, through communicating their more hopeful depiction of the landscape. Feelings of homecoming and redemption effectively take over from those of uncanny haunting and guilt that (it is argued) characterize white Australia’s ‘frontier myth’ of a landscape to be survived rather than tamed.

The written exegesis ponders how such a video can constitute “academic” thinking. By citing, illustrating and interrogating a scholarly source, before providing a counterpoint example to further the scholarly terrain, this video seems to me to realize this goal.

The only thing I think is missing is some more explanatory detail on exactly what is being sought in certain pivotal moments of the video, and how these inform the creative decisions being made in the broader project.