Whose wave was the “Australian New Wave”?

Australian film greats Chips Rafferty and Jack Thompson star in Ted Kotcheff’s “Wake in Fright” (1971)

I grew up in Melbourne, Australia, and I remember attending grade school with a kid named Nicholas Schepisi. Everybody knew that his Dad was a famous film director. What I didn’t know (until much later) was that “Nick’s Dad” and the likes of Gillian Armstrong, Bruce Beresford, Phil Noyce, and Peter Weir made important contributions to the Australian film industry, in what would later be called the Australian New Wave.

What did the New Wave signify for Australia’s film industry? What did these films bring to Australians and to audiences abroad? In my recent discussion of Mad Max (1979) in another post on this site, I argued that Australian filmmakers have always offered unique perspectives on narratives familiar to us (such as the dystopian story). Perhaps it is the country’s remoteness, or its strange history as a colony and a prison that gives it a unique voice unlike any other. The directors of the New Wave certainly thought they had some fresh stories to tell.

Breaker Morant, 1980

Jack Thompson (far left) won a Best Supporting Actor award at Cannes for his portrayal of Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant in Bruce Beresford’s “Breaker Morant” (1979). Photograph by Jim Townley.

A short history of Australian film “firsts”

Australia has an extensive film history stretching all the way back to the turn of the century. At the time of its creation in 1906, The Story of the Kelly Gang by the brothers Charles and Nevin Tait was arguably the longest feature-length film ever produced in the world. It also marked the beginning of Australia’s preoccupation with exploring the theme of national identity. What better subject for the nation’s first film than the mythic folk hero and bushranger Ned Kelly?

Other Australian classics from the silent era include The Sentimental Bloke (1919) and For the Term of His Natural Life (1927), both of which were early literary adaptations of successful Australian novels. Director Norman Dawn endowed Marcus Clarke’s 1874 novel of convict life with a striking authenticity when he filmed For the Term of His Natural Life on location at the Port Arthur penal colony in Tasmania.

In 1943, Australia received its first Academy Award for the newsreel shot Kokoda Front Line! (1942). War photographer Damien Parer’s footage of Australian soldiers on the Kokoda Trail would help shape Australia’s collective memory of WWII. Australia’s first color film Jedda (1955) remains controversial in its portrayal of Aboriginal Australians, but it is noteworthy for several other “firsts”: it was the first Australian film to be shown at Cannes, and the first to feature Aboriginal actors in lead roles.

A pool becomes a wave

In the late 1950s and 1960s, Australian film production dwindled as distributors increasingly came under American and British ownership. Few Australian films could gain financing until a political sea change took place in the early 1970s. The Whitlam administration established a film funding corporation and government agency called the Australian Film Development Corporation, charged with promoting “culturally worthwhile films of significant Australian content”. A generation of emerging filmmakers would receive training from the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, founded in 1973.

The end result was a surge in film production during the late 1970s and 1980s. Australia produced nearly 400 films from 1975 and 1980. Australian directors began to receive international acclaim for the rich visual texture of their cinematic styles. Strong historical narratives in films from this period indicate a desire to reconcile Australia’s colonial past with the future.

Looking back on the Australian New Wave

What sets apart Australian films from this period? The prominence of the Australian landscape certainly is a trademark of the New Wave films. The extremes of nature play out in bushfires and floods, and the unyielding desert heat of the Outback. Nature here seems destined to punish. Many of the stories describe incredible hardship, and a shared struggle to survive amidst overwhelming odds.

Beyond the beautiful cinematography and dynamic stories, one wonders if a type of postcolonial sensibility in filmmaking exists throughout Australian film history. Do Australian films share any commonalities with the films of other former colonies, such as New Zealand or Canada?

In a recent interview with Nicolas Ripold for the New York Times, Canadian director Ted Kotcheff spoke of his affinity for Australian culture when he filmed Wake In Fright (1971):

I’m a Canadian, and Canada and Australia share many things in common: the same British colonial background, the same lack of confidence in themselves, and the same vast empty spaces that don’t liberate but imprison… Once I got to the outback, I felt the same way as in the northern reaches of Canada. The men are the same. So I felt it all.

While Australia remains a unique corner of the world – isolated, free, and filled with “vast empty spaces”, it does have a history that aligns it with other nations. No other nation faced quite the same degree of social experimentation as Australia did when it was founded as a penal colony, but it was (and still is) strongly influenced by its cultural allegiances to mother England. What we get in Australian film is something strangely familiar to us, and yet completely different. We are hearing the same language and feeling similar sentiments, observed through different eyes.

L-R: John Duigan, Ben Mendelsohn, Loene Carmen, Noah Taylor, George Miller - THE YEAR MY VOICE BROKE -  at the 1987 AFI Awards

The cast and crew of John Duigan’s “The Year My Voice Broke” won the Australian Film Institute’s top awards in 1987. From left to right: John Duigan, Ben Mendelsohn, Loene Carmen, Noah Taylor and George Miller.

The best of  the Australian New Wave

Below are some shining examples of the Australian New Wave, in chronological order. You can follow the links to some excellent short summaries, clips, and curator notes from Australian Screen (operated by the National Film and Sound Archive).

The Devil’s Playground, 1976 (Dir. Fred Schepisi, Australia)

Don’s Party, 1976 (Dir. Bruce Beresford, Australia)

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, 1978  (Dir. Fred Schepisi, Australia)

Breaker Morant, 1979 (Dir. Bruce Beresford, Australia)

Flirting, 1990  (Dir. John Duigan, Australia)

Gallipoli, 1981  (Dir. Peter Weir, Australia)

The Last Wave, 1977  (Dir. Peter Weir, Australia)

Mad Max, 1979  (Dir. George Miller, Australia)  See Also: “The return of Max Rockatansky”

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, 1981  (Dir. George Miller, Australia)  See Also: “The return of Max Rockatansky”

My Brilliant Career, 1979  (Dir. Gillian Armstrong, Australia)

Picnic at Hanging Rock, 1975  (Dir. Peter Weir, Australia)

Wake in Fright, 1971  (Dir. Ted Kotcheff, Australia)

Walkabout, 1970  (Dir. Nicolas Roeg, Australia)

The Year My Voice Broke, 1987  (Dir. John Duigan, Australia)

The Year of Living Dangerously, 1982  (Dir. Peter Weir, Australia)