środa, 28 kwietnia 2010


Dawn vigils, marches, memorial services, reunions, and two-up games (Collingwood – Essendon:)... It is a part of the ANZAC Day culture. April 25th - one of the most important and the most discussed day in Australia. The ANZAC Day (ANZAC – Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) commemorates soldiers who fought in the Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey in 1915. However, nowadays it's devoted to all people who died and served in different military operations in the Australian history. To be honest, I did not wake up for the Dawn Service (6 a.m.), but I took part in the Melbourne march.

For foreigners, celebrating the defeat (the only success of the Gallipoli campaign was the further evacuation) as a “birthplace of the nation” seems to be quite peculiar. Celebrating the Anzac Day, the march which looks like the 'family picnic event', quite relaxed, serious and non-serious at the same time, seems to be even more weird. I think the comprehension of the meaning of the Anzac Day and the evolution of that meaning are essential, because – either celebrated or contested – this is the day that shaped the Australian national identity to a large degree.

How does the ANZAC Day look like? Everything starts with commemorative services which are held at dawn (the time of the original landing of corps). Later in the day, ex-servicemen and women meet to take part in marches through the major cities and in many smaller centres. Then it is time for more formal commemorative ceremonies which are held at war memorials (like the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne).
Last weekend I went out from a book store overwhelmed by the number of books on Australians at wars. Considering, how many books was published and public debates took place recently, I am aware that it is impossible to include all aspects of the ANZAC problem here. So I will just try to underline few issues.

We should start from the beginning. Why Gallipoli? Because it was the first military involvement of Australian soldiers as Australians (January 1st, 1901 – the British colonies federated as the Commonwealth of Australia). Of course, it was the imperial conflict, the “British war”, but now Australia brought help to the “mother” Britain as an independent “child”. It made a difference. The number of soldiers killed in Gallipoli battlefields was less than in further WW1 campaigns, but it was “the first”. During the first 6 days over 6,000 soldiers were killed. Maybe it is not so much, if you compare this to other nations which took part in this campaign as France or Britain, but if you take into account the Australian population at that time (more or less 4 mln), it might make a difference. In such a small population high enlistment and high casualties increased the social impact of the war. Moreover, it was volunteer army. Australia did not introduce a conscription, so the volunteer nature of this army influence on the way the soldiers saw themselves and on the image of the ANZAC legend (as David Carter notices, “they were neither professional soldiers nor unwilling conscripts, but citizen soldiers offering their lives for a greater cause”). It was also a symbolical link between the soldiers and the nation – they were young boys, there was the young nation. The war was a test in the manhood and the maturity. Gallipoli became “the birthplace of the nation” immediately.

Places, memorials, monuments that commemorate these who died at wars (in the WW1, in particular) can be seen everywhere in Australia, in each small town, in suburbs (in fact, country towns long time ago). It has its meaning and the reason can be found in the British policy during the WW1 that bodies would be buried on the battlefield rather than brought home. Bereaved families had to mourn without a funeral and a body. Memorials or the ANZAC day could cure the post-war trauma.

Nevertheless, I think there is something more. Australia was not only a young country, but also unexperienced one. It was the nation which did not know great wars and international conflicts. Of course, Australians participated in the Boer War in Africa, but the WW1 was something different. They did not have stories of grandfathers at wars, there was no experience of caring for returned servicemen as we, Europeans with hundreds years of the history did have. It was really a bloody exam for that new nation. Then, the WW2 came with Kokoda, after that – Vietnam. And in this way, the ANZAC Day started to commemorate all Australians and New Zealanders soldiers at all wars. Nowadays families put red poppies next to the name of their died beloved each year and many people go to Turkey to celebrate the Anzac Day in the Gallipoli Peninsula (sometimes their behavior causes controversy...).

However, as it always happens with the national events, the ANZAC day is contested nowadays. The question has arisen, why celebrating and defining the national identity through wars? Henry Reynolds and Marilyn Lake, authors of “What's wrong with Anzac?”, the recently published and widely discussed book, notice: ”Like many Australians, who are concerned with homage paid to the Anzac spirit and associated with militarisation of our history, we are concerned about the ways in which history is used to define and distort our national heritage and national values. We suggest that Australians might look to alternative national traditions that gave pride of place to equality of opportunity and the pursuit of social justice. (…) The key premise of the Anzac legend is that nations and men are made in war. It is an idea that had currency a hundred years ago. Is it not now time for Australia to cast it aside?”.

When I looked at old people marching toward the Shrine of Remembrance on last Sunday, applauded by the crowd, young people with their grandfathers medals, women with red poppies in their hands – I thought, yes, maybe it is a façade, it is a national performance, but it is also something that all nations need. To built a legend you need Private John Simpson and his donkey, instead of proofs of the Anzac soldiers' cruelty. The essence of the Anzac Day celebrations could seem 'funny' and culturally absurd for someone abroad, but it is still important and very interesting from 'the culture studies point of view'. Why? The issue of masculinities, the national identity, the question of what formed the ANZAC spirit legend, who was/is included or excluded from that legend (women, Aborigines, even that they participated in wars as well). It produces lots of questions that have to be considered. That's why it is not ridiculous for me, but quite fascinating.

I would like to finish with the song which recently I like very much. It is “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” (Eric Bogle, 1971) which, in some measure, contests the Anzac legend. (“Waltzing Matilda” used to be the unofficial national anthem of Australia).

“And the old men march slowly, all bones stiff and store,/They're tired old heroes from a forgotten war/And the young people ask “What are they marching for?”/And I ask myself the same question”

Could anyone in the last Sunday crowd answer me that question? I don't think so. Maybe they would have given me slogans that newspapers were full of on the Anzac Day. Maybe that's why, there is a need of the book like “What's wrong with Anzac?”. A contestation is good, because it makes us think about what we are celebrating and why.

piątek, 9 kwietnia 2010

Bolly Aborigines?

In 1991 Tom Zubrycki, a recognised Australian director made a documentary movie about the first Aboriginal musical Bran Nue Dae created by Jimmy Chi. The year 2010 in Australian cinema was opened by the same titled film directed by Rachel Perkins. The film musical Bran Nue Dae, starred Geoffrey Rush, won the Audience Award during the Melbourne Film Festival and soon after released became a hit. Hippies, the 60s, step-dancing Aborigines dancing Zorba – that mixture seems to be quite absurd, however behind the original 1990 production this absurd was bitter comment on the present day events.

And a piece of the documentary movie.

Bran Nue Dae was written by Jimmy Chi and his band Kuckles. The movie of Zubrycki explores the issues behind the musical which is a blend of road movie, comedy, song, dance and romance and the life of the author in particular. Jimmy Chi was born in 1948 in Broome, he place linked to Aboriginal culture very strongly. His roots could be a symbol of modern Australia: his mother is a Scots/Bardi Aborigine and his father is a Chinese/Japanese/Anglo-Australian. Bran Nue Dae, the story about forgiveness, reconciliation, about family ties, with Chi's dry humour and sharp political approach became a comment on Aboriginal-Australians relationship in space of many years of Australian history.

There's nothing I would rather be
Than to be an Aborigine
and watch you take my precious land away.
For nothing gives me greater joy
than to watch you fill each girl and boy
with superficial existential shit.

This is one of the most well-known songs from the Chi's musical, an echo of Mabo Case that change face of Australia in 90s . It is claimed that making irrelevant the declaration of terra nullis followed by other events like Reconciliation Sorry Day, Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 and Kevin Rudd's national apology to Stolen Generation influenced the Australian culture, including cinema.

Set in Jimmy's home town of Broome Bran Nue Dae tells the story of an Aboriginal boy's, Willie flight home from a Catholic boarding school city in Perth to his homeland at Djaridjin (known to Europeans as Lombadina), searching his identity. Willie, wanted by the German priest, meets a couple of hippies and old Aborigine drunk bloke, uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo, who played in the original musical, look clips below). At the end it turns out that uncle Tadpole is his father and once, his mother had an affair with a German priest and gave birth to a boy – one of the hippie that Willie travelled. “Today everyone is an Aborigine” - the sentence finishes the movie and the musical.
It smashed taboos surrounding mental health, abuse, sexuality, religion and mysticism of New Age with humour and optimism and criticised a naive, stereotypical view of Aboriginal culture in the Eastern society. The music derives from sources as disparate as traditional Aboriginal performance, blues, rock 'n' roll, Hollywood musicals and the rituals of the Roman Catholic Mass.

While watching the Chi's musical in 1990, an audience was able to catch an irony and all subtexts hidden in the story. Is it still possible today?

Even looking at the trailer of Rachel Perkins movie it can be seen that something is missing from original musical. When I saw the movie for the first time, Bollywood and High School Musical connotations came to my mind.

Perkins, who admits to admire the Chi's musical, did not manage to make the adaption natural. Chi's irony disappears in a picaresque narration of kitschy and unfortunately boring love story. Even Geoffrey Rush, who seems to have really good fun playing father Benedictus, exaggerates his character. Instead of flowing narration we get series of sketches that are sometimes better, sometimes worse (great Magda Szubanski as the gun-toting manager of a petrol station!)
However, movies such as Bra Nue Dae or last year's comedy Stone Bros presenting indigenous stories with a very light touch are signs of cultural maturity.

And for a dessert one more clip from Bran Nue Dae: