Over the last few years, Australian cinema has explored the underlying tensions to nationalistic pride. The comedic Down Under looked at racial tensions around the Cronulla Riots in Sydney. This year’s We Don’t Need a Map examined the way the Southern Cross and the flag have been appropriated for darker purposes. With AUSTRALIA DAY, director Kriv Stenders uses the national holiday as a backdrop for a complex web of interrelated stories that get to the dark heart of a country.
Writer Stephen M. Irwin (Secrets and Lies) uses the hyperlinked structure of films like Crash as his framework. In fact, the film begins with a literal crash, as Sonya (Shari Sebbens) is an Indigenous cop wracked by guilt following the accidental death of young girl in a high-speed chase. She is trying to find the fleeing sister, the 14-year-old April (Miah Madden). 17-year-old Iranian boy Sami (Elias Anton) comes into conflict with violently jingoistic Dean (Sean Patterson) and his mates. Lan (Jenny Wu) is escaping sexual slavery, and Bryan Brown, a cattle farmer who has lost everything, is roped into helping her.
There is much to admire about AUSTRALIA DAY. As part of the Foxtel Original Drama films, it’s an ambitious approach that’s rarely seen locally. Irwin and Stenders are also firmly making a political point with their film. After all, naming a story about brutality, sex workers, and race relations after a divisive public holiday is a mic-drop move.
Yet the structure is also problematic. Only lip-service is paid to the hyperlinked narrative, with the connected stories often reading as a series of moments connected by slow-motion running montages. Indeed, there are so many running scenes in this film that a supercut could potentially make its own spin-off movie. In a case of form overtaking function, the editing of the incredibly brief feature never lets us linger too long on a moment, robbing each thread of its impact as we are whirled off to another part of the landscape.
Each of the stories has gut-punch potential, although representations of Muslim and Indigenous Australia feel like those of an outside looking in. Subtext rapidly becomes text as every conversation puts the dots really close together for the audience. The Sonya/April thread is the most promising, but it relies too heavily on shorthand depictions of Australians living on the edge to give their lives any meaning, and doesn’t have much more depth than a Law & Order episode. Similarly, Brown gives a terrific performance, but his storyline with the excellent Jenny Wu falls back on a white saviour/action trope.
Ultimately there is just too much story packed into a small space, a package that doesn’t allow for depth or discussion. Crash was later spun out into a television series, and AUSTRALIA DAY would definitely benefit from the long-form drama treatment. Having said that, the issues that Stenders and Irwin are examining need to be put on the national agenda, and if this film can do that for broader audiences, then it’s a success.
AUSTRALIA DAY had its World Premiere at the Sydney Film Festival 2017.