The country-continent Australia may only have a population of 23 million (compared to the U.S.’s 318 million), but it is one of the most multicultural countries in the world. Films and books are an ideal way to begin to understand the history and society of this grog guzzling, coffee-obsessed, friendly country, even before you embark on your trip. This is absolutely not an exhaustive list, but I chose some of the most informative and entertaining for me. I’ve put an * on my favorites.
*Tracks A 2013 film starring Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver based on Robyn Davidson’s memoir Tracks. The film follows the story of a young woman who treks solo through the Australian outback in 1977, where she confronts physical as well as emotional challenges. This film is not only one of the most aesthetically beautiful works of art, but gives the viewer an understanding of the dangers, distance and isolation of the outback. Robyn has to handle sexism, a changing tourism industry and the wisdom of local indigenous people she comes across.
Red Dog A friend at the mine told me, “Everything you need to know about the Pilbara, you can learn by watching Red Dog.” While I do think this may be somewhat of an exaggeration, this 2011 film will inform you about the 20th century European immigration, the mining industry and the inhospitable region of Western Australia, all while making you laugh and cry.
Russell Coight’s All Aussie Adventures This 2001-2 mockumentary series starring Glenn Robbins was also recommended to me while working at the mine. The hilarious take on the travel genre gives viewers insight into the outback and Australian slang and humor.
The Castle This 1997 comedy focuses on one family who is faced with the threat of being kicked off their property. Viewers get an understanding of some of the most quintessential Australian values, including supporting the underdog. In 2010, 37% of Aussies chose this movie as representative of them.
Muriel’s Wedding Toni Collette’s first major role is of Muriel, an underappreciated girl in society and in her family. Muriel takes a journey from her home in Queensland to Sydney where she starts a new life and seeks to find the love her life. This movies gives a fictitious look at Queensland in the 90s.
*Prison Songs One of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen (no expert here, but it’s amazing), it’s not just a documentary but a musical documentary. The filmmakers capture the lives of the prisoners of Berrimah Prison in Northern Territory, mixing sad histories with comedic interpretations of their present circumstances. It takes viewers into the complications of being indigenous, highlighting domestic violence, identity, alcoholism and tradition.
*Stingray Sisters Stingray Sisters is a (very) recently released documentary series that follows three half-indigenous, half-white Australian sisters in the indigenous community of Maningrida, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. The sisters showcase the confusions of having multiple identities and the grassroots struggle of modern day aboriginal land rights. Buy the series on their website. Trailer below.
Chasing Asylum Is a startling 2016 documentary that examines the Australian government’s treatment of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia. They are detained indefinitely on Australia’s offshore detention centers on Christmas, Nauru and Manus Islands. This is a film that anyone with interest in current migration issues needs to see.
In A Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson Bill Bryson shares his tales of traveling through Australia, giving insight into social issues, history and travel. This book is a great way to get overview of the Australian character
*Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal’s Journey From Down Under to All Over, by Geraldine Brooks A lovely memoir of Brooks’s journey from being a child in a working class neighborhood in Sydney and dreaming of exotic locations, to her adulthood as a foreign correspondent and reconnecting with her childhood pen pals. Brooks teaches her readers about working class Australian life and gives a first-person look at Australia’s changing cultural scene with the influx of European immigrants in the last half of the 20th century.
*Different White People: Radical Activism for Aboriginal Rights 1946-1972, by Deborah Wilson An adaptation of Wilson’s doctoral thesis, this dense (yet fascinatingly informative) recount of the aboriginal rights movement and its relationship to the communist party of Australia. This book teaches about Australian history, politics and aboriginal land rights through a rarely examined lens.
*Cloudstreet, by Tim Winton One of Winton’s most famous novels, Cloudstreet tells the story of two families during the span of 2o years, 1943-1963. These families, coming from rural and working class backgrounds, live through the end of the war and the transformation of post-war society in Perth. This novel teaches readers of fundamental Australian themes and Australian vernacular English while Winton writes in profoundly lyrical language. (Note from a non-literary critic: I love this book in part because it reminds of Latin American magical realism.)
*The Crocodile Hotel, by Julie Janson Anyone traveling or living in the Northern Territory or other primarily indigenous populated areas would be interested to understand the identity, marginalization and history of indigenous communities in colonized Australia discussed in this novel. The main character, a half-indigenous single mother, who by her appearance passes as a white Australian, leaves Sydney in the 1970s and accepts a teaching position in a remote aboriginal community hours from Katherine. There, she encounters disgusting racism and sexism, becomes involved in the land rights movement and faces intense personal struggles. This beautifully written novel gives so much inspiration to work to combat the issues we still encounter today.
Praise, by Andrew McGahan Reading Praise feels a bit like reading The Catcher in the Rye or even On the Road. Not much happens. There’s a lot of doing nothing. Of contemplating. Of taking drugs and feeling worthless. But that’s just the point. The book explains that the 1990s in Australia was “A time when the dole was easier to get than a job, when heroin was better known than ecstasy, and when ambition was the dirtiest of words. A time when, for two hopeless souls, sex and dependence were the only lifelines.” What I liked about reading this book was that even though it was written in the 1990s, I saw so many parallels between the attitude of the characters and some millennial Australians I met. It was like they were a misinterpreted version of relaxed Australian attitudes, that instead of being ‘chill’ formed into utterly lazy people.
Great Australian Ghost Stories, by Richard Davis This suggestion is coming from the unabashed ghost tour participant. These short stories are sometimes scary, sometimes boring but most of all historically interesting, giving readers a glimpse into Australian culture and colonial rhetoric. Especially interesting for those residing in Victoria and New South Wales, as many of the scary stories come from those states.
Are you Australian or lived in Australia? What books and films would you recommend to visitors?
Featured photo: a tree with fabric hanging out of it, taken along the Red Center Way near King’s Canyon.
Want to learn more about Australia? Check out these resources for visiting or living in Melbourne:
where to learn something new,
websites to keep you up-to-date on what’s happening around the city, and
how to find feminist events.