What is an Australian film? (including Ozflicks definition)

What is an Australian film? The Great Gatsby, The Piano, The Matrix, Mission Impossible II, Lore, The Sundowners (1960), Salaam Namaste, Walkabout, Oranges and Sunshine, They’re A Weird Mob, The Overlanders, The Rocket, Hacksaw Ridge and Balibo all have been or could be labelled Australian films, but are they really? This is not a straightforward question and there are many different answers, depending on your perspective, or on why you are asking the question.

An Australian film could be any of the following for different people:

  1. A film about Australia or Australians.
  2. A film made in Australia.
  3. A film made by Australians. More specifically:
    1. A film with an Australian director,
    2. A film with an Australian producer,
    3. A film with an Australian lead actor/actress,
    4. A film with an Australian writer,
    5. A film with an Australian cinematographer.
  4. A film made with Australian finance. (If so, what percentage Oz finance – 51%, 10%, 90%?)

Some films will meet all these criteria, some two or three, others only one.

The Industry View

The Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) (formerly the Australian Film Institute (AFI)) represents people working in the Australian film industry and Screen Australia (formerly the Australian Film Commission (AFC), the Film Finance Corporation Australia (FFC) and Film Australia Limited) is the Federal Government agency charged with supporting Australian screen development, production and promotion. These two bodies consider films to be Australian if they contain “significant Australian content” (SAC) which is determined under the Income Tax Act (‘the Production must contain “significant Australian content” for the purposes of section 376- 65(2)(a)(i) of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997’). Significant Australian Content (SAC) is determined ‘holisticly’ by considering the following, according to Screen Australia (and AACTA):

  • the subject matter of the film;
  • the place where the film was made;
  • the nationalities and places of residence of the persons who took part in the making of the film;
  • the details of the production expenditure incurred in respect of the film;
  • any other matters that the film authority considers to be relevant.

[Sources: Screen Aust, AACTA, averillmedialaw, Screen Aust, p.12]

These criteria (except for the mysterious (e)) correspond to the ones I gave at the top of the page. In other words, AACTA and Screen Australia take all the criteria into account and make a case-by-case judgement based on some kind of balancing of the criteria. From the viewpoint of AACTA, points 2 & 3 are the most important to their members. From Screen Australia’s viewpoint, all four criteria are important to develop a whole industry.

The Ozflicks View

Unlike AACTA and Screen Australia, Ozflicks’ concern is that of the Australian film-lover interested in films which tell stories about Australia or Australians. While I am happy if Australian directors, actors and other film professionals find work telling the stories of other countries with talented multinational teams, my main concern is films about Australian life and culture.

With this in mind, Ozflicks’ main criteria for calling a film ‘Australian’ for the purpose of the this blog and the Ozflicks List are that it tells a story about Australia or Australians, that at least one of the main characters is an Australian, and that it has an Australian writer, lead actor and/or director.

. This will include films:

  • about Australian characters, set in Australia and having at least an Australian writer, lead actor or director (see below what I mean by ‘Australian’ characters and actors)
  • about Australian characters overseas which have at least an Australian writer, lead actor or director.

Ozflicks is also happy to include animated films made in Australia by an Australian director, but only if the writer is also Australian or the animated characters are Australian.

A number of the films Ozflicks has included in the list, especially those from the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s before our own 1970s cinema renaissance, have foreign directors but capture important aspects of Australian society and our relation to our environment in those years. Conversely since our major directors, producers and actors have drifted to Hollywood, their overseas efforts, which tell stories of other countries, have been excluded. Lastly international films filmed in Australia but not about Australians or set largely elsewhere are excluded (e.g. the Matrix, Mission Impossible II and Salaam Namaste – a Bollywood film set in Melbourne).

What is an ‘Australian’ character, director or actor?

Australia is a nation of immigrants, where many Australians are born overseas, but come to live in Australian and become Australian to some extent. For the sake of Australian films in my list, Ozflicks will class as ‘Australian’ any actor, director or character who has lived for some years in Australia. E.g. Mel Gibson was born in the US, but lived in Australia for about 15 years from the age of 12,  after which he returned to the US. Ozflicks classes him as an Australian actor for the years he lived here (until 1984), though he remained a US citizen and has since become more of an American actor.

Films set overseas about Australian characters which Ozflicks recognises as Australian for this blog

  • A Town Like Alice (1956) (This is a line-ball decision as I recognise it is primarily a British film about British characters, with British actors, director, writer and producer. However, since the main male character is an Australian, played by an Australian actor (Peter Finch), I think it can also qualify as an Australian film. Other commentators have also mentioned this film in relation to Australian Cinema.)
  • The Odd Angry Shot (1979) (Australian soldiers in Vietnam)
  • ‘Breaker’ Morant (1980) (Australian soldiers in South Africa)
  • Gallipoli (1981) (Australian soldiers in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Australia)
  • The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) (an Australian journalist in Indonesia)
  • Far East (1982) (Australians in the Philippines)
  • Balibo (2009) (Australian journalists in East Timor)
  • Wish You Were Here (2012) (Australian tourists in SE Asia)

Films set in Australia by foreign directors with at least one main Australian character played by an Australian actor:

  • The Overlanders (1946) (Directed by Brit Harry Watt, this is based on a true story of the Australian outback starring Australian Chips Rafferty in the lead role, and Australians in most of the other roles)
  • Eureka Stockade (1948) (Directed by Brit Harry Watt with mostly Australian characters and some Australian actors, led by Chips Rafferty in the lead role)
  • A Town Like Alice (1956) (This is a line-ball decision as I recognise it is primarily a British film about British characters, with British actors, director (Jack Lee), writer and producer. However, since the main male character is an Australian, played by an Australian actor (Peter Finch), I think it can also qualify as an Australian film. (Other commentators have also mentioned this film in relation to Australian Cinema.)
  • The Shiralee (1957) (Directed by Brit Leslie Howard, this is an Australian story adapted from an Australian novel. All the main characters are Australian, played mainly by Australian actors)
  • Robbery Under Arms (1957) (This is a very Australian story adapted from an Australian novel and directed by Brit Jack Lee. All the main characters are Australian, though most are played by British actors. However it has one main male character played by an Australian actor, Peter Finch, so I count it as an Australian film. Of course, it is also a British film, financed in England and directed by an English director, but I am happy for it to be both British and Australian.)
  • They’re a Weird Mob (1966) (Directed by Brit Michael Powell but set in Australia including many Australian actors, including Chips Rafferty, John Meillon, Ed Devereux, Slim deGrey, and even has a cameo from Graham Kennedy)
  • Walkabout (1970) (Directed by Brit Nicholas Roeg but set in Australia including Australian actors David Gulpilil and John Meillon)
  • Wake in Fright (1971) (Directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff, but set in Australia including Australian actors Chips Rafferty, Jack Thomson and John Meillon)
  • Oranges and Sunshine (2010) This is a combined British-Australian film set in both Britain and Australia with enough major Australian characters, played by Australian actors, to be included in my list of Australian films. I recognise that the British component is greater (British writer, director (Jim Loach) and main character Margaret Humphreys (played by Brit Emily Watson), but it still has enough Australian content for me.

Films set in Australia and about Australians without any Australian lead actors or an Australian director but with an Australian writer

  • Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959) This is a classic Australian play, directed by a British director who had used Australian actors in the past (in The Shiralee). However, all of the major actors in this film are Americans or British, with non-Australian accents, as the American producers apparently said they couldn’t understand the Australian accent or colloquialisms. But since the film is based on a play by Australian writer Ray Lawler, I include it as an Australian film.
  • The Sundowners(1960) This film about Australian farmers is an all-American production with the Australian novel rewritten by an American and with an American director and actors, with only Australian actors in a couple of supporting roles (Chips Rafferty and John Meillon).
  • Age of Consent(1969) In this film by the great British director Michael Powell, all of the main Australian characters were played by British or Irish actors (principally James Mason, Helen Mirren and Jack MacGowran). However, it is an Australian story by Australian writer Norman Lindsay, so I include it as an Australian film.
  • The Light Between Oceans (2016) Another Australian story about Australian characters from a best-selling novel by Australian writer M.L. Stedman. So despite a US director and no Australian actors in lead roles (though it has some good supporting performances by Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown and other Oz actors) it is included as an Australian film on the basis of its Australian writer.

Films not recognised as Australian Films under the Ozflicks definition

Films set and filmed overseas (with Australian directors and/or producers) and recognised by AACTA as Australian but not by Ozflicks:

  • Black Robe (1991) (Made by Australian director Bruce Beresford with some Oz finance, but about Canadian characters in Canada)
  • The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988) (Made with Australian finance by NZ director Vincent Ward, but about European characters in Europe and NZ)
  • The Piano (1993) (Made by NZ/Australian director Jane Campion (who grew up in NZ but has lived in Australia for enough years to also count as an Aussie director) with Oz finance, but about British and New Zealand characters in New Zealand. This is a NZ story through and through, much as I’d love to claim it for Australia.)
  • Bright Star (2009) (Made by NZ/Australian director Jane Campion but about English characters in England)
  • The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (2001) (Made by Australian director Rolf de Heer about American character in Latin America)
  • Lore (2012) (Made by Australian director Cate Shortland with some Oz finance, but about German characters in Germany)
  • The Railway Man (2013) (Made by Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky, but about mainly British characters in England and Thailand)

Films filmed in Australia but set overseas, and without Australian characters:

  • Moulin Rouge! (2001) (Filmed in Sydney with an Australian director, Baz Luhrmann, but about French characters (albeit many played by Australian actors) in Paris)
  • The Matrix and sequels (Sci-Fi film set in the USA with US characters, writers and directors)
  • Superman Returns (Partly filmed at Fox Studios in Sydney, but set in America with American characters)
  • Star Wars 2 & 3 (Both partly filmed at Fox Studios in Sydney, but about American characters in space)
  • Dark City (partly filmed at Fox Studios in Sydney)
  • The Great Gatsby (2013) (Filmed in Sydney with an Australian director, Baz Luhrmann, but set in the USA, with no Australian characters)
  • Predestination (2014) (Filmed in Melbourne but set in the USA, with no Australian characters, though with two Australian actors, Sarah Snook and Noah Taylor)

Films set in Australia, but not mainly about Australian characters

  • On the Beach (1959) (A film about Americans in Australia after a nuclear war)
  • Mission Impossible II (All main characters are Americans, though part of the film is set in Sydney)
  • Salaam Namaste (2005) (A Bollywood film set in Melbourne – the main characters are all Indian)

[PAGE UPDATED 10 JAN 2017]

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Great blog, well done. The definitions are fine as far as typology and taxonomy goes, but there is a kind of ‘pub test’ where despite not meeting a particular criterion you have set, the film is generally regarded as Australian. The Light Between Oceans is an example; while no Aussie is a star, it is an Aussie film thematically and narratively. I would not lock down the definitions quite so tightly and allow some slack to accommodate those at the fringe. Will keep in touch.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ozflicks says:

      Hi Cinemuse. Thanks for your insightful comment. You spotted perhaps the weakest link in my attempt at a definition. There are so many hazy lines to be drawn and each of them will annoy someone. My stipulation for an Australian lead actor was an attempt to exclude the poor Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959) and the odd Sundowners (1960) which both feel more American than Australian, despite telling Australian stories. However in both of these cases, plus the better Age of Consent and The Light Between The Oceans (which I also excluded due to their lack of an Australian lead actor) the films were based on stories by Australians, which does really boost their claims to be considered Australian films.

      So, on reconsideration, and in consultation with my colleagues at the Henson Park Hotel, I think I’ll go with a new ‘Marrickville Compromise’, viz. ‘Ozflicks’ main criteria for calling a film ‘Australian’ for the purpose of the this blog is that it tells a story about Australia or Australians, that at least one of the main characters is an Australian AND THAT IT HAS AN AUSTRALIAN WRITER, LEAD ACTOR AND/OR DIRECTOR.’ Thanks for your assistance in nailing this down. It’ll only add a small number of films to my list, but I think it is better.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Most real-world taxonomies have to accommodate exceptions as well as delineate your sphere of interest. So my point is that expressing your critiera as general principles gives you some room to move. Your criterion of “THAT IT HAS AN AUSTRALIAN WRITER, LEAD ACTOR AND/OR DIRECTOR.’” may still prove too inflexibile.

    Films are cultural artefacts, and thus have living and organic relationship to their social environment. So whatever policy framework you set, you should bear in mind that films are not finite like locktight lego pieces. Australian-ness is often in the eye of the beholder and that can be more important than taxonomic logic.

    Nice chatt’n to ya.

    Liked by 1 person

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