not in our stars, but in ourselves
NOTE: You’re all in luck. I found this essay sitting on my USB drive, and thought it would be seasonally appropriate. It’s about Australia’s answer to the Academy Awards and the BAFTAs: the AACTA. When you say “actor” with an Australian accent, it sounds exactly the same. Clever. Anyway, hope it’s an interesting curiosity piece for those of you not in the land down under – and I hope I haven’t insulted any of you who are. It’s worth reading because I quote someone named Senator Buttfield. Go on, go on.
Australia has a rich and vibrant history of cinematic production and creation, but it has always favoured and given precedence to a “national” cinema – a cinema that promotes Australia, that employs Australians, that tells Australian stories. The establishment of Screen Australia, a funding body for everything from film production to marketing, further insisted on this commitment to Australian screen culture. One of its beneficiaries, the Australian Film Institute (AFI), recently underwent a dramatic makeover with the aim of promoting Australian film and film culture. Rather than continue with the AFI awards as they had been doing since 1976, the AFI created a new branch specifically to award Australian film: the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA). This essay examines not only Screen Australia and some of its attendant ideological peculiarities, but also AACTA itself – and how its formation, deliberately based on similar models in America and the United Kingdom, is perhaps more of a deterrent to genuine Australian film culture than its organisers would wish.
In 2008, Screen Australia was created by the Screen Australia Act 2008, merging the Australian Film Commission (AFC), the Film Finance Corporation Australia (FFC), and Film Australia Limited (FAL) (Screen 2010, 2). According to the Act, its functions are to “support and promote the development of a highly creative, innovative and commercially sustainable Australian screen production industry; […to] support or engage in…the development, production, promotion and distribution of Australian programs; and […to] support and promote the development of screen culture in Australia” (Commonwealth 2008). The Act further requires that Screen Australia “ensure the development of a diverse range of Australian programs that deal with matters of national interest or importance to Australians, or that illustrate or interpret aspects of Australia or the life and activities of Australian people” (Commonwealth 2008). While the question of Screen Australia as a tool of nationalist cinema will return to be addressed presently, it is first helpful to examine other theoretical aspects of Screen Australia.
In many respects, Screen Australia is an illustration of Michel Foucault’s concept of government rationality, or governmentality. As Lee Grieveson writes, governmentality was a departure from Marxist conceptions of power; Foucault and other proponents of this theory believed
that power was not located solely in the State and that the economic infrastructure of capitalism did not determine the varied operations of power. The formulation of the work on governmental rationalities made this intervention clearer, for the argument that power shifted from a juridico-discursive form – where power was concentrated in a central source – to a more all-pervasive focus on populations implicitly critiqued the conception of the functioning of the State in Marxist analysis (2009, 183).
Instead of this top-down, hegemonic concept of power, Foucault theorised that various cultural forces and concepts – what would have been termed ideological state apparatuses in Althusserian theory (2009, 182-183) – have enormously powerful effects on the self-governance of populations. Grieveson believes that “screen studies…in particular can open up new ways of understanding the role and function of media cultures as aspects of liberal (and neoliberal) governance and the concomitant cultural shaping of self-regulating citizens and populations” (2009, 181). Cinema, particularly in its first thirty years, became “a node around and through which ﬂowed discourses and practices of government as a shaping of the modalities of selfhood, citizenship and populations” (2009, 186). It proved to be not only an enormously popular art form, but also hugely powerful. Cinema was a mass entertainment that millions of people found fascinating – and within a short time of its ascendancy, many governments tried to devise ways to use it to their national advantage.
As early as 1927, there was considerable debate in Australia about the “Americanizing” effect of too many Hollywood films being made available, and too few Australian. Stuart Doyle, an early pioneer of Australian film and radio, asserted to the Royal Commission on the Moving Picture Industry that it was “an insult to the independence and individuality of Australians to suggest that because they see an American picture once a week or so, they are necessarily Americanized in sentiment” (Bowles et al. 2007, 96). However, this was not the view taken by most other Australian government and film industry representatives. Then as now, they
continue to address questions centred primarily upon production, examining factors that might enhance or retard the production of films, asking what kind of films Australia wants to produce, and debating what forms of trade or market regulation are required in order to ensure that local stories reach the screen. This defensive emphasis means that imported media content continues to be understood as a threat to an assumed national cultural integrity, a proposition which relies on an outdated and reductive account of the processes and outcomes of cultural consumption (Bowles et al. 2007, 96).
Nevertheless, Australia has consistently privileged national cinema over the more laissez faire attitude to cinema taken by America. In its National Cultural Policy, the Department of Heritage, Environment and the Arts asserts that “we as a nation and society may need to rethink where we are investing our values and time. It is at these times when it is good to keep a strong connection to our culture and our values, these ground us and connect us more deeply as a society than consumerism and will offer greater strength and support should economic situations deteriorate” (2012). How much of this commitment to “our values” is rooted in a sense of inferiority? It is difficult to determine precisely, but in its “Review of Australian Government Film Funding Support,” the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts found that the “last decade has been difficult for Australian films. …In recent years, Hollywood studios have been absorbed into global entertainment companies, creating a matrix of ownership and control that extends very broadly and is quite diversified” (2006, 4). In other words, Australian films have not been as profitable as their American competitors. This has led to “a marked shift [in Australian cultural policy] from protectionism and nationalism to an emphasis on market relations and free market ideology in Australia’s political economy” (Parker and Parenta 2009, 92). Whether the stated purpose is ideological or financial, however, Australia – through its main instrument, Screen Australia – repeatedly demonstrates its commitment to a national cinema.
Some question the continued necessity of this commitment. Parker and Parenta write that
Senator Nancy Buttfield in the 1960 parliamentary debate on the film industry captured the friction between film industry policy and state–industry relations when she argued against state involvement on the grounds that the problems suffered by the AFI were “the price we have to pay for being English-speaking…America has cornered the market”…. While this position was consistent with ideas concerning state coordination of industrial development more generally, it was not the dominant position in relation to the film industry and ultimately, the establishment of the AFDC (and subsequently AFC) as well as local content restrictions on television (requiring 40% Australian content and entirely Australian commercial advertisement) represented a departure from the liberal model of state–economy relations (2009, 95-96).
Senator Buttfield is not alone in her sentiments. As previously mentioned, many governments – including Australia – have sought to utilise cinema for nationalist aims. However, if we operate on the assumption that Foucauldian governmentality is a correct appraisal of how cultural institutions like cinema can effectively cause us to self-regulate as citizens, then Australia is going about it in a very top-down, ineffective way. Tina Kaufmann writes that a “receptive, passionate, engaged and critical audience will only really develop in a climate that encourages debate and discussion through an active, two-way process” (2009, 105). Screen Australia remains committed to building up Australian cinema to the point where it can viably compete with Hollywood cinema, artistically and financially, but perhaps it cannot achieve that goal:
Most importantly, embedded in the box office data is the awkward fact that the knowledgeable enthusiasm of Australian audiences for cinema has not favoured local production. This creates a very straightforward problem for heroic histories of Australian film production: if the local demand for Australian product is weak, there seems little evidence that Australian cinema meets a local cultural need (Bowles et al. 2007, 96).
Of course, it is possible to debate this point, but it is beyond the scope of this paper to do so. It is, however, important to bear in mind the central point that Australian film policy seems to reflect considerable fear and insecurity. In 1975, the AFC issued a report stating that “Australia, as a nation, cannot accept, in this powerful and persuasive medium, the current flood of other nations’ productions on our screens without it constituting a very serious threat to our national identity” (cited in Parker and Parenta 2009, 96). Ultimately, the
nationalistic objective of film policy also reflected a desire for Australians to develop a sense of national identity through film and to project that image abroad for diplomatic and trade purposes […Political] support for an Australian film and television industry was not based on aesthetic notions of art as culture, but on the importance of film and television to the construction of national identity in a post-colonial context (Parker and Parenta 2009, 96).
As evidenced by the formation of AACTA, Australia is still concerned about establishing national identity through film culture.
AACTA was formed in 2011, with a commitment “to recognising, encouraging, promoting and celebrating screen excellence in Australia. Australia has produced some of the best screen performers, practitioners and productions in the world, and an important part of AACTA’s role is to recognise this through Australia’s highest screen accolades — the annual AACTA Awards” (Academy 2012). It arose out of the AFI, which still exists, but with the specific purpose “of connecting the screen loving public with fantastic Australian content…membership is open to anyone with an interest in Australian film and television” (2012). AACTA membership, on the other hand, is specifically for industry practitioners: “AACTA is a professional membership body which comprises of Chapters, each representing professional areas of specialisation within the Australian screen industry, such as distribution and exhibition through to directing, screen writing, producing, editing, costume design and acting, amongst others” (Structure 2012).
Both AACTA and the AFI receive funding from Screen Australia (Festivals 2010). As the Screen Australia Act states, they must therefore ensure “as far as practicable” that they promote “matters of national interest or importance to Australians” (Commonwealth 2008). The inaugural AACTAs took place on 31 January 2012, amid considerable fanfare. Geoffrey Rush, the acclaimed actor, serves as president of the Academy. As he says, “Now is the time to celebrate the brilliance and originality of our seasoned screen professionals, and establish AACTA as a stamp of success both at home and on the world stage” (AFI 2012, 9). To achieve both domestic and international success, the AACTAs not only staged an elaborately glamorous awards ceremony in Sydney, complete with luminaries like Rush, Cate Blanchett, and Miranda Kerr; they staged another international awards ceremony – attended by the likes of Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Jean Dujardin – in Los Angeles:
Two key elements of the program include the establishment of the AACTA International Awards, as well as a new collaboration with G’Day USA – a partnership between the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Austrade, Tourism Australia, Qantas and state governments, which seeks to strengthen trade, investment, business, innovation and cultural relations between Australia and the United States. (AFI 2012, 15)
Clearly, this is an effort to promote Australian national identity while securing vitally important revenue from cultural tourists. Another aim of Screen Australia is to “promote the development of commercially focused screen production businesses” (Commonwealth 2008), and so the dual-city awards ceremonies seek to promote both Australian film and Australian travel.
Why did the AFI change its model? For some decades, the AFI issued awards to Australian films, complete with awards ceremonies and celebrity hosts. According to AACTA itself, it is following the lead established by larger – and, perhaps, more prestigious – awards ceremonies: “In line with international best-practice models, AACTA draws upon some of the well recognised and understood elements of the AMPAS (USA) and BAFTA (UK) models, while tailoring these to meet local industry needs and traditions, and to ensure that the AACTA organisation model and the AACTA Awards remain distinctly Australian” (Background 2012). Further to this objective of aligning its awards ceremony with the Oscars and the BAFTAs, the date of the ceremony was also changed to January – “a move that attempts to pull the Australian ceremony in line with the ‘Awards Season’ – the period when the Academy Awards and BAFTAS take place” (Nash 2011). This change, too, has a more nationalistic edge to it: “While this move undoubtedly hopes to see the AFI awards considered more seriously within an international context, [AFI chairman Damian] Trewhella was also conscious that this change in date would see the Awards take place closer to Australia Day, and he was keen to see local films more closely associated to our national identity” (Nash 2011). AACTA seeks to accomplish two things: first, to stage events as glamorous and internationally renowned as the Oscars and the BAFTAs; and second, to distinguish itself as uniquely and unmistakably Australian.
How successful was it? According to Ben Eltham, a writer for Crikey, AACTA did not succeed in its aims. Writing of the television ratings after the amount of spectacle and effort that clearly went into re-branding and staging the AACTA Awards, he states, “Judging by the ratings, however, it didn’t work. The AACTAs largely failed to catch fire with Tuesday night television audiences, attracting a desultory 314,000 viewers nationally for a delayed 9.30pm telecast. That’s a little bit better than last year’s AFIs, but well short of what Nine would have been hoping for” (2012). He critiques the ceremony itself, saying that “much of what went on made one wonder why the old AFIs were dumped in the first place. For a start, there were the moments when presenters clumsily tried to explain that, while such-and-such was receiving a very first AACTA gong, he or she had also won several AFIs previously. It’s a bit hard to celebrate the history if you’re determined to airbrush it away” (2012). He continues:
But the main impression Crikey took away from the first AACTAs was the continuing immaturity of the local screen sector, which, in commercial terms, remains largely a satellite of Hollywood production, vulnerable to the fluctuations of the Australian dollar and competition from other jurisdictions competing to lure away Hollywood’s “runaway” production. The Hollywood stars on show certainly added lustre, but they also highlight the fact local production relies more and more on name-brand actors to facilitate funding and distribution deals. This trend is only likely to accelerate. Australia’s greatest export in the screen sector tends to be individual talents, as we will likely always lack the local funding depth to genuinely compete against Hollywood blockbusters.
Where Australian screen can compete is in the indie sector, an area that also offers our best hope for international distribution. And yet this is the end of the sector that the AFIs used to be good at celebrating, and that many in the Australian screen sector feel ambivalent about (Eltham 2012).
Perhaps this is the crucial point: Australia cannot measure up to the Hollywood production machine. When it attempts to do so, the results are mixed – to put it mildly. When it attempts to show off for an international audience, by imitating what its better established Anglophone film cultures do, the show seems rather jejune. When, however, it permits its genuine talent and individuality to shine through – as in its compelling indie films, and its extraordinarily talented actors and directors, many of whom began in smaller productions or in theatre, and then were carried by sheer force of talent to Hollywood – it succeeds. Eltham reaffirms, “The desire to frolic in the reflected dazzle of Hollywood is understandable, but it is ultimately self-defeating. The future of Australian cinema is not as mass entertainment - which is not surprising, given that it certainly isn’t the present. A more mature industry awards night would revel in the beauty of smallness, and understand the inherent strength of diversity” (2012). Many of the guiding principles behind both Screen Australia and AACTA seem to have been based in a sense of inferiority. The emphasis is so insistently not only on championing Australian cinema above all else, but also on attempting to compete with America and England. In large scale, big budget productions – films as well as award shows – it cannot succeed. Film cultures and industries can – and do – change quickly, but it is rare for them to change because of pressure applied from the top. Even the Oscars began as nothing more than a dinner event at the Roosevelt Hotel, attended by two hundred seventy people who had paid $5 each (History 2012). Since 1929, it has expanded considerably; but the 1930 ceremony was not, all of a sudden, a lavish affair at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
The Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts asserts that the
Australian Government is committed to maintaining a strong, active and vibrant Australian film industry for both cultural and economic reasons. In its 2004 Election Policy Statement, the Government committed to “facilitating greater private investment in the film sector and continuing to encourage a more entrepreneurial approach to secure the long-term viability of our film industry.” This commitment includes promoting Australian and international appreciation and audience reach for Australian film and television productions (2006, 7).
Nevertheless, simply imposing a top-down policy on film culture seems not to have brought success, either in box office returns or in interest in film culture events like the AACTA Awards. A more likely avenue of success would be to permit smaller, more diverse film cultures to grow where they organically are able to do so – and to adopt more of a laissez faire attitude. The AACTA Awards have only taken place once, so it is possible that public interest will have increased by next year. It is important for the Australian government to realise, however, that it is extremely difficult to legislate art either into or out of existence. If the AFI’s awards ceremony is destined to remain a sparsely attended, slightly sombre affair, perhaps it is a wiser decision to allow it to remain so, and leave the glitz to Hollywood.
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Screen Australia. 2010. “Other Funding: Australian Festivals, Special Events and Conferences.” Last modified 26 July. http://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/funding/other/AustFestivalsEvents.aspx