FEATURE: Multiculturalism Beyond the Multiplex

While recent political debates about multiculturalism in Australia have tended to focus on issues of integration, ethnic compatibility, religious ideals, or worse still, the ‘true’ meaning of what it means to be ‘Australian’, there is one issue that is often overlooked: screen representation. How ‘we’ as a nation view ourselves, or rather, how we ‘wish’ to see ourselves forms a critical basis for the kinds of imagery this country produces and screens.

If present day television serves as a guide to the ethnic and cultural make-up of Australia, then the image currently being presented in one colonised by a ‘white’ middle-class demographic. Besides a small number of shows on SBS, (and possibly Channel 31, for those who can get reception) there are very few programs that reflect the disperse cultural backgrounds of Australia’s population. Where is the Muslim family on Neighbours, or the Vietnamese family on Home And Away? When was the last time you saw a representation of a Greek, Turkish, Lebanese or Italian-Australian that wasn’t tied to persisting stereotypes of fish & chip, pizza, or deli owners? A quick glance at the latest slew of Big Brother contestants reveals another crowd of tarted-up, bleached blonde guys and gals – hardly a cross-section of the Australian community. While I doubt the show ever claimed to offer such diversity, the selection of roles and performers on Australian television is still cause for concern.

And it’s not just television. Already diminutive by comparison to the United States, the Australian cinema industry is similarly marked by a disproportionate representation of its population. While I would never argue that films such as The Castle or Chopper don’t reveal some aspect of the Australian ‘character’, it would be foolish to think that a Wog Boy or Fat Pizza can effectively make up the multicultural divide. If we rely on representations to fashion our concept of national identity, then when it comes to the movies, our identity must be increasingly American. This is a central dilemma facing this country; how can we forge our own multicultural national identity when it’s increasingly being colonised from outside? Unlike South Korea, or France, Australia currently has no quota system regulating the local-to-international content of its cinemas.

Thankfully, Australian screens are not entirely devoid of international and multicultural perspectives beyond the United States, at least not if you know where to look. Already this year, we have had a number of International Film festivals grace our screens; French, Spanish, German, Greek, and Canadian, with an Italian film festival not too far away. Offering images of diversity that wouldn’t necessarily make it to the multiplex or even the small screen, the festival scene provides a crucial link in the multicultural chain. Even if most of these films are not founded in an Australian context, they do satisfy an important function in respect to identification and understanding. Broadening the screen of possibilities by challenging the increasingly narrow worldview presented at most mainstream cinemas can only be a positive step for multiculturalism in this country. The demystification of the cultural ‘other’ and the willingness to embrace foreignness as a part of our national identity is more important now than ever before.

Admittedly, the international film festival scene with its Euro-centric focus may not be the utopian space of global diversity – as Margaret and David pointed out recently on an episode of At The Movies, “Where are the African films?”, and what about the cinema of the Middle East? Still, it’s a trend that with continued patronage and publicity can only expand. If nothing else, I would think it much harder to demonise a race, culture or religion having had the chance to identify, empathise and attempt to understand it through film. That is the beauty of cinema, and that is why it’s time we put representation back on the multiculturalism agenda.

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