The Long Road Leading up to the Australian Film Revival, Part II

(If you haven’t read the first part, check it out here: )

Towards the end of the 1960s, Australian film history was at risk of being completely forgotten. The local film industry was in a state of despair that embraced its looming death rather than its true potential. With no proper record or education in place, barely anyone knew about the early pioneers of Australian cinema anymore (Stratton 1). Even the few aspiring directors left in the country were mostly oblivious to their cultural heritage, since all they ever saw in theaters were Hollywood productions (Haltof 2, 4).

The first book solely dedicated to Australian film history tried to change that, but was not published until 1970 (6). John Baxter‘s The Australian Cinema reinstated the importance of the old masters and reflected upon their accomplishments to lay out a path forward. In the final chapter, Baxter wondered what the future may hold for the next generation of Australian filmmakers. Whether they would succumb to “the public preference for American films and the innate conservatism of the film industry” or if they could overcome these challenges to reestablish “a truly national Australian cinema.” Baxter was confident that Australia had the talent and determination to achieve this goal, but he did not know how it could be accomplished (Malcolm xiii).

By the 1970s, the solution was obvious. All that the Australian film industry needed was a little governmental support. An incoming set of new policies quickly propelled the struggling industry to previously undreamed of heights. After significant lobbying, Australian politicians were eventually persuaded to create numerous institutions to fund local film production (Haltof 4). Thus, a decade-long “national project” ensued with the mission to create a New Australian Cinema that was dedicated to a “culturally worthwhile” cause (4, 6). This sponsorship extended to almost all “films with Australian content” and finally prioritized filmmakers’ artistic visions over investors’ financial concerns (4). However, the tap for all this free flowing cash was soon turned off. Ultimately, the government ended up being just another financial backer who was fed up with failed investments and therefore put measures into place to guarantee safer returns (Stratton 284). Still, a major step in the right direction had been taken which laid the foundation for decades to come (294–295).

The Groundwork

The first political rumblings over the dissatisfaction of the Australian film industry were heard in a 1963 Senate committee. The chairman Victor Seddon Vincent “provided several recommendations for the future development of the national cinema,” which were, however, largely “ignored by the Liberal government led by [Prime Minister] Robert Menzies” (Haltof 6). Part of the reason why these pleas fell on deaf ears was because, at the time, there really was no basis to the claim that Australians demanded to see themselves represented on the big screen. Theaters predominantly relied on American movies to fill their seats and politicians saw nothing wrong with that.

The case for the necessity of “films speaking in a distinct Australian idiom” continued to be rather unconvincing, until They’re a Weird Mob (1966) arrived (6). This film by the esteemed British film-making duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger turned into a landmark release for the Australian market. Even though this was another British production set in Australia, it was actually, for once, extremely respectful of its source material. Pressburger wrote a very faithful adaptation of John O’Grady’s novel of the same name about a newly arrived Italian immigrant trying to make it in Australia. And Powell went to extraordinary lengths to shoot in authentic Sydney locations and employ local talent, including the iconic Chips Rafferty. The result was an “immensely popular” movie that “enjoyed the longest run any film has ever had at [Greater Union]’s giant State Theatre in Sydney” (Stratton 5). The key ingredient to the film’s success was the comedy that ensued whenever the Italian, who only ever studied textbook English, encountered real working class Australians:

In an attempt to follow in the footsteps of They’re a Weird Mob, a series of independent films tried to show an equally keen observation of Australian culture. By utilizing low budget film equipment and small crew sizes, directors like Tim Burstall were able to pursue more personal and experimental projects that did not require extensive funding (5–6). Burstall’s semi-autobiographical 2000 Weeks (1969), about a writer running out of time to succeed in life, was “the first truly indigenous Australian theatrical feature film in many years” (6). It and several other passion projects like it proudly exhibited “the artistic potential of the local cinema” (Haltof 6), but were met with a lack of trust, respect, and funding that shut them out of a wider theatrical distribution (Stratton 5, 23).

At the same time, advocates for the Australian film industry started to mobilize a substantial  lobbying effort (5). In 1965, Robert Menzies had just announced his intention to retire in the following year, so there was hope that a new Prime Minister would be more inclined to offer his support. As Harold Holt took office, two groups were formed in favor of  “government intervention and the creation of government bodies responsible for sponsoring the local film industry” (Haltof 7). They resided in the two cultural centers of Sydney and Melbourne, which have had a long history of competing approaches to cinema (Stratton 10).

In Sydney, it was the film editor and producer Anthony Buckley who stood up for his profession. Ever since his first assistant job on The Stowaway (1958), Buckley had been continually refining his craft, until he was able to produce his own smaller projects (10–11). His passion for Australian cinema motivated him to dedicate a sentimental documentary to its cause. Forgotten Cinema: The Golden Age of Australian Motion Pictures (1967) “used vintage footage to tell the history of the Australian film industry,” which evoked an overwhelmingly positive reaction during the Sydney Film Festival. Moreover, it also attracted the attention of Roland Beckett, who was an influential member of the Producers’ and Directors’ Guild (11). Buckley and Beckett joined forces to create the more inclusive Australian Film Council, which could accommodate every trade of the film industry. Its main objective was to directly address individual members of parliament “with one powerful voice” (11). Thus, the council invited senators like Doug McClelland to private screenings of Forgotten Cinema that were followed up with discussions for possible legislation to reign in a new era. This course of action proved fruitful, as McClelland soon spurred on fiery debates, in which he “told the house that members should ‘hang their heads in shame’ for not supporting a film industry” (11). After Harold Holt’s untimely death in December 1967, the Australian Film Council extended their invitations to the newly anointed Prime Minister, John Gorton, who readily accepted. In a speech that concluded their productive dinner party, “Gorton indicated for the first time that industry support would be forthcoming” (11).

In Melbourne, Phillip Adams quickly followed up on this new momentum. The young advertising executive had become an integral part of the city’s Film Society and International Film Festival (11). Because of these deep roots, Adams preferred to form a new coalition out of Melbourne. However, to enter the political landscape, Adams had to ride on the coattails of his close friend and fellow Melburnian, Barry Jones (12). After over two hundred appearances of the popular television quiz show Pick a Box, Jones had displayed an “extraordinary encyclopedic” knowledge that made him a national sensation. This launched Jones into a career as host of  “Australia’s only talkback radio programme and also a television interview programme,” which allowed him to regularly speak to Prime Minister John Gorton (12). Thus, Adams could inform Jones about the pressing issues of the local film scene, which Jones could then use to confront Gorton. Instead of having these two forces work against him, Gorton soon decided to employ them in his favor. Adams and Jones were appointed to an Interim Film Committee, which was chaired by the Member of the New South Wales Parliament, Peter Coleman. Together, they “wrote speeches for the prime minister in which he was able to establish himself as a man of cultural sophistication” (13). In consequence, Gorton became more and more convinced that the revival of the film industry would be a good political move for him. To make that a reality, Adams and Jones proposed that they should go on “a world trip to study government-funded industries abroad.” Gorton agreed, and when they returned, they wrote up an official report that detailed the necessary measures. According to the committee’s evaluation, all that the Australian cinema needed to thrive was “a modestly-scaled film industry,” “a film school,” “an experimental film fund,” and “a film bank” (13). “Gorton ‘unconditionally accepted’ all of [these] recommendations,” and confirmed shortly thereafter that government support would be forthcoming (Shirley and Adams 235).

The Australian Film Revival

From that point on, the agenda was set and legislative action followed swiftly behind. The consequential upturn of production marked the 1970s as “the most interesting period for the Australian film industry” (Haltof 4). “After years of artistic inertia,” government institutions provided Australian filmmakers with financial support that resulted in 153 locally produced feature films (4, 6–7). A truly momentous achievement, considering that the preceding decade had only yielded 17 feature films (7). Part of the secret of this success story was the fact that the ​​average budget for an Australian film was set at a modest $300,000 to $400,000, which was significantly lower than its American counterpart (7). Thus, limited government resources were spread among more applicants who shared a lowered financial risk that enabled them to focus solely on the domestic market.

The decade started with a bang, as two international productions were officially representing Australia at the 24th Cannes Film Festival (Shirley and Adams 246). The uncompromising approach of Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971) and Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) redefined Australian cinema by bringing the bleaker aspects of Australian existence to the forefront. Both films pushed the boundaries of the medium with their distressing portrayals of animal cruelty that just narrowly avoided a violation of the Animals Act (Hitchens et al. 7). They are also both centered around a shocking existential crisis, which Wake in Fright uses for a dark descent into madness, while Walkabout prefers a lighter outcome towards self-discovery. Unfortunately, this proved to be too challenging for mainstream audiences who were revolted by them, which led to bad word of mouth and poor box office receipts (Shirley and Adams 245–246). Nevertheless, these two films have since been reappraised as cornerstones of the Australian New Wave and modern masterpieces.

The first government initiative in favor of the Australian film industry was passed in 1970. The Australian Film Development Corporation Bill proposed an inexpensive proving ground for new directors that was met with bipartisan approval (Shirley and Adams 235). The Experimental Film and Television Fund, which used money from the Australian Council for the Arts that was administered by the Australian Film Institute, began operation within the same year. “In the initial batch of loans, seventy-three applicants were granted a total of $111,450,” which immediately ushered in a new era for independent filmmaking (236). For instance, the EFTF covered the costs of feature film debuts like Peter Weir’s Homesdale (1971), Brian Kavanagh’s A City’s Child (1971), and Esben Storm’s 27A (1974). But it also encouraged filmmakers to further pursue their independent tendencies. Even Tim Burstall was able to secure $7,500 for the development of his next project (Stratton 25). As outlined above, Burstall had been struggling to find his footing in the industry, and he therefore breathed in a great sigh of relief when his uniquely bizarre Stork (1971) was well received (25–26).

Similarly, the larger Australian Film Development Corporation was also created in 1970 to help filmmakers with more commercial aspirations (14, xviii). Bruce Beresford received $250,000 for The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), an inversion of the They’re a Weird Mob plot that has an odd Australian traveling to England (Pike and Cooper 265). Sandy Harbutt also obtained $154,000 for Stone (1974), an outlaw biker film about an undercover police officer trying close the unsolved murder cases of several gang members (278). And since Peter Weir had demonstrated his directorial talent with Homesdale, he was awarded $110,000 for his next project (Stratton 62). The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) became the next stepping stone of Weir’s career that really showcased his greater cinematic ambition. This surreal horror comedy set in the fictional Australian town of Paris portrays a dystopian future that hinges on the pressures of commercialism. Residents of this impoverished town deliberately cause car accidents in order to profit from the resulting wrecks and casualties. This critique about the contemporary societal decay is especially apparent in the film’s opening that is initially shot like an advertisement, which takes a wrong turn, and is then contrasted with the harsh reality of rural Australian life:

To nurture even younger talent, a film school also needed to be established. However, it would take years, until this project would finally come to fruition. After Prime Minister Gorton had agreed to the Interim Film Committee’s recommendations, he restructured it into an Interim Council for the Australian Film and Television School (“Our History” [AFTRS]). In 1970, the council went on another world trip to survey the internationally renowned film schools, once more. They found a location in Sydney and prepared a new report, but were largely ignored. Unfortunately, this project remained in a bureaucratic limbo, even after the council contacted the International Association of Film and Television Schools and wrote up another report (“Our History” [AFTRS]).

Movie censorship was an additional concern for the film industry that also needed to be addressed by politicians, but took a long time to achieve. Throughout the 1960s, censorship decisions were “plagued by official secrecy and laughable double standards.” The debate surrounding this issue reached a boiling point, when Minister for Customs and Excise Malcolm Scott had to defend “the removal of sexual activity from the Swedish film I Love, You Love [1968].” The Sydney Morning Herald mockingly claimed that Scott “would not be able to identify sexual intercourse if he saw it,” which sparked international attention and sealed the end of his career (Shirley and Adams 221). This convinced his successor Don Chipp to take a radically different approach. He invited respected representatives of the parliament, the church, and the media to reconsider previously deleted scenes. Together, they came to the conclusion that “general community attitudes to the suppression of this material had changed” and that it was therefore time to end this excessive censorship (221). In 1970, Chipp therefore introduced reforms to shift Australia “from a closed and highly interventionist model of censorship into a more open, liberal and accountable regime, based around classification as the norm and direct banning of material as the exception” (Australian Law Reform Commission 32). The Australian Classification Board was created within the same year, but did not begin operation until more legislation was passed.

The negotiations over the Australian Film and Television School and the Australian Classification Board lasted well into 1971. In March, Defence Minister Malcolm Fraser abruptly resigned from Gorton’s cabinet and publicly expressed his dissatisfaction with the Prime Minister. To address this issue, Gorton held a Liberal caucus meeting, where he called for a motion of no confidence. The vote was tied, which meant that Gorton could have remained as party leader. However, Gorton still interpreted this result as reason enough for resignation. Thus, he nominated William McMahon as his successor, who was immediately confirmed.

For the Australian Classification Board, this transition went over very smoothly, because Don Chipp remained in his position. In November, he finally passed the National Classification Scheme that introduced four new film ratings: “G (General Exhibition), NRC (Not Recommended for Children), M (Mature) and R (Restricted to audiences aged over 18).” The first R-rated film to be publicly screened in Australia was Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971), closely followed by Stork (1971) and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972) (“Australian Film”). All in all, the R rating was a much needed liberation from censorship that finally gave artistic freedom to filmmakers and freedom of choice to theatergoers.

However, the Australian Film and Television School faced significantly more scrutiny under the new government. In May, McMahon appointed Peter Howson to the new office of the Minister for the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts. In this capacity, Howson oversaw the Interim Council and “determined not to proceed with the film school.” This was unacceptable to Phillip Adams, who consequently resigned from the council. Crucially, Adams decided to publicly air his grievances “on the ABC news programme This Day Tonight,” which convinced McMahon to overrule Howson (Stratton 13). In 1972, the Interim Council published another report, which after some hold-up was finally approved by Howson. As a result, Peter Coleman was officially appointed as Chair of the AFTS (“Our History” [AFTRS]) and Jerzy Toeplitz, the co-founder of the Polish Film School who had become “one of the most important figures in film teaching,” was appointed as Foundation Director (Stratton 200). Meanwhile, the 1972 Australian federal election voted William McMahon out of office, which meant a further delay in this process. After Labor Leader Gough Whitlam was sworn in as the new Prime Minister, he made the sensible decision to split the cluttered Department of the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts into two separate offices. Thus, the new Minister for the Media Doug McClelland could finally fast track the Australian Film and Television School Act. In 1973, the AFTS opened its doors to its first and “possibly its most impressive” class of students, including “Gillian Armstrong and Phillip Noyce, who would both become successful feature film directors; Chris Noonan, who would do distinguished work for Film Australia …; Graham Shirley, whose interest was to lie in the history of the Australian cinema; [and] James Ricketson, who would opt for what he himself called ‘poor cinema’ productions” (200). These first graduates already showed that the effort to establish an Australian film school had paid off, since it successfully allowed young talent to branch out into so many different territories of the film industry.

The Commonwealth Film Unit was the last government institution to be impacted by this restructuring phase. Originally, the CFU was created to offer filmmakers the chance to learn their craft by producing large in-house productions. Anthony Buckley and Peter Weir first cut their teeth there, as did Donald Crombie, Brian Hannant, Oliver Howes, Joan Long, Arch Nicholson, and Michael Thornhill (Haltof 2–3, Shirley and Adams 264–265). But the establishment of the Australian Film and Television School meant that this previous “training ground for aspiring filmmakers” needed a new purpose (Haltof 2). In December 1972, the CFU became the responsibility of the Department of the Media. The following year, the organization was relaunched as “the government’s [primary] documentary filmmaking arm” with the new name of Film Australia (Stratton 16, Shirley and Adams 266).

To summarize, by 1973 the Australian Government had created the Experimental Film and Television Fund to invest in independent films, the Australian Film Development Corporation to finance more commercially oriented projects, Film Australia to produce documentaries, the Australian Classification Board to stop banning movies, and the Australian Film and Television School to teach the trade to the next generation of  filmmakers. This course of action laid out a solid foundation for a thriving Australian film industry, but the financial support system extended even beyond that. Besides the federal sponsorship, there was also state and private backing. In fact, multiple funding bodies provided alternative and cooperative ways of financing. Thus, filmmakers had the option to choose among several investors to develop their projects from the initial conception to the final release. The establishment of this interwoven financial network is the main reason for Australia’s prolific film production in the 1970s.

The South Australian Film Corporation was the first state production company to follow the example of its federal counterpart. The Premier of South Australia, Don Dunstan, signed the South Australian Film Corporation Act in 1972 “to both encourage and develop the local film and television industry, and to attract production to the state” (“Our History” [SAFC]). Indeed, the SAFC grew to be “a major force in the industry” that threaded the needle between artistic recognition and commercial success (Stratton 17). This was most prominently proven by two of its earliest films, Sunday Too Far Away (1975) and Storm Boy (1976). Both of these films are astutely aware of their social and natural environment. However, while Wake in Fright and Walkabout were pessimistic about these conditions, Sunday Too Far Away and Storm Boy are realistic. Ken Hannam and Henri Safran faithfully capture the challenges of Australian life, without shedding a favorable or unfavorable light upon them. Moreover, their authoritative films do not dwell on animal cruelty. Instead, they showcase humans in coexistence with animals:

The historic significance of Sunday Too Far Away was already felt at the time. Even before its wide release, Sunday Too Far Away was well received at 28th Cannes Film Festival, won four major prizes at the 17th Australian Film Institute Awards, and had already recouped its $300,000 budget (Shirley and Adams 278, 277). For the public premiere during “the opening night of the Sydney Film Festival,” it was therefore introduced with “a retrospective tribute to local cinema spanning [the last] sixty years.” Expectations for the future of Australian cinema were high, and they were met when “twenty-five new Australian features” were released within the same year (276). Among them was also Peter Weir’s next film, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), which was financed by the Australian Film Development Corporation, British Empire Films, and the South Australian Film Corporation (Stratton 69). Critics’ overwhelmingly positive reaction and Great Union’s “brilliant advertising campaign” intrigued hundreds of thousands to watch this Gothic mystery in the theaters. Consequently, Picnic at Hanging Rock turned into an “instant box office success” that went on to become “the most profitable of all the new Australian films of the seventies” (71–73).

From that point on, it was off to the races. Over the next two years, all the other State Governments tried to mimic South Australia’s success by creating their own film production companies (18). The Victorian Film Corporation was established in 1976. Its first production was Bruce Beresford’s The Getting of Wisdom (1977), an adaption of Henry Handel Richardson’s endearing Bildungsroman of the same name about a young woman’s education at a Melbourne boarding school for girls. A year later, the VFC financed another Australian literary adaptation, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), which was directed by Fred Schepisi and based on Thomas Keneally’s identically titled novel about the life of bushranger Jimmy Governor. Other VFC productions were Esben Storm‘s In Search of Anna (1978), Richard Franklin’s Patrick (1978), and Colin Eggleston’s Long Weekend (1978)

The New South Wales Film Corporation began its operation in 1977 with a strict funding criteria that was based on “commonsense and practical experience of the industry” (Stratton 18). This approach tried to weed out unpredictable filmmakers who presented a financial risk factor, and instead favored formally trained talent. Therefore, the NSWFC invested in the next project by Donald Crombie, the legal custody drama Cathy’s Child (1979). But more importantly, the two most famous alumni of the Australian Film and Television School also received funds for their breakout movies. Phillip Noyce was glad to finally find a production company that was willing to take on his notoriously complicated screenplay about the behind the scenes production of post-war newsreels. However, the NSWFC also had reservations about the marketability of this project and therefore demanded changes that dismayed Noyce (209–210). Nonetheless, the launch of Newsfront (1978) was still critically praised and a moderate commercial success (211–212).

By comparison, the production of Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979) went quite smoothly. Armstrong also had trouble securing funding, but that was resolved once the NSWFC provided half of the $890,000 budget. In fact, in this case, Armstrong felt so empowered by this support that she took the initiative to hire a script editor to iron out the last wrinkles of the screenplay (217). Some minor pre-production hiccups ensued, but in the end even those turned out for the better (218–219). The NSWFC offered “enormous co-operation” to guarantee the success of My Brilliant Career, which also included two extra weeks of shooting “to do things properly.” The premiere was set for the 32nd Cannes Film Festival, where the film was “extremely well received” (219), even though it went up against an absolutely incredible lineup that year. Nevertheless, My Brilliant Career still stood out because it was a poignant reminder of the female struggle to resist against the greater societal pressures that try to drown their free-spirited nature and ambition. This message and the fact that it was heard so clearly at an especially competitive international film festival speaks volumes about its director, who tried to make a stand “for all the other women in the [Australian] film industry“ (218).

The last three state-run film production companies were all established in 1977, but had way fewer and less pronounced standout films. The Tasmanian Film Corporation financed a documentary, The Last Tasmanian (1978), and a feature film, Manganinnie (1980), about the Black War genocide of the Aboriginal Australians in Tasmania. The Queensland Film Corporation produced Touch and Go (1980), a female caper film with an altruistic spin, and Final Cut (1980), a thriller revolving around the twisted games of a shady show business tycoon. Lastly, the Western Australian Film Council helped to fund Harlequin (1980), a supernatural interpretation of a Rasputin-esque figure in contemporary Australia, and Roadgames (1981), a truck driver’s highway chase of a hitchhiker killer.

However, as already mentioned above, government support was just the most easily accessible financial avenue. The private sector also offered a last resort for filmmakers in search of final funding (​​Stratton 18). Most commonly, filmmakers sealed a deal with a private investor by selling the distributing rights in exchange for an advance payment. Movie distributors preferred this hands-off approach that let them focus on the business side of this arrangement. Thus, Greater Union was responsible for the profitability of The Irishman (1978), In Search of Anna (1978), My Brilliant Career (1979), Thirst (1979), Tim (1979), Final Cut (1980), Harlequin (1980), Manganinnie (1980), and Touch and Go (1980). Meanwhile, Hoyts dealt with The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Long Weekend (1978), Dawn! (1979), Stir (1980), and The Chain Reaction (1980). And Roadshow managed the release of Stork (1971), The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), Alvin Purple (1973), Petersen (1974), Sunday Too Far Away (1975), End Play (1976), Caddie (1976), Storm Boy (1976), Newsfront (1978), Money Movers (1978), Blue Fin (1978), Mad Max (1979), The Last of the Knucklemen (1979), Cathy’s Child (1979), and Breaker Morant (1980).


After name-dropping so many movies, it feels appropriate to review the filmography of the Australian New Wave as a whole. Of course, not every single film has been discussed in detail here, but ​​the main canon has been sufficiently covered to warrant a conclusion. Within one decade, the Australian Film Revival produced over 150 feature films (Haltof 7). This movement liberated Australian filmmakers, who consequently realized that their own local stories demanded to be represented on the big screen. By focusing on the predominant myths of the bush, mateship, and ancestry, they therefore reinvented the country’s sense of identity (8). The majority of this “‘building-a-nation’ process” involved period pieces, which dealt with “nationhood not only through current mythologies and realities but through discourse on the meaning of the Australian nation [throughout history].”

The purpose of this endeavor was to create an acceptable image of Australia and to promote it overseas. The [Australian mythology] was of greater importance here than historical accuracy or truth. As Ina Bertrand bluntly stated in 1984: “Truth is not an issue here. As a nation we can live without ‘truth’: perhaps we prefer not to know if the truth is unpleasant or, even worse, boring. But we cannot continue to exist without a sense of self, identity, [and] in this case ‘Australianness.’” (8)

With this in mind, it needs to be pointed out that these period films actually emerged in two consecutive phases. The previous deterioration of the industry meant that Australian filmmakers had to essentially start from ground zero, again. As a result, ocker films like Stork (1971), The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), Alvin Purple (1973), and Petersen (1974) first stormed onto the scene. Their eponymous “urban heroes” satirized contemporary Australian “vernacular, characteristically vulgar behavior and masculine habits” (8). This unsophisticated interpretation of the meaning of Australianness was based on filmmakers’ own insecurity and bitterness, at the time. It would take them a couple more years to develop the necessary skills to properly reflect upon their own identity.

In contrast, more matured history films form the second phase of this process. As dramatizations of historical events, these films displayed a strong grip on their past: The Getting of Wisdom (1977) and My Brilliant Career (​​1979) are firmly situated during the last decade of the nineteenth century; Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) are characterized by the chaos at the turn of the century; Gallipoli (1981) depicts the battles of World War I; The Irishman (1978) and Caddie (1976) are set in the roaring twenties; and The Devil’s Playground (1976) and Newsfront (1978) take place in a new reality after World War II. In these instances, Australian filmmakers are not necessarily nostalgic or critical of these formative periods, as much as they are aware of their lingering effects. These tumultuous times have shaped the Australian psyche and can only be reckoned with if they are confronted with a clear set of mind.

Besides these ambitious period pieces, there also emerged a growing wave of exploitation films. The origin of this phenomenon can be clearly traced back to the introduction of the R rating in 1971. Australian cinema was liberated by this landmark achievement, but also immediately started to abuse its newfound freedom. Graphic depictions of sex, drugs, and violence became a major selling point of low-budget movies. Filmmakers primarily gave in to these cheap thrills in order to attract curious theatergoers, but it also helped them to become more deeply entrenched in genre conventions. By transcending previous code limitations, genre films finally illustrated the heart of their subject matter. Thus, the Ozploitation craze included horror movies (Night of Fear (1972), Patrick (1978), and Thirst (1979)), thrillers (End Play (1976), Long Weekend (1978), and Roadgames (1981)), dystopian fiction (The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), Mad Max (1979), and The Chain Reaction (1980)), and crime films (Stone (1974), Money Movers (1978), and Touch and Go (1980)).

In general, Australian New Wave films are heavily influenced by two competing styles of filmmaking (Haltof 8). On one side, classical Hollywood cinema presented directors with a systematic approach to narrative progression, cinematic framing, and editing technique. These principles had already been shown to be immensely popular and were therefore closely followed by directors who wanted to replicate their success in Australia. George Miller, for instance, studied Hollywood action films, westerns, and road movies to arrive at his equally successful Mad Max series (8–9). But on the other side, European art cinema rejected all of these classical conventions in favor of a more truthful representation of the main subject. The first experimental phase of the French New Wave demonstrated this radical break with tradition that soon enchanted all of Europe. Elvira Madigan (1967), for example, had the unconventional approach to contrast a tragic love story with the lush fields and forests of the Swedish countryside. Peter Weir used this beautifully shot film as an aesthetic model for his mysterious portrayal of nature in Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) (8). However, these two sides were not entirely exclusive. Many directors also combined aspects of both styles in their work. My Brilliant Career (1979), for instance, is as much inspired by John Ford, as it is by Agnès Varda.

From a box office point of view, the New Australian Cinema produced films of commercial success and international acclaim that were able to compete at home against Hollywood productions. To be more concise, the domestic box office grossed $4,720,000 for Alvin Purple (1973), $1,356,000 for Sunday Too Far Away (1975), $5,120,000 for Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), $2,645,000 for Storm Boy (1976), $1,576,000 for Newsfront (1978), $5,355,490 for Mad Max (1979), $3,052,000 for My Brilliant Career (1979), and $11,740,000 for Gallipoli (1981) (“Australian Films”).

However, there was also a flipside to these box office receipts, because all the aforementioned successes were actually the rare exceptions. Even though 1975 marked the breakthrough year for Australian cinema, it also indicated a changing tide. That same year, the Whitman Government restructured the Australian Film Development Corporation as the Australian Film Commission, which fatally “was given a free hand and was exempt from political control” (Stratton 15–16). After five years of unconstrained operation, the AFC had given out so many grants that they returned only about 38% of their investments. In fact, almost half of the “about fifty feature films” that they supported “were complete write-offs representing total losses” (16). The South Australian Film Corporation did not fare much better, either. They also handed out their money way too freely, so that by 1978 they reaped nothing but commercial failures (17). A spiraling budget inflation and a declining theater attendance certainly did not help (17). Almost every Australian film released in 1979 was box office bomb, except for Mad Max and My Brilliant Career. This “convinced investors that [only] newcomers, backed by experienced technical teams, could” succeed financially, anymore (284). As a result, established directors and personal scripts were dropped in favor of closely monitored commercial films with international appeal (289).

This “reactionary thinking” that abandoned true Australian talent and reduced Australian films to “the lowest common international denominator” ultimately brought in the collapse of the Australian Film Revival (290–291). At the time, Fred Schepisi exclaimed that trying to fund “an Australian film would be so difficult as to make the effort hardly worthwhile” (284). In consequence, he soon retreated to the United States, as did Bruce Beresford, Richard Franklin, and Peter Weir. Gillian Armstrong, Phillip Noyce, and George Miller still had some success in Australia, but they also looked abroad for funding. Tim Burstall, Donald Crombie, and Henri Safran stayed firmly in Australia, but saw very few of their projects greenlit. “This left the way clear for the newcomers,” who were, however, put under tremendous pressure to stay within budgets and appeal to a broad range of audiences (284). The Australian film industry had certainly changed.

All in all, it was a long road, but also one that paved the way for decades to come. The Australian Film Revival established federal and state funding bodies, the Australian Film and Television School, and the Australian Classification Board. New Wave films reinvented Australianness, were internationally celebrated for it, and thus redefined the country’s reputation. The 1980s were still riding on this success, so that the effects of the collapse did not appear in the box office numbers, until a decade later (“Australian Films” Graph 2). Moreover, due to the accomplishments of the Australian Film Revival, the domestic production rate has been steadily increasing and Australian films have been able to compete against their American counterparts (Graph 4, 10). Certainly, the following decades still developed local talent that produced great Australian cinema. Art films have become a rare sight, though. But if you look for them, you can still find them: 

Thank you, Lucas and Tina, for allowing me to write this admittedly not very speculative blog post and for being so lenient about deadlines.

Work Cited

“Australian Film and Television Chronology: The 1970s.” Australian Screen Online, Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.

Australian Films at the Australian Box Office. Film Victoria, 2009,

Australian Law Reform Commission. “National Classification Scheme Review.” Discussion Paper, vol. 77, Sep 2011. Australian Law Reform Commission,

Haltof, Marek. Peter Weir: When Cultures Collide. Twayne Publishers, 1996. Internet Archive,

Hitchens, Peta L., et al. “The Welfare of Animals in Australian Filmed Media.” Animals, vol. 11, no. 7, 2021. MDPI,

Malcolm, Derek. Foreword. The Last New Wave: The Australian Film Revival, by David Stratton, Angus & Robertson Publishers, 1980, pp. xiii–xiv. Internet Archive,

“Our History.” Australian Film Television and Radio School, Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.

“Our History.” South Australian Film Corporation, Accessed 2 Mar. 2022.

Pike, Andrew, and Ross Cooper. Australian Film, 1900–1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production. Revised ed., Oxford UP, 1998.

Shirley, Graham, and Brian Adams. Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years. Angus & Robertson Publishers / Currency P, 1983. Internet Archive,

Stratton, David. The Last New Wave: The Australian Film Revival. Angus & Robertson Publishers, 1980. Internet Archive,

Kia Mau Ki Tō Ūkaipō – Don’t forget your roots, my friend…

Calling all Kiwis and music lovers! And no, I am not talking about the fruit, but rather about Aoteoroa/ New Zealand, since this blog entry focuses on the music of this country’s biggest reggae rock fusion band Six60

The single “Don’t Forget Your Roots“ of the five-member band from Dunedin was released in 2011 and reached number 2 on the New Zealand Singles Charts. In the past decade, this song has become somewhat of a ‘Kiwi anthem’.

The 2011 release, however, is not where the evolution and importance of the song ends. In September 2019, Six60 released a new Māori version: “Kia Mau Ki Tō Ūkaipō / Don’t Forget Your Roots“ in the collection Waiata / Anthems of re-recorded New Zealand pop songs to promote Te Wiki o te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week).

In the chorus of this song, Six60 reminds the listener of how important it is to remember our own roots, since they include our family and friends, but also our inner self – what we truly are: “the ones who made us – brought us here”. It deals with the idea of Indigenous heritage and identity and why you should be thankful and proud of it. Neglecting these roots easily leads to them being lost.

To further highlight the importance of what is said in the chorus, Six60 introduces a man (Johnny) and a woman (Jesse), who both are detached from their roots in Aotearoa after leaving their home which “armed them with power”. This results in them being lost in two ways: 1. They lack Māori values and morals and 2. the connection to their roots and their whānau (family), who are the only people that truly matter, becomes tenuous. Overall, both experience a disconnection from their origin. They are displaced and have lost their sense of belonging by leaving their homeland. The concept of loss applies to the man and woman as individuals, but also to their community – “He/She lost the faith of all those who mattered so…” Additionally, Six60 conveys a combination of nostalgia and homesickness with the simple words: “Don’t forget your roots…”

But only if no return is intended.

Representing Māori culture through music and language

Even though the band members all have Māori roots, they did not grow up with the language or culture, yet feel deeply connected to it. Their intention of releasing the song in Māori was to learn more about their culture and understand their origin – their roots. They wanted to provide a song of familiar lyrics that communicates their culture using Te Reo.

But why is music so important to remember your roots?

Well, wherever you are, in New Zealand or overseas, the distinctive sounds used in songs such as “Kia Mau Ki Tō Ūkaipō“ can conjure up images of home. Translating popular songs from English to Māori can deepen empathy and provides a solution for the absence of communication between Māori and non-Māori by encouraging discourse. Embracing Māori culture, the waka, the whānau – community and music can convey heritage and is a start to help non-Māori engage with the language and culture. At the same time, it is dangerous to base one’s understanding of a foreign culture solely on one song, since Maori offer a diverse culture with many traditions and also contradictions.

My personal connection to the song goes back almost to its initial release. I first visited a Six60 concert in 2012 in German. When the band sang “Don’t Forget Your Roots”, those who were Māori in the audience, all far away from home, started a haka. It first got me thinking about the connection between music and culture. Whenever I listen to the song now, it also reminds me of my time spent abroad and the people I met. 

And as the Covid-19 pandemic continues, friends and family remain apart from one another as we understand the importance of connecting, which includes doing it through Te Reo Māori.

At a concert in 2020, Six60 further combined the song’s new version with a performance of the haka, making the concert uniquely New Zealand by giving the crowd a taste of the country’s distinct Indigenous culture. Now they do it at every single concert worldwide on tour to reconnect with their homeland. Additionally, singing the song is a reminder for them that even if they are on the other side of the world, when they return to Aoteoroa the following quote:

 i haere Māori atu, i hoki Māori mai

I left as a Māori, and I have returned as a Māori

applies to them.

To me this performance combined with the haka is filled with a celebration of the Māori culture since the Māori performers get the opportunity to proudly present their traditions and language on a big stage – it cuts through that fear of not being able to express and give Māori back their sovereignty by pushing the unspoken tension between Māori and non-Māori to the side and saying: here is a place for all to gather, unite and sing. Including Te Reo Māori and the haka, therefore, can enrich New Zealand’s music scene and empower national athletes, but some songs also engage worldwide audiences. Embracing the language should be as simple as not forgetting one’s roots … or family.

In an interview, the front singer of Six60 Matiu Walters stated that he noticed more understanding of the culture and an acceptance of songs in Māori especially in New Zealand, which has been a good thing to see. He further suggests that it is something the band helped push by redoing their song in Māori. The translation followed the dream to make Māori music in future not only usable for a political purpose or for social currency but also for the daily and ordinary life.

This is exactly what the band is doing with their new songPepeha“, which deals with their personal experience of learning about their actual pepeha – the way of introducing yourself in Māori. It tells people who you are by sharing your connections with the people and places that are important to you. By writing the song, the band was able to acknowledge and further explore their heritage. It helped them connect to their whakapapa and whenua. A pepeha shows their connection to the physical and spiritual place they call home. This anthemic waiata links significant things – prestige, love, and family – with their environment and to their ancestors.

Matiu Walters said they wanted to try to write a pepeha for all New Zealanders, whether you were born there, or you moved there and decided to make Aotearoa your home.

He further stated that the goal of their music is to always transcend any categories and have it all “feeling-based” since it’s what they like about music: It makes you feel a certain way and you can succumb to that feeling and forget about everything else, all the small things in life and just go along with the song.

However, there are a couple of critical voices on the band’s use of music and Te Reo as a way of public reconnection arguing that songs such as “Pepeha“ disregard the sanctity of cultural practices and do not consider the right translation nor provide the listener with the deep meaning Māori terms can carry.

Would you agree with the critics? Let me know in the comments!

Book Review: Cousins by Patricia Grace

The novel Cousins by Patricia Grace was first published by Penguin New Zealand in 1992. It is about the lives of three cousins and how they grow up under different circumstances.

The first protagonist and the oldest cousin Mata is introduced in the first part of the book. Her tragic point of view is mostly curated from her childhood self and sometimes from her middle-aged point of view. She has a Māori mother and a Pākeha father. Mata grows up in a Girl’s Home and has a legal guardian because her father does not want her to grow up with her Māori side of the family, but also does not want to take care of her himself. She only is allowed to visit her family once, but she cannot really interact with them, because she understands neither the language nor their traditions. Mata cannot relate to her Māori side nor to the Pākeha side. She is very introverted and feels neglected because no one ever tried to get her out of this situation or tried to understand her.

“Everybody knew each other, knew how to finish each other’s sentences, knew what to do and say, belonged to each other. There was a secret to it that she knew nothing of.”

Chapter 16

The second protagonist, Makareta is introduced in the eighteenth chapter of the book. Her mother narrates this part of the story. Makareta is brought up as a ceremonial puhi, the Chosen One, and that’s the reason why she is very significant to her tribe, she is supposed to protect the tribe. Because of that she is raised differently than for example her younger cousin Missy. Makareta is privileged in that she receives extensive education, does not have to do hard work like Missy, and does not even need to brush her own hair. When Makareta is old enough she is supposed to marry someone from another tribe to connect their families. Makareta does not accept her fate, but rather decides to leave her family and become a nurse in the city she moves to.

“At school I saw my first language as something to be ashamed of, something that should be kept secret, a wrong punishable thing – even though another part of me told me that it was language, and all that want with it, that gave me to myself, made me know who I was.”

Chapter 41

The third and also the last cousin’s perspective is introduced in the thirty-first chapter.  The narrator appears to be the dead twin brother of Missy. In the second part, she speaks for herself (as does Makareta). She is the one to take the place of her cousin and becomes the Chosen One. She marries the man from the other tribe and becomes the caretaker of the land. Missy is the one who is left behind and always waits for her cousins to return.

“If you’re not the one meant your Aunty Anihera and your mother wouldn’t have done what they did. If you’re not the one meant your cousin wouldn’t have gone away. If you’re not the one meant it wouldn’t have been you standing in the house with the words coming from you without a doubt in your heart.”  

Chapter 42

I really enjoyed reading Cousins. It was my first ever reading experience reading a novel about Māori culture. Before, I didn’t know very much about it and it was really interesting. All three cousins have different beliefs and approach their culture, religion and simply life differently. This diversity has helped me understand the culture and its diaspora a lot better. I also really liked that Patricia Grace discusses aspects of activism, teaching Māori in schools, politics and the role of Māori women in her novel.

Patricia Grace’s Cousins has 264 pages and is available as a paperback (ISBN 978-0704343559) for less than 8 Euros.

Is the novel The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke by Tina Makereti really a must-read?

Anonymous review posted on behalf of one of the students

Note: The reviewer briefly discusses the novel’s ending.

The New Zealand writer Tina Makereti published her second novel, The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke, in 2018. It is about a Māori man who tells us about his life in the mid-19th century, from his tragic experiences at a young age to his global travels. The story mostly focusses on James’ life in London, where he meets many different people from different social levels. With some he finds friendship and love, with others disgrace and discomfort. The narrative of James Pōneke is very loosely based on a true story, which Makereti stumbled across in the form of a newspaper article. The novel contains many sensitive topics such as racism, rape, extreme homophobic violence and general violence.

A negative aspect I would like to talk about is the fact that the novel does not provide a trigger warning at the beginning. It contains a lot of violence in different forms, which could be harmful for some readers. Something else that might be viewed as negative is the fact that this novel does not have a happy ending. One could say that books always need happy endings, but I think that I would not have wanted this book to end on happy terms, or even imagine it to happen. Considering the various forms of discrimination and violence that Indigenous people historically had to endure, the unsanitized depiction of James’ struggles seems appropriate and convincing.

The main character’s emotions are relatable and also convincingly conveyed in Makereti’s narrative. Due to the many plot twists that are presented in the novel you never know what to expect, which makes reading this novel a real experience and adventure. I got drawn in, smiled on James’ incredible way of thinking and defending his honour (p. 112 et sqq.). My heart warmed due to the niceness of some people around James (p. 190 ff.). I cried as he lost something important to him (p. 234 et sqq.) and I felt the pain of one-sided love (p. 185). You feel all these emotions around James, which makes it harder but also easier to read this novel all at once.

The many topics Makereti chose to adress in this novel are all very well handled and put together. She does not make James himself all about his Indigenous self or him being gay the whole story. She blends his characteristics rather than reducing his personality to just one thing, which is often the case in books that include such topics. By highlighting different characteristics that make up his personality, the author allows the reader dig deep into his persona, understand why he acts the way he does, and connect to his emotions on a different level.

If I had to give this novel a rating, I would probably go with 4 ½ out of 5 stars. I really enjoyed reading this book, even when it was hard sometimes because of the depicted violence. I deducted half a point due to the missing trigger warning because I personally believe that some people could get triggered by the events that are adressed in this novel.

The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke can be found on Amazon with the ISBN-10: 1785631527 or ISBN-13: 978-1785631528 for 11,42€ in paperback format/4,86 € in Kindle format, or you can order it in your local bookstore.

The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke

A review of Tina Makereti’s latest novel, a book which focuses on the experiences of a Māori orphan

*Warning: contains spoilers*

The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke, written by Tina Makereti, narrates the live of Hemi/James, who showcases his experiences as an orphaned Māori boy in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and in London. His life seems to repeat itself. In the beginning of the novel, it becomes clear that he wants to find a place where he can stay and attain as much knowledge as possible. In the end, we also realize that all that Hemi wants is to find a place he can call home, and even though he did acquire the knowledge he longed for, he once again lost nearly everyone who played an important role in his life.

But my lips remained closed, and as the reciting and storytelling went on into the night I felt more and more the need to curl into the shadows. These were their stories of belonging, not mine. I properly understood this word ‘orphan’ for the first time then.

Chapter 3

Throughout the novel we witness Hemi gain friends and make acquaintances, yet he never really feels at home. He believes that he needs to distance himself and that his unrequited love for a man he meets in London is the reason he can never get too close to the latter and his partner. The only time that he does display his feelings, he sees this friendship fall apart.

But love doesn’t care for reality. Each morning he was there with me, in my arms, my desire a heat that would only leave me cold. I kept it from everyone, and it kept me from everyone.

Chapter 14

Hemi loses all his friends and also his lover Ethan (whom he meets on a ship that is later wrecked). In the end, he does not have anyone aside from the artist and his family. It was the artist who brought him to London, and his family who let him stay with them after his return to London. Hemi considers the family of the artist to be the closest people he has at this point in his life. Even though the artist brought him to London to be an exhibition piece at an art gallery about Māori culture, Hemi will always stay in his and his family’s debt.

I was a fool, I knew it to my core, and what’s more I suspected I brought ill-luck to all those who loved me. I had lost so many. The ones who remained untouched were protected by their station in life, their place in society so carefully constructed by people like them.

Chapter 19

In conclusion, I think that Tina Makereti successfully brings to life the story of a seemingly doomed orphan boy. The themes of despair and ill fate are especially prominent in the novel. It depicts not only the seemingly lost orphan boy, but also highlights all kinds of other lives that were influenced by industrialization. On an overarching level, Makereti shows how easily someone can drift away from their roots, in combination with the constant longing to truly belong somewhere.

Reference: Markereti, Tina. The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke. Hertfordshire, Lightning Books Ltd, 2019.

A Response to “In the Shadow Of Monte Cassino” by Lauren Keenan

It’s not easy to act according your parents’ will, especially when you do not know what secrets they live with.

In the short story “In the Shadow of Monte Cassino”, published in 2017 in Huia Short Stories 12 by Māori author Laruen Keenan, the journey of Eruera, a Māori man who reflects on his lifelong attempt to fulfil his father’s expectations, is described. Instead of focusing on himself, Eruera continues to base his life on his father’s judgements.

The only active part of the story is Eruera. He visits the battlefield in Italy where his father supposedly fought as soldier in the Second World War. As he walks towards Monte Cassino, his thoughts revolve around his late father and what the latter might say to him in this situation. When Eruera passes a cemetery, he coincidentally finds the grave of his uncle, at whom his late father was always angry. Now Eruera realises that his father never took part in WWII and just made it all up.

“Stupid, cheap map. He should have bought one from someone who spoke English while he was in Rome.”

(p. 71)

The story is told from Eruera’s point of view, but in the third person. Right from the beginning, I had a strange feeling that the main character has a really negative mindset in that sentence. As the story continued and Eruera made his way to Monte Cassino, I had the impression that the closer he got to the hill, the crazier his mind went. He is always looking for excuses not to climb up Monte Cassino. All these twists and turns are really well done by the author. When I read the story, I had an odd and intense feeling because he seemed stressed. At first I thought that he was looking forward to the trip, but when I looked at him more closely, I realised that his self-esteem decreased a bit every time he thought about his father (e.g. “Man up, boy, you wouldn’t lasted a day at Monte Cassino with that attitude.” p. 72). It seemed as though Eruera believed that no one respects him. Especially his own father was never proud of him, regardless of what he achieved.

In my opinion, the short story unrolls a lot of emotions from WWII. When we meet Eruera, he thinks he is the son of a Māori soldier who took part in the war to gain respect for his tribe, to be treated equally and to receive the full privilege of citizenship for his family. So Eruera has to respect his father and believes everything he says. Yet his father used to denigrate him by comparing him with his Uncle Gerry, who supposedly “died of shame after all these heroes came home. You’re just like your Uncle Gerry, both of you couldn’t have climbed Monte Cassino if you’d tried.” (p. 72) I strongly believe that is a reason why Eruera has such low self-esteem. Always being compared is hard, but being compared to someone who cannot climb up a hill is even worse. I suppose that the relationship between Eruera and his father was really toxic. As a result, he just remembers negative comments and bad comparisons. Even in the narrative present, when Eruera’s father is long dead, he feels the disappointment in every step he takes.

“Dad was long gone but Eruera still let him down.”

(p. 73)

After all the emotional ups and downs, this passage reveals that Eruera thinks he is failing and disappointing his father once again. It seems to me that he has the urge to show his father that he is capable of doing something right, like climbing Monte Cassino.

“Eruera should have paid better attention. He should have found out more about the war before dad dies.” (p. 72). On the one hand, Eruera remembers his father’s aggressive behaviour, on the other hand he misses him and regrets the time when he did not listen to his stories. I’m honestly surprised that Eruera’s feelings and his development could touch me so strongly. This turn of events throws a pitiful shadow on Eruera and makes him even smaller than he is. From time to time, his mind clears and he notices his surroundings. However, I guess Eruera is just looking for excuses not to climb the mountain.

In my opinion, the author is highly successful in creating a great tension. When I finally thought Eruera would climb up and feel relieved and happy, he entered the cemetery. Even though this moment was really dark, it also fascinated me. When Eruera recognized the name on the gravestone and found out what Uncle Gerry had done, it felt for me like Eruera’s world was falling apart because he finally understood why his grandparents had no contact to his father and why others gave him ugly nicknames.

I think Eruera must have been shocked at the first moment, but right after he likely felt relieved because he had uncovered the secret of his heroic father and lightened the big shadow hanging over him. To come back to my first impression of the short story, and having reread it, I feel like there is much to read between the lines. At first I thought that Eruera was a pitiful and sad man who has no goal, and only thinks about everything that has already happened, even imitating his father’s comments. From a more aware point of view I am certain that Eruera always had the strength to be himself, but was too afraid to be that person. So he hid behind the role of his father, but after discovering the big lie he grew up with, he finally understands that he is better than his father because at least he is honest.

Book Review of Patricia Grace’s Cousins

Cousins by New Zealand author Patricia Grace tells a story of three cousins growing up after the Second World War in New Zealand. At that time, many Maori had difficulties retaining their cultural identity as they migrated from the rural areas to the cities. The three cousins Mata, Makareka and Missy have different lives and experience very different upbringings and childhoods. What they have in common is that they are shaped by their belonging to an invaded people who struggle to preserve their own language and faith in their motherland.

As a young girl, Mata is led to believe that her mother has died, but in fact she left her family behind to start over. However, Mata’s mother soon becomes very ill and her family is unable to find Mata because she has already been handed over to the legal guardian who places her in an orphanage. Mata’s father is a Pakeha who is not there for her and abandons her. She frequently feels inferior and inadequate in the company of others. Another problem is that she is ashamed of her skin color and always feels out of place. 

Makareta is brought up by her grandmother and grows up understanding her culture and speaking Maori and also English fluently. It is no problem for her to find her way in the two environments. She becomes highly influential in activist Maori circles after rejecting a marriage arranged by her grandmother. The way I read it, this is where her success comes from.

Missy was raised by her Māori whānau and grows up in poverty, which influences her schooling and other aspects of her life. At the same time, she grows up in a strong Maori community. Her grandmother punishes Missy’s mother because she married an unsuitable man in her eyes. Because her grandmother strongly adheres to traditions and her mother rejects them, Missy and her siblings are in constant conflict. Missy has difficulties finding her way outside her community, despite the support of her family.

The book begins with Mata walking barefoot on a street at night, with no belongings except for a photo of her mother. Her story is told from the child’s point of view and in the first-person perspective of an older version of Mata. Significant parts of the narrative focus on the difficult circumstances that shape her life in the orphanage. When Mata is ten years old, she accidentally discovers her resemblance to Makareta. The orphanage reluctantly allows her to spend three weeks of holidays with her family. When she arrives, everything is very different from what Mata had expected. Keita, her grandmother, gives her a photo of her mother. Missy’s mother, Glory, shows Mata her mother’s grave and her ancestors. She doesn’t feel she belongs anywhere and this conflict runs through the book.

The book shows the lives of Mata, Makareta and Missy, three Maori cousins. The chapters are told from multiple perspectives, so that you get to know the three cousins from various angles and at different ages. Only a few memories remain of their brief interlude together. Since then they have gone separate and very different ways, but they cross paths again later in the novel.

Cousins is a thought-provoking book that reflects profound themes, such as cultural, material and emotional deprivation and its effects. On the other hand, the feeling of community and closeness with nature is constantly present, which creates beautiful emotions. The community also includes the dead and the ancestors, who also are present to support the living in the present. The book and the fates described are touching and made me emotional. For example, Mata has to deal with loss of cultural roots, loss of language and even an absence her own (Maori) name. 

Unfortunately, for the foreign reader it is hard to recognize the symbols of Maori culture which are presented. To really understand the meaning behind it, you need to have some kind of prior knowledge. Often the chapters are dragging and it becomes difficult to follow. As soon as you know the protagonists and can roughly understand what and why something is happening, it makes reading easier, but this took me a few chapters.  

I recommend this book to anyone interested in New Zealand, Maori culture and/or general identity conflicts. It seems to be a good read for young people, but also adults of any age. In summary, Cousins teaches you to understand and compare different realities and shows how small decisions can change your life.

Home and Uprooting in Kelly Joseph’s “Transient”


What does home mean to people?

Is it the place where one grew up? The place where one is living now? The place where one’s ancestors lived?

Or is home defined by the people with whom one lives together? Family. Friends. Neighbours. Those people surely are needed to make a simple geographical location into a home. Connection to a place is often tied to experiences, shared between a certain group of people.

Māori culture and literature can show us how ambivalent and varied the perception of home may be. As Polynesians, Māori have a nomadic history where mobility and the impetus to find a new home play a huge role. Even today, after living in Aotearoa for hundreds of years, the mythical home island of Hawaiki (where Māori originally came from) is central to Māori spirituality and folklore. The connection to one’s ancestors and family also is an important part of Māori culture. Whakapapa (genealogy) is an integral part of identity for Māori people.

“Transient” is a short story about the uprooting and feeling of disconnection a lot of Māori (and Indigenous people in general) are confronted with. It mostly takes place in New York and is written from the perspective of a Māori woman living in the US.

Deep down I ache constantly for home and family. I have flown back a few times but things have changed since I left. It’s clear to me that my homesickness is not just longing for a place; it’s a yearning for people and a time that have passed, that no longer exist and that can never be reached again.

(p. 147)

This part of the short story shows the struggle with being disconnected from the place where, and people with whom, you feel at home. Even though the protagonist has been living in the States for five years already, she is still homesick and feels foreign in her new “home”. This may also be connected to the struggle of all Māori people after the arrival of the people who are now called Pākehā. Like a lot of other Indigenous peoples, Māori had their home stolen (in a geographical and cultural sense). Their land was forcefully taken from them or was purloined through unfair contracts (most guarantees to Māori in those contracts were not maintained). Additionally, Māori people were (directly or indireclty) forced to live like Pākehā people did and were encouraged to abandon their spiritual beliefs. These experiences may have led Māori people to travel to other countries in the hope of finding a new home, a chance to get different tools to fight for their rights back in Aotearoa, or as a means of proving their worth (e.g. the Māori Battalion in the Second World War).

An uprooting is also shown in the short story through the waka huia, an item which may have been stolen and is now exhibited in the museum the protagonist decided to visit. A waka huia is an intimate object which contains personal treasures and is exchanged between different generations, families and tribes. It was often displayed hanging from the ceiling in traditional Māori whare (houses), hence part of a family’s home. In my opinion the waka huia symbolizes the violation of Māori people through colonialism and imperialism. Both the waka huia and the protagonist are uprooted from their homes and stuck in a foreign place. While one could argue that the protagonist is studying in the States of her own volition, I believe that it shows that even though Māori people aren’t direct colonial subjects in today’s world, the collective uprooting that was done to them in the past and the social and cultural problems caused by that still have considerable repercussions on contemporary Māori society.

In conclusion, I think that “Transient” does a good job of showing the relation of Māori to their home and the personal problems and feelings they are confronted with due to the continuous violent occupation of their home. It’s not possible to understand the problems Māori face in today’s world and the society of Aotearoa without understanding the connection between Māori and their home, which is why I believe that it’s important to read literature written by Māori authors.


Joseph, Kelly. 2003. “Transient”. In Huia Short Stories 5. Wellington: HUIA PUBLISHERS.

“He looked at me like a cold and thirsty sailor might look at a long hot mug of coffee spiked with whiskey”: Gaze and desire in Tina Makereti’s The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke

Tina Makereti’s 2018 novel The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke tells the story of a young Māori boy who travels to London to become part of an exhibition that displays Māori culture to an audience of Victorian England. It’s a book about identity, about belonging and unbelonging, about violence and humanity, and – what I want to focus on here – about gaze and desire.

The gaze is a motif that runs through the novel in a multitude of ways. The protagonist Hemi is confronted with being an outsider and Other throughout his childhood long before he even reaches London. His formative years are influenced by his experience of what it means to be looked at, to be studied closely, and to look at and actively perceive those around him in turn.

After arriving in London, Hemi soon becomes part of an exhibition arranged by his benefactor. He is the main spectacle, but he also always makes sure to watch and observe his audience. In London, he practises being both spectacle and spectator at zoos, in theatres and at shows (both high- and lowbrow), and in the streets. The centre of the Empire becomes the recipient of his gaze. The gaze can be understood as a form of colonial power, of violence and othering, and through Hemi we see a subversion of the power structure by altering the direction of looking.

It is only later when he meets his friend Billy, whom he regards as non-normative and – due to the relationship with his cross-dressing, perhaps trans-coded girlfriend Henry – as somewhat queer, that the gaze becomes loaded with desire and potential for Hemi. After he realises that Billy must have felt attracted to Henry when he still thought she was a boy, Hemi begins to question what he knows (and feels) about attraction and desire:

“It had been there from the start, I knew, but Henry’s story changed everything. Not everything I knew, but everything it was possible to feel. She had opened up a world in which Billy could look at a man and feel love, and act on it. A world in which I could do the same.”

(p. 157)

What we see here is Hemi’s sexual awakening happening in two directions. It is the real, almost tangible prospect of queerness that is revealed to him through Billy and Henry’s complex relationship with heteronormativity – despite what he knows about the taboo nature of homosexuality in Christianity. This is the first time that this kind of desire becomes a real option in Hemi’s mind.

The other, much more present realisation is one specifically related to Billy as a person: Hemi wants to share at least part of the intimacy Billy has with Henry, wants to be desired in the same way he slowly comes to understand he himself desires Billy:

“I was still curious about one thing. I had seen Billy gazing on her with as much devotion as I think one person could ever bestow on anybody, and I had a sudden desire to be the recipient of that gaze. What was the thing that made her irresistible to him, even dressed as she was?”


Perhaps for the first time, Hemi actively wants to be looked at, be perceived, because he wishes his desire to be reciprocated. Desire and gaze are related here, immediately, by Makereti’s word choice: Hemi thinks about Billy gazing at Henry, or alternatively looking at a man, and concludes that he wants to experience this as well, both actively and passively. Desire and gaze are intertwined for Hemi, to desire and want something means to see it, to experience it wholly through sight, through looking and examining it.

What starts as potential between Billy and Hemi and is ultimately left unrealised, is then further explored in Hemi’s relationship to sailor and former slave Ethan. The first time Hemi mentions Ethan, he says, “He saw me perhaps even before I saw myself. He knew me.” (p. 220), implicitly characterising their relationship as one filled with desire and longing because we have already encountered how Hemi expresses and understands (queer) desire through the gaze.  

We are further made to understand that to Hemi, desire is still something (perhaps inherently) ineffable, something that is explored through sensual experience rather than words and reason: “I told him my own small story of adventure and woe. All but my feelings for Billy, which were something I had not the language to reveal.” (p. 225)

This also separates Hemi’s past experiences with his unfulfilled desire for Billy from the new reality aboard the ship. Although he followed Billy there, he doesn’t bring their history into the newly developing relationship with Ethan.

This relationship unfolds in a series of moments of direct looking, watching, observing, and most importantly, secretly longing for each other:

“I remember that deep voice. The sureness of it. The deep swell of it. I began seeking him out.
‘And what of women, Ethan? Have you a wife?’
‘I’ve had women, but not a wife. I don’t know there is one for me, to tell the truth of it.’ He looked at me then, too long. Just a moment too long.”

(p. 226)

It is of course no accident that Ethan looks at Hemi and Hemi recognises this look immediately after Ethan admits to being a bachelor, possibly uninterested in women. The gaze doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it is employed as a deliberate tool of communication, an encoded expression of desire.

When Hemi starts to look back at Ethan, he tells the reader explicitly what he sees, inviting us to witness his perception of Ethan, taking us with him on the road to desire:

“Ethan […] began climbing the rigging, his muscles working under a sheen of sweat, the evening light glancing off just so.
I became his disciple, watching my new friend far too often and at too much length. And when I saw him look back I didn’t trust it for a long time – I thought it might be my own feelings clouding my perception. A look that lingers too long is not enough to mean anything, and yet I wanted it to.”

(p. 226)

Hemi still hesitates because although he knows how to read a gaze as a deliberate expression of desire, he has no way of knowing if it was intended this way. The uncertainty and anxiety over his own feelings and whether they may be reciprocated mirrors his past with Billy, but this time they culminate in a scene charged with anticipation and, for the first time, certainty of mutuality:

“As was my custom, I stole glances, reminding myself not to stare too long. We talked to the other men at the table, laughed a bit, chewed and drank, and looked.  I watched his lips as he chewed, the way his throat flexed to swallow. And that was when I saw it: his eyes ran slowly down the length of my face, lingered at my neck, and rose to meet my own again. It was a caress, the way that look played over me. And I knew. What had seemed an impossibility slowly became imaginable, probable even, if only I could cross that space between us.”

(p. 227)

Again, Hemi lets us take part in what he sees, his desire becomes palpable for the reader – and finally he realises with certainty that his feelings are returned. It is still only through recognition of the gaze (rather than an explicit exchange of words or more obvious signs) that he understands what he hoped for has become reality. He is the recipient of Ethan’s gaze.

This becomes even more tangible in the next line: I came to know my own desire in my recognition of his. Ethan looked at me like a cold and thirsty sailor might look at a long hot mug of coffee spiked with whiskey. (p. 227) The state of being both active and passive in the act of gazing makes Hemi fully understand his own desire, the reflection of the gaze makes the act of gazing an unquestionable reality. The way that Ethan looks at him tells him all he needs to know; he is desired, he is wanted.

This sentiment is mirrored once the two of them actually have sex and Hemi thinks: “I felt his need as if it were my own, but then it was my own.” (p. 228) Reciprocation and reflection is what characterises their relationship more than anything else, starting with the gaze and ending in a fulfilled physical relationship.

Eventually though, Hemi and Ethan are found out because someone saw them having sex. Their punishment is harsh and violent. What brought them together in one way – beeing seen – is ultimately also what tears their brief relationship apart. We are reminded that the act of seeing, observing and watching is still also a tool of power, both colonial and heteronormative. To be hidden from the gaze is a privilege the two of them are not afforded.

This is made even clearer after Hemi survives the shipwreck and eventually goes to inspect the dead bodies of those who didn’t:

“On the final day I went down to greet my brothers out of some sense of duty. I shouldn’t have. Ethan was grey and blue and bloated, only half of his face and one of his arms intact, but I knew it was him.”

(p. 241)

To see, to know, to experience is not always preferable to being in the dark about something. On the contrary, it can be traumatic and horrifying. Seeing, experiencing and knowing are all in themselves ambivalent and not just expressions of desire as they were for Hemi and Ethan before, they can also be acts of violence, both implicit and explicit.

In sum, Tina Makereti constructs desire almost exclusively through the act of gazing, exploring the relationship between the two and where they intersect in the characters to whom Hemi is closest. The gaze is a tool of colonial power, of othering and of violence, but it also serves as a unique encoded love language that develops alongside Hemi’s coming-of-age.


Makereti, Tina. The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke. Hertfordshire, Lightning Books Ltd, 2019.

Misplacement in Kelly Joseph’s “Transient”

Short story: Kelly Joseph – “Transient” (Huia Short Stories 5, 2003)

Belonging and misplacement are well-known feelings, I believe. At some point in life everyone has experienced the sense of being in the right or wrong place, even if it is just at a party or a friend’s house, where you don´t feel comfortable or, on the contrary, almost like being at home. In the context of our seminar Indigenous Literature from New Zealand – Roots and Routes, we read several secondary texts and other works which discuss misplacement in Māori literature. However, one short story was especially fitting in my opinion for this seminar. “Transient”, written by Kelly Joseph, draws connections between the two main topics of roots and routes. The story specifies those concepts by pointing out that roots do not only refer to your origin but also may highlight a sense of misplacement at the same time.

Misplacement was one of the subtopics in our seminar, yet I must admit that, until we read “Transient”, I never really understood the extent of feeling lost or out of place. Kelly Joseph manages to convey the importance of belonging and roots as anchors within three short pages. She describes the journey of a young woman from Taranaki, wandering through the streets of Manhattan. On her way to the Metropolitan Museum, she encounters a homeless man and gives him some change. Inside the museum she wanders around without a map and comes across an empty waka huia. The protagonist cries for the ‘lost treasure’, which is “out of place in this foreign land” (p. 149). After the same homeless man from the beginning hands her a handkerchief, she makes the deliberate decision of booking a one-way ticket home.

When I started reading the short story, I found it quite sombre. As the first-person narrator describes the “thick humidity” and how “oppressive and disorientating” (p. 147) the setting of Manhattan seems, the reader is able to imagine what the protagonist means with the description of being crushed (cf. p. 147). However, the feeling of misplacement is especially noticeable on page 147, when the protagonist acknowledges: “Now I’m lost.” Further into the story, the protagonist emphasizes a lack of belonging or identification in the context of the “displaced objects” which appear “out of place in this foreign land” (p. 149).

As a teen, I always enjoyed trips to museums since they provided new insights to other cultures and historical periods which we did not experience ourselves. However, based on my undergraduate studies and particularly this seminar, I started to understand more and more that exhibiting objects of foreign cultures is an issue worth investigating further. I started to ponder: “Where do these objects come from?”, “Who gave the museum the right to exhibit it and not return it to its rightful place where it belongs?”. Even though these questions are not answered in the short story, it nevertheeless does provide us with enough insights to understand why we should look upon exhibited cultural objects with more care and consideration.

The perception of the protagonist is that the waka huia (like other exhibited objects) is “lost to its people” (p. 149). They belong to the culture of their people and are out of place in the foreign museum in which they are exhibited. This sense of belonging to a community is also highlighted earlier when she says: “[H]omesickness is not just a longing for a place; it’s a yearning for people” (p. 147). She herself feels like she does not belong where she is right now. As the protagonist and a human being, she has the choice of where she locates herself, even though it has taken her several years to realise the necessary actions she must take to feel at home again. The objects in the exhibition do not have the same sort of agency, which might be a reason for her tears when she grieves for the ‘lost objects’.

As I mentioned earlier, a homeless man hands her a handkerchief as she cries in front of the empty waka huia. This emptiness of the cultural object, which traditionally symbolizes relationships, can be seen as a mirror of the protagonist’s feeling of emptiness and misplacement. The homeless man is the only one who acknowledges her crying and takes action to ease her loneliness. Both characters are seen as outsiders to society, which leads to isolation and a lack of interactions with others. This isolation finds relief when the protagonist acknowledges her unwellness in the last sentence: “The following day I book a one-way ticket home.” Since it is a one-way ticket, it is clear that she does not have any intentions of straying too far from her roots any time soon again.

In the light of what I wrote earlier, more specifically the fact that I was not aware of the range which the sense of misplacement could reach, it is remarkable how thoroughly “Transient” points out and highlights the depth of feelings associated with misplacement and still offers me as the reader to interpret the short story based on my own individual experiences. Disorientating, lost, homesickness are all words that I now associate with this short story. Those words remind me that we belong somewhere, even if the process of realising takes us five years, just as the protagonist of Joseph’s story. However, just like the girl from Taranaki, we have the agency to lead our routes back to our roots. Towards the place where we feel like we belong.