The national cinema of any country is largely responsible for the self-definition of the nation's identity and culture. In nations such as Australia and New Zealand, which (in global terms) are relatively young in terms of cultural and technological development, the creation of an appropriate national myth lies largely in the hands of the cinema.
The films of each of these nations can be seen, possibly even more so than the nation's literary traditions (which have defined the cultures of the more established nations), to define the nation's cultural traditions and the national archetypal characters.
Now, while Australian and New Zealand cinematic traditions appear to diverge both from the traditional Hollywood mould and from each other, comparisons between themes presented in the films of each of the Australasian nations reveal many similarities between these powerful national cinemas.
Both Australian and New Zealand cinema have undergone periods of dramatic change, led mostly by shifting views regarding our association with Britain. Since Australia and New Zealand are, at the moment, both Commonwealth nations (part of the Empire), the cultural products created locally were often tainted by foreign cultural influences. This is known as "the cultural cringe," since Australian and New Zealand publics often preferred British and/or American products over those created here.
During the 1970s (a period known as Australia's cinematic Renaissance) though, local films reflected many changes in our belief systems. Most notably, the mythological Australian anti-authoritarian, anti-British outlook was brought to the fore in films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Gallipoli (1981). This marked the beginning of a purely Australian cinema.
New Zealand's cinematic/cultural awakening came much later. While New Zealand is a cinema-loving nation (the average New Zealander visiting the cinema 20 times a year (Neil, S. in Cinema of Unease)), it too was overcome by a cultural cringe until the late 1980s, when locals began favoring the local product. An anti-authoritarian strain of films also marked New Zealand's transition towards the achievement of a unique local product (such as Braindead (1992).
Other similarities between New Zealand and Australian cinema are their focus on discovery, exploration and the inter-relationship between the indigenous peoples and the "newcomers." Since both nations have been discovered (by Westerns) in the last 210 years or so, the vast, unconquerable landscape, endless unpredictable roads and clashing cultures emanate throughout both nation's films. Many of the recent Australian or New Zealand films convey a sense of the grandeur of the landscape, portraying the white man's attempts to conquer it (and its people) as futile and absurd often leading to a sense of hopeless isolation or, more common in New Zealand cinema, madness.
Stylistically, both nations have, of late, created works that feel very similar. Certainly, with the exception of the quirky, carnivalesque Australian Post New Wave products (Priscilla, Strictly Ballroom, Muriel's Wedding), both nations have tended to favor a dark, social realist mise-en-scene, which nevertheless abounds in the unusual, the spiritual and the surreal. Films such as Australia's Romper Stomper (1992) and New Zealand's The Piano (1994), while completely different in content, share certain dark, surreal elements that are juxtaposed against social realist themes.
Certainly, both national cinema's are vastly different, reflecting the differences between Australia and New Zealand. They do, however, share many thematic (and, lately, stylistic) elements that have resulted from each nation's similar cultural birth and rebirth.