Social Realism in Australian Film
Published on: September 25, 1998
Australian filmmakers have a long tradition in painting their subject matter in a social realist style that accentuates the nation's sparse, infinite rural plains and its dramatic juxtaposition with the cold, unromantic greys of our confronting urban centres.
The history of social realist style in cinema extends back to the Italian Neo-Realist movement epitomised by the naturalistic, substance-over-style works of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and, to some extent, Federico Fellini. In the context of Australian cinema, its roots can more appropriately be found in the industry's extensive newsreel experience and in the early development of our national cinema, in which a great degree of focus was placed on conveying the unforgivable grandeur of Australia's bushland.
The bush and its people became a significant icon that has transcended the cinematic medium to become a leading Australian stereotype. Since a large number of the films made during Australia's New Wave era were based in history, and since they shared a similar, realist style, they shaped many people's perceptions of the nation's identity. Social realist films, by nature, appear 'realistic'. They are defined by properties such as naturalistic acting, appearing low-budget, with a low-key mise-en-scene, of possessing a traditional, linear narrative and of being concerned with the mundane, the everyday, and with criticism of such. It is not surprising, then, that films such as Sunday Too Far Away (1975), Puberty Blues (1981), My Brilliant Career (1949) and Going Down (1983) have more-or-less defined our national image, since the increasingly representational Babe (1996), Angel Baby (1995), The Piano (1993), Mad Max (1979) and Strictly Ballroom (1992) appear far more distant from reality.
Social realist cinema is often inspired by true stories or situations that a filmmaker feels passionate about commenting on. While representational, expressionistic works shroud their social commentary within a deeper, more elusive sub-text, allowing filmmakers to tackle significant issues without threatening the audience or 'the establishment', social realist films strike at such issues front on. Essentially, cinematic realism maintains its social criticism at the level of the text. Indeed, social issues, their reform and the exploration of aspects of the human spirit are often the central focus in social realist pieces.
Such works are unsentimental in nature, tackling real issues from the audience's eye level. They avoid the blinding gloss that can obscure the central theme of some big-budget films by taking a more streetwise approach, with a focus on realistic dialogue and rehearsed but seemingly impromptu performances. When done well, social realist cinema is confronting to say the least. When directed and performed well, its centre becomes palpable, affecting and moving. Such is the power of a well-angled mirror of reality.