Prior to the 1970’s Australia was defined as a monocultural society – a society with only one culture – based on an essentialised Britishness. To be Australian was to be in possession of a national and not an ethnic identity. During this monocultural period, Australia’s quest for a national identity had been entirely in terms of Britishness, a quest that excluded the identities and interests of the vast numbers of immigrants to Australia throughout the twentieth century.
Consequently, prior to the 1970s, Australian film portrayed Australia in terms of a dominant ethnicity based on Anglo-Celtics.
Other ethnicities, especially those of European origin, were subordinated to this dominant culture, and defined in opposition to it, thus films made during the film renaissance of the 1970s “failed to project an image of Australia as a multiracial and multicultural nation despite the fact that multiculturalism had become the official policy of successive governments” (Stratton 1998, 134).
It wasn’t until the 1980s that nation building fell out of favour in the government funding of film and television and was replaced by a focus on multiculturalism.
The establishment of SBS television in the 1980s, specialising in multicultural programs, was an indication of government policy at the time. Shore clarifies that “the late twentieth-century world can be characterised as one profoundly fissured by nationality, ethnicity, race, class, gender and sexuality” (Ozseek 2000).
Ethnicities were no longer conformed to a unified idea of Australianness, but respected for their differences in order to allow them to play themselves out as a part of the pluralistic and hybrid character of the Australian nation.
Multiculturalism within Australian films offers its audiences an opportunity of recognising, as Australian, representations of social experience which are defined by their hybridity. Films such as Michael Jenkins’ The Heartbreak Kid (1993), Aleksi Vellis’ The Wog Boy (1999) and Kate Woods’ Looking for Alibrandi (2000) depict a nation of “elaborate patterns of difference” as well as a construction of unity.
In particular, Looking for Alibrandi’s Josephine Alibrandi (Pia Miranda) typifies the hybridised Australian negotiating a cultural space for herself within her Italian community that is also negotiating its form and significance across grids of racial and cultural diversity. Multicultural cinema deals with the overt theme of race and ethnicity, which is identified by discourses such as migration1, diaspora2, deracination3, the rediscovery of ethnic identity4, cultural conflict5, cultural misrecognition6, othering7, hybridisation8, generational conflict9 and old world versus new world10.
1Migration – the struggle to establish a life in a new country. 2Diaspora – the spread of an ethnic identity to many different parts of the world, due to migration of people out of an originating country. 3Deracination – the uprooting of people from their homeland. 4The rediscovery of ethnic identity – where a film explores the way a character can rediscover his or her original identity after assimilation into a new one. 5Cultural conflict – the conflict between two different cultures with different values and beliefs.
6Cultural misrecognition – the identification of aspects of another culture in terms of prevailing ideas circulating in one’s own culture. 7Othering – the confirmation of one’s own cultural identity by highlighting an aspect of another culture as different. 8Hybridisation – the construction of a cultural identity out of various aspects of different cultures. 9Generational conflict – the conflict between those born in a new culture, or those able to adapt to a new culture, with those who cannot adapt, or who, for various reason, choose not to adapt.
10Old World versus New World – Old World equates with an older version of Europe defined by tradition, religious belief and conformity, superstition, old ways, conservative, respectful, oriented to the past. In Old World, individuals are not free agents, but tied to family and tradition. New World equates with democratic ideals of the free individual, independent of family and tradition, sexually and politically liberated, progressive, changeable, upwardly mobile, future directed.
Hynes states that in Australian films concerned with migration, home and identity “youthful characters, while integral to the story, have tended to hover around the margins” (Hynes 2001, 280). In contrast, more recently, multicultural cinema has opted against using a mature adult as their dominant voice, choosing more youthful characters to communicate the complexities of previous similar multicultural films, but appealing to a younger culture.
For instance, Woods’ coming of age film, Looking for Alibrandi, centres on a 17-year-old female hybrid Australian who, overly conscious of her Italian heritage and her working class roots, craves popularity and acceptance amid her wealthy and elite peer group. Throughout these multiracial films the younger hybrid characters – the New World – challenge the ways and traditions of their older relatives – the Old World – in order to pursue an independent lifestyle, away from the pressures of the family and the cultural and ethnic ties that inevitably come with them.
Looking for Alibrandi is predominantly about a young first generation Australian, Josephine Alibrandi (Josie), coming to terms with her Italian heritage and identity, “… culture is nailed into you so deep you can’t escape it” (Woods 2000) Before she can successfully achieve an independent lifestyle she has to confront the stifling traditional beliefs of her Italian grandmother. Alibrandi’s chief motifs unite to create the overt premise communicating the importance of identity and a sense of place within a modernised Australia.
This is evidently more complicated for someone not only struggling within themselves but also within their specific ethnic community. In Looking for Alibrandi Josie’s concept of national identity centres on being Australian, which she sees as being rich, popular and socially accepted. Surrounded by Anglo-Celtic peers, while studying through scholarship at the prestigious St Martha’s Catholic school for girls, Josie sees the attributes of these girls as being central to “being Australian”.
While Australia is a multicultural society made up of many different races, within this film, in particular, the cultural differences are presented as more of a class based divide. Josie, the Italian-Australian, is juxtaposed with the character of Carly Bishop (Leeanna Walsman), an Anglo upper class Australian. It is Josie’s class insecurity that stops her from admitting her true feelings for the upper class John Barton, school captain at a wealthy boys Catholic high school and son of esteemed, wealthy Anglo-Celtic parents.
Josie desires the life of John Barton and would love to live a life in which people look up at her with envy. However, Josie is unaware of the great expectations placed upon John by his family and suicide seems the only way out for him. His death is an important part of Josie’s discovery process as she comes to realise that while she is supposedly deprived, she is also free to pursue any sort of life she wants. Additionally, meeting her father and forming a relationship with him provides Josie with the long awaited stable father figure who helps her make sense of her own identity and unique set of circumstances.
Throughout her life Josie has been considered an “outcast” in the eyes of her Italian community, and a “bastard” in the eyes of the Anglo-Celtic community. The long awaited presence of her father ultimately constructs a “new image” for Josie as she becomes proud and protective of his existence. Carla Fasano explains, “successive generations of Italian-Australian women appear to be inventing a new identity for themselves” (Saville 1995, 139), and for Josie these factors become vital in order for her to accept her personal and national identity.