The passage of time is often spatialised or stabilised through the image of the house; the dwelling endures (even if only in memory) and creates a sense of continuity between past and present.
– Elizabeth FerrierElizabeth Ferrier, “From Pleasure Homes to Bark Huts: Architectural Metaphors in Recent Australian Fiction”, Australian Literary Studies, vol.13, no.1, 1987, p.45.
A plethora of Australian features in the ’90s depict mature female characters venturing back to the homes of their youth in search of meaning and familial resolution in their sometimes troubled lives; films such as Hotel Sorrento (Richard Franklin, 1995), Lilian’s Story (Jerzy Domaradzki, 1995) and Vacant Possession (Margot Nash, 1995). In all these films, as with Radiance (Rachel Perkins, 1998), the ideals of stability and fixity often associated with the house are depicted as unattainable, leaving the characters ‘houseless’ – as opposed, necessarily, to homeless.That is if we take on Perkins’ notion of home as a set of relationships rather than a physical, spatial structure. See the interview with Perkins in this issue. Nonetheless the importance of the house itself, in enabling the central protagonists to palpably confront the past is of utmost personal significance. Both Vacant Possession and Radiance take the personal significance of this domestic sphere a step further; in each film the house becomes synonymous with the nation, and significant questions about the legitimacy of the foundations of the nation-state are posed. However, whereas Vacant Possession is overtly polemical in its message about home, belonging and its meanings for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians alike, Radiance seems to be working on a number of different levels.
After my first viewing of Radiance I imagined that this film concerning three sisters coming home could be set anywhere in the world, and that is how I approached the accompanying interview with Rachel Perkins. Radiance has frequently been viewed as a ‘universal story’ rather than as making any attempt to engage in an intercultural dialogue. This ultimately results in a superficial response to the film’s Aboriginality.According to Marcia Langton, ‘Aboriginality arises from the subjective experience of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people who engage in any intercultural dialogue, whether in lived experience or through a mediated experience such as a white person watching a program about Aboriginal people on television or reading a book’. Marcia Langton, Well I Heard it on the Radio and I Saw it on the Television, Australian Film Commission, Woolloomooloo, NSW, 1993, p.31. Radiance financier Andrew Myer, for instance, emphasises the universal appeal of the film and plays down its Aboriginal specificities:
The script deals with issues and themes common to all human beings: trust, love, truth – and the secrets of the past. It’s an Aboriginal story, because Louis originally wrote the play for three Aboriginal actors, but they could be three Caucasian women.From Andrew Urban’s site on Radiance: <http://www.urbancinefile.com.au/scripts/cinefile/Interviews.idc? Article_ID=1611> Accessed December 1998.
The last lines of Mark Judd’s review of Radiance dismiss its Aboriginal perspective as ‘mostly immaterial’ given its ‘universal story’:
… Incidentally, the sisters are Aborigines. This has some relevance, but is mostly immaterial. These are universal characters, in a universal story.Australian film database: <http://www.gumnut.com/ausfilms/cf_tag_verity_detail.cfm?ID=Radiance%20%281997%29> Accessed January 1999.
Is it possible, however, to disregard the socio-political implications of the fact that this is a story appropriated and directed by an Aboriginal woman about Aboriginal women – a highly significant event in itself? It seems counter-productive to overlook the specific socio-historical realities central to the story – the ‘stolen generation’ and the history of dispossession – which continue to resonate with painful urgency in Australian society today. Perhaps what Myer is suggesting is that Radiance can be fully appreciated by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians alike, without the white audience having to directly confront the past or being made to feel uncomfortable about their ‘white guilt’. Through the accessibility of Radiance – in its genre, style and humour – and its lack of a polemical tone, along with the way it has been cleverly marketed (as a ‘universal’ story which won’t subvert the safety and comfort of white Australia) it will no doubt be viewed by a far broader audience than other films which didactically deal with Aboriginal issues. However Radiance definitely cannot be a story about three Caucasian women as Andrew Myer has suggested. If we make that mistake then again we are looking at the film from within a colonial discourse and silencing the Aboriginal voice(s). Contrary to what many people have said about Radiance – ‘There are no socio-political undertones, just contemporary characters’Urban, op. cit. – I believe the film can be read as having strong socio-political undertones which I will attempt to illustrate through a brief discussion of its style and its use of the house as a metaphor for the nation. If we ignore this perspective of its agenda then we are denying its expression of Aboriginality and forcing an assimilationist perspective on the work.
The three central protagonists in Radiance, Nona, Mae and Cressy, have starkly differing relationships to the home of their youth, a bungalow on the remote Queensland coast where the ‘sisters’ reunite for their mother’s funeral. The youngest, Nona (Deborah Mailman), ran away to Sydney in her early teens but now, having just discovered she’s pregnant, wants to carry on the legacy of the family and have her baby in the house. Nona is also obsessed with finding her father – the ‘black prince’, as she calls him – or any possession signifying his existence. Her fond childhood memories of the ‘Queenslander’ and playing under it are the absolute antithesis to Cressy’s (Rachael Maza) horrifying memories spatialised through the image of the house. Cressy, we discover, is a product of the ‘stolen generation’. She has since ‘made it’ and become a diva, travelling from metropolis to metropolis. Both Nona and Cressy’s relationship with the house is a static or synchronic one, trapped in the time and space of the past. Mae (Trisha Morton-Thomas), on the other hand, is the backbone of stability in the family. She nursed their aging, ill mother until her deathThis pattern is also played out by Kate in Vacant Possession, Hilary in Hotel Sorrento and the Marcia Langton character in Tracey Moffatt’s short film Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989). and her relationship with the home is more of a diachronic one. This disparity in responses is elucidated when Nona impulsively goes under the house in search of any possession which will provide proof of her father’s existence. This action sparks Cressy’s graphically detailed description of how she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend at age twelve and subsequently brought Nona into the world. The rape took place under the house. In David Malouf’s work the dark space under the ‘Queenslander’ is endowed with both menacing and subliminal significance, and in Elizabeth Ferrier’s work it would be referred to as an anomalous zone or a boundary area.According to Ferrier, ‘Anomalous zones are boundary areas, such as the beach (neither land nor sea) or twilight, (neither day nor night) and are in many cultures associated with transgression of conventions, with mystery and contradiction.Areas of this kind in fiction are rooftops, towers, attics, underground rooms, wells’. op. cit. p.50. David Malouf tells us:
While the family house is described as an ordered, familiar space dominated by convention and clear boundaries, the area under it is an unstructured void, associated on the one hand with sexuality, freedom and mystery and yet also with darkness, fear and death. It is the area of illicit activity, representing all that is repressed in conventional social life: ‘under-the-house was another and always present dimension … For me … that underworld was full of threat.David Malouf, Johnno, Penguin, Melbourne, 1987, p.84.
‘Under-the-house’ doesn’t invoke the same menacing threat for Nona because she is still, at this point, naive to her violent origins. In Louis Nowra’s original play, Cressy’s description of the rape is graphically detailed. Director Rachel Perkins said she felt inclined to edit a lot of this material out because ‘we realised … a mother would never tell her daughter that amount of detail because she’d never subject her to the pain she went through to create her’.See interview with Perkins in this issue. This to me is a great example of the appropriation and subsequent feminisation of the script.
At first the house in Radiance seems to be symbolically entwined with the idea of the mother, and the irreverence the women show for her is variously depicted in the film. The sisters have a pitifully small wake (no-one but the three women attend the funeral service). Cressy suggests a toast to their dead mother, but Mae says, ‘You don’t toast the dead’. Nona replies; ‘No, you incinerate them …’Urban, op. cit. The irreverence the women show for their mother is also illustrated by the absurdly comic conversation which ensues after the women spill her ashes over the floor. The house, too, is eventually incinerated. As Radiance progresses we discover that the mother doesn’t legally own the house and the man who ‘gave’ it to her, a white bloke called Harry (who, it is implied, kept their mother in the house as his mistress), wants to reclaim the house now she has died. When the two eldest women discover this, it fundamentally changes their relationship to the house. Close to the end of the film, we see Cressy and Mae enter an almost trance-like state and set fire to the house. Arson is, in this context, the most symbolically destructive act; it resonates with a sense of emphatic finality. Nona is distraught about this impending annihilation because she still harbours the illusion the house can provide her with a sense of continuity between her childhood and the present. On a personal level, burning down the house can be regarded as a cathartic process of destroying the place in which these painful memories are housed. In Radiance, this destructive act can also be viewed as an attempt to undermine the patriarchal, colonial hegemony manifested both symbolically and literally in the house; a house significantly owned by an old white guy.
When I interviewed Perkins about the house-burning scene she said that the sisters ‘thought the house was home but actually home is in each other and the physical place has no meaning necessarily – a home needn’t be a house’.See interview with Perkins in this issue. Her comment is evidently an extension of the notion of a home as a set of relationships rather than a material/spatial structure. Of course a home needn’t be a house, but this house evidently still has significance for these women: it invokes such pain (in the case of Cressy) and joy (in the case of Nona) upon their return to it, and its calculated destruction elicits such a violent response. None of the women can be indifferent to it. Perhaps the act of arson is really a kind of symbolic overthrowing of the power relations manifested in this home; and if we extend the home to a metaphor for the nation, then the film can be read as an attempt to undermine the hegemony within the nation-state.
Louis Nowra’s original ending to his play saw the three women scatter in different directions, never to meet each other again; this seems a nihilistic and negative prescriptive for the future of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians alike. Perkins, however, transformed the ending of Nowra’s play, partly because, she says:
it’s indigenous and we wanted it to go out to the broadest audience possible. There’s so much of a perception that Aboriginal film is inaccessible because it’s Aboriginal and it’s boring and it’s too hard and [so] we deliberately approached it, to make it more … accessible, I suppose.See interview with Perkins in this issue.
Optimistically, and in contrast to the play, the film shows the three women reunited again, emphasising the importance of family, and perhaps of the larger Aboriginal Australian family by extension. The ending sees the women forsake the notion of stability and opt for the mobility and flexibility of the road in that fabulous purple Falcon – at least for the moment. Through this scene Radiance also ‘hints at a different connection that Aboriginal Australians have with the land, a bond not confined to the dream of owning a house’.Pamela Rabe, quoted in Claire Corbett, “Vacant Possession: Sacred Land and Haunted Houses”, Cinema Papers, no.104, June, 1995, p.18. Rabe’s comment, made in relation to Vacant Possession, seems appropriate in the context of Radiance.
In Vacant Possession, Lilian’s Story and “Choo, Choo, Choo, Choo”The second story in the tripartite feature beDevil (Tracey Moffatt, 1993). flashbacks are a fundamental way of creating the oneiric interior quality of these houses Significantly, Perkins chose not to use this technique. As she says, ‘it’s not about then it’s about now and what’s happening between the sisters, so going back then would have taken the emphasis off what was in the present’.See interview with Perkins in this issue. The implication of this comment takes on additional significance if we view it within the context of her earlier quote about Aboriginal film being ‘too hard’, because inevitably, it deals with the past. Perkins seems cognizant of the fact that in the current political climate if something is in the past then it can be positioned as no longer relevant so we can seek to ignore it; this strategy both denies our responsibility for past wrongs and the necessity to apologise. The importance Perkins places on the present is insightful, especially if we see this comment within the wider sociopolitical context, where the reconciliation process is stalled through the inability of our politicians and wider community to deal with the past. By locating the film in the present she is making the film relevant from within the current political framework, and thus on these grounds it cannot be ignored. What Perkins has achieved in this film is quite remarkable and perhaps quite radical – a film which, very quietly, drifts from the personal to the political and resonates with contemporary national significance.
Thanks to Carol Laseur and Tom O’Regan for their valuable comments and suggestions.
(This article was specially commissioned and not refereed.)
|1||Elizabeth Ferrier, “From Pleasure Homes to Bark Huts: Architectural Metaphors in Recent Australian Fiction”, Australian Literary Studies, vol.13, no.1, 1987, p.45.|
|2||That is if we take on Perkins’ notion of home as a set of relationships rather than a physical, spatial structure. See the interview with Perkins in this issue.|
|3||According to Marcia Langton, ‘Aboriginality arises from the subjective experience of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people who engage in any intercultural dialogue, whether in lived experience or through a mediated experience such as a white person watching a program about Aboriginal people on television or reading a book’. Marcia Langton, Well I Heard it on the Radio and I Saw it on the Television, Australian Film Commission, Woolloomooloo, NSW, 1993, p.31.|
|4||From Andrew Urban’s site on Radiance: <http://www.urbancinefile.com.au/scripts/cinefile/Interviews.idc? Article_ID=1611> Accessed December 1998.|
|5||Australian film database: <http://www.gumnut.com/ausfilms/cf_tag_verity_detail.cfm?ID=Radiance%20%281997%29> Accessed January 1999.|
|6||Urban, op. cit.|
|7||This pattern is also played out by Kate in Vacant Possession, Hilary in Hotel Sorrento and the Marcia Langton character in Tracey Moffatt’s short film Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989).|
|8||According to Ferrier, ‘Anomalous zones are boundary areas, such as the beach (neither land nor sea) or twilight, (neither day nor night) and are in many cultures associated with transgression of conventions, with mystery and contradiction.Areas of this kind in fiction are rooftops, towers, attics, underground rooms, wells’. op. cit. p.50.|
|9||David Malouf, Johnno, Penguin, Melbourne, 1987, p.84.|
|10||See interview with Perkins in this issue.|
|11||Urban, op. cit. The irreverence the women show for their mother is also illustrated by the absurdly comic conversation which ensues after the women spill her ashes over the floor.|
|12||See interview with Perkins in this issue.|
|13||See interview with Perkins in this issue.|
|14||Pamela Rabe, quoted in Claire Corbett, “Vacant Possession: Sacred Land and Haunted Houses”, Cinema Papers, no.104, June, 1995, p.18. Rabe’s comment, made in relation to Vacant Possession, seems appropriate in the context of Radiance.|
|15||The second story in the tripartite feature beDevil (Tracey Moffatt, 1993).|
|16||See interview with Perkins in this issue.|