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Films reflecting the migrant experience

23 February 20160 comments

Globally cinema has often used deeply emotional portrayals of the human spirit to explore the migrant experience, and in doing so create a platform for greater cultural understanding.

Migrant stories are inherently cinematic in their ability to weave together international settings, powerful characters and narrative arcs built around reinvention.

Migrant stories are explored through cinematic portrayals of the human spirit

Migrant stories are explored through cinematic portrayals of the human spirit

The latest of these films is the newly released and Oscar nominated ‘Brooklyn’, which follows a young Irish woman in her migration to New York in 1950.

The film reflects the deep loneliness that can be encountered when searching for a better life, and the difficulty in finding identity when the ties to a different perception of home are still prominent.

These themes of grappling with identity and the negotiations of assimilation are prominent in films centred on the migrant experience.

Australia has explored these themes through film, both through satirical humour and darker, honest examinations of the human spirit.

‘They’re a Weird Mob’ is the iconic mid-sixties film that explores the journey of an Italian migrant settling into Australian culture in comedic and relatable ways.

The film is a social commentary on 1960s working class society in Australia, and the irony in the concept that migrants should consider themselves lucky to live in Australia, despite the country being a country of migrants.

The success of the film may be because it was one of the first to accurately portray Australians views on migrants of the time and the difficulties associated with settling into a new and sometimes curious home.

Six years after ‘They’re a Weird Mob’ explored the migrant experience in Australia; ‘The Adventures of Barry McKenzie’ attempted to show what happens when a bogan leaves their shores.

The Australian film was released in 1972 and follows the idiotic adventures of a ‘yobbo’ that travels to the United Kingdom.

‘The Adventures of Barry McKenzie’ was the first film to surpass one million dollars in Australian box office receipts, which was perhaps based on the limitless offensiveness of the outlandish lead.

The film starred Barry Humphries in his first role as Dame Edna and Barry Crocker as ‘Bazza’, who travels overseas to advance his cultural education.

Bazza is an oblivious foreigner who wreaks havoc on a culture he neither respects nor understands and allowed viewers to reflect on their experiences when developing their own understanding of other cultures.

Despite the offensiveness of the film, it was ultimately a successful fearless parody of parochial Australians.

A far more serious look at the migrant experience is the 1996 film ‘Floating Life’, which depicts the ambivalences of migration in multiple and complex manners through following the Chen family in their move from Hong Kong to Australia.

Any mythical expectations that the Chens had in relation to their new ‘home’ are soon exposed, as they are thrust into the foreign environment of suburban Australia.

Very quickly they become victims of their own cultural ignorance and social marginality in their ‘alien’ surroundings.

The indeterminate and ‘floating’ identities of the characters show the difficulties of cultural assimilation and preservation of identity within the context of the migration process.

The array of films about migration throughout the world shows the utility of narrative media in providing a public forum for discussing cultural diversity.

However Alex First, a veteran film reviewer, sees Australian cinema as greatly lacking in honest reflections of the migrant experience.

“Australian cinema tends to portray migrants as one dimensional stereotypes, rather than multi-faceted human beings,” said Alex.

Alex, whose mother is from Hungary and father from Austria, views film as an opportunity to knock down stereotypes rather than facilitate them.

“Because film is the most popular medium it has the ability to influence thought arguably more so than any other medium,” said Alex.

“The Australian ethos is more influenced by migrants than ever before, who should be portrayed accurately. Our films should be about Australia and the people that live here.”

Alex, who currently works with a range of radio networks across Australia, has been a film reviewer for over thirty years.

“I haven’t seen any major change in films about migrants during my time as a reviewer,” said Alex.

He sees the solution in governments bodies and lead Australian film makers coming together to create a considered approach when representing Australia’s diverse culture.

“These films aren’t being made because people are gun shy about investing money in movies about minority groups, which may not make money,” said Alex.

“But talk to most refugees and migrants and they will have a very interesting story to tell about their lives, and the basis of any good movie is a good story.”


Ruby Brown
AMES Australia Staff Writer