This phrase could equally be used to describe Australian cinema at the moment. The Aussie outback has re-entered the cinematic spotlight with a couple of high-profile feature film releases: firstly Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek 2 and now Tracks, directed by John Curran and released nationally this week. Both films ask us to think about what it means to travel and know Australia and its landscape.
Tracks is an adaptation of the real-life memoir of Australian woman Robyn Davidson, which was first published in 1980. In 1977 Davidson, at the age of 27, trekked mostly solo from Alice Springs to the Western Australian coastline with the help of tamed camels.
Women in the outback
Davidson wrote an account of her experience for National Geographic magazine which made her personal journey famous. She was photographed on her trip at various stages by enamoured American photojournalist Rick Smolan. Mandy Walker’s cinematography draws upon these iconic 1970s images to set the visual tone of the film – an outsider’s perspective of an outsider.
Tracks – both the film and the memoir – can be read as a lively feminist retort to the long-standing canon of outback/ bush literature, where often the colonial white woman was pitted as civilised and lonely contrast to the rugged bushman, waiting sadly in the homestead for her husband to return a ‘droving.
Many bush narratives depicted the colonial woman as an unnatural presence, and one essentially endangered. So unlike the doomed girls in Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock, in Tracks we find a narrative in which the young woman can survive – and even thrive – in Australian nature. This is still rare in Australian cinema and literature and welcome to see.
Films set in the outback often focus on strangers moving problematically through this space – which of course reflects the experience of the majority of people who visit it. An opposition is usually set up between locals and travellers, which in the Wolf Creek series makes an Aussie pig and roo shooter rampage against international backpackers, or “vermin” as Mick calls them.
Part of his outrage comes from what he believes is the tourists' inability to understand place, but to range through looking for simple “thrill” and “adventure”. He even makes one poor British tourist undertake a perverse citizenship test, testing the man for knowledge of Australian culture and sports with the prize of remaining un-maimed.
The irony is that Mick himself does not even come from the outback he rampages through – in Wolf Creek 2 some unwitting policemen look at his license and notice that he has travelled a long distance. He is equally the tourist looking for “thrill” in the emptiness of the countryside.
On the tourist trail
Interestingly, in Tracks the tourists Davidson encounters fit into a similar representation.
While they are retro 1970s images, here they are shown as the ultimate rubberneckers: cameras out like paparazzi to capture images of the crazy camel lady. In their loud intrusive cars they are disrespectful of local custom and ignorant of the land they drive through at break-neck speed.
In one memorable scene Robyn’s Indigenous guide Eddie puts on a cynical performance to frighten them away, laughing with her at their stupidity. The tourist is the enemy, the person who will never “get” the outback.
Is Davidson also a silly tourist?
In Tracks we see that she understands herself differently from the rubberneckers. Her time spent in Indigenous communities and local camel trainers, and willingness to take on local knowledge and her slow journey à pied means that she can see the land differently.
In her memoir there is a beautiful passage about her newly enlightened perspective, which also harks to the Judeo-Christian Biblical tradition connecting desert journeys with introspection and personal growth:
"as I walked through that country, I was becoming involved with it in a most intense and yet not fully conscious way. The motions and patterns and connections of things became apparent on a gut level. I didn’t just see the animal tracks, I knew them. I didn’t just see the bird, I knew it in relationship to its actions and effects … a new plant would appear and I could perceive its association with other plants and animals in the overall pattern, its place."
I am usually sceptical of the clichéd traveller versus tourist distinction that appears in travel literature, as it is one that often smacks of class difference.
After all, the traveller is usually the more affluent figure who can afford to take time off from work, or not work at all. The poorer tourist only has limited time to experience a holiday, and therefore must work creatively to streamline travel experiences. Even young long-term backpackers usually come from relatively privileged backgrounds. In the Wolf Creek series the anger that Mick holds might also be about privilege and access.
Yet I see both Tracks and in Wolf Creek 2 as a kind of allegorical challenge that is being thrown out to the spectator, a.k.a. the virtual tourist. They both ask us to urgently consider how well we know Australia and place. They ask us to consider what the difference is between the conceptual “tourist” and the “traveller” and the ethical responsibilities that might lie between the two.
In an era of mass media and the “global village” the idea is that virtual travellers should be able to learn and understand local situations through reading, watching, acquiring knowledge. But is this really the case?
Another recent film, John Pilger’s 2013 documentary Utopia, also examines this issue with a more deliberate political focus. Pilger is also the traveller to central Australia, visiting remote communities to document systemic Indigenous inequality and highlight cases of extreme violence and false history against First Australians.
His journey into the outback to impoverished communities is juxtaposed with scenes at designer beachside homes in Sydney, facing the ocean and away from all social and political problems of the interior. He suggests that there is a divide that has not been overcome by the media in Australia (but rather that the media are part of the problem).
There is a truly horrifying moment where a contemporary tourist resort at Rottnest Island is exposed as repurposed Indigenous prison camp. Again the naïve tourist is placed within a narrative of shame, in this case through unwillingness to learn about history and politics.
Ultimately all three of these outback films propose that continuous learning, observation of the local and adaptation are the keys to survival, whether this means walking through the harsh landscape, battling a psycho killer or considering the urgent political responsibilities of a nation.