'Don't Talk about Me ... like I'm Not Here: Disability in Australian National Cinema

Article excerpt

For Heather Rose (1966-2002)

Abstract

DISABILITY IS A CENTRAL CULTURAL IDENTITY and category in Australia, but this is not often realized. We seek to make a contribution to conversations and critical analyses of disability in Australian culture through an exploration of a privileged national cultural form, namely film. The trope of disability looms large in late twentieth century Australian cinema, and yet cultural comment on these 'disabled' scripts and performances has not yet considered a disabilities studies perspective. Accordingly, in this article we combine our different perspectives on disability and film into an account of how specific films use disability. In particular, we analyse key films from the 1990s as examples of powerful displays of bodies and personhood.

Ada: Down there everything is so still and silent that it lulls me to sleep. It is a weird lullaby and so it is; it is mine ...

The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)

The Story So Far

In this piece, we explore the representation of disability in Australian national cinema. Disability is central to our society, and its power relations, as disability studies and disability movements have shown. (1) Disability is also central to our culture: its representations organize key axes of power with respect to status, wealth, gender, identity, bodies, life and death. Narratives of disability structure our cultural texts and practices, evident in film as much as other media, literary and artistic forms. (2)

Surprisingly critics, scholars and filmmakers have been slow to recognize disability's centrality. (3) Accordingly, we offer some reflections on disability in Australian national cinema. Cinema has played an important role, if not at times a privileged role, in culture and identity. Much criticism has sought to understand this: to de-naturalize, analyse, understand, and then resignify, as shown in work on femininity, masculinity, whiteness, the suburban, indigeneity and ethnicity in Australian cinema. What then of the role of disability in national cinema, and the ties that it binds?

To explore the representation of disability in Australian cinema, we draw on the work of international theorists of culture, film, and disability, such as Norden, Darke, and others. (4) The specific nation-ness of film has become a messy business. What is national in Australian cinema, (5) given the forces of globalization, is an ongoing debate among cultural theorists (6) and it is in these national and international mediascapes, industry and textual circuits that Australian films are produced and received, and demythologized and re-mythologized (7)--as Australian Film Commission publications on Australian 'cinema successes' of the 1990s illustrate. (8) Similarly contemporary formations of disability in Australia, as well as disability culture, are very much internationally shaped and conditioned.

Disability has been an abiding topic in Australian films themselves, and it has received occasional mentions in film and cultural criticism. An important pioneering treatment is Elizabeth Ferrier's examination of the trope of creative disabilities. (9) Ferrier opens up the question of the role of disability in Australian film's most international phase so far, the 1990s. Ferrier argues that a set of Australian films of this period--including Proof (Jocelyn Moorhouse, 1991), Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1992), Bad Boy Bubby (Rolf de Heer, 1993), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephen Elliot, 1994), Muriel's Wedding (P.J. Hogan, 1994), Cosi (Mark Joffe, 1996), Lilian's Story (Jerzy Domaradski, 1995), and the NZ productions An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990) and The Piano--share a common element: the depiction of 'a disadvantaged individual overcoming setbacks through the passionate and eccentric expression of his creativity'. (10) Ferrier suggests that given a 'rich narrative tradition' of 'disablement, madness and eccentricity' in Australian narrative since the nineteenth century, 'the recurrence of bizarre, eccentric characters in contemporary Australian films is not surprising'. …