THE FILMS THEY LIST, made between 1970 and 1987, tend 'to be instructive or didactic' in their representation of social problems. (2) Three more recent films, The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1997), Head On (Ana Kokkinos, 1998), and Yolngu Boy (Stephen Johnson, 2001), represent marginalized people in contemporary Australia, but are hardly didactic. Instead, they can be positioned alongside a new and global cycle of realism in Western cinema of the 1990s. Julia Hallam describes the way that films like Boyz N the Hood (John singleton, 1991), Once Were Warriors (Lee Tamahori, 1994) and La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995) 'show the effects of environmental factors on the depiction of character through depictions that emphasize the relationship between location and identity'. (3) These local realisms offset the universal realism of Hollywood cinema. Its characters are men who play out 'themes of entrapment and containment, frustrated aspiration and lack of hope for the future'. (4) The brothers in The Boys, Ari in Head On and the blood brothers in Yolngu Boy also configure a dialectic between themselves and their place in the world, between displacement and ambition, hopelessness and hope.
When not interested in the verisimilitude of the cinematic apparatus itself, cinema theory has usually preferred formalist versions of realism. From the influential writings of Eisenstein to the Brechtian critiques of the 1960s and 1970s, the question of a generic realism has been subsumed to debates about style. (5) Today, the advent of digital technology has rendered the distinction between style and content irrelevant, collapsing the distance between the camera and its subject. Formalism is now a term synonymous with modernity, while a postmodern and global cinema demands new regimes of analysis. Hallam's description of social realism is not a formalism, instead resembling the anti-formalism of Brecht's theoretical rival, Gyorgy Lukacs. This Hungarian politician considered social realism to be that which revealed the historical conditions for its own narrative. (6) When Hallam points to the configurations of disempowerment, identity and place that make up contemporary realism, she is specifying the conditions of life in a increasingly globalized world. It is realism's current role to narrate these changed historical circumstances, but in a local context.
These three Australian films are concerned both with place, and with the masculine subjects of these places. Hallam describes 'the displacement and alienation of masculine identities' that have suffered 'the effects of economic restructuring' in the new global realism. (7) Making the transition to manhood is a central problem for the Australian characters, who are disempowered by their alienation from established social structures. The brothers in The Boys and Ari (Alex Dimitriades) in Head On still live at home because unemployment and poverty keeps them there. In Yolngu Boy, Botj (Garritjpi Garawirrtja) is estranged from his own community after being imprisoned in Darwin. While Botj is caught in a cycle of addiction and despair, Milika (Buwata Mununggurr) aspires to be a great footballer. Lorrpu (Buywarri Mununggurr) is instead tied to the community, Following the 'right way' to manhood. Leonie Rutherford has pointed out the 'differential masculinities' at work in Yolngu Boy, which are symptomatic of the transforming place of Aboriginal men in contemporary Australia. (8) The three characters symbolize the different options open to these men.
The problem with having an exclusively masculine subject at the centre of such realism lies in the potential for heroic narrative to overcome its generic and socially relevant qualities. This contradiction turned up when some indigenous audiences saw Yolngu Boy. They thought that the actor who dies of petrol sniffing had in fact been resurrected when he returned to the community. The moral message that had accompanied petrol sniffing on screen was overwritten by his reappearance off screen. …