Magazine article Metro Magazine

Wrong Side of the Road

Magazine article Metro Magazine

Wrong Side of the Road

Article excerpt

On its release in 1981, Ned Lander's Wrong Side of the Road won that year's Jury Prize at the Australian Film Institute Awards. Emphasising the film's status as a pre-eminent Australian production, the theorist and critic Sylvia Lawson, writing in 2013, called Wrong Side of the Road 'the best Australian film of 1981 and indeed of many other years'. (1) Progressing at a restrained pace, it breaks 'Hollywood conventions (which most Australian films obediently copy) about what constitutes a proper narrative focus', with the result that the film stands as 'something of an event in Australian cinema'. In this way, Wrong Side of the Road is the 'first narrative feature to take the experience of a contemporary Aboriginal group [of characters] as its theme instead of using them as contrasts or complements to the main action'. (2)

Specifically, the film features members of two Aboriginal bands--No Fixed Address and Us Mob--who travel within South Australia to perform their music. The resultant form is, typically, aligned within critical commentary with the genre of the road film. Such a description tends, however, to ignore the crucial place of music in the narrative. As Lander has said, the 'music was absolutely critical [to the film... I]t was very much through this energy coming out of the making and recording of the [bands'] music that the film grew'. (3) Attending to the place and function of music in the narrative points to the fact that Wrong Side of the Road can be considered a 'rockumentary', a form that combines contemporary music and documentary elements--in particular, in this case, features of dramatised documentary. Significantly, the resultant hybrid form is intricately associated in Wrong Side of the Road with the practice of cross-cultural collaboration between cast and crew members.

Cross-cultural collaboration

Writing about the contexts of Aboriginal representation, Marcia Langton has argued that white filmmakers can play a role in films about Aboriginal people if the filmmakers are willing to engage in meaningful cross-cultural interaction. She has referred to this process as the 'actual dialogue' that informs cross-cultural film production. (4) Echoing Langton's insights, Lander noted the 'very robust dialogue' that occurred between him and the Aboriginal participants during the making of the film. (5) In the early planning stages, the physical context for this dialogue was the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM), an organisation that, since 1975, has been administratively associated with the University of Adelaide.

Graeme Isaac, who co-produced the film, was a lecturer at CASM in the early 1980s. His background prior to his involvement with Wrong Side of the Road had been in theatre and music, including working with The Pram Factory, Circus Oz and various bands in Melbourne, among them The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band. While working at CASM, Isaac became frustrated with the difficulties associated with raising money for recording Aboriginal music; in particular, he perceived government funding at the time as supporting established white artists but not contemporary Aboriginal arts. The music industry also imposed constraints on funding. As Isaac has noted:

The various record companies that we went to put up a little money for demo recording, but basically were balking at the idea of putting any major money into a project where they had to merchandise a black band to a white audience in Australia [...] So it was out of frustration [stemming from this situation] that the idea for the film sort of grew. (6)

While at CASM, Isaac had invited No Fixed Address drummer and leader Bart Willoughby, who was studying there at the time, to a screening of Perry Henzell's The Harder They Come (1972), a sobering tale of the life of a reggae singer (played by Jimmy Cliff) in late 1970s Jamaica. The reggae featured in The Harder They Come as well as its raw aesthetics influenced aspects of the idea for a film then being formulated at CASM. …

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