Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore" (PBS, Sept. 5-7, nightly 9-11
p.m., check local listings) is a love letter from renowned art
critic Robert Hughes to his native land. "With a few recriminations,
as there tend to be in love letters," he added in a recent
Mr. Hughes is still an Australian citizen, though he has lived
and worked in the United States since 1963, writing for Time
magazine, and producing 16 books and dozens of TV documentaries
mainly for BBC and other British companies.
His is a powerful voice in the art world, sometimes irascible,
but always perceptive. His brilliant commentaries on the
relationship of art to the culture from which it comes have won him
Hughes became known to a vast American audience in 1981 with his
television series on modern and contemporary art, "The Shock of the
New," seen by some 52 million people around the globe.
Now he focuses on his own country - one he says has developed a
high level of civilization and yet still labors under the illusions
of an 18th-century monarchy.
A devoted republican, he investigates the Australian republican
movement for home rule in the course of this fascinating six-hour
documentary that covers much of the continent's culture: history,
industry, farming, mining, art, education, politics, and social
It is a personal film in many ways. It was made as he was
recovering from a car accident on a bleak Australian highway. It
took extra fortitude and dedication to make the film, and the moving
and meaningful results are well worth the effort.
"I'm always going on about how I feel like an Australian, but
what does it mean to feel like an Australian?" he says via telephone
from New York. "[Making this film] was in part to sketch an answer
to that - to give myself an opportunity to say something coherent
about the country and the people from which I come - warts and all."
The film is no reinforcement of the "Crocodile Dundee"
stereotype. Nor is it, like so many documentaries about Australia, a
portrait of the animal life. Instead, it is a complex picture of a
people and of a country that is itself a continent - largely an
uninhabitable wasteland in the interior, with one-third of its
population (about 19 million) living within a 15-minute drive of the
"It is very different from the picture Americans have of
Australia," Hughes says. "America and Australia have some
similarities, because they do share an English heritage. But they
are very different.... One of the biggest differences is in their
founding ethos. Australia began as a jail and America began as a
series of attempts at Utopia."
Another big difference is the way Americans look at empty spaces -
in America, great spaces suggest hope and faith in the future, he