Sheep and the Australian Cinema

Deb Verhoeven,
Sheep and the Australian Cinema.
Melbourne University Press, 2006.
ISBN: 0 522 85240 8
Au$49.95 (pb)
Au$39.95 (eBook)
(Review copy supplied by Melbourne University Press)

This writer’s style is not for everyone: however, it is a style that brilliantly echoes its subject matter. Like the sheep which pour in masses across Australian screens, words and phrases pour across the page, meanings jostling in repetition and restatement, with the word plays (puns and epigrams, sometimes in brackets) imitating those sheep that leap up unexpectedly from the flock, drawing attention to themselves momentarily before sinking back into the mass.

For a patient reader, the meaning accumulates and progresses. The opening chapter sets the scene – and raises the fundamental question of the definition of the ‘national’ in Australian cinema. Sheep figure endlessly in Australian film, both as a fundamental and completely physical aspect of the ‘scene’, and as some sort of representation of the national imaginary. Verhoeven, however, sees this representation as ambivalent – both representing national creativity and abundance, and at the same time calling origins into question. The theoretical underpinnings of the argument are presented in Part 1, moving from the general (Heidegger, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari) to those particularly concerned with theorising the relation between animals and people (Lippit, Aubron, Worth and Adair). Her project is then summed up:

The sheep films can be seen to contemplate how national difference can be defined within the context of repetitive sameness, hinting at misgivings and anxieties about the nationalising project so often celebrated in the Australian cinema. (42)

Part 2 applies these concepts to Ken G. Hall’s The Squatter’s Daughter (Australia 1933). Hall has been criticised repeatedly since the 1960s, with critics comparing his films unfavourably with those of Hollywood. His failure is two-fold: his films do not satisfy those who want Australian films to meet the universal standards set by Hollywood, and for those who seek rather an Australian national cinema in opposition to Hollywood he lacks originality and consequently fails to advance ‘the nationalising project.’ Hall himself, however, judged his film rather against its Australian precursors (Verhoeven discusses novels, stage plays and one earlier film) and against his idea of the real Australia. Most contemporary critics also privileged these standards, and found much to praise in the film. Verhoeven stands to the side of this debate, more concerned with how the forms of representation that Hall chooses (playing with concepts of disability, sacrifice, eugenics, inheritance, twins and clones) construct a particular form of national identity, and close off other sites of representation (for instance by reducing the aboriginal boundary riders to pure spectacle, as the gum-leaf band).

Part 3 explores Ralph Smart’s Bitter Springs (UK/Australia 1950), produced for Ealing Studios. The debate about this film centred around the indigenous actors whose performances were at the heart of the story: it once again concerned both specific practices (the treatment of the indigenous actors both on and off the set, and the rates of pay they received) as well as aspects of representation (in particular the ambiguous and unsettling assimilationist ending). Verhoeven draws attention to the implicit parallels assumed by many critics between these actors (not named in the credits, and described as ‘natural’ performers – not merely untrained but somehow expressing an inherent aspect of their being) and the similarly ‘natural’ performers, the sheep. This leads to a brief comparison with the ultimate sheep performers – in Chris Noonan’s Babe (Australia/US 1995). Again, she stands to the side of the debate, linking it constantly with the nationalising project already proposed in Part 2.

This book provides the most detailed analysis yet of these two key films. It is also an original and intriguing take on a long-standing argument about the place of film in Australia’s national imaginary. It deserves to be widely read, and hopefully it will also provoke debate on these important issues.

Ina Bertrand

Created on: Thursday, 9 November 2006

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →