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Hotel Coolgardie is an ugly film, but a revealing one
After being robbed in Bali, Finnish backpackers Stephie and Lina find themselves desperate for cash in Perth (never a good position to be in). Through an agency, they find jobs as barmaids at the Denver City Hotel in the remote mining town of Coolgardie.
Once there, they find themselves in a testosterone-and-booze-soaked milieu populated by rough as guts miners and local characters like the perpetually pissed “Canman”. Thrown in at the deep end, they’re given a brief handover by the departing British barmaids (the turnover rate is remarkably high) while the publican who hired them yells increasingly abusive advice and the local gentry try to woo them, having already laid bets on who will bed the newcomers first.
Hotel Coolgardie is an ugly film but a revealing one, uncovering the sexism, tribalism, and outright xenophobia that lies under the surface of the Australian “ocker” self image. Director Pete Gleeson adopts an observational, fly-on-the-wall approach, letting the events of the film play out for his camera without interfering. Largely, this consists of a number of men throwing their best double (or hell, even single) entendres at the pair, being gently rebuffed, and loudly complaining that they did nothing wrong.
There are points where the film becomes almost unbearably uncomfortable, as the locals try to see how far they can push their luck without straying across the line into outright sexual assault – it’s clear at a couple of points that the presence of Gleeson and his camera probably stopped something terrible from happening. Stephie and Lina find no succor with the few women we meet, either. Their foreignness makes them suspect. They don’t “get the joke” and their very discomfort with their treatment only alienates them more. As the film progresses and it becomes clear that the behaviour we’re seeing is not just some heavy handed hazing but the actual character of the bar and its patrons writ large, Hotel Coolgardie becomes downright sinister, a kind of verite Wake in Fright.
The larger picture being painted is one of incredible social and cultural isolation. The Coolgardie we see is a flyspeck on the map; as portrayed in the film, there is literally no life to the town outside the pub, no event more noteworthy than the arrival of fresh meat behind the bar (a fact advertised on chalkboard!), nothing to do but drink. In a charitable moment you might see the sleazier characters here as mere products of a brutal environment, robbed of any chance of socialisation by their circumstances. Then one of them is being forcibly ejected from the girls’ room after feigning being too drunk to leave, and it all snaps back into focus – these are awful people.
It’s worth remembering that the film was made with the full knowledge of the (now former) owners and patrons of the hotel, and what we’re seeing isn’t hidden camera footage, but themselves as they are comfortable being portrayed. As a nation, we’re very proud of our larrikin reputation. After seeing Hotel Coolgardie, you’ll wonder why.