The Reel Deal: 12 Must-See Aussie Docos

September 25, 2018
With the cinema release of Ghosthunter, and voting open for Best Documentary at the AACTAs, we thought it was the perfect opportunity to look back at a fistful of our finest docos.

For a relatively small filmmaking nation, Australia has pumped out a staggering number of top-shelf documentaries. And this rollicking collection of diverse, highly intelligent, and utterly entertaining docos is just the tip of the iceberg…

Rats In The RanksRATS IN THE RANKS (1996)

In the pantheon of Australian documentary filmmakers, Bob Connolly and his wife/creative partner, Robin Anderson (who sadly passed away in 2002), are close to being the best. Some might argue with that statement (particularly fans of John Pilger and Dennis O’Rourke), but none for even a second could question the brilliance of Connolly and Anderson’s films: First Contact, Joe Leahy’s Neighbours, Black Harvest, Facing The Music, and Mrs. Carey’s Concert. Again, some might argue, but their best effort is the magnificent Rats In The Ranks. Playing out like a tightly wound paranoid thriller shot through with ball-tearing black humour, Rats In The Ranks is set in the inner west Sydney suburb of Leichhardt, which is soon revealed to be a hotbed of political skullduggery and deception. Every September, the council elects its mayor. Incumbent top-dog, “Laughing” Larry Hand, is a charismatic, engaging character popular with the locals, but not so popular with his twelve fellow councilors…and they’re the ones who do the voting. Will Larry charm his way back into office? Or will he be cut off at the knees? The following election race has everything: betrayal, dirty deals, and massive ego clashes. A work of investigative, narrative genius, Rats In The Ranks is one of the great Aussie docos…and one of the great Aussie films, end of story. “The film has stood up because it has a strong narrative,” Bob Connolly told FilmInk. “You’re in the dark about who is going to win right up until the last minute. We always tried to find a narrative thread in our observational films…a real life drama…and audiences relate to that.” See also: Facing The Music (2001), Mrs. Carey’s Concert (2011)

Gillian Armstrong Doco ProjectTHE STORY OF KERRY, JOSIE AND DIANA (1975 -)

“People are so less predictable and so much richer than we might think,” Gillian Armstrong told FilmInk in 2010. “There are so many more layers, and their lives have so many more surprises than we can ever create in fictional stories.” In 1975 – after directing a collection of eye catching shorts – young filmmaker, Gillian Armstrong, was handpicked by The South Australian Film Corporation to make a documentary about the lives of teenage girls growing up in Australia. The result was the 25-minute charmer, Smokes And Lollies, which told of three spunky fourteen-year-olds that Armstrong met at an Adelaide drop-in centre: Kerry Carlson, Diana Doman, and Josie Peterson. Despite rising to the ranks of Australian cinema with classics such as My Brilliant Career and High Tide, and later finding success internationally too (Mrs. Soffel, Little Women), this project would remain a touchstone in Armstrong’s career, with the director returning to her three subjects – in a similar style to Michael Apted’s 7Up – over a period of years. Each subsequent film – Fourteen’s Good, Eighteen’s Better (1980), Bingo, Bridesmaids & Braces (1988), Not Fourteen Again (1996), and Love, Lust & Lies (2010) – has been just as moving and revealing as the last, with the project rating as an essential document of the female experience in Australia, and hopefully one that will continue. “As soon as the credits [of each installment] end, people say, ‘So, are you going back?’” Armstrong told FilmInk in 2010. “I’m certainly never going to say never. It would be great to go back. Making these documentaries has been a huge journey for me.” See also: Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives Of Florence Broadhurst (2006), Women He’s Undressed (2015)

Cane Toads An Unnatural HistoryCANE TOADS: AN UNNATURAL HISTORY (1988)

Australia is famous for its dangerous, destructive wildlife, and one of our most venal species is the titular amphibian menace. Boasting a powerful body encased in leathery skin and tumorous glands capable of secreting a vile neurotoxin, Australia’s most relentless and single-minded invader has spent the past fifty years encroaching not only upon our wilderness, but also our national identity, thanks in part to award winning filmmaker and cane toad sympathiser, Mark Lewis, and his iconic 1988 documentary, Cane Toads: An Unnatural History, which hilariously dissected the cultural significance of this ugly beast. The 47-minute documentary introduced the nation to what was understood to be the raging “cane toad menace”, a natural disaster unfolding across Queensland, and also threatening The Northern Territory’s vast natural environments, including the revered Kakadu National Park, as the marauding, travelling amphibian tore apart whatever flora and fauna it was introduced to. But while the media painted the battle with the toad as a virulent war, Lewis instead revealed the toad’s comedic side, painting the amphibian not as an aggressor but as, well, a frog out of water. The cane toad is an introduced species whose only failing was to thrive amongst the Australian landscape. The 1988 film was so successful that Lewis even concocted an equally entertaining 2010 follow-up – in 3D, no less – called Cane Toads: The Conquest. “Even though it’s uniquely Australian, the whole issue of invasive species and the environment is a very current and contemporary one,” Lewis told FilmInk in 2010. “It’s had an extraordinary reaction all over the world.” See also: The Natural History Of The Chicken (2000), Rat (1998), Tackle Happy (2000)

Autoluminescent Rowland S. HowardAUTOLUMINESCENT: ROWLAND S. HOWARD (2011)

With the heartfelt Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard, filmmaker and Aussie music scene veteran, Richard Lowenstein (Dogs In Space) – and his co-director, Lynn-Maree Milburn – crafted a beautiful portrait of one of this country’s true musical icons. No stock-standard A to B rockumentary with all the usual check-points (band gets together, then gets signed, then breaks up etc), Autoluminescent is instead a rich study of a complex man who existed across a number of art forms and musical eras, and whose influence is far mightier than his public currency might suggest. The late Rowland S. Howard was a pivotal figure on Melbourne’s post-punk scene of the late seventies. With a Byronic demeanour, he was essentially famous before he’d even played a note. But when he did start playing – first with The Young Charlatans, and then with Nick Cave in The Boys Next Door (who would later morph into The Birthday Party) – Howard announced himself as a talent of almost mythic proportions, while his unforgettable song, “Shivers”, remains a key local work. This stunning tribute befits his status perfectly, and captures one of the most vital eras in Australian music. “The agenda was set by Rowland S. Howard himself,” Richard Lowenstein told FilmInk. “He gave us a lot of freedom. The only agenda he set was, ‘I’m not here to be iconised or made a saint out of. Cover whatever you want.’ The only real agenda was, ‘Don’t just make it about the music.’” See also: Paul Kelly: Stories Of Me (2012), Persecution Blues: The Battle For The Tote (2011), A Weekend In The Country: A History Of The Meredith Music Festival (2004), Something In The Water (2008), The Sunnyboy (2013)

Bra BoysBRA BOYS (2007)

The Sydney beachside suburb of Maroubra is a rough-and-tumble patch of land shared by housing commission blocks, rusted-on locals, and, most recently, new residents from outside the area lured in by the salt-and-sand fun of ocean-proximity living. Long the terrain of local surfers, and an area often associated with street crime and – to use a typical media refrain – “anti-social behaviour”, Maroubra was the subject of the hugely successful 2007 documentary, Bra Boys, named after the beach’s notorious collective of surfers. Produced and narrated by Russell Crowe, and co-directed by Bra Boys members, Sunny Abberton and Macario De Souza, the doco not only recounts the most infamous media incursions of the gang (the 2003 murder of member, Anthony Hines, and the subsequent implication of Sunny Abberton’s brothers, Jai and Koby; and a massive brawl between the Bra Boys and police), but also their cultural importance to the troubled area. For a time, the most commercially successful Australian documentary ever, Bra Boys fascinatingly pulled back the curtain on the dark mystique of Maroubra and its eponymous subculture, while also contributing to its notoriety. “It’s a stigma that will always stick,” co-director, Macario De Souza – who has since built up an impressive career as a filmmaker and musician – told FilmInk in 2011. “How we react to it is what will determine how far we’ll get in life. I could sit here and complain about it, but the best thing to do is block out the negative and use it as fuel to drive you forward. Being a Bra Boy is a small portion of who I am.” See also: Morning Of The Earth (1971), Fighting Fear (2011), All This Mayhem (2014), Have You Seen the Listers? (2017)

Love The BeastLOVE THE BEAST (2009)

After prolific careers as a stand-up comedian, TV sketch show performer, and big screen dramatic actor, Eric Bana added another string to his bow as the director of the fascinating documentary, Love The Beast. A long gestating and deeply personal project, the film traces noted revhead Bana’s 25-year love affair with his 1974 Ford GT Falcon Coupe, but spins off into other directions as well, taking in Bana’s relationships with his friends and family, and also questioning his motor vehicular brand of obsession – something shared by many, many Australians. Part travelogue (Bana bounces from New York to London, and to nearly all points on the Australian map while involved in both his “day job” and as a professional race car driver) and part interior journey, Love The Beast (at one stage, the biggest box office Australian doco ever) offers a view of Bana not glimpsed in his screen performances, nor in his various press appearances. The film, however, is also steeped in sadness, taking in Bana’s destruction of the car while racing in The 2007 Targa Tasmania Rally. Bana’s sense of devastation is palpable, and provides one of the many grace notes in Love The Beast, which digs into the rarely seriously discussed issue of the bond that can exist between man and machine. “It’s been both fun and incredibly exhausting, and it’s enabled me to combine two of the things that I love: cars and filmmaking,” Bana told FilmInk. “It started out as a simple project, but events conspired to turn it into something that I could never have envisioned.” See also: The Back Of Beyond (1954), Lovestruck: Wrestling’s No. 1 Fan (2007), Solo (2008), Red Obsession (2013), Mammal (2018)

That Sugar FilmTHAT SUGAR FILM (2015)

We might not be as obese as our American cousins, but Australians certainly know their way around junk food and poor eating habits. Aussie actor (Underbelly, The Tracker) and Tropfest winner (for his much debated 2011 entry, Animal Beatbox), Damon Gameau’s entertaining documentary, That Sugar Film, explores the prevalence of sugar in our society, how it’s been sold to us, and the myriad and surprising ways that it affects our minds and insides. Using himself as a lab rat, Gameau – who had formerly dropped sugar from his diet after being a self-proclaimed “chain-smoking, Coca Cola swilling, fast food destroyer” – reintroduced the sweetener back into his diet for sixty days, with the aim of consuming the average person’s intake of forty teaspoons a day. The kicker is that he was consuming this solely through perceived “health” foods like cereal, low-fat yoghurt, and fruit juice. “It’s a beast of a topic,” Gameau told FilmInk. “I was shocked at just how hard the food and sugar industries have worked to keep the ambiguity about its effects in the public’s mind.” And that public responded, making That Sugar Film Australia’s most successful doco of all time. Importantly, That Sugar Film is no dry slab of agitprop. “I had an Oscar Wilde quote pinned to my wall: ‘If you want to tell someone the truth, you better make them laugh, or they’ll kill you.’ This was a great motivator for me,” smiles Gameau. “I wanted the people that need to see this film to actually see it! That wouldn’t happen if I made it too dry or academic.” See also: Food Matters (2008), Fat, Sick And Nearly Dead (2010), Overfed & Undernourished (2014), Embrace (2016)

Utopia

UTOPIA (2013)

Australian born, but based since 1962 in the UK, John Pilger – journalist, documentarian, and often harsh and unforgiving critic of Australian governmental policy – has made a number of fascinating films on difficult subjects, including 1979’s Year Zero, about the aftermath of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, and 1993’s Death Of A Nation: The Timor Conspiracy, which details illicit US and UK involvement in the politics of East Timor. He has also been a vocal supporter of Aboriginal rights, first addressing the subject in his 1985 documentary, The Secret Country, and then powerfully returning to it in 2013 with Utopia, an epic mapping of the history of the atrocities committed against Indigenous Australians, from colonisation and The Stolen Generation to the remote and depressed living conditions of many communities today, and the horrific, inordinate number of Indigenous deaths in custody. It’s a big, bold documentary that digs and stabs right at the heart of Australia’s greatest shame, but ironically, it’s not really an Australian documentary at all, with the film’s funding coming entirely from the UK. “Utopia would never have been made in Australia,” John Pilger told FilmInk in 2013. “There’d be minimal backing.” Still, whether officially Australian or not, Utopia is an essential element in any discussion of local documentary filmmaking. For Pilger, the film is a keynote work. “I wanted to tell the story of the struggle for justice of the unique people of my homeland, whose history is not so much ‘forgotten’ as unknown and willfully neglected and disregarded,” he told FilmInk. See also: My Survival As An Aboriginal (1978), Cunnamulla (2000)Gulpilil: One Red Blood (2002), Kanyini (2006), Bastardy (2008), The Tall Man (2011), Another Country (2015)

Gayby BabyGAYBY BABY (2015)

The beautifully realised 2015 Aussie doco, Gayby Baby, follows the lives of four disparate kids – wrestling fan, Gus; Sydneysider, Ebony; erudite Matt; and Fiji-based Graham – whose parents all happen to be gay. Warm and strikingly sensitive, the film found itself in the middle of a controversy when it was first pulled from being shown in a few NSW schools intending to screen it for their students, and then banned from schools outright. Garnering plenty of media attention, Gayby Baby then enjoyed a limited theatrical run, as well as scoring itself an AACTA nomination in the Best Documentary category. “Being a child from a gay family myself,” the film’s young director, Maya Newell (who first impressed with her profoundly moving 2006 doco short, Richard), told FilmInk, “I felt that the voice of the children was really missing in the marriage equality debate, with the wider public not even acknowledging that our parents have been having us for generations already. When I saw that film, The Kids Are All Right, it was quite literally the first time that I’d ever seen my family structure represented on the big screen. Being 26 and experiencing that for the first time was an emotional thing. All children deserve to see themselves and their family structures represented. It adds to a sense of validation and legitimacy for our families. Already in TV, there are a number of gay families beginning to be represented, but not so much in big screen stories. I hope that we’re on the cusp of a movement of stories that share ideas of family diversity very naturally.” See also: I Am Eleven (2012), I Am A Girl (2013)

Not Quite HollywoodNOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD (2008)

“We’re not ashamed of these films…we don’t bother to talk about them at all,” writer/director, Mark Hartley, told FilmInk in 2008. “These films are totally dismissed. There was a whole hidden history of stories that had never been documented. They were pretty much just dismissed.” The films that Mark Hartley details in his wildly entertaining doco, Not Quite Hollywood, are the garish, full-tilt exploitation movies that were churned out by Australian filmmakers in the seventies and eighties. Though it was the white lace and dreamy brilliance of Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock that got all the awards, and the restrained feminist kick of Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career that got the critics all hot and bothered, there was a whole other type of film being made in Australia at the time. Gory horror films, tawdry sex documentaries, bone crunching action flicks, softcore porn, and broad, ugly comedies splattered across the screens of our drive-ins and cinemas. These lurid extravaganzas were made by con artists, up-and-comers, sleazebags, and the occasional honest-to-god genuine talent. Now cheekily dubbed “Ozploitation” flicks, they’re the movies that have heretofore been stashed in Australia’s cinematic closet for the past thirty years. It’s rare that we re-evaluate our cinematic history on screen, and Hartley’s film not only does that, it explores a chapter in Australian film that most people had forgotten. As entertaining as it is culturally relevant, Not Quite Hollywood is a stellar work that should be compulsory viewing for anyone with an interest in Australian film or, damn it, an interest in Australia in general. See also: Making Venus (2002), In The Company Of Actors (2007), Into The Shadows (2009)

mollymobarakMOLLY & MOBAREK (2003)

“They were a bit surprised when they saw the title – Molly & Mobarek. They were like, ‘Oh no, he’s gone and made a love story!’” That is, indeed, what this brilliant film from revered Australian documentary filmmaker, Tom Zubrycki, is: a love story. It’s not, however, all hearts and flowers. This extraordinarily intimate, fly-on-the-wall feature gets right into the grooves of the burgeoning relationship between two very different people. Molly Rule is a smart, sweet natured young woman living in the small NSW town of Young. Mobarek Tahiri is one of a group of refugees from Afghanistan who have been brought to town to work in Young’s thriving abattoir. The two have a troubled, fraught, but incredibly engaging relationship that the ever incisive and unsentimental Zubrycki (Billal, The Diplomat) captures with incredible sensitivity. “It’s hard not to get involved,” the director told FilmInk in 2003. “I was there filming all the time, and there were times when they asked me to put the camera down; there were very difficult things happening between Molly and Mobarek.” With great skill, Zubrycki truly weaves the personal and the political, telling both their story and also delivering a quiet protest against the then John Howard Liberal government’s handling of the refugee situation. “People were quite surprised at the intimacy of it,” Zubrycki told FilmInk of Molly & Mobarek, which perhaps has even greater socio-political significance in Australia today than it did over ten years ago. “People were also surprised at the way that our government treats it refugees. In some countries, the film has been a real eye opener.” See also: Waking Up The Nation (2002), Letters To Ali (2004), Forbidden Lies (2007)

Year Of The DogsYEAR OF THE DOGS (1997)

Australians love – sorry, make that, are obsessed with – sport, but that’s not what is so great about the brilliant 1997 doco, Year Of The Dogs. If you’re not a fan of AFL, or even of sport at all, don’t let that put you off seeking out this powerful work from filmmaker, Michael Cordell, who would later go on to co-create and produce the hugely successful reality TV series, Bondi Rescue and Go Back To Where You Came From. Pity the fool who bypassed Rats In The Ranks because they didn’t think that they were interested in local council politics. Year Of The Dogs might not be quite as good as that seminal Australian masterpiece, but it’s definitely in the same league. For over a year, Cordell was a fly on the wall at the Footscray football club, capturing every ugly, shattering, and often hilarious moment of what would become their “annus horribillus”, with the team losing games, the front office in disarray, and the threat of a merger (the film was shot in the mid-nineties before AFL was fully nationalised) just around the corner. The film documents the responses of the team’s various players, its embattled coach, and the hardscrabble fans. Year Of The Dogs has everything you want in a film: warm, engaging characters; high suspense; rich humour; and bumpy ups and downs. “This is a marvelously revealing study of an Aussie Rules football team on the rack,” Rats In The Ranks director, Bob Connolly, told FilmInk. “It’s a wonderfully tender and revealing study of Australian maleness.” See also: Heathens (1994), Footy Chicks (2006), The Fibros And The Silvertails (2007), Lionel (2008), Aussie Rules The World (2014)

Ghosthunter is currently screening at the following:

AACTA member screenings
Wednesday 3rd Oct Brisbane
Thursday 4th Oct Melbourne
Friday 5th Oct Sydney
CLICK HERE FOR INFO

In cinemas now Sydney and Melbourne
CLICK HERE FOR INFO

Fanforce Screenings
Currently in Penrith NSW, Inaloo WA and Salisbury SA
CLICK HERE FOR INFO

Brisbane International Film Festival 
14th & 18th October
CLICK HERE FOR INFO

Leave a Comment