Friday, July 20, 2007

Bigotry and Australia's Cultural Gatekeepers

Photo: Your turn to shout. Nino Culotta (Walter Chiari) gets a lesson in the language of drinking from a friendly Australian (Jack Allen). Scene from the Australian Film They're a Weird Mob (1966).

In an earlier post I spoke in part about the continuity of Australian humour. The first example I chose to illustrate the point was John O'Grady's They're a Weird Mob, the story of Nino Culotta, an Italian journalist sent to Australia to write a story who ends up staying.

Earlier this week a new archive on Australian film went on line. So popular was it that it crashed almost at once, as people including me tried to access it. Finally I got through, going straight to They're a Weird Mob since I thought that I might be able to use the material to write a follow up story. And so I can, but not in the way that I had intended.

I have complained on this blog about the way in which our past has been distorted to fit into popular stereotypes. Please review the following, and tell me if I am wrong.

The curator for this film was Paul Byrnes. At the end of his description of the film appears the following:

The film was an enormous hit at the Australian box office, grossing $2 million, on a budget of $600,000. It was one of the first feature films to deal openly with questions of prejudice against ‘New Australians’, albeit in a way that also flattered an Anglo audience. Nino encounters more kindness than prejudice, and quickly adopts ‘Australian ways’, becoming a model migrant. The film was in tune with the ‘assimilationist’ view then dominating Australian immigration policy

Now all this may appear perfectly okay, but consider the following.

The opening point is that it is the first feature film to deal openly with questions of prejudice against "New Australians". Note that "New Australians" is in brackets. Note that the film flatters an "Anglo" audience. Nino quickly adopts "Australian Ways", again the italics, becoming a model migrant. Note, too, that the film was in tune with the "assimilationist" view, more italics, then dominating Australian immigration policy.

Now look at the clips illustrating the film. Two out of three deal with prejudice. The title's chosen for these clips are "Why don't you go back to your own country" and "a dago just the same". So what does all this tell you about the film, about Australia?

Now look at the real context.

The book itself was published in 1957 as a story by Nino Culotta. At that stage the mass migration program was less than ten years old. As I outlined in my Migration Matters series, this was a unique program in the post war period since it is the only case where a country chose to admit migrants at a scale huge enough to ultimately change the very nature of society. This was done with remarkably little prejudice or social distress.

The book was a huge success when it came out. In relative terms, it probably sold as many copies as a new Harry Potter release today. This is can be seen also in the success of the much later film. At one level the book was a good yarn, but it was also something of a parody, presenting Australians to themselves in exaggerated form. That was part of the reason for its success. My mother, for example, roared with laughter.

The book did record prejudice, but with humour. When Nino meets the man who would become his father in law for the first time, an Irish Catholic, he responds to the prejudice by pointing to a picture of the Pope on the wall, asking why he has a picture of an Italian there.

In its picture of prejudice, the book brings out a key distinguishing feature of Australians, our capacity to distinguish between individuals and any prejudice we may have about the group that that individual comes from. This feature is a key part of the reason why migration worked.

The book's sequel followed Nino and his Australian friends back to Italy, tracing out further the nature of cultural differences.

As for the assimilationist tag, I can only say this.

Assimilation simply meant fitting in. We did not expect migrants to give up their language, to change their religion, to change what they ate, to pass citizenship tests. We expected them to be proud of their past. I could wish that we still had this policy in place.


learn something today said...

sir,would you have a viewpoint on the danger of islamic migration,or lack of danger?

Jim Belshaw said...

As a general statement, a,nmr, I am not opposed to islamic migration. For reasons I set out in other posts, I actually don't think that we have any choice.

I am opposed to people bringing external conflicts into an Australian environment. I also think that migrants have to observe our laws.

These are not new issues. Just look back to the mass migration program at the end of WWII.

Does this help?

learn something today said...

why do we not have a choice?the conflicts that arrive with islam are with us.i dont fear that iran/iraq conflict will reignite here,its that we are the unbelievers,the libertines;our laws,immigration and natural increase of moslems via birth could swamp our electorates and see a change in the very laws.migration post ww2 can not be compared to these issues.the italians,greeks yugoslavs and britons did not have a fundamental distaste for us and our ways.