Wake in Fright (1971)

FILM, Film Society

Previously at the Wellington Film Society: one of the great, unheralded Australian films of all-time.

In the early 1970s, Australia’s nascent film industry was kick-started by a bunch of upstart foreign directors: Michael Powell, still feeling the after effects of his black-listing for Peeping Tom; Nicholas Roeg, fresh from the success of Performance; and Ted Kotcheff, the Canadian director whose career has seriously diminished since (First Blood being the highpoint). Against the Film Society’s upcoming screening of Roeg’s fascinating Walkabout, Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright remains a largely forgotten film in Australian cinema’s annals. Critically popular upon its release, it soon disappeared from view despite influencing the new wave of Australian filmmakers; directors such as Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford, who would go on to achieve considerable success only a few years later.

The opening of Wake in Fright looks a lot like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West—emptiness and death being the only two things that could live in such a place. John Grant (Gary Bond) is a bonded teacher forced to work in the desolate environment—he hates it with a passion, and resolves to make his way back to Sydney. He ends up Bundanyabba, a parochial, rigidly structured town (despite the anarchy that ensues). The film follows Grant’s attempts to leave the backwater, but his constant and self-inflicted failures to do so compound his misery.

Kotcheff’s film is a lot like an Australian equivalent of Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game—an odd comparison to make, especially given there is one primary character, and it lacks both the same class of characters and pre-war setting as Renoir’s masterpiece. Furthermore, there is a long history of texts about a stranger arriving to a small town and not liking what he or she finds. And yet, like Rules of the Game, Wake in Fright casts an eye over a heavily regimented and structured society—men and women know their ‘place’, and there is desperation and repression in the characters’ anomie. And of course, there’s a scene of horrific animal cruelty. Although the culling of kangaroos was remarkably difficult (and perhaps a little too gratuitous) to watch, its effect was as symbolic as the death scene in Rules of the Game.

By all accounts, Wake in Fright was highly controversial following its release (not least because a foreigner came over to point out rural Australia’s failings). But the film was also praised for its realism; praise which perhaps missed the heavily stylised and grotesque way in which it was shot. Kotcheff appeared much more interested in trying to get into the subjective viewpoint of Grant—jarring sound shifts, sudden close-ups, 360 degree camerawork—giving it the feel of a Nouvelle Vague film rather than an example of cinéma-vérité. If his direction oversells the “hell on earth” aspect of the drama to a certain degree, Wake in Fright remains a compelling and hard-to-stomach account of savagery hidden beneath societal manners.

Film Societies in twelve centres run an annual programme of weekly/bi-monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Further details are available online at filmsociety.wellington.net.nz. For information about a film society closest to you, visit the New Zealand Federation of Film Societies.