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Australia Diary Australia

Diary

12 November 2011

2:00 PM

12 November 2011

2:00 PM

Over the past few years, spring in the capital has become synonymous with the Canberra International Film Festival. Now in its 15th year, the festival exceeded all previous attendance records. As I have become something of a curmudgeon in recent years I have tended towards scepticism about film, writing and so-called ‘big’ or ‘dangerous’ ideas festivals. My emotional tribe is the crew lining the streets between the Caxton Hotel and Lang Park, raining invective and the odd projectile at the New South Wales State of Origin rugby league team bus. Festival crowds have become associated in my jaundiced mind with standing ovations for David Hicks. But as my wife Tritia was serving as the media co-ordinator for this year’s event I felt obliged to suspend my doubts and take up her challenge to step out of my increasingly narrow comfort zone.

•••

And I am delighted that I did. The festival opened with Gus Van Sant’s poignant and beautiful Restless. In something of a coup for the festival, the female lead in this Australian premiere was Canberra-born actress Mia Wasikowska. She was simply riveting as Annabel, a young woman facing death form a brain tumour who finds love in the final weeks of her life. My curmudgeon credibility took a battering as I reached for the tissues in the closing scenes.

•••

Next I attended Toomelah, an Ivan Sen film, which provided a bleak but realistic portrayal of the impact of substance abuse and domestic violence on an aboriginal mission in northern New South Wales. The characters were allowed to tell their story in their distinctive voice unimpeded by the constraints of political correctness. The language produced some unease among the audience. I suspect my views on such issues have followed the same trajectory as my mate Noel Pearson’s over the past decade.

[Alt-Text]


•••

The only CIFF event to conform to my prejudices was the special screening of the 1986 film Death of a Soldier. Its producer, we were assured, was a man who ‘hates injustice — it sends him insane’. This produced murmurs of knowing approval from many in the audience similarly burdened. The injustice that inspired David Hannay on this occasion was the execution by the US Army of Edward Leonski, who brutally murdered three Australian women in Melbourne during the second world war. This travesty — the execution, not the murders — was the inevitable consequence of Australia’s military alliance with the US, which ‘continues to this day’. More empathetic murmurs.

•••

The film exhibited all the moral nuance of World Championship Wrestling, without the convincing American accents. Bill Hunter played Bill Hunter and Maurie Fields played Maurie Fields, while all the US Army officers were played by clones of the Sterling Hayden character in Dr Strangelove, right down to the cigars. The poorly-executed Southern accents and comedic errors in the embellishments on their uniforms introduced a pantomime element to proceedings. Indeed, so poor was the work of the dialect coaches that even James Coburn started to sound like an Australian playing an American. I was sorely tempted to puncture the smug entre nous consensus by announcing that I left all my lights on during Earth Hour. But, thinking discretion the better part of valour, I left early to make the screening of a war documentary Armadillo.

•••

This is a taut, gritty portrayal of the character of combat in Afghanistan as experienced by Danish soldiers in Helmand province in 2009. The film-makers shared the perils of combat with their subjects and recorded some gripping footage of troops in contact. On occasions, lilting Welsh accents can be heard over the fire support net, which reminded me that the Welsh Guards battle group was deployed to Helmand around this time. Dead Men Risen by Toby Harnden is an account of that regiment’s tour, during which their commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe was killed by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). It is the best account of the demands of close combat in the ambiguous hybrid wars of the post-Cold War era that I have read. Armadillo makes a fair fist of translating this to film.

•••

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks I re-enlisted in the Australian Regular Army. Since that time I have taken a personal and professional interest in the changing character of war. For much of the last decade I have edited the Australian Army Journal, and written speeches for successive Chiefs of the Army. I return to writing for a public audience with some trepidation after so long a break. It makes only marginally more sense than a cricket comeback.

•••

Ten years on I am taking long service leave to write a book about the forthcoming summer of cricket under the rubric of ‘Indian Summer – A Spectator’s View’. I have never thought of myself as a cricket writer. Perhaps nor will many of you after you read my work in these pages over the summer. But my hope is that my passion for the game makes up for my modest credentials as a cricketer and a writer. Australia is well served by some truly wonderful cricket writers, notably Gideon Haigh and Peter Roebuck, who match erudition with elegance of pen. Nor has it escaped my attention that the legendary E.W. Swanton occasionally graced the pages of The Spectator. Intruding into the domain of such giants I feel a little like the medieval peasant poaching in the King’s forest. While not having the temerity to expect that I will emerge with a stag draped over my shoulders, I hope to snare a rabbit or two and in so doing enlighten and entertain.

Malcolm McGregor, a former columnist with the Australian and Australian Financial Review, is a cricket correspondent for The Spectator Australia.

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