87 mins; selected Australian cinemas, through raw + cooked media .
Fresh off the plane and in need of money, two Finnish backpackers – Steph and Lina – find themselves the latest batch of “fresh meat” sent to work as barmaids at a pub in a remote Australian mining town.
This documentary from first-time director Pete Gleeson, follows Steph and Lina during their employment in the Denver City Hotel in Coolgardie, a small town 500 km (347 mi) east of Perth in Western Australia. Shot in 2012, it captures the noise, the verbal abuse, the swearing and the boredom of the bar. Dull, slurred and raucous conversations, bad behaviour, fighting, dancing on bars, lining up shots and mornings-after having, what Lina describes in Finnish as ‘morkkis‘- (literally a moral hangover – when you did something stupid the previous night and now regret everything).
Admittedly, these are scenes you can find in any badly-run bar but it’s the isolation of our protagonists that makes this so menacing. They’re trapped as their employer abuses them for not picking up the job quickly enough, and the whole bar agrees. At the same time, the competition by the local men to ‘bag’ one of the barmaids hots up.
But we also we see the men looking for company and confession as they tell their stories – ‘so I come home one day and the wife’s taken everything, the house, the kid, the lot. Left me with nothin.’ or ‘I wouldn’t know how to talk to a woman, I mean am I going say all that lovey stuff.’
Even though the film was shot on a very limited budget, it looks great with evening and early morning scenes contrasting with the harsh fluourescent lighting of the bar. The rumbling of the trucks through the main street reminded me of Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road.
Hotel Coolgardie presents as an observational documentary but like reality TV, the characters all play to the camera. Were they more raucous, harder, cruder than normal? We don’t know. There are certainly times when I was glad the camera crew was there – particularly when men come up to the women’s apartment above the bar. That said, these women are pretty capable and do stand up for themselves.
Was all this hostility really confined to Lina and Steph? No. In an interview with the The Weekend Australian, Lina (now back in Helsinki) agreed that “people were bullying and picking on us, and some of the others living in Coolgardie, and they were making it very clear that we didn’t belong there”. “…we were also expected to behave in a certain way towards some people,” she said. “…When I was smiling and talking to ‘the others’ my boss was shouting and cursing that I was stupid.” (my italics)
We don’t meet anyone outside the confines of the pub – nothing of the local community or the other backpackers, travellers or city folk in the town and there are no Aboriginal people in the film. In my view this would have lead to a richer understanding of this little town, once the rollicking centre of a gold rush, now struggling with a declining mining industry and a barely started tourist industry.
But despite the PR blurb, telling the town’s story is not what this film is about. In my view, it is still playing on the trope from Wake in Fright or Mad Max – where the outback is populated by lawless drunks and is no place for genteel city folk who believe in a fair go for all, let alone a pair of naive travellers from Scandinavia.
Please go and see this film (and international readers, encourage your local cinemas to seek it out) it is sometimes amusing, sometimes appalling but always engaging and thought-provoking. However, it’s not a portrait of a small mining town, nor is it typical of the working holiday experience in Australia.