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Cutting ordinary: An ABC True Story

Jennifer Rutherford

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The 2002 Caroline Chisolm Lecture,
Chisolm College, La Trobe University, 8th October


I'm honoured and particularly pleased to return to La Trobe University to speak about Ordinary People. The last time I was invited to speak at this university I had just begun shooting Ordinary Peopleand I spoke at the time about the film as an imagined object. Tonight I am going to speak about it as a lost object. There's a repetition in play here which I rather like. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan said that repetition was a missed encounter with the real, and that is my subject: a missed encounter.

The Australian journalist Peter Manning, who knew the history of cutting Ordinary People, said to me last year: 'what is going to be unbearable for you is that when the film is released, it is going to receive a lot of critical acclaim and you're going to be left standing in the sidelines saying, but --'. Manning's comments have proved prescient. Ordinary People screened on the ABC in March this year to critical acclaim. It has been selected for a number of local and international festivals, including Mumbai, The Real Life on Film Festival, and the inaugural Aus Fest, the Australian Digital and Video Film Festival. Before making Ordinary People I'd never held a camera, never done a film-making course and wasn't even a surreptitious wannabe film-maker. Now I've made a film reaching an audience that my academic work will never see, I've been paid quite handsomely for it, and nobody has had a bad word to say about the film. So why would I want to jeopardise this almost mythical success by speaking against my own film? Because that's what I want to do tonight: raise a series of 'buts' about the film you've just seen.

Raising buts about one's own film involves a curious and difficult speaking position. Contractually I'm bound to say nothing critical against the funding body that now owns the film. But it is not only fear of litigation that makes my speaking position so difficult. It is also that I'm speaking against my own work, against a film that carries my name. Director, writer, co-producer, researcher: Ordinary People is my film. It is the result of four rather terrible years of hard slog, working in a medium that wasn't my own, amongst professionals who, in the main, held creative, critical and aesthetic values very different from my own, and working on and off inside Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party. All that adds up to four very difficult years, and yet the act of slogging away to create a work produces  love. There isn't a second in Ordinary People that I don't love in some way, that doesn't carry the memory of its difficult capture on camera and the agony of choosing it -- those 52 minutes and 46 seconds cut out of over 100 hours of film.

Only recently a rather nasty review came out about my book, The Gauche Intruder, and I felt that rush of defence that one gets when a work of one's own is attacked, but here I am today to lead the attack against Ordinary People. I am here to murder my darling because the story of cutting Ordinary People is much bigger than the story you have just seen, and much bigger than my own story about a lost work. Telling that story is the one that I have to champion, because it is not just a story about a film, or a film-war, or a work that didn't quite see the day in the form the director wanted. It's a story about Australian nationalism and nationalism's fellow traveller -- Australian race relations. It's a story that illuminates a cultural intransigence; an incapacity to apprehend that nationalism and its exclusions and aggressions isn't reducible to its visible manifestation in the articulated racism of the rural and urban fringe. Rather it is interior and central to the very cultural institutions that perform an eloquent pageantry of vanguardism qua multiculturalism and a new inclusive and progressive Australia.

The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan coined the phrase extimité1to describe the exterior or disguised nature of that which is most intimate to the self -- an unknown or exterior intimacy cloaked by an imaginary substitute, something that stands in the place of what can't be known.  The story of cutting Ordinary Peopleallows us to identify the extimatenature of Australian racism and nationalist jouissance; and how this extimité -- this interiority -- is cloaked in this instance by the idea of story and of film-values: a particular view of story cloaking an intimately held libidinal investment in a particular view of nation and a particular construction of the Australian subject.  But to tell that story I have to backtrack to the story of this film and its making.

Back in April 1997 something was happening that escaped anticipated logic. A script was being performed that nobody had read and its enthusiastic audience wasn't waiting for the critics' endorsement.  Just a year earlier there had been a widely articulated public confidence that in the event of the fall of the Labor government, Australia was safe from a return to its racist past. Multiculturalism was too entrenched in the popular imagination, Aboriginal reconciliation post-Mabo too institutionalised for a return to a white Australian hegemony. But the election that saw the fall of the Keating Labor government also saw Pauline Hanson elected as an independent with the biggest electoral swing in the nation.

By 1997 Pauline Hanson had formed Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party and was organising inaugural branch meetings in urban fringe and rural Australia. There was a sense of mounting disbelief as Hanson's national popularity began to rise, and the Prime Minister refused to speak. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's national inquiry into the stolen generation had just been released, and while remaining steadfastly silent about Hanson's rising star, the Prime Minister was at the same time excusing away the deeds of former and current generations of well-meaning 'ordinary Australians'. I was on sabbatical at Melbourne University at the time, trying to write a difficult manuscript on psychosis, but the collective psychosis kept getting in the way. A phoenix rising from the ashes of white Australia while the Prime Minister stood guard, bellows in one hand, black armband in the other.

One of the most disturbing aspects of that period was the sense that nobody knew what to do. So one day I put aside my manuscript on psychosis and set off to Ballarat, where I talked my way into Ballarat's inaugural meeting of One Nation. I didn't set out to make a film, I set out to write a book. I had just read Bad Blood 2, the travelogue of the Irish writer, Colm Tóibín, in which he walks along the Irish border talking to people, and through this peripatetic device takes the reader on a tour of Ireland's history of bad blood. In his work the righteousness of the nationalist cause dissolves and the ugliness of that border and all its bad blood comes into focus. What interested me about Tóibín's writing was that like the work of other Irish Catholic writers -- Friel, Kearney, Deane -- it was a very conscious attempt to generate a form of writing able to shift its audience from the jouissance of re-enacting and re-experiencing nationalist forms of narrative and memory into new ways of encountering the past in which the suffering of both Catholics and Protestants found representation and in which the Catholic narrative tradition entered into a reflection about its own forms of aggression to self and other without foreclosing on the historical memory of colonisation.

It was this kind of conscious reflection about representative form qua colonisation, nationalism and racial hatred that seemed so lacking in the Australian response to One Nation. There was, at the time, virtually no public discourse about discourse, about speech that prior to its articulation contemplated its purpose and its form of address. I was dismayed, like many people, with the critical and conceptual failure of the media  and the obvious powerlessness of academic publication to dint the wellspring of popular support for Hanson. So I set out to try and write a book that would escape the restricted audiences of academic writing and yet maintain a critical corpus. I wanted to write a story about One Nation that would engineer an encounter for a larger Australian audience with Australia's history of bad blood. I had Foucault's idea of a livre-experience3 in mind, of a text that stops the reader in their tracks and forces them to think otherly. It was a rather immodest undertaking, but I was fired by my disenchantment with purely academic responses to what I suspected then, and know now, to be a moment in Australia's history when critical intellectuals have to take aim and fire -- not as Sartre ridicules, with 'eyes shut -- merely for the pleasure of hearing the shot go off',4 but with all our creative, critical and defensive capacities. The full extent of Hanson's legacy -- of how significant that moment in Australia's history was -- is only now fully apparent as Hansonism moves centre-stage and even the Labor party doffs its hat to her politics of paranoia, racism and fear.

With this in mind I set off to write a book on One Nation, and very quickly ended up inside One Nation, with a bird's eye view of all kinds of events and discussions that I suspected nobody else  -- with my critical perspective  -- was witness to. I knew nothing about film-making, but at a certain point it became almost an ethical obligation to get a camera inside this very closed organisation. At this point I was working with Susannah Scarparo and we were observing things that needed to be recorded. And so the film evolved, growing from a very amateur affair initially to ultimately a fully funded film. Funded firstly by Susannah and I, then a private sponsor, then the Australian Film Commission, and finally, in the last weeks of post-production, by Film Australia, the Australian Film and Television office and the ABC.  Fairly early on in the making of Ordinary People I knew I was making a film that had legs. Nobody else from outside the party had got a camera inside One Nation. One Nation wasn't going away and the story kept getting bigger. By 1999 Colene Hughes had turned and was starting to speak to camera about what was going on inside the party. It was an absolute scoop. The woman who ran in Pauline Hanson's seat of Ipswich was slowly coming to realise she was in a neo-fascist organization and was telling me my initial thesis: that One Nation was a totalitarian party and Hanson and Oldfield were, in her words, 'like Hitler'. I knew then that somehow the film was going to be made and it was going to find its audience.

What was so extraordinary about Colene Hughes as a character was that she was so admirable. As I got to know her better over the three years of filming, I watched her transform from an ardent One Nation supporter to someone who was working really hard at trying to understand the nature of the movement she'd been party to. Her partner Bob was also a deeply sympathetic character. He was someone I couldn't help feeling affection for as I watched his and Colene's relationship crumble under the strain of Colene's two electoral campaigns. Over the years I came to know intimately the story of their difficult lives, and they mirrored so many other stories I heard from One Nation members. Stories that encapsulate post modernism as a lived reality. Stories of fragmentation: of familial structures breaking down, of children scattered across the country, of emotional insecurity, of moral codes that no longer had a context, of paternity reduced to child support payments, and maternity labouring on beside the empty space left by the father.

Making Ordinary Peoplewas really uncomfortable, not because the members of One Nation were so awful, but because they weren't. As the film evolved, the question that emerged qua representation was how to make a film that held in view both the dignity, goodness and genuine suffering of people like Colene and Bob, and simultaneously their blind aggression to others. Putting these two things together in a single frame held the possibility of creating a livre-experience. As I wrote in The Gauche Intruder, 'Hatred of the other has always been located in the telling of white history, in the wings, off centre-stage, peripheral to the real life of a good white Australia'.5  In The Gauche Intruder I had argued that the ethical challenge facing Australia was to hold in view the aggression of white Australian morality. Central Australian moral codes which I called the Australian Good -- a fair go, an egalitarianism, a democratic refusal of visible hierarchies, the cult of the battler, of everyman -- are I argued, the constant accompaniment to acts of aggression in Australian history: the genocide, the White Australia policy, the Stolen Generation and now the desubjectivisation and incarceration of refugees. While moralmotivation is frequently used to excuse such acts, I suggested that we cannot understand these acts of aggression and restore them to cultural memory unless we recognise the central role that morality plays in their perpetuation. In Ordinary PeopleI wanted to go to the heart of the crisis in contemporary Australia by creating a text that would hold in view the aggressivity of ordinary goodly Australians. Contemporary commentary sought in the main part to understand the 'Hanson phenomenon' as an aberration in Australia's history; I wanted to demonstrate how Hanson's support derived from her galvanising of the central moral codes of Australian nationalism.

And Colene was such a good Australian, she believed utterly in democracy and a fair go, she blazed with those traditional Australian virtues of speaking your mind and standing up to authority, and she was a battler and ready to go out and battle for what she believed in. It was impossible not to like and admire her as she grappled with the true nature of the party to which she had committed years of her life. Yet at the same time Colene was an advocate of a far right party, and her disappointment with Hanson never stretched to questioning the underlying premises of the One Nation cause. Colene continued to believe, throughout the course of the film, in the idea of One -- One Nation, One People, One Culture. As she said, 'I'm not a racist, I'm a culturalist', and the culture she believed to be unquestionably superior was her own.

I was not interested in merely capturing the racism of One Nation on camera. I knew that would achieve nothing. Racism has always been there in Australia, in the next sentence, the one you don't want to hear. During 1997 and 1998 the press kept on discovering racism as if it was something novel: a farmer from up north who thought Aborigines should never have been given citizenship, or another who claimed they were happier working for rations. These 'discoveries', billed by the media as shocking instances of racism, served to sustain a separation between One Nation and the rest of us, to provide a repository in which all that is negative about Australia -- its history of race relations, its dedicated parochialism, its uncouth forms of chauvinism and self-affirmation -- could be located in this rural rump, leaving the rest of us to our fantasies of urbanity, sophistication and tolerance. The challenge was not to repeat the mistakes of the media and simply prove the rampant racism of One Nation members but to hold in view the contiguity of these views and their ordinariness amongst ordinary goodly Australians. And who could deny this after the last federal election campaign, with its demonstration of mass support for Howard's and Ruddock's phantasmagoria of a nation besieged by thieving immoral and murderous Afghans? Or witness Howard's comments during Hanson's rise: 'They're not racists, they're just ordinary Australians'.  My challenge was to represent the aggression harbouring within ordinariness without demonising the subjects of the film. This too had been the response of many academics and media commentators, who depicted Hanson and her supporters as a minority of resentful, xenophobic rednecks: losers, incapable of meeting the demands of the present and clinging to their fantasies of an archaic past. As Phillip Adams wrote: 'Hanson (is) the bag lady of Australian politics. Behold the baggage -- a bulging string bag full of ancient hatreds -- One Nation is for anyone who believes in anything beyond belief.'6   Adams was far from alone in relying on ridicule and lampooning to silence Hanson and her supporters. As Chantal Mouffe has argued, this recourse to the fantasy of primordialism is the only liberal answer to the rise of extreme nationalism and the new right.7

"Cutting Ordinary: an ABC True Story" continues with part II ...

  Jennifer Rutherford is a U2000 Research Fellow in the Department of English, University of Sydney. She has recently published The Gauche Intruder: Freud, Lacan and the White Australian fantasy (M.U.P) and directed the documentary Ordinary People (a Film Australian National Interest Project) She is currently writing a book on One Nation: Extimacy: An Intimate dialogue with the Australian far-right (forthcoming M.U.P). The Caroline Chisolm lecture is part of her forthcoming monograph Cutting Ordinary: An ABC True Story.

References (part I)

1 See  J.A. Miller Extimité, in Lacanian Theory of Discourse; Subject, Structure and Societyed. M. Bracher, M.W Alcorn, jr., R.J. Corthell and F. Massardier-Kenney. New York University Press, New York 1994.
2 Tóibín, C. Bad Blood: A Walk Along The Irish Border, Vintage, London, 1994.
3 Foucault, M. Dits et Ecrits, Vol. IV, Gallimard, Paris, 1994, p. 47.
4 Sartre, J.P. 'What is Writing' in What is Literature? and other Essays, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts 1988, p.38.
5 Rutherford, J. The Gauche Intruder; Freud, Lacan and the White Australian Fantasy, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne 2000. p. 18.
6 P. Adams, 'Pauline and Prejudice ? It's in the Bag' Two Nations,  ed, Robert Manne, Bookman Press, Melbourne, 1998, pp. 20-21.
7 Mouffe, C. ' The End of Politics and The Rise of The Radical Right', Dissent, Fall 1995 pp. 498-502.


"Cutting Ordinary: an ABC True Story" continues with part II ...

In Australian Humanities Review, see also