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Wake in Fright

Stephen Smith is a freelance writer in Canberra. He has contributed pieces to Electronic Iraq, ZNet and Melbourne Indymedia. This is his first piece for Webdiary.

The re-emergence of the Australian film Wake in Fright (1971), directed by Canadian Ted Kotcheff, prompted me to look at the novel on which it is based. What I found was a striking metaphor for Australia today. The oppressive air of the story’s isolated mining town can be summed up in a few words. Intolerance and conformity fall as heavy as the heat haze. What is the legacy of this encampment, likely to drive one mad and so hard to escape from? The modern day equivalent is the immigration detention camp.

In the Kenneth Cook novel, a raw young school teacher, John Grant, loses his holiday pay at two-up on the eve of his trip back to Sydney. It might be assumed that the tale of Grant trapped in his hellhole with a cast of maniacal characters is from the extreme end of the mateship myth. A cautionary tale, perhaps, from a time long since gone, even from its outback setting. However such assumptions would be dead wrong.

The book’s message of stifling conformity has came back to haunt us. The Australia we know today is possibly the most conformist we have ever known. Wake in Fright is a wake up call.

When the book was first published in 1961, its author, Kenneth Cook, set out to contrast the comfortable and civilized sea hugging urban landscape with the darker side of the outback myth. But on another level, perhaps Cook sought to expose a moral collapse of Australian culture. In a kind of parable, the veneer of life in the city hides what is a frustrated and deeply repressive society.

This message rings true today more than ever. Rather than shrink from the modern world, the outback’s fearful void has instead consumed the soft outer rim of the continent. If so, the citizens of the urban sprawl and its latest shape, the block of aspirant voters, is set to ‘wake in fright’ any time now. When it comes, this awakening will show that ‘progress’ has taken us nowhere.

The novel’s climax is not simply the cruel end of a journey but also a metaphor for a journey into the future. In the book, Grant hitches a ride out of the hellish town in which he has degraded himself and exalts in his escape via a freight truck. The jolt comes when he awakes to find that the road has taken him not to Sydney but back to the ‘city’ he has barely been able to escape from.

Here is the irony of the present. We think we have escaped a degrading aspect of our past only to find that the journey has taken us back into the heart of darkness. This backward step is summed up by the bleak chapter of mandatory detention since its focus in the 2001 election. The ‘softer edge’ sold to halt the private members bills does not address the moral, ethical and justice demands. What we see is pure power play. To quote Albert Camus:

By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.

A back flip to soften the policy of mandatory detention is not to ‘move on’. We cannot shrug off this shame, as the PM did, as “one of the many failings of this government”. No fence mending in Liberal Party ranks can paper over the need for public debate. Does the PM have in mind a genuine call for reconciliation? Or is his back flip a cynical move to reassert control?

Writing in The Age, Michelle Grattan’s conclusion is most telling:

He was refighting the 2001 election, with his ammunition the poor devils who have mostly been incarcerated since then.

Now he has overlooked the kids in detention on Nauru. It is a sign of his sly political motives, of his fake kindness.

In the world of Wake in Fright, the enemy is the arid land itself that is to be pillaged and abused. The stranger in the landscape is also viewed with suspicion. The pivotal scene in the book is the sickening kangaroo spotlighting trip. The helpless roos are objects that serve to unify the community of hunters. Far from being secure in their mateship, a ritualistic slaughter is needed to bond the group. Their target thus becomes ‘the other’. It is a form of life not worthy of existence. Not worthy even of sacrifice (as in Aboriginal law), but to be killed with impunity.

The practice of spotlighting may have largely vanished, not because it is cruel and barbaric, but because its serves less as a bonding ritual. This social function is now less an insulated one, but is inseparable from the spectacle of urban Australia. But this shift is simply to transfer the need for ‘the other’ from the target of an insecure insulated group to become the target of an insecure mass society. (Here, ‘the other’ describes a fake enemy. Those who hate or envy us because of our values, not because of what we do.)

In the global debate, Slavoj Zizek is one critic to look at how politicians can whip up this culture of fear. He calls it a process of “enemy recognition”. The enemy at first is ‘invisible’ because it looks like one of us. The big task of the populist campaign is to construct a recognizable image of the enemy. It is to show the enemy’s ‘true face’.

In his ‘children overboard’ lie, Howard sought to show the ‘true face’ of the ‘enemy’. In his fake version, throwing children into the sea would prove the refugees’ helpless appearance to be deceiving. It would leave them as unworthy victims but also deserving of exclusion. In such a process, the enemy must be re-imaged to make it into a target of hatred.

In this way exclusion of ‘the other’ has in a strange way ‘come home’ to the outback setting of Wake in Fright. It is here we find detention centres such as Baxter. The camp on Nauru is even further out of mind.

We can interpret Wake in Fright to say that conformity and exclusion are never far from the surface. It is cultural, not simply a dark parody of the outback.

In the same way, fencing in the horrors of detention camps cannot disguise that, as a political tool, exclusion shows signs of growing all over. The idea that Baxter is apart from and outside our democracy is to conceal the fact that it is the ‘real’ country, all of the ‘real’ Australia, to use an idea from Baudrillard.

Baxter is enclosed by razor wire in order to make us believe that true respect for human rights exists outside. But this abuse is potentially everywhere. Any one of us is ready to be singled out as one of the “political terrorists”. Like Rau or Alvarez, it could be as frightening as the way we look, speak, or that we do not carry a passport.

In the end of Wake in Fright, Grant is saved from himself. If as a nation we can ever escape the place in which we are trapped it will not be from some outside hand or Good Samaritan but only by our own action. After the shame of our treatment of refuges there is a need for reconciliation with the victims. Without it, we are too willing to accept a façade of culture. The danger is that this façade may only encourage forces ready to unleash on ‘the other’ a new equivalent of the roo slaughter from Wake in Fright. Given the banality of evil, this type of crime may slip us by; as easily as the SIEV X met its fate.

An end to the hard line on asylum seekers is not yet to take them into our hearts and out of the arena of political point scoring. Like racing on a tight stretch of desert road we have seen the PM playing ‘chicken’ with the Georgiou gang of rebels. He dared them to blink and swerve to avoid a collision.

But outside of this drama he is running from a debate in Parliament. He may swerve but we must not let him escape the need for a Royal Commission into the whole immigration mess.
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