May 27, 2016

Unredeemed goods

By Russell Marks
Unredeemed goods
Photo: Sarah Enticknap
Pawno does little more than sell nostalgia for a mythic Australian monoculture

According to nearly everything written about it so far, Pawno is the little film that could. “It’s fitting a film set on the rugged, vibrant streets of the Melbourne suburb of Footscray scrimped and struggled to make its way to film,” fawned Michael Bodey in the Australian. The story gets re-told everywhere: first time writer-director-producers Damian Hill and Paul Ireland couldn’t get finance through government funding bodies, so they crowd-sourced the first $15,000, accepted philanthropic donations (including one of $90,000, apparently) for the rest, and rented a shopfront in Barkly Street which they turned into a pawn shop. It’s the celluloid equivalent of a rags-to-riches story and Bodey lapped it up. He’s not alone.

The buzz around Pawno has been extraordinary for an independent, low-budget film. Wildly successful crowd funding. Shortlisted for the $100,000 Cinefest Oz prize. Sell-out sessions at the Melbourne International Film Festival and a Top 10 finish in its 2015 Audience Award. Four stars from David Stratton. “A love song to the film’s backdrop, the working class multicultural suburb of Footscray,” crooned Claire Slattery in the Weekly Review. “Gritty, authentic, honest, humble, and utterly beguiling,” gushed Erin Free at FilmInk.

But Pawno isn’t a “love song to Footscray” at all. The central elements are the pawn shop and 12 “intersecting” characters. The setting was originally to be Fitzroy or Collingwood, but Hill and Ireland say that Brunswick and Smith Streets are too gentrified for the story they wanted to tell.

There are many Footscrays. Like Cabramatta in Sydney, the working-class suburb became a home to a predominantly refugee population from Vietnam during the 1980s. Significant parts of the suburb, especially around the markets, are now well entrenched as a vital community and commercial centre for many of Melbourne’s Vietnamese immigrants and their children, including those who live outside it. That’s become true as well for newer waves of refugee migrants from Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan.

There’s very little of the African or Vietnamese Footscrays in Pawno. On most days the real streets are a hive of bustle and colour; in the film the streets are practically empty. Only one scene shows the iconic Footscray Market, but it must have been shot on a Sunday or Monday, when the market is closed – and in any case, the scene is external and lasts only a second or two. I counted a handful of ethnically south-east Asian people on-screen, but they were blurred and in the background, behind the mostly ethnically European cast.

Pawno might be a film about the old, working-class Anglo Footscray. The pawnshop owner is Les Underwood (The Loved Ones’ John Brumpton, in good form despite the very patchy script) and his assistant is Danny (also the film’s writer, Hill). Their customers are mostly European. The gang members and homeless pan-handlers on the street are down-and-out Anglos, with the exception of Pauly (the Indigenous Mark Coles Smith, from Last Cab to Darwin as well as a viral video response to Tony Abbott’s “lifestyle choices” comment last year).

But Pawno is not about this Footscray either. In reality all the Footscrays interact constantly, especially through commerce. This is especially true in a pawnshop. But Pawno’s pawnshop is Les’s Anglo kingdom. There are only two non-Europeans who ever enter. One is Les’s partner, Lai, played by Ngoc Phan. Ngoc speaks with an Australian accent, but for Pawno she played two white stereotypes: the Asian exhibitionist (the kind that’s also in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, with the ping-pong ball) and the shouty Asian restaurateur. The other is Harsha, an Indian dentist now delivering pizzas, played by Mark Silveira. Silveira also speaks with an Australian accent, but for Pawno he too had to play a stereotype. Implausibly, he describes the people of his new country as “fucking weird” while talking to his family – presumably still in India – on the phone in an accent reminiscent of Greg Ritchie’s Mahatma Cote.

The central plot element in Pawno is not about Footscray, either, but the burgeoning relationship between Danny and Kate (Maeve Dermody, from Paper Giants). Kate works in an independent bookshop – the kind you might find in the trendy areas of Carlton or Glebe or Yarraville, but not Footscray. The only bookshops in Footscray are Vietnamese. There is also the Co-op bookshop on the Victoria University campus, and 100 Story Building, which aims to build literacy skills among marginalised children. Perhaps the film’s bookshop is a metaphor for the suburb’s gentrification, with hipsters and young professionals attracted by the close proximity to the CBD moving into the new apartment blocks?

No, there’s little authenticity in Pawno. It’s certainly not a film of Footscray. At best it laughs at it and its “weirdness”, from the monocultural perspective of its filmmakers. “I saw this African dude walking up and down the street for a few weeks and I thought I’d ask him,” Ireland told Michael Bodey. “He looked the part, was cool, looked really good, so I said: ‘Excuse me, I’m making this film. You don’t happen to play the drums do you?’” Bodey finishes the story: “Not only did he have drums, he brought his band to the set.” For Ireland, asking a cool-looking African dude if he played drums and would be in his movie was evidence that “the gods were just shining on” him. But what that story really explains is the film’s propensity to stereotype and exploit. It’s a wonder Coles Smith wasn’t asked to dance a corroboree.

Pawno’s multiculturalism is a background aesthetic, not lived experience. “There’s something there for everyone really: some Africans, a Vietnamese woman,” Ireland also told Bodey, “so for me it shows how multicultural this country is, how big a melting pot it is for all different nationalities.”

Ireland dotted his white cast and monocultural story with multicultural tokens – “some Africans, a Vietnamese woman”, an Indian, an Aborigine – who fill roles similar to that of Mark Mitchell’s Con the Fruiterer on The Comedy Company. The rest of us are not living in the 1980s anymore, but Pawno gives the impression it still is.

If Pawno isn’t about Footscray (or indeed Fitzroy or Collingwood), perhaps it’s about the characters? David Stratton thinks they’re all “insightfully drawn”, but that’s puzzling, because they’re barely drawn at all. None of the characters develops, perhaps with the exception of Danny. We learn very little about the rest of them outside a montage toward the film’s end that confirms the tragedy that defines their lives (and deaths). All but one of the various plot elements introduced at various points – the missing son, the stolen car, the assaulted ’roid-rager, the engagement ring – go nowhere. The audience is never invited to invest in the characters, who are mostly two-dimensional stereotypes. Pawno’s form – a pastiche of working-class and underclass characters without much plot detail – is familiar to fans of British filmmaker Mike Leigh, but the execution is not. As the Guardian’s Luke Buckmaster observed, this form is “generally not fertile ground for first-time film-makers”.

The most perplexing thing about Pawno is its reception. Plenty of Australian films are orders of magnitude better without attracting a hundredth of the buzz. And although Australian film does display a bias toward white experiences, standout exceptions include The Home Song Stories, La Spagnola, Looking for Alibrandi and Floating Life. Critical reception for Pawno ranges from lavish praise to middling respect, but the film actually has very few redeeming features. The humour is anachronistic ocker; the script is badly underdeveloped; the cinematography is weak and the characters are flimsy.

All this can be forgiven in a low-budget film, and especially a local one, where the pleasure of recognition can overcome more than a few shortcomings. But Australian cinema regularly produces better, funnier, more perceptive content than Pawno. The film’s real quality is in its capacity to market both its multiculturalism and its localism, while reflecting a nostalgia among its audience for a mythic monoculture. Only about half the audience at the screening I was at were laughing, and a couple walked out partway through. I wanted to, but I also wanted to write about it. Like most popular culture, Pawno tells us something about ourselves. It’s just surprising that we’re still so keen to celebrate it.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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