"Mystery Road"

Through this mean scrub must walk a man who is not himself mean Photo: Supplied

BECAUSE we don’t like to see our own movies (unless they sentimentalise us, like Red Dog, or pretend to be American, like The Great Gatsby), Australians have missed the rise of a trend. It turns out that our filmmakers have become adept at making small flicks about sleazy criminals.

It sounds odd to use the label “noir” for these movies, because “film noir” was coined by French critics to describe thrillers that happened at night on mean streets, slick with rain, in seedy cities of America. Oznoirs usually play out on the neat streets of sunny suburbia, or in the middle of a red desert.

The most talked-about television events of 2013 were the final episode of Breaking Bad and the “red wedding” episode of Game of Thrones ... neither attracted more than 150,000 viewers on Australian TV. 

But they still contain the essence of noir – which is a cynical view of human nature as being corruptible, greedy, deceptive and vengeful. Mystery Road, showing next Sunday on ABC1, is wholeheartedly in that tradition. And it deserves the label “noir” for another reason – it’s about a black cop investigating crimes committed upon the Aboriginal community.

Jackie Weaver in Animal Kingdom

A mean mother in Animal Kingdom

Scholars would say the genre we now call Oznoir started with Wake in Fright, back in 1971 – a tale of small town evil, just like Mystery Road. Our next classic noir was Two Hands (1999), all about petty crims --  both likeable (Heath Ledger) and unlikeable (Bryan Brown) -- in Kings Cross and Bondi. It was played mostly for laughs, but it had the requisite seediness to join the genre.

Other examples worth renting or downloading are Dead Heart (1996), Lantana (2001), Getting Square (2003), Little Fish (2005), Animal Kingdom (2010), and 100 Bloody Acres (2013).

All of them were clear influences on Ivan Sen, who wrote, directed, edited, and composed the music for Mystery Road. But his major influence was his own upbringing. Although he now lives in China, he’s the son of an Aboriginal mother and a Croatian father, and he experienced the justice system as a teenager in Tamworth.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Raymond Chandler's <i>The Big Sleep</i>.

The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler's notorious noir

He told Garry Maddox of The Sydney Morning Herald that Mystery Road was inspired by the murders of three Aboriginal girls who were part of his extended family.

"The cops don't care," he said. "Because of all the social problems around indigenous people, they spend all their time locking blackfellas up. So when they come to them for help, there's a reluctance. It's like 'Don't come to me asking for help, I'm trying to find your brother to throw him in jail'."

Every true noir requires one man to rise above the seediness and protect the innocent when the authorities are too cowardly or corrupt to act.

Michelle Fairley starring as Catelyn Stark in Game Of Thrones.

A guest at the red wedding in Game Of Thrones.

As Raymond Chandler wrote: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.”

In Mystery Road, that man is played by Aaron Pederson, who grew up in Alice Springs and has his own understanding of Australia’s mean streets and tracks.

The film was shown in cinemas briefly last year but sold only $350,000 worth of tickets – further evidence of Australians’ reluctance to embrace their own stories on the big screen.

We take a different view of Australian stories on the small screen, preferring the likes of Underbelly, Packed To The Rafters and A Place To Call Home to any US or British dramas.

Next Sunday (January 26) at 8.30pm, ABC1 will give us an opportunity to develop a taste for Oznoir.

Go to Comments to discuss your favourite Oznoirs.

The puzzle of Pay

The 7.2 million Australians who have access to Pay TV are a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma – in other words, a weird mob.

They are offered first sighting of some the world’s greatest television dramas, but instead they prefer to watch footy and cricket, which are available by the wagonload on free TV.

In the English-speaking world, the most talked-about television events of 2013 were the final episode of Breaking Bad and the “red wedding” episode of Game of Thrones, in which most of the best-loved characters were stabbed to death. Both were shown on Foxtel channels within hours of their US showings, but neither attracted more than 150,000 viewers on Australian TV.

In the US, the zombie extravaganza The Walking Dead was the highest rating drama series of 2013. Here on the FX channel, its peak audience was 195,000 for the episode of March 5.

The most watched programs on pay were the Australia v Iraq soccer match on June 18, which pulled 550,000 to FoxSports3; the First Test cricket match between England and Australia on July 14 (496,000 for FoxSports2) and an AFL match between Hawthorn and Geelong on September 20 (485,000 for FoxFooty).

The most watched non-sporting programs were Selling Houses Australia (242,000 on LIfeStyle); Men in Black 3 (225,000 on Foxtel Movies Premiere); Grand Designs Australia (217,000 on Lifestyle); Oprah Winfrey interviews Lance Armstrong (217,000 on Discovery); and Australia’s Next Top Model (216,000 on Fox8).

Maybe this year the subscribers will discover what they’ve been missing.

The Tribal Mind column, by David Dale, appears in a printed form every Sunday in The Sun-Herald, and also as a director's cut on this website, where it welcomes your comments.

David Dale teaches communications at UTS, Sydney. He is the author of The Little Book of Australia - A snapshot of who we are (Allen and Unwin). For daily updates on Australian attitudes, bookmark The Tribal Mind.