|Posted on April 1, 2012 at 8:45 AM|
They’re a Weird Mob (Michael Powell 1966) presents a unique portrait of Australian society, through the eyes of an Italian immigrant. It takes place during the period of the White Australia policy, before the nation adopted multiculturalism. Thus, racial, religious, and geographic divisions are still quite pronounced, and a feeling of “us against them” pervades many of the characters. The film depicts Australia as insulated and resistant to the influences of other countries. It is a nation desperate to create its own identity, but also riddled with cultural and ethnic rifts.
The political message that underlines They’re a Weird Mob, is assimilation. The film argues that migrants are welcome in Australia, but they are expected to adopt our way of life; and sever all ties with their native tongue and culture. While the film is generally light-hearted in tone, it provides an interesting snapshot into the social conscience, prior to multiculturalism. Australian’s could not accept anyone, who rejected our culture and customs. The film depicts a country still trying to find its way, and realise its own identity.
However, the film does address the concept of multiculturalism, and even demonstrates some of its benefits. For starters, the story is told from a migrant’s perspective, and Australian culture is examined primarily through his eyes. To Nino, Australia is the strange and foreign culture, that local audiences might attach to the European migrants they expect to assimilate. The film is therefore sympathetic towards immigrants, as well as affectionate in its attitude towards the “ocker” culture they are introduced to. The film is “essentially about Nino’s acculturation” into mainstream Australia, and his “confrontation with the Australian idioms”; that is, the ocker lexicon that somewhat resembles the King’s English. However, this “acculturation” should not be seen directly assimilation. The film condones assimilation, but it condemns xenophobia. Migrants who fail to adopt the ways of the dominant culture are not excluded. This is best exemplified in the scenes on the Sydney ferry, in which drunk local is seen abusing a non-English speaking Italian family, and is thrown overboard by his fellow Australian’s. Another example is the scene at Bondi Beach, in which Nino, himself wishing to understand and adapt, is told to “swim between the flags”. There is a social desire on Australia’s part, to force conformity and unity on itself, but it is also willing to lend a hand to its newest citizens.
The film is neither fundamentally in favour of assimilation or multiculturalism. Rather like Australia at the time, it stands at a crossroads; questioning whether to pursue a unified, self-styled nation, or to celebrate and embrace all of the cultures of its diverse populace. However, the overriding theme of They’re a Weird Mob, is a struggle towards harmony, and the mending of old ethnic divides. This is best exemplified in the conversation between Nino and Kay’s father. The father is desperate to point out all of the things that make them different, and therefore unworthy of his daughter’s affections—their background, ethnicity, occupation, etc.—while Nino is only concerned with the things that make them the same.
In They’re a Weird Mob, the idea of Australian nationality can be easily acquired, since it is confined to a set of attitudes, emotions and expressions. One’s identity within society is presented as both stereotypical, and a “shifting dynamic formation”. Nino is taught that mastering these elements of language and behaviour, such as learning how to speak “ocker” and the importance of returning a “shout”, is enough to be accepted as a “true-blue Aussie”. Thus, the film undermines the whole concept of a “national character” by “stressing its arbitrary and performative nature”. Nino is able to shift freely between Italian and Australian culture, as well as middle and working class status, without ever losing his essential humanity. Likewise, Nino is taught how to perform like an Australian reciting idioms and adopting arbitrary new customs, but it is all a performance, and what’s more the Australian’s seem to know this, but carry on all the more merry. One could argue that the customs which immigrants were expected to adopt in pre-multiculturalism Australia were not that important in themselves, but rather the effort of the newcomer to embrace his new country was valued.
Despite the period in which it was shot, the film is surprisingly progressive, not just in its depiction of immigrants, but also it attitudes (brief as they are) towards Asian and Indigenous Australians. In the scene where Nino and his workmates are mucking around and throwing water on each other, a Chinese man living next door, is splashed by some water. The neighbour takes the joke well, laughing together with the mob. It speaks to a sense of community between Asian’s and Australian’s, and may represent a sort of baptism, similar to the one Nino experienced at Bondi.
Aborigines are also referenced, towards the end of the film, when Nino is imagining teaching his children to fish. He sees some Aboriginal inscriptions on a rock, and comments that Australian’s of the past would practice the same custom, further binding him to the Australian tradition he has been cultivating throughout the film. The topic of the Indigenous Australian is dropped as soon as it was brought up, but it may suggest that Nino sees himself as the new generation of Australian, following in the footsteps of the Aborigines.
They’re a Weird Mob occupies a place somewhere between these two competing social philosophies of assimilation and multiculturalism, and exemplifies a new concept of Australia that emerges from the various cultural influences that make up the fabric of its people.