As someone with a working-class background, I’m always on the lookout for films that represent the working class people and places I know. That doesn’t necessarily mean people I’ve actually met or places I’ve visited, just people and places I can relate to as a working-class person. This is why I can watch working -class films from around the world and feel a connection to the characters and their circumstances, even if they are set in Taipei or Paris.
Australian working-class films may work the same way for you, even if you’ve never been here. The films I want to recommend all fall roughly into the category of ‘art house,’ but don’t let this put you off! I’m a great fan of the genre, but I know the slow pace and lack of linear narratives in some art house films can be an acquired taste. Acquired by anyone, I should add. I don’t think you need high levels of cultural capital to enjoy an art house film – just the opportunity to watch one. I first discovered this kind of film as a teenager, when a friend and I learned that the art house cinema near our work place showed films at discounted rates. Rest assured, the films mentioned here are all compelling and powerful and (quite often) visually stunning.
You might also be worried that these films will be too grim. They do confront viewers with the reality of class experience played out on screen, and some find the social and political reality of hardship sometimes too much to bear. After all, some of us have experienced firsthand what is represented, and the films become a bit too close to home. These films don’t necessary offer an obvious positive view of working-class life at first glance, but this is because the filmmakers want to show the impact of inequality and disadvantage and life how it is. These films aren’t poverty porn, though. They are nuanced representations of working-class life (including the ugly bits sometimes). They also depict resilience, community, and humor — one of the films is a comedy! I find them empowering and powerful.
Samson and Delilah (2009): Warwick Thornton’s visually stunning and ultra-cinematic film about two Aboriginal teenagers who leave their remote community and head to town. This film shows the legacies of devastating colonizing practices and how a class system imposed on Aboriginal people has led to continuing inequality.
Toomelah (2011): Ivan Sen’s low-budget story about a young Aboriginal boy in country New South Wales. It’s a no-holds barred, hand-held camera portrayal of the boy’s community but the film doesn’t just depict poverty. The sense of community is very strong in this film.
Thornton and Sen are part of a wave of Indigenous filmmakers making their mark on the Australian film industry and gaining attention worldwide. For more on their work and on Indigenous film in Australia in general, have a look at Australian Screen Online.
Head On (1998): Sexuality, ethnicity, and class are explored in Ana Kokkinos’s adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ novel Loaded. The protagonist, Ari is a young gay working-class man from a Greek background. He has to negotiate his position within these communities, and he does so with the help of plenty of sex and drugs!
Blessed (2009): Also directed by Ana Kokkinos, this film is desperately sad but is ultimately about the power of love and family and the resilience of working-class women. Be warned, though: the ending is absolutely devastating.
Little Fish (2005): Rowan Woods’s film about a recovering heroin addict attempting to find her feet in the working-class suburb of Cabramatta in Sydney. Cate Blanchett is fantastic in this drama – her character faces continual judgement from those familiar with her past.
Kenny (2006): A very funny and affectionate mockumentary from Clayton Jacobson starring Kenny the plumber. Kenny takes on the really dirty jobs (he’s responsible for maintaining portable toilets at events), and his observations of the people (mainly middle class) who use his facilities are wry and insightful.
The Boys (1998): Another intense drama from Rowan Woods exploring the potential negative and sometimes violent side to working-class masculinity. This film is an adaptation of a stage play and is a close-in dialogue driven drama. It’s extremely menacing and atmospheric.
West (2007): Daniel Krige’s tale of two unemployed cousins trying to make their way in the disadvantaged suburbs of western Sydney. This film demonstrates the limited choices for those who grow up in disadvantage. A bit grim this one.
Somersault (2004): A story from Cate Shortland about a teenage girl who runs away from home and finds herself out of her depth in a small country town. This is a beautifully shot and slow paced film.
There are many more fantastic Australian films and a whole history of working-class representation in Australian film (from the very beginning of the industry – you could start with The Sentimental Bloke from 1919). Hopefully this list of films will give you somewhere to start, and you may well develop an appreciation of Australian film, which tends to be a bit neglected even at home.
Sarah Attfield is a working-class academic currently teaching in the communications program at the University of Technology, Sydney.