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Reel Schools

Schooling and the Nation in Australian Cinema

Josephine May

Reel Schools takes a fresh look at the history of Australian schooling through the lens of Australian cinema from the silent era until 2010. In exploring the relationship between cinematic representation and educational history, Josephine May shows how numerous Australian feature and documentary films offer access to powerful vernacular imaginings about school education in Australia.
May argues that the cinematic school is a pervasive metaphor for the Australian nation. She demonstrates that, while Australian films about schooling have consistently commented on the relationship of schooling to the Australian class structure, they also increasingly explored gender, race and ethnicity at school, especially after the 1970s. From then on the egalitarian dream of school education and the nation’s capacity to generate meaningful futures for the young became increasingly contested.


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CHAPTER 4 – Nation and the Girls’ Boarding School in the 1970s 73


73 CHAPTER 4 Nation and the Girls’ Boarding School in the 1970s Cultures define themselves in opposition to other cultures, by establishing what they are not. In most cultural arenas, Australia had articulated its national identity through the opposition to Britain or Europe.1 In times of crisis […] the nation is configured as feminine.2 While the period discussed in the preceding chapter was a relatively quiet time for Australian filmmakers, a great flowering of feature filmmaking occurred during the 1970s when two hundred and forty feature films were made. This is now known widely as the Australian film ‘renaissance’, ‘revival’, or ‘new wave’. Australian feature films of the 1970s explored Australia’s postcolonial situation in new and culturally invigorating ways. What is interesting is that frequently these filmmakers utilised the school, especially the private secondary school, to tell nationalist stories promoting the need for young Austra- lia to break away from outmoded ‘British’ ways of being, and forge its own identity. The 1970s was another time of heightened change and burgeon- ing national consciousness, as was the 1890s when moving pictures were first introduced to Australia. This renewed interest in questions of national identity was epitomised by the election of the Whitlam Government with its explicit campaign to locate Australian national- ism in the Australian polity, rather than to share cultural ownership of 1 Graeme Turner, ‘The genres are American: Australian narrative, Australian film, and the problem of genre’, Literature Film Quarterly, vol. 21, issue 2, 1993: 102–112, p. 107. 2...

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