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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 6 – State High School Blues in the Early 1980s 119


119 CHAPTER 6 State High School Blues in the Early 1980s I see the schools as a model of how Australia works and that was what I was trying to do with the school in Fast Talking, it is a hierarchy where the teachers oppress the junior teachers and the junior teachers are on top of the prefects and the prefects oppress the kids – that is a model of this society really.1 By the start of 1980s, the school film was established as a significant part of the high cultural tone of the 1970s Australian film renaissance. While the 1970s school films self-consciously represented the post colonial nation in school-based narratives, the representation of schools and schooling in films of the first half of the 1980s charted a very different course. Rather than artful explorations of coming of age in decorous private schools, the school films of the 1980s convey the harsh, alienated worlds of young people inside (and outside) of the urban state school system. They are the Australian equivalent of the ‘sordid fantasies’ of urban high schools identified by James Trier in Hollywood films such as The Principal (1987) and Lean on Me (1989).2 Even the private school in the acclaimed coming-of-age melodrama, based on the partly autobiographical book by Sumner Locke Elliott, Careful He Might Hear You (1983), is shown as a nasty breeding ground of snobbery and student cruelty. The shift to a gritty social realist portrayal of state schools and schooling was signalled by...

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