Film Review: Wrong Side of the Road.

Film Review Series by Lance Sinclair.

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This week State Library of Queensland’s cinephile, Lance Sinclair, reviews Wrong Side of the Road.

The AFI Award winning Wrong Side of The Road, released in 1981, challenged mainstream views about Aboriginal life and provided a platform to impart Aboriginal music, culture and political views to a wider audience. Few Australian films had given the Aboriginal community the opportunity to express their political, cultural and social realities through music and lyrics, covering issues such as race relations, land rights, deaths in custody and identity.

Wrong Side of the Road, named after a song from South Australian band 'Us Mob', is a drama documentary with autobiographical elements. It features the band 'Us Mob' and Aboriginal music legend Bart Willoughby, an original member of the South Australian Aboriginal band 'No Fixed Address'. The film also showcases music and musicians involved in the Centre of Aboriginal Studies.

The film was produced and co-written by Graeme Isaac, and directed by Ned Lander, an independent filmmaker, writer, director and producer, who also produced Last Cab to Darwin (2015) and Radiance (1998).

Lander was the former head of SBS Independent, has produced, written and directed award-winning drama and documentary films, producing a culturally significant body of work, including, the genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? and the series, First Australian Nations, chronicling Australia’s Indigenous history.

Wrong Side of The Road, featuring a mostly Indigenous cast, voices Indigenous perspective and, as its promotional poster suggests, shows the viewer "48 hours on our side of town".

Image from film Wrong Side of the Road, directed by Ned Lander, produced by George Isaac, streamed on Kanopy database.

WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD

To my recollection, there’s never been a movie quite like Wrong Side of the Road. We’re in an age where music documentaries and bio-pics are in ascendance, but this film- now forty years on from its origin, retains a truth and power very rarely seen in the self-serving world of rock star back-slapping and self-congratulation that has been dominating screens for the past few years.

Director Ned Lander, already a well-established documentarian, was given the job of making this unique piece of work, a fictionalized version of 48 hours in the lives of two South Australian Indigenous bands – the reggae/rock hybrid 'No Fixed Address', and their frequent touring partners, the heavier 'Us Mob'. With a script that pulls together both real-life anecdotes from the bands and their large circle of family and friends, mixed with improvisation and live performances, these musicians would play themselves and hopefully produce a document that would stand as a time capsule of emotive truth.

And they succeeded, gloriously so.

The film Suburbia, written and directed by Penelope Spheeris, and coming out in 1983, comes close to the aesthetic of Wrong Side with its mixture of professional actors and homeless Los Angeles street punks playing themselves and re-enacting their day to day lives – stealing, fighting and wrecking their own venues. But Suburbia is an exploitation film, both cartoonishly exaggerating the lives of its subjects and inviting us to gawk at their “other-ness”. It’s a fantasy, and not one that demands any empathy from its audience.

Wrong Side of the Road is a very different experience. We spend time with these characters, not only in the intimately shot live performances but on the long, unrewarding drives that 'Us Mob' and 'No Fixed Address' have to make, we follow them as they look for jobs in a hostile environment, look for lost family members, make mistakes and celebrate small victories. And always, looming over every aspect of their lives is the shadow of white authority – from the open hostility of the police raids on their concerts to the obtuse condescension faced by Les of 'No Fixed Address' as he tries to navigate a legal system geared against him in the search for his birth mother. The generational trauma of stolen generations is not only present in all of the domestic sequences in the film, but explicit in the story of drummer/vocalist Bart as we flash back to his institutionalised childhood in scenes that are all the more chilling through their oppressive, grey mundanity.

Much like the films of Robert Altman, the dialogue and performances in Wrong Side are naturalistic, weaving between conversations and scenarios without lingering, as though we’re a participant in the proceedings – catching snippets of people’s lives and dreams without having them monologued directly at us. It’s immersive, and one of the film’s greatest strengths. The lack of separation between the music of the bands and the side players in the story reinforce the strength of the art, in a way that’s far more profound than the traditional audience/performer separation that has been reinforced by popular music since the mid 20thcentury. This is community in action, not vanity and false worship.

What makes it work though, as a story, is that there is an actual narrative thrust to the movie. Starting in-media-res with the raid on one of their urban shows, we go out, further away from the city and towards the triumphant, incendiary outback gig that makes the heartache and catastrophe on the way worth it, if only for a brief moment  before the road and all of its trials come calling again.

Further reading

  • "Wrong side of the road". Beattie, Keith. Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine, No. 187, 2016: 114-121 (article)
  • "The Face". Sexton, Jennifer. Weekend Australian; Canberra, A.C.T. [Canberra, A.C.T] 03 Nov 2001: R03 (article
  • "The rise of Indigenous film and television". Krausz, Peter. Independent Education, Vol. 43, No. 1, Apr 2013: 34 (article
  • Reverse Shots : Indigenous Film and Media in an International Context / Gay Pearson, W. &  Knabe, S. (eds), Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2014 (ebook)
  • Directory of World Cinema: Australia & New Zealand / Goldsmith, B. & Lealand, G. (eds), Intellect, Bristol, 2010 (ebook)
  • The Difference Identity Makes / Bamblett, L., Myers, F. & Rowse, T. (eds), Aboriginal Studies Press, Sydney, 2019 (ebook)

Join Lance on Tuesday 5 May at 4pm for a Q&A session on State Library of Queensland’s Facebook page.

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