When two Finnish backpackers get some work as “bar girls” in a remote mining town, they are unaware of the culture shock they are about to experience. Hotel Coolgardie is an observational documentary showing this clash of cultures, that is at times hilarious and at others deeply disturbing. With this Western Australian filmed documentary opening this week, DAVID O’CONNELL had a talk with director Pete Gleeson about his “fly on the wall” view of this remote rural pub.
Gleeson first came across the Coolgardie’s Denver City Hotel when he was working in the area dismantling mines. It obviously made an impression, as years later he would use it as the setting for his observational documentary. “This was the local, the only local an offer. So I got to know it over the years,” explained Gleeson. “One of those places you never knew what you were going to get when you walked through the door. Always a vibe to it, and these great characters.”
Consequently the proprietor knew who he was when he called about filming the change-over of bar girls. For Gleeson this was an opportunity to explore an interesting push/pull dynamic somewhere between exploitation and opportunity. “It was a convenient transaction from both sides. Especially in mining areas where the publicans need labour, but the locals prefer the money of the mining industry. So you have holidaymakers looking for an authentic outback experience, and publicans looking for workers.” However Hotel Coolgardie portrays a very different experience to the sanitised view from films such as Crocodile Dundee, as the back-packers quickly discover.
Gleeson was also interested in how people adapt. The cultural differences, the isolation, even the lack of transportation placed Lina and Steph “kind of at the mercy of the locals.”
What is stunning about Hotel Coolgardie is how seemingly unaffected the regulars are by the camera in their midst. “The pub has been motoring along for many years. Not much was going to change just by plonking a couple of people with a camera there. They’ve seen more unusual things than that. They’d play up to us like any stranger. They celebrate their remoteness. They don’t give a fuck there’s a camera watching.”
Some of these attitudes can be shocking, especially to metropolitan audiences. At times the sexism on display seems a harsh reminder of a bygone era (but one that still exists in many strata of society). “There are a thousand Australias, it just depends on your personal experience. Hotel Coolgardie raises the question of whether we as blokes need to look to ourselves, and not blame women. It’s also about personal agency. This is a place that didn’t seem to get the memo that women have the right to determine who comes into their life and in what capacity.”
Gleeson sees that as part of the beauty of observational documentary as a style. “It allows you to go into an established cultural microcosm and observe all these things that are normalised by that. When it’s projected outside of that would you get to deconstruct it. See all the things that are extreme, or unusual or funny because of that. Speaks to the mechanics of culture in general.
As a film-maker I like to put the film out there and let other people work it out. I guess the themes it touches on are how at ease with itself Australian masculinity is, maybe less than you’d imagined. It’s also about these worlds blokes set up for themselves. The masculinity they have to display and live by can be as much a problem for them as a security.”
Which might end up the ultimate tragedy of Hotel Coolgardie, those behaviours and barriers we erect to protect ourselves, may ultimately be self defeating. “Everyone is trying to reach out to make connections but can’t.”