Peter M Howard ::

Rehearsing for Fourty Thousand Years; On Cultural Curiosity

10Apr2006 [myth]

Having watched the latest Australian Tourism ad I'm starting to wonder if it was banned simply because it's such an awful ad. Sure, I know tourism is sold on cultural curiosity, but that's usually left as a subtext -- there's very little to be gained in the long term by simply exoticising. And I thought the country had grown up a little in the last few years, particularly in the way it marketed itself to the rest of the world. But this latest ad represents a significant regression. Admittedly, they have to differentiate, but this is just nasty. Plus it looks like it was extremely expensive to shoot, which is money seriously wasted.

The ad sets up a series of shots of 'iconic' Australian scenes: the outback pub, the outback ranch, the outback, that big rock in the middle of the outback, Aborigines in the outback, a golf course which must be somewhere in the outback, cause how else does one explain the kangaroos. And the beach of course, though that's mainly just Lara Bingle in a bikini. Each of these has someone speaking to camera, telling the viewer that Australia is open and ready for their tourist dollars: "we've poured you a beer", "your taxi's ready", &c... (I'll mention that there is some clever incongruity with some of these lines, suggesting that things are a little different here: the beer is somewhere in the outback, the taxi is a boat on the harbour, the front gate is a hundred kilometers across the outback). As if making Australia into a Croc Dundee-esque curiosity isn't bad enough, there's a spectacularly awful scene in which a handful of Aborigines dance in front of Uluru, decked out in traditional gear; the lead girl says "We've been rehearsing for fourty thousand years". That's right, the entire long history of Aboriginal culture has been reduced to a rehearsal, so that they'd be ready to entertain the white man when he arrives.

So I've been thinking about cultural curiosity lately. It kicked off back when I saw The Constant Gardener, a truly awful movie that wastes much time exoticising Africa -- images of cute little African kids (poor people are happy) and fly-overs of big African landscapes. It might as well be a tourism ad itself. Then there's the Aussie tourism ad, which turns Australia and the Aborigines into curiosities (to say nothing of completely ignoring the cities, which conveniently means only showing White Australia). And there's the biggest problem with cultural curiosity: it's reductive. And that's what the worst of tourism is all about: reducing the destination to a curiosity, something to look at, to take photos of, but not to engage with. (See that, it's all take).

I was reminded of all this yesterday, watching the French news on SBS. There was a brief update on the Italian elections, followed by a long report about Catholicism in Italy, and its influence on the elections. The eventual conclusion was that the Church doesn't actually endorse either side, &c, but it was full of references turning Catholic Italy into a curiosity: it opened with a Sunday mass, saying that what was taught there would be remembered all week (it being the day before the polls); it spoke to an Italian couple who said their beliefs influence their entire lives; it spoke to one Italian who said she'd vote for the candidate who supported Christian Values (both do); it showed numerous shots of Vatican officials, and spoke of Berlusconi visiting the Pope; and it closed with a childrens soccer game, between two parish teams -- the local priest says a brief prayer before the game and the reporter cracks a (not very funny, and as such, typically French) joke about the separation between Church and Football. Now if this was just a report about Catholicism as it's practiced in a modern, European nation, then it'd be fine. But all told, the report turned Italy into a curiosity, made it out to be unenlightened, and basically said: "gee, be glad we got rid of this meddlesome Church or they'd be controlling our country too" (a nonsense on both counts, but still a truism in France).

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