Rabbit Unrest

By Joy Damousi

celia-ann-turner.jpgCelia, 1989

Celia fuses childhood and cold war paranoia with a dreamlike precision

In Ann Turner’s 1988 rites-of-passage drama Celia, we have a representation of how Cold War politics can conflate public and private life; how childhood becomes an effective means of exploring the public, private and psychological dimensions of tragedy and how a female child attempts to negotiate the ambiguities and tensions of parental and childhood relationships. What makes this film remarkable is the way in which it uses the chief protagonist to internalize the paranoia, fears, anguish and rituals of persecution expressed and practiced by the adults during the Cold War, set in the claustrophobia of suburban Melbourne, Australia. In order to shed light on the film, we need to consider, firstly, some aspects of anti-Communism and suburbia in Australia during the 1950s.

Although Australians did not find themselves as gripped by the Cold War as their counterparts throughout the world, the influence was still inescapable. With conservative Prime Minister Robert Menzies at the helm, the Australian political landscape was constructed by those in power in such a way that the Communist threat was perceived to be everywhere. In the media, in parliament and in daily life, the communist bogey was used to strengthen conservative forces and create paranoia, suspicion and heightened fear of invasion. In daily life, communists were seen as an evil cancer threatening normality, conformity and all that was important to the Australian way of life. The Cold War created a climate where undesirable categories of people – the communist amongst them – should be rooted out of society.

Prime Minister Menzies attempted to convince the Australian population that the Communist menace was prevalent and highly dangerous. In 1950, he launched a campaign to ban the Communist Party and in 1951 held a national referendum. Many opposed this move on the grounds that it was a threat to the freedom of speech and civil liberties; those who were not necessarily communists said these efforts by the government were unjust and could not be justified in a democracy. Although the government proposals were defeated by a narrow margin, fear of Communism dominated political debate in Australia from 1945 to 1951. But these fears were ill-founded. In international politics, the beginning of the Korean War in 1950 confirmed for some the fears of Communist expansion, while the Petrov Affair in 1954, where Russian diplomats in Australia were accused of being spies, promoted the idea of the Communist enemy spreading from within and aiming to destroy society. In reality, Australians did not embrace Communist ideologies and practices. The 1950s was an affluent decade; the call for radical political overthrow of the government did not gain many adherents beyond a small minority.

celia-ann-turner-2.jpgCelia, 1989

In Celia, the ways in which we get a sense of the claustrophobia of Cold War politics and the way it was framed by a notion of the disease from within is portrayed through the setting of suburbia. The public, political aspects of the Cold War intersect with the private world of suburban life to reconstruct the conservatism of public and private politics in the 1950s. Celia reconstructs a time during the post-war years when Australia became increasingly suburban and with it the nuclear family and domesticity and marriage. The film captures the conservative, conformist home bound family life with a sharpness of detail, perception and deft irony rarely found in Australian cinema. This life frames and reinforces the conservative and paranoid fears of the 1950s in regard to Communist infiltration and influence.

The young family of Ray and Pat Carmichael and their daughter Celia is shown to be a beacon of respectability. But, beneath that facade of suburban tranquility, lies a darker reservoir of dissatisfaction - reflected perhaps in the tensions in Ray and Pat's marriage, when Ray 'goes drinking' and in Ray's restlessness in his flirtation with the newly arrived Alice, but also, in the tensions, paranoia and fears internalized by Celia herself. Beyond this there are several powerful themes that bind the film.

Childhood and Memory

The film is framed within the eyes of a child and is about childhood and memory. Memories shape how we remember our past, but it is the family and family stories that connect each of us to our parents which becomes the basis of our individual identity and family identity.

The imaginary life of the child is explored with great force in Celia: the children are active agents, not shadows of their parents, nor is their play idealized or romanticized as we often see in films about childhood. Play becomes spontaneous and free, but the relationships between the children are more ambiguous, less straightforward and reflect the intense love/hate, loyalties that define childhood interactions. The rituals of persecution and execution by the children replicate the persecution rituals of the parents. More interestingly, we are presented with the reduction of the 'self' to savagery.

In the same way that Lord of the Flies represents the darker shadows of human nature when the boys marooned on an island, and removed from the restraints of school, family and society are reduced to 'savagery', so too in Celia, do the children behave in an unconditioned, un-socialized way to let their inner psychological depths spring to the surface, and which motivates to plot the death of those around them. The oppressive restraints of suburban life are relinquished in the quarry - representing the vast expanse of the unconscious - where the tensions, fears and heightened anxieties of the children are played out and ritualized. The realm of fantasy and reality conflate, and are drawn symbolically in the end, when Celia replays the earlier cinematic scenes and she replicates the moral confusion in these representations.

Loyalties and Disloyalties

The themes of loyalty and disloyalty, allegiance and support are themes that are fitting for a film set in the Cold War period. Blood rituals and bonding between the children in the gangs, as well as Celia's loyalty towards the Tanner children, point to the wider question of support at what cost. When Ray presents Celia with a rabbit, on the condition that she no longer plays with the Tanners because of their Communist allegiance and who are 'bad people', Celia refuses to agree; for in this battle of loyalties - to her father or to her friends - Celia is clear about her allegiance. Similarly, when the fight breaks out at the Quarry, Celia stays with the Tanner boys, risking further reprimand. And later, she insists, the Tanners are not hurting anyone - but Ray continues to pull at her allegiance – and she is grounded for a week. When Celia hears of the Tanners’ father being sacked, she needs a moral explanation of an amoral situation. In these frameworks we can see those Cold War themes of inclusion and exclusion, trust and distrust shaping the film’s narrative.

celia-ann-turner-3.jpgCelia, 1989

Relationships Between Women

Celia's relationship with her grandmother, Alice, Heather and Stephanie are not idealized but are given a roundedness and complexity often lacking in Australian films. In a fascinating interchange between the unconscious and conscious, Celia identifies with Gran as a rebel, as someone who rejected the values of her political milieu. The film opens with Gran's death - and throughout the film, her imagined presence comes to represent an emotional and spiritual retreat for Celia who is seen to inherit Gran’s rebelliousness. Through Celia we are shown the sacrifices and struggles Gran made for her Communist inclinations and sympathies; Celia becomes her personified spirit, which, despite suppression, continues to linger.

If Gran comes to represent the public and spiritual world, Alice is for Celia her contemporary maternal and unconditional supporter. It is no coincidence that we are told that Gran looks like Alice - for Celia a moment of identification with both women. The story of Communist infiltrators comes to be told through Alice's experience - as she is shown to be an assertive, outspoken supporter of Communist principles. But it is also the experience of the Communist wife: shown to be responsible for domestic duties while hard politics is left to the men; she is the one who has to move the children, and organize resettling whenever anything 'goes wrong'. Alice is strong and a tower of strength: 'stand firm' she tells Celia's mother, as they depart, in a moment of solidarity. These are positive, assertive and intelligent role models for women.

In other relations, this film steadfastly avoids romanticizing or idealizing relationships with girls - it is not a sentimentalized representation enveloped within a romantic hue. Stephanie becomes the rival - she brands Celia’s rabbit, and her gang and Celia become hostile and fierce towards each other.

celia-ann-turner-4.jpgCelia, 1989

These relationships mark off Celia from other Australian films in that they focus on women's relationships, and in doing so, resist, redefine and challenge the so-common conflation of male bonding and Australian nationalism - seen in films such as Breaker Morant, Sunday Too Far Away and Gallipoli.

Father and Daughter

The final point to make about the film is that like other films of childhood we have seen, the father figure looms large, psychologically. The ambiguous, contradictory and complex relationship between Ray Carmichael and his daughter assumes a complicated love-hate dynamic, one defined by the morality of loyalty and disloyalty. As the disciplinarian - Carmichael thrashes Celia and forbids her contact with the Tanners. Yet he shows compassion when Celia and he go fishing, and defends Celia's right to retain her rabbit during the muster. The representation here of a more nuanced, complex relationship between daughter and father is so rarely encapsulated in Australian film.

 Power and Politicians

The other strategy this film adopts to convey that inextricable intersection between public and private life is through the rabbit muster of the 1950s, ordered by Henry Bolte, the long-serving conservative Victorian premier between 1955-1972. Bolte responded to the rabbit plagues that inflicted the Victorian countryside by banning rabbits and insisting they be destroyed or sent to, and housed in, the Melbourne Zoo. When parents and children attempted to later retrieve them, mayhem ensued. The plague of the rabbits is also suggestive of the plague of another sort, the disease within the community.

celia-ann-turner-5.jpgCelia, 1989

The film takes this incident not only to highlight the ludicrousness of government actions and bureaucracies by creating one problem to solve another, but also as a way in which public and private life is shaped in the 1950s by fear and over-reaction. This is also symbolized by the mock hangings, which echo the hanging ordered by Bolte of Ronald Ryan – the last man to be hung in Australia in 1967.

Celia unsettles our view of the 1950s as a period of easy psychological containment and as a period unproblematic in its homogeneity. The film presents us with an interplay of the psychological and political; the complex world of the adult and child; of memory and history - in the setting of the 1950s which, as we have seen, tightly cast a conservative ideological net around private and political life. In a haunting and foreboding way, Celia also points to the ruptures which would soon emerge - both in the conservatism of politics and in the repressions of private life - during the 1960s and which would sweep aside all the fragile understandings, assumptions and certainties scrutinized in this compelling and powerful film.

Celia is available on dvd from www.secondrundvd.com

Professor Joy Damousi is professor of history and head of the School of Historical Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She has published widely on aspects of Australian social, cultural and intellectual history.