There’s a lot to love about Red Dog; it’s got a cute furry lead, beautiful cinematography and it makes you feel good. On Australian box office figures alone the film was hugely successful, taking $21.3 million according to a recent article in The Age newspaper, more than all the other 34 first release Australian films of 2011 combined. Red Dog won Best Picture at this month’s inaugural Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards and as an example of a film written and pitched correctly for it’s audience it was also a winner. Red Dog was written to appeal to middle Australia and it does that very well. All of these measures make the film a good barometer of current Australian culture and on the face of it I’m worried. I want to muzzle Red Dog and send him to the pound before he infects us with historio-cultural blindness! Ahh, but I shouldn’t blame the dog, he’s not the cause of the problem, merely symptomatic of it.
So what’s this film about and what does it tell us about the stories we like to watch about ourselves? Australians love animal films, remember Phar Lap, Dusty, Skippy? We also love movies about mates, think right back to Forty Thousand Horsemen, Gallipoli, Buddies and Crackerjack to name but a few of the reels spilling from the film archives. However, we’re just about beside ourselves if we get animals, mateship and it happens on the road in the rough and tumble Aussie outback, ergo, Red Dog. This is a story about a man and his dog or perhaps a dog and his master, told through the lens of mateship. The dog is a free spirit that befriends lonely men yet will not accept any master but the one it chooses itself.
One of our favourite narratives is mateship, especially in the isolation of this big harsh country. Women can threaten this bond (although they do need to exist on the sidelines to avert fears of homosexuality) but in the case of Red Dog the female lead is accepted by the dog and thus validated. However, soon after, and before the human relationship can be legitimised through marriage, the male lead is killed in an accident thus preserving the honesty and purity of the mateship relationship between man and dog while our focus returns to the dog as it searches the countryside in a romantic quest for its master.
Red Dog makes a painfully token gesture towards acknowledging Australia’s cultural diversity by introducing us to a cast of two dimensional miners who hail from other shores. Indeed there is even one Asian miner; it seems we killed all the others on the gold fields of the 19th century. And despite being set in the Pilbara there is no mention of indigenous claims to land and only one Aboriginal miner who has no speaking role (don’t want those black fellahs getting a voice now), yet the land itself features almost as a character.
The story takes place during the 1970’s so one would expect to view extremes of racism and sexism yet there was no examination of these themes and the dialogue was certainly written for a G rating. It seems the whole production has had its mouth washed out with soap. We love a light-hearted, surface level, heart-warming animal story that doesn’t ask too many awkward questions and we love to have a laugh. Humour can certainly be used to expose and reflect on unpleasant truths but this is not the case in Red Dog. Rather the film reaffirms our favourite cultural narratives and muzzles any dissenting viewpoint. As one of our most successful cultural products of recent years Red Dog says a lot about how we view ourselves and want others to perceive us. So are we still racist, sexist and in denial of our historical beginnings as a nation? Artist Ai Weiwei says “…a nation that will not search for its own past and not be critical of it is a shameless nation.” Red Dog confirms Australia as a shameless nation.