Monday, 10 May 2010

Gallipoli and Identity

This story emerged this week about an Australian TV Drama casting a caucasian man to play the part of a Chinese-Australian war hero in their upcoming Gallipoli production.

I can't help but find this story interesting, particularly in regards to Gallipoli'a role in Australia's national identity.

Armistice Day doesn't actually have much importance in Australian commemoration of the war. Instead there is ANZAC Day on April 25th which marks the day the ANZAC forces landed on the beaches of Gallipoli (for my New Zealand friends in the audience I must point out that ANZAC is short for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps - so the New Zealanders were there too). The Gallipoli campaign has become a key stone in the way Australia as a nation views itself and the qualities that it aims to embody.

So far so normal. Country uses brave military sacrifice as cultural transmitter. Lets all rush and hold the front page.

It is this latest story however that has piqued my interest.

Billy Sing (the character in question) was a renowned sniper in the ANZAC forces and ended the war with the DCM and the Croix de Guerre. His father was Chinese (from Shanghai) and his mother was, orignially, from Stratford in England. His nationality was, as has been mentioned, Chinese-Australian.

The justification for casting a caucasian man to play him in this television drama (actually the director's son!) is that they couldn't find a 60 year old Chinese man to play Billy's father. The initial reaction to such a thing is; bullshit.

Now we can't overlook the possibility that the director is simply trying to crowbar his offspring into the most prominent role of the prgramme. It wouldn't be the first time that sort of thing has happened (what ever happened to Sofia Coppola...?), but for me I don't think that's it.

To me, this looks like an attempt to entirely Australianise a man (and therefore an event) which is so important to Australia's cultural identity. By making Billy Sing "fully" Australian then he can become a modern poster boy for Australian martial values, in a way that he perhaps could not be if he is of mixed parentage.

Now too be honest that has sort of been going on for a while now anyways. Gallipoli has become an Australian adventure, because they were there in prominent numbers, but then so were troops from Britain, India, New Zealand, Newfoundland and French West Africa. In many ways they have been slightly forgotten (although in Britain the campaign does not have the same resonance as the Somme or Ypres campaigns to begin with) in favour of a more overt Australian image.

Perhaps therefore it is no surprise that the TV director made this decision. Perhaps he didn't think people would notice or care. He was wrong clearly, and it's a good job that it's been jumped upon. Perhaps this is the moment when a line starts to be drawn in regards to representations of Gallipoli in Australia. It'll be interesting to see if the director forges ahead with his choice anyway.

And if people will watch it anyway.

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