Sunday, August 3, 2008

Entertaining information

As I've pointed out already, French people can be intrigued when they hear me talk. I've got a slightly strange accent, which people can rarely pin down, whereas my French grammar is fine and I use a good vocabulary. So, I'm often asked, politely, where I'm from. As soon as I say Australia, people are more intrigued than ever. First, there aren't many of us here in France, so we're rare birds. Second, there has been so much hype over the years about Australia being an exotic earthly paradise that French people are frankly surprised that any Australian citizen would decide to dwell in such an everyday place as France.

Last night, on prime-time TV, I watched a two-hour documentary about Australia. I make a point of watching such stuff because it's generally entertaining. Besides, the next time I'm called upon to tell a French person where I come from, he or she is likely to enhance the conversation with facts from this latest TV documentary about Australia. So, it's a good idea for me to keep abreast of such background information.

What amused me, yesterday evening, was that the French producer used a simple recipe that tricked viewers (and even the Télérama critic) into thinking that we were watching an original travelogue. He had simply unearthed half a dozen more or less exotic video sequences in remote corners of the continent. Then he concocted a map in which we see an animated kangaroo hopping from one place to the next, while the human presenter talked as if he and his camera crew were actually traveling along the same itinerary as the kangaroo, in a vaguely east-to-west journey across Australia. To make it look like an authentic travelogue, the presenter did in fact get himself filmed, two or three times, against a conventional Australian background. For example, there was a short conversation between the presenter and an old Aborigine seated on the ground alongside Uluru, doing his TV duties, who trotted out all the standard banalities: legends from tribal elders, the sacred rocks, the Dream Time, etc. In reality, I had already seen most of the video sequences in this allegedly new production, since some of them were four or five years old.

The show opened with shots of the boxing troupe of Fred Brophy in Queensland.

When I was a kid in Grafton, that was a popular attraction during the three-day agricultural show. I liked to watch the presentation of the boxers outside the tent, and the manager's call for challengers, enticing them with the promise of monetary gains. The proceedings were accompanied by the clanging of a brass bell and the pounding of a bass drum, which combined to produce a kind of martial music. Inside the tent, once the show actually got under way, the atmosphere was sweaty and spartan, almost sordid, since there was nothing like a real ring.

The TV kangaroo then hopped towards a remote place where we were able to see the Outback postal service in action.

Curiously, the aircraft was carrying three paying passengers: tourists doing the round trip with the postman. At one stop, as they waited in the shade of a tree, brushing flies from their faces, these one-day visitors expressed their astonishment that people could actually live permanently in the places they were discovering.

The next sequence was frankly surrealistic. It showed preparations for an open-air desert ball at a spot named Curdimurka. You might think of it as the Outback equivalent of an opera weekend at Glyndebourne in England, or maybe a small-scale reincarnation of a remote Woodstock. Since this get-together was taking place in Australia, where distances are vast, the future dancers arrived in private aircraft, with their ball attire in suitcases. All the images were dominated by signs of heat, dust and wind, with the promise of showers under punctured food cans wired to overhead taps. TV viewers might well wonder whether these people were really having a ball, as the saying goes... but let's suppose so. At the scheduled time for the ball to get under way, a terrible sand storm blew up. The TV documentary didn't really tell viewers what happened after that unexpected intrusion of the elements. By searching on the Internet, I learned that the sand storm stopped the dancing in the desert back in 2004, and the concept of the Curdimurka Ball, imagined as a regular two-yearly event, died too on that hot windy evening.

Next, the documentary skipped to a presentation of the Aboriginal star David Gulpilil, first on stage for his one-man show at the Adelaide Festival of Arts in 2004, and then at his home place in the Northern Territory.

Seeing this charming fellow [looking much younger than in the above photo] strutting around behind the jawbones of a crocodile or the skull and horns of a buffalo has much the same effect upon me as watching Crocodile Dundee or Steve Irwin in filmed action. A little bit goes a long way.

At one point in the documentary, we saw this celebrated pub on the Oodnadatta Track. The guy in charge looked a little like a wanted Serbian war criminal in disguise.

It must be bloody uncomfortable to have a big beard like that, in the dust and heat, particularly when you've also got into the habit of wearing a hat indoors... but maybe it plays a positive role in keeping the flies away. And you can drink beer non-stop to keep cool.

There were countless other exotic anecdotes in the two-hour documentary. We saw an Aboriginal chef collecting witchetty grubs in the bush and cooking them for customers of his fashionable city restaurant. We saw fellows wading through a crocodile-infested swamp to obtain eggs for a local farm that breeds salt-water crocodiles for leather. We saw helicopters being used to round up cattle and camels. Etc, etc.

All in all, it was a worthwhile evening of entertainment for me. The next time French people, hearing my accent, ask me where I'm from, I'm determined to spin a hell of a good yarn. I'll tell them that, while flying on a Qantas plane from my camel ranch near Darwin for a weekend opera outing in Sydney, my seat dropped out through a big hole in the floor of the Boeing, whereupon I landed in a swamp full of crocodiles, with dingoes roaming around on the shore. I've still got to work out how I got safely from there up to Paris, but that shouldn't be too difficult. Maybe, for inspiration, I need to watch a few more good Aussie travelogues of the "made in France" kind.

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