March of change

February 24 2018

Article written by Graeme Blundell and published in The Australian

ABC telemovie Riot explores the violent beginnings of what is today one of Australia’s greatest celebrations, the Mardi Gras.

It is almost 40 years since the original 1978 street festival turned protest that erupted into a vicious fracas with police, leaving many wounded and resulting in 53 arrests, but Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras continues to evolve as a platform for social justice for LGBTI people across Australia and around the globe.

And as new ABC telemovie Riot reveals, many of the marchers — today affectionately known as the 78ers — who danced, skipped and walked behind a truck with a small sound system, playing gay liberation anthems such as Meg Christian’s Ode to a Gym Teacherand Tom Robinson’s Glad to be Gay, are little known by the broader community these days yet they should be celebrated as cultural heroes.

“This is a huge part of our national history that a lot of people don’t know about,” says Riot’s executive producer Joanna Werner (Dance Academy). “We take for granted that Mardi Gras is a wonderful celebration and it’s so accepted, but it came from such a passionate, striving and violent beginning in an era in which people had to fight for their right to celebrate their identity.”

The film is a Werner Film production made for the ABC, produced by Werner and Louise Smith (The Square), written by Greg ­Waters ­(Secret City), himself a veteran of gay and lesbian politics, from a story from newcomer Carrie Anderson, and directed by the talented Jeffrey Walker (Ali’s Wedding).

Based on true stories, Riot focuses on the individuals who created — almost inadvertently — a celebration of diversity during a crucial moment in LGBTI history. They had little idea, concerned as they were with battling ­oppression, that by following that old truck they would bring about what this year’s organisers call four decadent decades of love, protest, ­diversity, acceptance, endurance, activism, satire, pride, family and creativity.

“The horrible irony is they didn’t want it to be a protest; they set out to do something that would be a celebration, a party that would be colourful and welcoming,” says Waters. “This was not meant to be a violent demonstration but the police lost perspective, reacted with fear and turned what should have been a joyous street party into a massive signifier of the need for social change.”

Homosexuality was a criminal act — not decriminalised in NSW until 1984 — a mental illness and against God’s will. Gay and lesbian politics were splintered, a profusion of activist groups competing for a voice, some constantly protesting, others looking for a dialogue with the mainstream. It all took place against a climate of student activism drawing on the civil rights, women’s liberation and early gay liberation movements of the US.
Riot’s story creator, Anderson, pitched to Werner Film Productions the experience of Lance Gowland, an activist who was crucial to the shape of gay and lesbian rights in the years leading up to the first Mardi Gras. The script was built around many interviews with 78ers and the children of deceased characters such as Marg McMann and Gowland, and the producers enlisted the research and consulting services of Gavin Harris and John Witte, two of the authors of publications It was a Riot! and New Dawn Dawning, which chart the history of the Mardi Gras since 1978.

The movie revolves around the energetic Gowland (Damon Herriman), an activist for various civil rights causes, obsessively drawn to the need to tell anyone who will listen about how he was once in the US and heard Martin Luther King deliver the “I have a dream” speech. Like so many dogmatists, he can be a little tiresome; he’s also a little aggressive and predatory, half the men in Sydney, it’s said, in his address book.
Gowland joins the Campaign Against Moral Persecution, which focuses on law reform and public education, where he meets other activists including McMann (Kate Box) and Robyn Plaister (Jess De Gouw), Ron Austin (Josh Quong Tart), Peter De Waal (Luke Mullins), Bon (Eden Falk), Sue Willis (Fern Sutherland) and Gabrielle Antolovich (Hanna Mangan Lawrence).

But where CAMP’s peaceful program includes media engagement and a telephone counselling service, Gowland wants to take the fight to the streets, as befits his union heritage.
Gowland meets and falls in love with a young, conservative doctor named Jim Walker (Xavier Samuel), and the couple are subjected to police harassment.

The other major plot line has Marg fighting for custody of her children, she and her partner Robyn both schoolteachers, the threat of losing their jobs by the exposure of their sexuality a constant pressure.
By 1978, their campaign to decriminalise homosexuality has ground to a halt, and they decide to make a final nonviolent attempt to make their case for acceptance. The idea comes from gregarious Ron Austin, a caring and droll figure who wanders lightheartedly in and out of the story, a man determined to bring a humorous touch to activism.

He suggests a street party, led by the lib­id­inous drag queens, “the feathers, the tits, the dance routines”, to celebrate the day and “fill Oxford Street up with people, music, lights — get them out of the bars and on to the streets, but no protests please, no aggro”. The rest is history. It is always difficult to make an effective ­politico-social film as the issues are so complex and to some extent abstract. They need to be embodied in human antagonists to make them come alive, which is what Waters and Walker have done so vividly. Their characters are both intensely portrayed and dramatic without ever being reduced to cartoons.

At times it has the look of a cinema verite film, Walker determined his treatment would remain immersive rather than dressed in the hue of a conventional nostalgic biopic, always aiming for the nuance of personal experience. “Inevitably when you’re doing a real-life story, whether those people are still living or not, you’re showing characters in extremely private moments that nobody knows,” he says in the film’s production notes.
Particularly effective is the treatment by Walker and ­cinematographer Martin McGrath of the complex political meetings sequences, approached as long, ­dynamic shots with seamless, sometimes overlapping dialogue. In some scenes there are nine or 10 people trying to be heard as they battle for their ideas, and Walker’s choreography is exact, the scripted dramatic format seeming entirely naturalistic and real, almost documentary in ­effect. Sure, it’s a message film, yet it’s not oversimplified or too heavily propagandistic but taut, intelligently con­structed and lit with moments of sharp ­humour.

McGrath is a terrific cinematographer, his work here with light and shadow and brooding nightscapes and those dimly lit interiors ­crowded with activists is always exciting to look at. He and Walker also have a keen feel for ­action, the vicious confrontations with the cops handled with exciting finesse. (There’s an old Hollywood adage: “You want to learn how to shoot a film? Learn how to shoot a fight.”)

The police are depicted with few redeeming features, hoodlums who should never have been given power over others, some of whom have the psychological makeup of closet sadists. The bashing of young Peter Murphy (Christian Byers), one of the activists, just after the march is broken up, is particularly unnerving.

It was important for the filmmakers to have Murphy’s blessing in relating that aspect of the story, to ensure they were telling it with care and authenticity. “The story of his beating really is so confronting,” says Louise Smith, “but we felt very strongly that it’s a part of the story that we had to show in detail and pay respect to.”
The ensemble acting is pitch perfect but Herriman is, as he usually is, the standout. He makes imperturbable dedication look human, if a little sad at times, Gowland a man in a state of arrested development who must fight every cause that comes his way. Herriman is always great at what film critic John Simon once called “squeezing all the juice out of a part but not chewing up its rind”.