By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.

Sydney filmmakers Jim Weir and Jack Clark turn the mirror inwards to examine the conditions where, if left unchecked, certain kinds of male social relationships can grant violence against women a space to flourish.”

Launched in 2021, the Australian government-supported Our Watch organization rolled out the “Doing Nothing Does Harm” initiative. According to its official website,

“Violence against women begins with disrespect. This is a national problem, deep in our culture and society. By challenging disrespect towards women, we can change this culture and ultimately prevent violence against women.”

In a series of videos that appeared across social media and beyond, the messaging was clear. Short vignettes would show a range of different men engaging in varied displays of so-called “casual” sexism, leaving other men clearly uncomfortable but silent. Rewinding the video and playing the same scene back again, the second time around these male witnesses would speak up, articulating physically, verbally or through a combination of both that these attitudes are unacceptable. The messaging was consolidated through on-screen text reading things like “When you see someone being disrespected, show it’s not OK”, “Next time do something”, and “When you see women being disrespected, support them”.

While hardly as didactic in tone as these public service announcements, no one can accuse the Australian film Birdeater of not understanding the assignment. To be clear, Birdeater is not a film “about” violence against women as such – rather, Sydney filmmakers Jim Weir and Jack Clark turn the mirror inwards to examine the conditions where, if left unchecked, certain kinds of male social relationships can grant violence against women a space to flourish. They effectively take the essence of “Doing Nothing Does Harm” campaign and craft around it an electrifying and fearless exploration of the nuances of toxic masculinity, and its particular manifestation in the context of Australian “mateship”.

In this sense alone, they accomplish a remarkable juggling act. While the things the Our Watch campaign and Birdeater have to say are of course sadly universal, through the cultural lens of mateship, friendship-above-all-else is nothing less than a culturally beatified manifestation of the nation’s sacred Anzac spirit. According to this legend forged in the fires of World War I, Australia at its best is defined through everything the Anzac soldiers stood for – loyalty, courage, and a specific mode of Australian larrikinism, a distinct kind of rough-around-the-edges rowdiness marked by laconic humor and unpolished manners. And make no mistake: above all else, mateship is a distinctly white, male affair.

My journey with Birdeater has been an unusual one. The first time I saw it, it wasn’t simply that I just didn’t like it but that I was openly hostile to it, for reasons that I could not fully articulate. Birdeater stuck in my critical craw: it’s beautifully made, well-crafted, and punches well above its weight for an Australian feature film debut. And yet…something didn’t sit right. But one after another, colleagues whose opinions I deeply respect kept bringing the film up, asking me my opinion. So I did something I almost never have the opportunity to do in the face of the professional practicality of looming review deadlines: I watched it again. Second time round, everything changed, and the sheer propulsion of my rare 180 degree turn left me with a kind of emotional whiplash. It was so much more than me simply being wrong: the way Birdeater hit the first time specifically tapped into my own decades of lived experience as a woman growing up in this weird world dominated by that omnipresent, distinctive spirit of Australian mateship and the kind of men it produces. It articulates very precisely something I did not even realize was so difficult to say until I watched this movie a second time around.

I come from a school of film criticism that still grapples somewhat with bringing things like personal anecdotes to my work, the writing through a subjective or even autobiographical lens still something that places me well out of my usual comfort zone. It’s generational perhaps; this sad old Gen X-er went to school at a time when using “I” or “me” in a formal piece of writing was considered nothing less than a gross literary affront. But with Birdeater, there is simply no other way that I can describe why precisely this film is so important, so urgent, and so unambiguously brilliant.

For decades now, I have opted for the professional short-hand of describing my professional area of interest as “gender politics”, and every now and then someone will ask me why I don’t just say “feminism”. Well, Birdeater is the answer. Aside from the fact that we now sadly are living at a time when the word “feminism” is increasingly being co-opted by the hateful rhetoric of transphobes and those who deny sex workers their basic human rights, to my simple brain there’s also something about the word itself – simply the technical emphasis on the “femme”, maybe – that implies the work of feminism is women’s work, and women’s work alone. But why, when it comes to violence against women by men, are we the ones who have to do the heavy lifting? The problem isn’t with women! The problem is with men. While I happily identify as a feminist amongst peers who know my values, to say that I am interested in “gender politics” is a small way of subtly shifting the emphasis on who precisely should be doing the work here – that it’s not just women.

This is, at its heart, what Birdeater is about. Weir and Clark are by no means the first male filmmakers to approach the kind of culture where violence against women (be it physical, sexual or emotional) prevails as a male problem, and they certainly won’t be the last. But the undisguised ferocity of Birdeater is something truly next level: the absolutely unambiguous approach they take to exposing toxic male behaviour at times verges on almost ethnographical, while never becoming didactic. The film is, then, one where young Australian men simply take a good hard look at themselves, and instead of turning away from what they see, they push that truth to the very limits that narrative storytelling will allow them.

This is, admittedly, quite the lengthy lead up to talking about the movie itself, but in Birdeater, context is everything. The film maps out what happens when a young man Louie (Mackenzie Fearnley) brings his fiancé Irene (Shabana Azeez) to his buck’s party at an isolated bush house. They are joined by Murph (Alfie Gledhill) who has helped Louie plan a surprise, Louie’s old school friends Dylan (Ben Hunter) and Charlie (Jack Bannister), Irene’s friend Sam (Harley Wilson), and Charlie’s girlfriend Grace (Clementine Anderson), the latter who is there largely to keep Irene company. Dylan is an OTT bogan who, despite the presence of the women (he at one stage calls Irene “Yoko Ono”), is determined to have as traditional a buck’s party as circumstances allow, and has in this spirit brought along ketamine and a blow-up doll. But the tone isn’t right, and Louie struggles to balance having fun with his mates with the kind of man he is in his relationship with Irene, until secrets are slowly revealed and the weekend descends into chaos.

As most critics have noted, that a poster of Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971) appears in Birdeater’s prologue is no small thing, and this overt hat-tip foreshadows the kind of toxic-Australian-masculinity-run-amok terrain where the film seemingly inevitably heads. But even leading up to that explosion of unchecked antipodean testosterone, the film seethes with a blistering kind of barely repressed hostility. Time and time again, Dylan is effectively policed by his friends, Louie in particular, who – as Dylan tries to boost the party spirit – is almost treated like a recalcitrant child, and responds to attempts to stifle his efforts in that same way. As the evening arrives, Dylan slowly gets his way, but what follows begins with party games that are distinctly not fun, setting the scene for a whole range of minor and major humiliations and lies both big and small to spectacularly unravel.

I recognized who I thought was the enemy, but the film ultimately resists such easy categorization. My internal warning system failed me, and it not merely confused me – it devastated me.”

At the heart of this we find that particularly Australian manifestation of mateship. And while largely a corrupted, corrupting affair in Birdeater, in one rare moment we get a moving glimpse of the bonds that have held the three old school friends together; as Dylan notes in an uncharacteristic flash of sincerity during an otherwise awkward speech, “Charlie was the smart one, I was the funny one, and Louie was the nice one – together we made one interesting person”. Actor Ben Hunter delivers the line with such delicate discomfort that it amplifies his already impressive performance even further, quite a feat in an ensemble piece where the whole cast are punching well above their weight, directed as they are by two of the country’s most promising young filmmakers.

It’s perhaps only natural, however, that my eye would lead towards Dylan. Crass, crude and brimming with confidence, the character perfectly encapsulates a very specific kind of Australian masculinity that I grew up recognizing as – if not the enemy at least – then certainly the kind of man that women would warn each other of in whispered tones; “you need to be careful around him”. Almost paradoxically, then, now that I’m much older I can to some degree take men like Dylan in my stride; I know how to deal with them, how to defuse them, how to subtly redirect that barely latent volatility towards something that isn’t, well, me. And herein lies, I suspect, why I had such a strong negative reaction to Birdeater the first time I saw it: I recognized who I thought was the enemy, but the film ultimately resists such easy categorization. My internal warning system failed me, and it not merely confused me – it devastated me.

Without giving away the secrets that make the film such a compelling viewing experience, what I can say is that in this subtle, strategic bait-and-switch, Birdeater finds itself in powerful intersectional terrain. As much as Birdeater is about gender, it is ultimately just as much about class. These aren’t just school friends, they are – it is implicitly suggested – private school friends; these people come from money. There is with that a collective sense of privilege that underpins their laddish banter, and as the layers of the story peel back to reveal the rot at its core, there is a deeply unsettling collision between these almost ambient aspects of wealth and power and the more rustic, crude performances of the working-class Australian everyman.

From the outside looking in, the figure of the outback larrikin seems almost fetishized in Australia as the ideal embodiment of white masculinity. In a surreal news story in the Australian Financial Review only weeks after Birdeater played to sell-out sessions at the Melbourne International Film Festival, Australian mining billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest held an outback party to celebrate his 20 years with Fortescue Metals Group that would read like unconvincing parody if it weren’t in fact true:

Fortescue’s founder and executive chairman kicked off the party aboard a huge Caterpillar truck, waving an equally oversized company flag while the speakers blared out AC/DC’s Thunderstruck. Later, a show-stopping drone exhibition lit up the clear desert skies. “Even for Andrew, this is a lot,” says one long-time associate.

It continues, bringing in Australian rock star Jimmy Barnes, best known for his zeitgeist-defining grassroots pub rock:

The event wasn’t short of head-spinning moments. Barnes hugged the billionaire after the crowd of stockbrokers, mining executives and former federal treasurer Joe Hockey rocked out to blue-collar anthem Working Class Man.”

This eye-wateringly ludicrous scenario begs the question: why do white Australian men so deeply strive for a vision of masculinity so far beyond the realm of their own lived experience? This is a nation dominated by rich kids just like Louise and Dylan and Charlie slumming it, men who get what they want no matter what the human or environmental cost, justified all the while by the deluded belief that despite their privilege they are just good old Aussie “little battlers”, always the victim, always struggling to overcome adversity. It is in this climate that the timely and powerful Birdeater so aggressively throws the cat among the pigeons.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, a contributing editor to Film International, is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who frequently contributes to Fangoria and has published widely on cult, horror and exploitation film including The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema (McFarland, 2021), Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011) and the 2021 updated second edition of the same nameFound Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018), and two Bram Stoker Award nominated books, Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019) and 1000 Women in Horror (BearManor Media, 2020). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), Wonderland (Thames & Hudson, 2018) on Alice in Wonderland in film, co-edited with Emma McRae, and Strickland: The Analogues of Peter Strickland (2020) and Cattet & Forzani: The Strange Films of Cattet & Forzani (2018), both co-edited with John Edmond and published by the Queensland Film Festival. Alexandra is on the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists

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