HOTEL COOLGARDIE is a Western Australian observational documentary directed by Pete Gleeson. It follows the journey of Lina and Stephie, two Finnish back-packers in their late 20s. The women begin the film in somewhat desperate straits having been robbed in Bali. In Australia, they contact an employment agency and find work as bar maids at Coolgardie’s Denver City Hotel. They are replacing two British bar-maids.
Coolgardie is a small town 550 kilometres east of the capital Perth. Lina and Stephie’s train journey to the town is a culture shock. “There’s nothing here,” is the comment Lina makes as the train pulls in. The two women soon find themselves in the thick of things and it’s a struggle to assimilate to the new environment; language is a problem, the boss is difficult and the constant sexual pressure from the pub patrons is intense.
As an observational documentary, the film has many strands woven through it. One’s response to the film might have to do with your experience of this sort of place. You might see the women as out of their depth and the target of unwanted male attention. Or perhaps you will see the pub and its patrons as typical of a small town where there is nothing much to do. The film has done the festival circuit and created some controversy about its portrayal of Coolgardie; it captures some outrageous behaviour on the part of the pub patrons, but also has quieter moments where we glimpse men who need to connect with something more than drinking and working.
There is a wealth of material here to pick through and analyse for documentary lovers. Male sexual behaviour. The European view of Australia. Australian attitudes to foreigners. The isolation and loneliness of living and working in the bush.
Gleeson has gone beyond tourist brochure portrayals of outback Aussie paradises and given us different pictures and an alternative narrative. The film no more stands as a complete picture of this country than Skippy or THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER; rather it’s an honest attempt to show another facet of Australian life. We, the Australian audience, benefit from all filmmaking that lets us see outside our comfortable personal bubble. And as a somewhat partisan Western Australian, I applaud the HOTEL COOLGARDIE production team for giving us that opportunity with this story.
HOTEL COOLGARDIE is currently in limited release. It runs for 80 minutes. (8/10)