Culture Clash In Sundance Film, Hotel Coolgardie

An interview with Hotel Coolgardie Director Pete Gleeson

HP: The atmosphere in Hotel Coolgardie (a documentary shot in the Australian outback) could not differ more from that of Queens. What similarities and differences did you observe between the ways in which women are treated in each place?

PG: I don’t have enough experience in Queens to compare the two places.

In the film, part of the reason the two women are treated harshly is because they are seen to be unwilling to “fit in” to the existing culture, which is very male-dominant, and has established expectations as to what the visiting barmaids should be able to put up with. There’s a relatively homogenous population out there too, and I got the feeling that because Lina and Steph are both from Finland, and English is their second or third language, that people mistook this for them having no sense of humor or even for being less intelligent. Lina has a master’s degree!

Being that Queens is very multicultural, I imagine peoples’ appreciation of “difference” will be greater than a more parochial place like Coolgardie.

HP: Did you expect that the girls would be viewed as “fresh meat” and treated as such? Was the extent of the objectification of these young women a surprise?

PG: I knew there was always anticipation when new female bar staff were arriving, and that the men were feisty and liked to have a bit of “sport” amongst themselves around who might “make it” with the girls. I didn’t expect the women to be treated as harshly as they were.

HP: To what do you attribute the attitude of the majority of the men in Coolgardie towards women in general and towards Steph and Lina in particular?

PG: The guys we focus on come from a harsh and hyper-masculine world, where the country’s topless barmaid capital (and biggest goldmine) is the next town at the end of the highway. Some are inexperienced or awkward with women, as the majority of their time is spent in male-dominated work camps; some blame women for previous events in their life; some are just acting out in front of mates; and some are old-fashioned, led by a misguided idea of chivalry and never got the memo that women these days like to have agency over their lives and who is invited into them.

HP: What did you intend for the film to be about?

PG: Adaptation. And how the institution of the outback pub (which is very familiar to me) might look through the eyes of the foreign female backpacker sent to work there.

HP: What did the film end up being about? How did this become the endpoint?

PG: It ended up being about what happened to two visitors who were expected to adapt (accept the existing cultural norms while hitting the ground running as barmaids) but didn’t.

HP: How did Steph and Lina most differ in the ways in which they dealt with all of the attention coming their way?

PG: Steph was a lot less sensitive to it. Once she realized the type of place they had landed, her approach was to put the blinders on and just get through the three months with minimum impact.

Lina really tried to engage with people, boost them up, listen to them and try to work out why they were like they were. She was prepared to be more vulnerable, but in the end people saw her as an easier target for projecting their own issues onto.

HP: Why do you think the girls were fired?

PG: They didn’t meet expectations. What those expectations might be are kind of the crux of the film.

HP: Did you expect such an abrupt or dramatic ending? How did you see the film ending before you finished filming and how well do you think the actual ending wraps things up?

PG: Without disclosing what happened...I think they were on their way out anyway, but no one could have predicted that ending. But that unpredictability is what is both exhilarating and terrifying about shooting an observational documentary.

What was nice from a story perspective is that the circumstances the girls found themselves in gave Canman (a derided figure very close to the bottom of the food chain himself) a chance to come to the fore and shine. He’s really their saving grace in the end.

HP: Do you wish you had had more time to film the girls at their jobs as barmaids/living in Coolgardie, or do you think you got the material you needed?

PG: Such a hard question! I’ve no idea if it would have gotten better or worse for them. The ending that occurred provided some compelling moments, and structurally it ended up shaping the film. There is a somewhat dark and tragic sense of humor to the film in that it’s almost comic how low things can descend and descend and descend.

HP: How difficult was it not to intervene while filming the treatment of the girls, especially when they were working? Did you ever break down and say something?

PG: Filming was so frantic and we were making an observational film, so no – we didn’t feel the need to intervene. If we thought there was going to be the threat of physical violence we would have stepped in. There is a particular scene you might be making reference to – in that scene I move closer to make my presence known, but I don’t stop filming. Filming is a far better tool for diffusing things than getting physically involved.

Having said that, much of what an audience sees and gasps at when they watch this film is normalized behavior within this environment, and when you’re inside that yourself, you often don’t even realize the impact of what’s being captured until later on. And that’s what’s great about the observational documentary – and the great Fredrick Wiseman is very much onto this – you can look at behaviors that are normalized within an institution (in this case an isolated outback pub) which, when viewed outside the context of the institution, are shown to be anything but normal.

Hannah Page

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