the movies that taught australia to talk about sex

These are the films that challenged traditional representations of love, sex and intimacy to bring queer conversations into the mainstream.

by Shannon May Powell
17 February 2017, 12:38am

Sex, love and desire are often misrepresented in mainstream cinema. Before David Stratton — then Director of the Sydney Film Festival —began to challenge Australian film censorship in the late 90s, we had an especially conservative reputation when it came to showing sexuality on screen.

Luckily, there have always been filmmakers ready to share their unique vision of love. Even during decades where the censors bristled against celebrating queer and non-traditional relationships, local creatives made sure they were celebrated. Spend some time (re)discovering these classic examples of Australian LGBTQI+ cinema that helped revolutionise the way our country spoke about sex.

The Naked Bunyip, 1970, Directed by John B. Murray
This sexploitation/ozploitation classic follows a shy young man hired by an ad agency to conduct surveys on sex in Australia that investigate homosexuality, transgenderism, sex work and strip clubs. A blend of fact and fiction, the film contains unrehearsed and unscripted interviews exploring the full gamut of sexual experiences. Originally, the Commonwealth censors insisted that five minutes footage was removed, but the producers refused. Instead, they chose to black out the images and bleep the soundtrack. Over the footage, the director inserted a picture of a bunyip performing a parody of the forbidden act. Eventually, when the film was screened without the edits, the ensuing debate about censorship and helped lead to a much needed reform of standards.

The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, 1994, Directed by Stephan Elliot
Arguably the most well-known movie on this list, this iconic offering follows two drag queens (Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce) and a transgender woman (Terence Stamp) on a drag tour through the Simpson Desert. The rapturous presentation of LGBTQI individuals and their relationships introduced many queer themes to a mainstream audience for the first time. While the film initially struggled to find funding, it went on to be a massive world-wide hit and is still toured as a musical today.

Head On, 1998, Directed by Ana Kokkinos
Based on Christos Tsiolkas' novel of the same name, this is a classic exploration of the tension created when traditional values and individual desire come to ahead. Set in inner city Melbourne, the film portrays a Greek man rejecting his values and exploring his sexuality — mostly with other men. The film gained notoriety for its sexually explicit scenes, including a graphic masturbation performed by Alex Dimitriades. The realism was applauded.

52 Tuesdays, 2014 Directed by Sophie Hyde
One of the most talked about local films of 2014, 52 Tuesdays follows Billie, played by Tilda Cobham-Hervey, and her mum Harry, played by Mario Späte, as Harry prepares to transition. Part coming of age drama, part intimate exploration of a family relationship, part tale of adolescent sexual discovery the movie deals with sex, gender, family and pornography. Shot for one day every Tuesday over the course of a year, the film harnesses a true-to-life expose of the way human relationships both flourish and disintegrate over time.

Holding the Man, 2015, Directed by Neil Armfield
Holding the Man is a moving but tragic look at the defiance of same sex love in a culturally and socially disapproving context. Adapted from Timothy Coingrave's 1995 memoir, it stars Ryan Corr and Craig Stott, with supporting appearances from Guy Pearce and Geoffrey Rush. The film surveys the challenges of navigating a committed relationship in the face of independence, infidelity, desire, and HIV. When the film premiered in Sydney, audience members were seen leaving midway through, confronted by scenes that showed gay sex. "It is very important that gay sex was shown in a way that is not very often depicted in cinema — that it was loving, although it is so often about desire," wrote producer, Kylie Du Fresne, "There's plenty of heterosexual sex in the cinema that is far racier. What we are showing is not particularly graphic but it's just that it's so rarely [shown] in the cinema."


Text Shannon May Powell
Image via IMDB

52 Tuesdays
Holding the Man
the adventures of priscilla queen of the desert
the naked bunyip