Portraying cancer in Australian film

(I originally published the following article on Croakey, Australia’s independent, in-depth social journalism for health blog, on 9 September 2015, under the title “Cancer on Screen”.  Click here to view the original article.)

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One in two Australian men and one in three Australian women will contract cancer in their lifetime. Cancer is a killer, second only to cardiovascular diseases as the cause of deaths in Australia. Cancer is also responsible for 35% of the “fatal burden”, or years of life lost by Australians due to premature death, way ahead of cardiovascular disease.

Despite this widespread prevalence in our lives (who does not know someone affected by cancer?), cancer is rarely presented in Australian film. Think about all of the deaths we witness on-screen, how many of them are from cancer? Lots of deaths, many of them violent (war, accidents, murder), but not much from cancer.

There’s a reason for this. Dying from cancer rarely pretty, it’s usually quiet and often hidden. A once clandestine and “whispered about” illness, it is now “often described as the defining plague of our generation”, writes Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee in his 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

It may be a “defining plague”, but you wouldn’t know it by watching Australian films. For reasons we can only guess at, two Australian films featuring cancer are now playing in Australian cinemas. It’s too soon to know if this is the beginning of a trend, or – more likely – a simple coincidence. However a cinema release, with its attendant large marketing budget and effort, indicates that a number of people think the topic worth portraying on-screen.

Last Cab to Darwin

Last Cab to Darwin stars Michael Caton as a Broken Hill taxi driver who travels to Darwin to commit assisted suicide because he is dying of inoperable stomach cancer and wants to avoid palliative care. Since its cinema release in early August, it has already grossed $6.2 million in Australian cinemas, and may still be playing long after the latest Mission: Impossible and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (current large release American films) have disappeared. Despite its seemingly depressing euthanasia theme, Last Cab to Darwin – already listed by The Sydney Morning Herald as one of the 10 “greatest Australian road movies” – manages to be entertaining, wryly funny, uplifting and filled with heart-felt meaning. It sweeps its characters along its way with effective sub-plots that illustrate Aboriginal reconciliation (few recent Australian films have shown such intimate connections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous characters), the unique wonders of the Central Australian landscape and learning the ability to express and receive love.

Force of Destiny

The other Australian cancer film, Force of Destiny (tagline: “A journey of love on a transplant waiting list”), the latest by iconic Dutch-born Australian director Paul Cox, opened last week and stars David Wenham as a sculptor who contracts liver cancer. Fresh from the Melbourne International Film Festival and with an astonishingly beautiful production, the story focuses more on Wenham’s character’s actual battle with the disease.

Cox based Force of Destiny in part on his own life story: he is a cancer survivor and a transplant recipient. The film’s producers and distributors have taken an increasingly popular approach to Australian film marketing: setting up a series of special events, many of them associated with cancer charities, in order to reach the audiences that might not normally go to a small Australian film.

Any others?

The only other Australian cancer film I can easily recall is 2012’s Not Suitable for Children, an improbable but moderately successful romantic comedy in which Ryan Kwanten played a character diagnosed with testicular cancer who attempts to father a child before he becomes sterile. The comedy comes not from the cancer, but Kwanten’s character’s desperate attempts to find a suitable mother to bear his child.

The truth is that best films about cancer are not actually “about” cancer, but use cancer as a mechanism to illustrate other important, human emotional needs. This is why Last Cab to Darwin almost certainly will reach a much larger audience than Force of Destiny, with its particular focus on, well, cancer, as its main topic.

The American approach

Despite the clear popular success of Last Cab to Darwin and Force of Destiny’s marketing creativity and the strong will of its creator Paul Cox, Australian films have not yet moved to copy the American “weepie” formula where … let’s be honest, no spoilers are required … one of the main characters always dies from cancer. From Ali McGraw in 1970’s Love Story to Debra Winger in 1983’s Terms of Endearment to last year’s The Fault in Our Stars (from the pen of John Green, with three teen characters with cancer, two of whom die), Americans have created literally hundreds of films with cancer, especially teens, so much so that one commentator has asked that films “stop using cancer as a plot device”.

The latest American film in this genre, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – in which the dying teenage girl has leukaemia – also opened last week, fresh from audience awards at both the Sydney Film Festival and Sundance. This gives Australia two cancer film releases in one day, with three in the cinemas. Is this a record?

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2 Responses to Portraying cancer in Australian film

  1. CineMuse says:

    Great write up thanks. Death is increasingly popular, and not just the boring old slash and gore genres. Last Cab is thoughtful and well made. You are welcome to compare notes in my review at http://richardalaba.com/2016/01/24/last-cab-to-darwin-2015/
    I’ll be following your work. cheers

  2. virginia lubisich says:

    very old movie “Under the moonlight dancing”?????

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