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Australia: Beyond the Fatal Shore Robert Hughes
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Robert Hughes talks about AUSTRALIA: BEYOND THE FATAL SHORE.

When Thirteen/WNET New York presents AUSTRALIA: BEYOND THE FATAL SHORE, premiering nationally September 5, 2000 at 9 pm (ET) on PBS (check local listings), viewers may discover the six-part documentary series to be as much about its author and host, Robert Hughes, as it is about the "land down under." Below, Hughes reflects on his experience creating this epic series about his homeland.

Q: What is the idea behind the series?

RH: We take a look at Australia via six key themes, like money, class, and power, like attitudes towards landscape, and examining how Australian's attitudes have -- or have not -- changed since I lived there 35 years ago. And we examine those issues mostly through the words of the Australians themselves.

Q: What do you hope to achieve with this series?

RH: If there's one thing I want this series to do it is to liberate this rather thin "Wild West" fantasy Americans have about Australia. To them, CROCODILE DUNDEE is a work of social realism.

Q: What makes this series different from other programs about Australia?

RH: Australia is not, to me, a picturesque little country full of cute marsupials at the end of the world. What I'm interested in is a really live, complex, in some ways difficult, country which I think has attained a very high level of social intelligence and civilization at its best. Part of the difficulty in doing a series like this is avoiding the clichés about Australia while making something that is both comprehensible to people who've never been to Australia and know nothing about it, and at the same time does not appear historically contemptible to informed Australians. I believe we succeeded.

Q: Having lived away from Australia for so long, do you still feel connected to it?

RH: I'm a Sydney boy and always will be. I've never given up my Australian citizenship. I just couldn't -- I would feel like a total traitor. I have a very intense love-hate relationship with the country.

Q: What differences do you find between Australia and America?

RH: I think the biggest single difference between Australians and Americans is that you were founded as a religious experiment, and we were founded as a jail. America is such a bizarrely religious country, and Australia is hardly religious at all, and much of what makes the two countries different stems from that.

Q: Any similarities between the two countries?

RH: We are alike in many ways. Historically, for instance, the story of the treatment of Australian Aborigines by whites in Australia is almost exactly analogous to that of American Indians by American whites. They were consistently displaced, invaded, and killed in tribal wars throughout the country and deprived of full citizenship rights.

Q: What is the state of the Aborigine in Australia today?

RH: The condition of the Aborigine has changed immensely, though for some people, very reluctantly, in the last 25 years. A very active and politically quite powerful Aboriginal group has been formed across Australia to ram through the necessity of giving Aborigines the full benefits of living in the country that they have occupied for 40,000 years. It has been an uphill battle, but undoubtedly it is a battle that is now going to be won.

Q: You mention in the series that Australia has historically faced an identity crisis. What's behind this?

RH: The Head of State of Australia has always been a hereditarily appointed English monarch. America dispelled of this scenario quite some time ago with a revolution. There has been no such revolution in Australia, which has consequently left us with all sorts of glitches from the 18th century still stuck in our system. As a by-product of being a colony, we are still suffering from severe problems of self-identification.

Q: One of the themes you explore in the series is that of space. How does the Australian concept of space differ from that of the U.S.?

RH: Americans have this contrary myth of space, because to them, space is freedom. It's the whole "Go West, young man" philosophy. You got to it and discover paradise. In colonial Australia, space itself was a prison. You walk across the country, find nothing, then die. So Australians don't associate large space with freedom and opportunity the way Americans do. It's a totally different social myth.

Q: Do you think the outback will become more residential over time?

RH: No. As far as I know, the far outback is, to all intents and purpose, uninhabitable, except by certain Aborigine tribes. It certainly isn't capable of supporting the kind of society we're used to. We do not have a fertile center in this country like the United States. You have the great, fertile plains. We do not. As you go farther into the outback, it just gets worse.

Q: You suffered from a near-deadly car accident at the start of filming this series. How did the accident affect your life?

RH: An experience like that does transform you. It does something to your fear of death -- and your expectations of life. It makes you realize that life is a very contingent thing, and that we only come here once. So, we'd better damn well make the best we can of it.

Q: How did the accident affect your work on the series?

RH: It's an interesting business, trying to do a series like this when you can't walk and you're wiped out by the afternoon. I think it made me more explicit. I think it made me more inclined, as they say, to throw my hat over the fence first, and then jump after it. It clarifies things in a way. You lose some of your fear of the opinions of others.

Q: Do the upcoming Sydney Olympic Games play a role in the series?

RH: As far as I'm aware, the word "Olympics" is not at all mentioned in this series because, frankly, there are things that are much more fundamental and interesting in Australia.


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