Like some of the greatest novels, this is a story that begins with just three words: "NEW GIRLS TONITE!!"
"And then draw a couple of pairs of boobies, Pete," a punter cries out.
Welcome to 'Hotel Coolgardie', a documentary that plunks a camera in one of the most remote mining towns of Perth, giving viewers a first-hand view of Aussie hospitality. It's not always pretty.
"This is a phenomena that happens everywhere. Walk into any outback pub and you're likely to have your beer served to you by a backpacker, usually female," the director of 'Coolgardie', Pete Gleeson, told HuffPost Australia.
The film is set in Coolgardie's Denver City Hotel where every three or so months new barmaids (yep, always women) are sent to the seriously isolated town for a stint behind the bar. The agreement between publicans and backpackers was a relationship of mutual gain, with cheap labour being exchanged for an experience out in the bush, plus earning back some travelling money. For Coolgardie the "fresh meat" arriving wasn't just the arrival of more eye candy, but a fresh start.
"Every time there was a changeover there'd be a real sense of anticipation, a new chance and new opportunities, seemingly, to the men of the town."
Lina and Steph, two backpackers from Finland, enter as outliers. They were never going to be the blushing barmaids Coolgardie expected, or hoped for, and unlike the former workers behind the bar, weren't as keen to immediately assimilate to the rough way of life the pub demanded. That's when Gleeson found his muses.
"English wasn't their first language and they drew boundaries that the locals perhaps weren't expecting, or thought they didn't have a right to draw. That's when the film popped. It went in a different direction because these were people who weren't happy to just slot in and accept anything that was thrown at them."
Gleeson assumed the film would be subtle, the tension between Lina and Steph and the culture of the town slowly exposing itself but it was almost instantaneous. The pub's manager at the time screams at the girls from across the bar, torrents of abuse hurled at them from their new boss, with chiming in.
There are shots of the women standing mere meters from customers as they chastise them, "It takes a while for things to settle down," one says while another responds, "Maybe she's as dumb as dog sh*t." It's Australia at its finest.
"Once the girls dug their heels in," Gleeson explained, "they became 'fair game', and all this latent tension became blatant. These girls became a blank canvas for the people at the bar to project all their issues, needs and desires upon them in whatever way they felt with impunity."
Things are made worse for the new arrivals with their predecessors staying behind, clearly having fit in to the swing of things perfectly. "Most of the girls that came out would have a pretty good time," Gleeson told HuffPost, "as long as they adapted to the culture well, and in a way that they were expected to, they'd be really embraced and looked after". Lina and Steph clearly struggle from the outset.
There's no judgement behind Gleeson's lens, as he pans across the bar giving you a glimpse of a patron wearing a t-shirt that proudly proclaims "I F**KED A GOAT", he allows the patrons to reveal themselves on their own terms, not provoking but observing.
"This is a hyper-masculine world of blokes going to the bar with blokes. They have all these codes of protection and distance around themselves a lot of the time and when there's someone asking them about themselves or allowing them to express themselves and talk about their past... it's probably quite a welcome thing."
There are moments of sincere revelation as these men strip away their outward facing masculinity and show vulnerability. It isn't all princes masquerading as frogs, with some showing their true colours. Lina and Steph are called all sorts of names, attributed with being frigid and teases simply by virtue of existing. It's harrowing to watch and, for Gleeson, eye-opening to make.
"You don't realise as a guy, you don't walk through life being always careful, but as a woman in this hyper-masculine environment out there... everything has to be done with care, the right sense of humour and the right kind of pitch so that nobody is too offended. You could be called a humourless b*tch. You can't cause an affront to somebody's fragile masculinity."
Gleeson had hoped to show what this isolated culture looked like, to outsiders sure but more so to hold a mirror up to the nation and reflect back some of the ugly behaviour that's written off as the "Aussie way of life".
The town plays a major role in the documentary, its isolation looms over the women as the ultimate juxtaposition from home. They're so far away from the world they know, with nothing around them except a perennially closed public pool and a tip. They at least score a visit to the tip.
When landscapes and locations like this are featured in movies they're either fetishised as a paradise or a hell. The 'Red Dog' series gave the outback a fairytale facelift while films like 'Wolf Creek' left a lasting, haunting impression. Coolgardie isn't the terrifying hell, and it's certainly far from heaven. 'Hotel Coolgardie' features a town in a constant state of Purgatory, populated with lost souls in the middle of nowhere.
Aside from Lina and Steph being cut off from the world, Coolgardie itself suffers from the same fate, but without the end-date. Lina and Steph signed on for three months, at the end of their tenure they leave the town behind as an anecdote. And the town remains, waiting for the next girls, the next "fresh meat" and their next chance at reinvention.
The Denver City Hotel is now under new management.
'Hotel Coolgardie' is in select cinemas across Australia from June 15.
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