A fitting film to review during White Ribbon Week, Hotel Coolgardie is a low budget but beautifully realised documentary about the brutal and misogynistic culture that proudly exists in outback Australian mining towns.
The Denver City Hotel in Coolgardie, 550 km east of Perth, Western Australia, has a regular turnover of barmaids. They are young women from Europe backpacking around Australia and looking to earn some money to fund their holiday. The film begins as new girls Lina and Steph from Finland arrive on the train from Perth.
The culture shock is evident as they are ‘given the tour’ of the pub and town. With only around 1000 residents, there’s not much to see. The blackboard outside the pub advertises their arrival, “New Girls Tonight!”, and it is clear that the arrival of ‘fresh meat’, as some of the pub’s clientele refer to them, is a cause for excitement.
Filmmaker and cinematographer Pete Gleeson becomes a ‘fly on the wall’ with what must be unobtrusive camera and sound gear. Locals are at first a little coy but are unashamed to talk openly about their intentions to be the first to have sex with either or both of the girls.
Peter, the bar manager, is fleetingly fatherly but quickly becomes a bully. Sitting on the other side of the bar, he berates Lina and Steph loudly for being slow and stupid. Drunken patrons variously abuse them or try to charm. The women seem to be the only ones working behind the bar and every customer, other than ‘Canman’, seems keen to tell him how to do their job. When a male backpacker who they met in Perth comes to visit, you feel at last they have an ally but he responds to their complaints about the treatment with, “Well you knew what it was going to be like when you took the job.” No mate, it’s still not okay.
There are some chilling moments; Pikey, a bear-like man who soliloquizes about having lived a life of violence cannot understand why women won’t go out with him. When he turns up drunk in the girls’ lounge room, you can see Lina’s real fear as to what he might do. She does what many women do in this all too common situation, she placates, jokes, denies, and flatters until he slowly, very slowly, and belligerently leaves.
The position the girls are in is untenable. Equal parts desired and derided, they must play a game where the rules are unclear and the choices are not theirs. They are not victims and can stand up for themselves but they are isolated and seem incredulous this kind of behaviour goes unchallenged. With #MeToo, we know that this culture exists everywhere but it is shocking to see it normalised and celebrated.
Gleeson does a remarkable job in capturing an engrossing story. There is tragedy in the details; the lonely life of Canman, the only nice person at the Denver City, and the inevitability of men like Pikey, trapped in a toxic masculinity with no one to show him another way to be. In an interview with The Guardian, Gleeson says, “…these Finns arrived and they appeared not to be trying to fit in as much as the patrons would have liked them to. By not really wanting to play the game, or interact the way they were expected, they kind of became this blank canvas for people to project their own simmering inner conflicts on to. The film took a whole different turn after that.”
For Lina, “It was really hard to be there, knowing it wasn’t right, what they were doing to us. But we had just been robbed in Bali and didn’t want to lose the job, because we needed the money. So we had to bite our tongues and be nice and polite, then cry behind closed doors.”
We know we are seeing the worst of Coolgardie. The Denver City Hotel is a haven for those who need alcohol to numb them from the reality of their lives. Although it is Lina and Steph who bear the brunt and Lina is left permanently affected by the experience, I can’t help but feel that the real tragedy is with the regulars at the Denver City who may never leave.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.