Hotel Coolgardie: The most sexist pub in the world?
Coolgardie, Western Australia.
Situated 558 kilometres east of Perth, it was once the state's third-largest town. Now, it's home to a permanent population of around 950 and the Denver City Hotel.
Trip Advisor rates the Denver only second out of the three B&Bs listed there, but it's currently getting plenty of exposure on screens around the world thanks to a warts-and-all documentary by Aussie filmmaker Pete Gleeson.
Debuting at last year's New Zealand International Film Festival, Hotel Coolgardie focuses on two young Finnish women – Lina and Steph – as they become the Denver's latest pair of immigrant barmaids. What follows is both compelling and horrifying viewing as the young women suffer all sorts of indignities. As New Zealand's own Emily Writes wrote last year: "There are moments when you laugh – at the more inane or ridiculous variations of sexual harassment. But you're still laughing at sexual harassment. It's basically a movie so dark that your only light moments are when you're rolling your eyes at the men who Lina and Steph have to pretend to listen to."
It's a review that has stuck with Gleeson. Speaking down the phoneline from the more salubrious surroundings of a rain-swept Sydney, he says he was particularly impressed by the fact she admitted that watching left her "waking up at 3am, feeling anxious". Gleeson doesn't even mind that she only gave it four out of 10 – that's just reflective of the polarising opinions the documentary engenders.
When asked what prompted him to make a documentary that's hardly a poster-child for either Australian tourism or immigration, Gleeson admits, "I'm a bloke and I've spent a fair bit of time in pubs on the drinking side of the bar".
"I was interested in exploring what the drinking side of the bar looked like from the other side. I've been out to this particular pub now and again over the years and thought whenever you walked in the door there was always something interesting happening."
Part of the appeal of the Denver was it's larger-than-life publican Pete, says Gleeson. "He was deeply charismatic and funny but ,at the same time, aroused total conflict in you because he was so politically incorrect. He reminded me of Al Swearengen in Deadwood. There were men who had arrived there via backstories that were quite interesting and everytime I popped in there, there were new barmaids from another part of the world. I thought that was a really great vehicle for looking at us from a different perspective."
Gleeson says Lina and Steph were up for the challenge and "quite happy for us to go on the journey".
"However, neither them, nor we knew what to expect. We all went out there with a mission to document the experience – good or bad.
"So, if the girls decided to leave, we would film that and we would respect that and go on that journey with them. There were times when we thought they might leave at any moment for sure, but that was what was so great about those girls as subjects. They had this stoicism and resilience and grace-under-pressure that enabled them to be willing to hang around. They were young women and had made a commitment to go out and work for two or three months. If it was you or I, we might bale at any time because we know we can leave any situation. But when you are a bit younger, you are a bit more impressionable – you adhere to those expectations a bit more. They wanted to put some cash back in their coffers [after being robbed in Bali] to continue this world trip that they were on."
What about the locals though? How did they react to having a camera document all their potential prejudices, shenanigans and general bad behaviour?
"Look, I was always going to be an interloper – a blow in. You need to spend a lot of time and get a few runs on the board to be thought of otherwise. The main thing though is that we were there by the graces of the owner. As long as he allowed us to be there, we were okay. As you see in the film – what he says, goes.
"We went out and did a bit of pre-filming and told everybody what we were doing there, but we weren't the most unusual thing in the bar on any particular day. Anyone who has spent time in these outback bars knows there's some weird and wonderful things always happening. Nothing is considered too unusual or out-of-the-ordinary and people kind of pride themselves on that. They live in this harsh, unforgiving and isolated environment and there are certain idiosyncrasies that go with that. So a guy with a camera? People barely took any notice of us."
As the documentary shows, this is also a town that promotes the arrival of new barmaids as an event and places "expectations" on them to assimilate. "What this looks at is how their ability to fulfil those expectations determined their experience there. We only kind of see this side [harassment, threats, abuse] of the pub because the women were seen not to adapt in the right way. We could have had a completely different film if we had filmed the Welsh girls [Clio and Becky] who preceded them. They adapted and worked the pub's expectations to their advantage. They knew how to navigate that culture. How to take a joke and give it back – what the Outback Aussie Larrikin expects."
While not keen to defend any of their behaviour in the film, Gleeson does say that things used to be a lot worse. "The hotel is only a half-hour drive from what, up until a few years ago, used to be the 'skimpy' [barmaids wearing lingerie] capital of Australia."
Gleeson says they spent around eight weeks in Coolgardie, capturing around 80 hours of footage.
"Initially, we went out there and filmed everything because we didn't know who the main character were going to be and what was going to bubble to the surface."
He says that's one of the thrills of making an observational documentary – "trying to fashion a three-act structure out of actuality".
"Then there's leaving the ball in the court of the audience. You show them where to look and you put behaviours up on the screen for them to say 'yeah, this is how it is', or 'that doesn't resonate'.
"With this, people are either aghast, shocked by it, or they see it as something familiar and refreshing up on screen in a way they haven't seen before. We've had some really dynamic screenings. People come out of it, talk about it for hours, debate it. We've had screenings where audience members heckle each other because they have differing opinions."
He says it has been interesting screening the film in other parts of world. "The point at which the North Americans stop laughing and start gasping is probably a little earlier than the Aussies. For them, it's another world, like looking at a wildlife film, or something like that. But even though it is really Australian – the themes are completely universal. It explores power dynamics, gender dynamics, drinking culture, alcoholism,, mob mentality, adaption and assimilation – a whole gamut of things that every audience member can relate to, or have an opinion on."
But what about people from Coolgardie itself? How have they received the finished product?
"Some of them laugh all the way through it, while others have been a bit fearful that it is going to paint the town in a bad light. But I think audiences get that it is a snapshot of a certain place in a certain town."
Hotel Coolgardie (TBC) opens in select New Zealand cinemas on June 22.