Next week Romper Stomper, an Australian film about vicious, neo-Nazi skinhead gangs, opens in Britain. It is, let's say at once, not an exploitation picture: the film has been been doing the rounds of international festivals (it was shown here at both Edinburgh and London), has won awards including three Aussie Oscars, and - despite the audience restrictions of an 'R' rating - been a nice little earner Down Under. Many critics there saw it as a sharp account of the origins and follies of street violence - one Australian judge told a man charged with assault that he should go and see the film and write a five-page essay on it.
But Romper Stomper has also met with a loud chorus of disapproval, especially in Melbourne where the story is set: the Melbourne Age called it 'mainly an excuse for loads of rude words, bashings, running up and down alleys and around abandoned factories'. Other critics went further: in Variety David Stratton said, 'rarely has there been such a disturbing, essentially misconceived pic'. On Australian television he reportedly compared it to wartime Nazi propaganda.
It arrives here in an even more volatile climate of opinion. First, there is the slew of other 'new violent' films like Reservoir Dogs, Man Bites Dog and The Bad Lieutenant (reviewed opposite), as well as the video release of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Then there is the growing anxiety over the resurgence of European Fascism, particularly in Germany, and pathological youth crime in general - typified this week by the horrific murder of two-year-old James Bulger. And finally there is the old spectre of copy-cat crime spotlighted recently by the Clockwork Orange copyright case.
The Anti-Nazi League has already launched a broadside against Romper Stomper (which a number of Australian critics compared to Orange), demanding that it not be released here. A statement expresses concern that the film 'will give confidence to Nazis in Britain' and claims it 'does not condemn Nazi violence; rather the Nazis are the heroes of the film'.
It's certainly true that Romper Stomper refrains from passing explicit judgement on the skinheads and presents them as oddly sympathetic. But the makers of the film naturally deny that it glamorises either Fascism or gang violence. Russell Crowe, who plays Hando, the (rather good-looking) leader of the gang, says: 'Hando's charisma is really important. Within the Nazi skinheads, everybody wants to be Adolf, that's the problem. So you definitely have to have a person doing the gig who would take the leadership seriously.'
Geoffrey Wright, the director, is similarly unrepentant. 'I'm glad I upset a lot of people,' he says. 'A lot of stuffy reviewers who were falling back on a shallow bourgeois indignation have had their noses put out of joint. They seem to be somehow out of touch with what the public would accept. And it was important not to moralise. If I did that, the young audience would sit back and look at each other and say: we know that street crime is exciting; we don't have to tune into this. The film had to be honest enough to say that a fight does pump adrenaline.'
By both their accounts, Nazi gangs are a fairly small element in Australia. Crowe explains the origins of the title: 'When he was researching the script, Geoff was with some skinheads who were about to go out on the piss. He overheard one of the guys say, ' 'Old on, I'll go an' grab me romper stompers', referring affectionately to his Doc Martens. The term comes from this children's TV show Romper Room, and Geoff thought it was an incredible subconscious revelation of these people's mentality.'
Like most other countries, Australia has always had its own tradition of teen gangs with bizarre appelations. 'We had something called 'Sharpies' back in the Seventies,' Wright says. 'But they were basically just in the larrikin (hooligan) tradition which we had here in previous incarnations with things like 'Bodgies' and 'Widgies'. Sharpies had no politics, but as the Eighties wore on the skinheads emerged and became more and more radical as they began to dress more like the British skinheads and adopt their look and listen to Oi bands.
'The White Aryan Resistance claims it has 150 members in downtown Melbourne - of which only two were in jail . . . for murder. They reckoned that was pretty good odds. For every card-carrying member you'd have several more hangers-on, but the numbers are nothing like what you'd have in Germany. And I suppose the young German Nazis have a direct cultural connection: often they can look back to their grandfathers. Their counterparts here have to employ more mythology. They have to see themselves as part of the Nordic global superman thing and have a sense of being cut off from it all in a way. The heat is somewhere else.'
Some of the skinheads they came across in researching the film were initially involved with the production. 'I hung around with a particular group for a while until they became aware of the fact that I wasn't going to make a recruitment film for them. I became unwelcome at that point.' Thereafter there was, rather surprisingly, no bovver from them (apart from a couple of desultory attempts to spoil shots by honking car horns). 'There were threatening messages on Geoff's answer-phone, but they were probably quite flattered that there was a film being made about them,' Crowe says.
The neo-Nazis were less than delighted with the end product, however. 'The White Aryan Resistance has protested vigorously against the film, although no- one takes them seriously and I'm certainly happy,' says Wright. 'If they were endorsing it, I'd be worried. Various attempts have been made here to attribute violence to the film. There was a big fight between two Asian gangs in Sydney and a policeman at the scene said: 'they certainly gave them the Romper Stomper treatment'. But we've had gang fights for years; personally I don't see a link. There have been no clear-cut absolutely provable incidents because people walk out of the film very, very quiet. They're not energised and ready for action. By the end you're completely drained, because you've had your thrill, but then you see the characters you identified with totally defeated.
'I've seen neo-Nazi skinheads come out shoulder to shoulder with members of the Chinese community. Not because they've suddenly become friends but simply because they didn't know who was next to them. They were staring at the ground. I've shown if you wanna run around and hit people and get your rocks off, this is where it all goes to, guys.'
So is it all a storm in a teacup? Possibly not. James Ferman, the Director of the British Board of Film Classification (which has passed Romper Stomper uncut with an '18' rating) admits to initial concern about the movie. 'Of all the forms of film violence, gang violence, along with sexual violence, is at the top of our list,' he says, 'because it's social, learned behaviour rather than coming out of some drive. Romper Stomper was seen eight times here by different teams of two or three people (Reservoir Dogs by comparison was viewed three times). They agreed that it explored the roots of violence and showed the skinheads as losers and no-hope characters. As Hando says, all he has is his skin colour. You see how pathetic they are.'
Ferman is confident that it will not become another Clockwork Orange, because the direction doesn't stress the bloody 'money shots' - the incendiary moments of violence. 'In A Clockwork Orange the behaviour was much more specific and scenes like the rape were carefully staged. In Romper Stomper you never really see the blows landing in detail. It's filmed as messy action.' The Anti-Nazi League remains unconvinced however: fearing that Romper Stomper could become a cult movie among skinheads, it plans to picket as many cinemas as it can when the film opens around Britain next week.
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