Until I saw Pete Gleeson’s new documentary, Hotel Coolgardie, one of my favourite pastimes was calling up unsuspecting friends and carrying on a one-sided conversation in the thickest, roughest occa accent I could conjure.
But after meeting the real life locals of Coolgardie, a remote mining town east of Perth, the whole Aussie bloke shtick has really lost its humour for me. Because these are real people—and that is a real problem.
The documentary follows two Finnish girls, Lina and Steph, who have come to Coolgardie to work for three months as barmaids at the local watering hole, Denver City Hotel. The treatment they are subjected to by the local men, including their boss, is nothing short of disgusting.
The common and casual sexual harassment they endure over their time there is honestly bewildering. The only comfort I felt while watching it were the constant collective sighs of disgust from the audience basically every time a local opened his mouth.
It’s glaringly obvious from early on in the film that there’s a deeper issue Gleeson is exploring here; and that is the role of circumstance in these people’s lives. We learn of stories of neglect, abandonment, and abuse, which help account for—but of course, never excuse—the actions of some of these guys.
Also, there’s the isolation. The population of the Coolgardie weighs in at a whopping 1,000 people. When a new woman (‘fresh meat’, as one pub regular puts it) enters the stark landscape there, it’s every man for themselves, quite literally. On screen, their reaction is almost cartoon-like, their eyeballs suddenly so disproportionate to the rest of their capillaried faces.
It reminded me of spending time in Dubai years ago, and the unwanted attention I received there. I remember looking back at the ogling eyes of many of the male construction workers there and recognizing their glare—it wasn’t so much a look of desire, but of sheer wonderment. And then, beyond that, utter loneliness.
And with that comes the really confusing part of this film—overwhelming sympathy. Watching some of these guys trying to connect, on a really basic human level, is gut wrenching. Somehow, many of them became the underdog for me, and I wanted them to win. At the same time, I still really wanted to knee them in the balls.
The film was so confronting, because I was so confronted by the paradox of my feelings—simultaneously repulsed whilst yearning for them to succeed in life. It’s been a few weeks since I saw Hotel Coolgardie, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it for more than a few hours. Go and see it now.