The Ugly Side of Australia Laid Bare in ‘Hotel Coolgardie’

As soon as Hotel Coolgardie ended, I walked to my car, shut the door, and burst into tears. 

It took me a while to work out who I was crying for, and to be honest, almost a week later, I still can’t say for sure. The obvious answer would be Lina and Steph, the two Finnish girls who feature in the documentary, sent to work for three months at the local pub of a remote mining town called Coolgardie, about 560 kms east of Perth. Their days spent as barmaids at Coolgardie’s Denver City Hotel resemble the darkest passages of hell, where fire, Satan, and purgatory meet to talk logistics.

The persistent, casual, and unapologetic sexual harassment they are subjected to on a daily basis almost borders on comical, its perpetrators such caricatures of moronic, chauvinistic, working class “Aussie blokes” that it’s hard to believe they’re actually real. But they are. This place, and these people, exist. And the complexity of their existence will leave you bawling.

Apparently, there’s some backlash to the documentary from the locals of the small town. Some of the 1,000 people who make up Coolgardie’s population think it reflects poorly on them and will affect tourism in the area. And for the good people of Coolgardie, I see their point. But if you are in this documentary and don’t like the way you look—it’s not director Pete Gleeson’s fault, it’s yours. This is how you act, this is the vulgar way you talk. There are no special effects here.

But if you see this film and think its soul purpose is to capture the Coolgardie locals at their worst, you’ve missed the point entirely. Gleeson does a spectacular job of balancing the bad with the good, subtly revealing the vulnerability and fragility of these men behind their thin veils of masculinity. Slowly, stories of abandonment and substance abuse help paint a bigger picture of these broken lives, and suddenly, you’re shedding tears for an old guy known as ‘Canman’ hoping he’ll reconnect with his daughter he hasn’t heard from in years.

I’d say rough as guts doesn’t even begin to describe some of these characters, but the fact that there are English subtitles on an English language film should help convey my point. But I really was floored by how much I wanted to reach out through the screen and give these men a hug. Like, after I slapped them in the face.

Seriously, Hotel Coolgardie is like a comedy, drama, and horror film all rolled into one. Swimming in empathy and contradiction, it made me confront so many things personally—my privilege, my shame of country, my pride of country, my right to judge—and left me reeling not just for Lina and Steph, but for everyone affected by this film. Lina’s right when she says, “This town has a bit of sadness to it,” but you can tell that Coolgardie has heart, too. It just needs to stop turning to the bottle to try to mend it.

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