Hotel Coolgardie: confronting documentary puts viewer on other side of the bar

Kate Neylon (producer), WA director Pete Gleeson and Melissa Hayward (producer). Documentary Hotel Coolgardie is out soon.
Kate Neylon (producer), WA director Pete Gleeson and Melissa Hayward (producer). Documentary Hotel Coolgardie is out soon.

FILMING two female backpackers bartending in a rough outback pub for six weeks allowed Hotel Coolgardie director Pete Gleeson to experience the environment from a new perspective.

The WA-filmed documentary follows 20-something Finnish backpackers Lina and Steph, who are forced to head to Perth to look for work after their money is stolen in Bali.

The job they secure is bartending at Denver City Hotel in remote Coolgardie, about 550km east of Perth, where they navigate the advances, innuendo and off-putting comments from the male dominated clientele and put-downs from their boss.

After some experience with these remote pubs, Gleeson thought it would be a fascinating place to film.

“I wasn’t in the mining industry, I used to go out and work as a labourer now and then while I was at film school,” he said.

“I’d be out there on the drinking side of the bar and hear the goings on, and these bars can be great places, a lot of fun can be had and they can be raucous and wild.

“I became interested in making a documentary set in that bar; what does this culture look like from the other side of the bar and through the eyes of people that visit?

“I thought the bar could act as an insightful microcosm for culture in general.”

Gleeson said he was intrigued to observe how outsiders would react to and behave within an environment they were unfamiliar with.

“You’ve got this dominant culture at work and all the norms and expectations and established positions in this environment, and then these newcomers come in and are expected to adapt,” he said.

“For a guy it might be a wisecrack or comment here or there and it’s forgotten about especially when there is booze involved (but) there’s a lot of objectifying, wisecracks and commentary and comparisons between one girl and the other and for women if that’s their wall-to-wall, 24 hour experience that can be exhausting.

“(The girls’) enjoyment of the place depends entirely on how they adapt.”

For producer Melissa Hayward the footage prompted her to reflect on how she handled similar environments.

“It taught me how I do things in that environment and what I should take on board and shouldn’t,” she said.

“I’ve been in regional areas in Australia, and as an older woman and person of this culture, I navigate that space automatically and it comes fairly naturally in ways, but it highlighted aspects of that culture that perhaps I have become used to and perhaps should navigate in a different way.”

Producer Kate Neylon realised the universal nature of the documentary when she recognised pub behaviour she had seen outside of Australia.

“I’m not from Australia so I was interested in that world I didn’t feel I knew anything about, but what was interesting was that it was very similar to a small country town I grew up in Scotland and that pub environment,” she said.

“I did understand that world and recognise the characters and behaviours.”

Gleeson said reactions to the film, which has been on the film festival circuit for 12 months, varied.

“It’s people outside that microcosm who are outraged or surprised and see it as foreign and unsettling, like if you’re from inner city Sydney and your weekends are spent sipping lattes and going to art galleries, you’re going to look at this and go ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before, this is horrendous, this is harsh, this is crazy’,” he said.

“If you live in the outback you might go ‘that’s par for the course’.”

Hotel Coolgardie is in cinemas June 15.

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