Aussie Rules: Muslims Not Permitted

United Patriots Front leader Blair Cottrell (centre, in black hoodie) addresses the crowd at an anti-mosque demonstration in Bendigo, August 2015 (photo by author)

There have been two high-profile instances of anti-Islamic group activity in Australia in recent days. On Friday, April 1, the United Patriots Front (UPF) displayed a large banner during an AFL game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The banner – which declared “Go Pies! Stop the Mosques” – at once barracked for the Collingwood Magpies football club, and pushed a key UPF agenda of protesting mosque development in Australia. In the second incident, on Sunday, April 3, a group of supporters representing the Party For Freedom (PFF) – a Sydney-based right-wing political organisation – violently clashed with “anti-fascist” activists outside a Halal Expo at the Melbourne Showgrounds.

I have written at length about the recent rise in Australian anti-Islamic groups for the Spring 2016 issue of the Journal for Deradicalization, and the national security issues this form of political activity presents. In short, there has been tangible growth in anti-Islamic sentiment among Australians during the past two years, ranging from spiteful posts on social media, to public demonstrations against the Islamic “enemy” that is supposedly undermining Australian social values. This type of activity builds in large part on mistrust towards Muslims that followed the 9/11 attacks, and has been exacerbated more recently by atrocities committed by, or on behalf of, Islamic State.

In light of the March 2016 attacks by Islamic State operatives in Belgium, a sudden spike in overt anti-Muslim sentiment is not surprising – as a point in case, the UPF has latched onto social media hashtags like #RememberBrussels and #ProtectAustralia. Islamic State has recently suffered significant military and territorial losses in its heartland of Syria and Iraq, but by equal measure, the group has found success in striking soft western targets – San Bernadino, Paris, Parramatta – through direct or inspired operations. The public fear that this type of violence generates also manifests itself as anger and resentment in some sections of the non-Muslim population, with groups like the UPF and PFF expressing a particularly bellicose and nasty form of opposition towards Australia’s Islamic community.

The two incidents in Melbourne over the weekend were hardly a compelling display of potency by these anti-Islamic groups. The UPF banner was an amateurish effort, hand-painted onto a piece of cloth, and was pulled down by security, its owners evicted from the AFL match. The PFF protest at the Halal Expo, meanwhile, only attracted a few dozen supporters, and the sole casualty from the violence that ensued was an anti-Islamic adherent, hospitalised for cuts and bruises. Even so, the incidents both received a high volume of media coverage, providing a national soapbox for these groups to disseminate their agenda; this was amplified further when AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan directly addressed and condemned the UPF’s actions.

UPF Facebook post regarding its AFL banner display (April 3, 2016)

These incidents are, of course, perfectly legitimate news items – setting aside the audience appeal factor of social conflict and tension, the activities of anti-Islamic groups is the type of information that Australians are entitled to, and ought to be informed about. Yet media coverage of these groups is also something of a double-edged sword. It provides the anti-Islamic movement with exposure, perhaps to unaffiliated or undecided Australians who may harbour some bitterness towards Islam, thus serving to help the movement gain new supporters. Indeed, the UPF claims on Facebook that “We have had over 2000 new supporters since our ‘Stop the Mosques’ banner at the MCG,” a declaration that, as of April 4, received close to 600 ‘Likes’.

Blair Cottrell’s response to media coverage of the AFL banner (from the UPF Facebook page, April 1, 2016)

By the same token, a high degree of media coverage also helps groups like the UPF promote their “us vs them” narrative. Islam is deemed the primary antagonist, but complicit parties such as the media industry, left-wing/socialist groups, and multicultural government policymakers, are facilitating the religion’s hostile takeover of the western world. As UPF leader Blair Cottrell declared on Facebook, “When they [Muslims] want to make a statement, they blow up a city, terrorise and torture our people. When we want to make a statement we take a banner to a footy match. But if you believe the media, we are the problem.”

This type of defiance in the face of a supposed Islamic conspiracy is a recurrent reference point for the UPF and similar groups. They view themselves as being locked into a conflict with the supporters of Islam, including left-wing groups like the “antifa” counter-demonstrators outside the Halal Expo. To that end, provocative and confrontational actions by the “antifa” are just as counterproductive as the racism and bigotry of the groups they oppose. Such behaviour only stands to incense the anti-Islamic movement, and harden its resolve, feeding into its “clash of civilisations” narrative. And of course, these displays of anti-Islamic sentiment will, in turn, only serve to marginalise – and potentially radicalise – Australia’s Muslim population.

Dishlickers and Headkickers: UFC196 in Regional Australia

Sale Greyhound Club hosted its first UFC pay-per-view screening on a race day – March 6, 2016

The Ultimate Fighting Championship has carved out a market in regional Australia, but not to the degree I’d hoped.

Heading south out of Eden on a road trip taking the coastal route to Melbourne. It’s early afternoon on Sunday, March 6, and the preliminaries are already underway in Vegas. I stop first in Lakes Entrance, phoning around the various sports and bowls clubs to see if anyone will be running the UFC196 pay-per-view.

“Nah mate,” someone at the Lakes Sports & Community Club tells me. “No-one in Lakes Entrance will be showing it. Too expensive.”

Back on the road, next stop Bairnsdale. A club full of pokies and TAB facilities directs me to the RSL, but they too have opted not to purchase the fight. My last hope is Sale, so I push my little Polo hard to cover the final 70 kilometres in this desperate search for the UFC.

DSC_0145When I arrive at the Sale Greyhound Club, the main card is already underway, and the upstairs function room is packed out with scores of MMA fans. The barman serves me a beer, taking quick glances at the Anderson-Lawlor fight. It’s the first time the club has run a UFC pay-per-view event, the barman explains. “Make sure you ‘Like’ this event on our Facebook page,” he urges me. “That’ll let the boss know to keep doing these in future.”

The sport’s ever-growing popularity would be hard for a club owner to ignore, with UFC193 in Melbourne attracting a record crowd. Even so, the club has taken a sizeable gamble today. On top of the pay-per-view licensing fees to Fox Sports, which would run a fair way into four figures, the club also installed a new projector and screen in the function room specifically to show the UFC.

But the gamble, it seems, has paid off.

“Oh yes, a great turnout today,” a bar manager says. “We will be doing more of these sorts of events, no doubt about it.”

The large crowd is mostly comprised of the UFC’s core demographic, young males in ballcaps and black hoodies. Some have brought along their girlfriends, who’ve dressed up a little for a proxy night at the MGM Grand – a nice dress, a little eyeliner, a flash of cleavage. There’s also a few outliers, like the old bloke quietly sipping tea from a foam cup, and the mother trying to keep her toddler entertained with an iPad. Mostly though it’s a day for the boys, who “ooh” and “ahh” at each crack of a checked leg kick and thump of a stuffed takedown attempt.

The barman’s voice comes over the PA. “Ah guys, just letting you know we’ve got a few platters of hot food sitting up here at the bar for you, so come and help yourselves.”

There’s a rush to the bar, and a guy sporting various shades of buzzcut and a black Eire polo shirt gleefully returns to his seat with a handful of dim-sims and spring rolls.

“Free food!” he smiles, a trace of Ireland in his accent. “That’s pretty fucking alright, hey?”

The Villante-Latifi fight wraps up, another decision for the judges. “Should’ve been a knockout,” a young Aboriginal guy complains after the Villante-Latifi fight. Technically speaking, he gets his wish soon enough. The women’s bantamweight belt fight is next, with Meisha Tate taking on divisive champion Holly Holm. “The Preacher’s Daughter” assassinated Tate’s longstanding adversary, Ronda Rousey, with a brutal headkick at UFC193. The shockwaves ripped Tate off the bench for another title shot, but she’s a heavy underdog in the betting odds. No UFC champion is ever cemented in place, however, and after several rounds of heavy trading, Tate eventually wrestles Holm into a savage rear naked choke. The champ gives a final, desperate spasm before she falls unconscious and relinquishes the belt. There is a patter of claps at the Sale Greyhound Club, then an exodus to the bar for more beer and food.

The guy in the Eire shirt grows excited as the fanfare leading into the Conor McGregor-Nate Diaz fight kicks into overdrive. “Woo! Here we go, baby!”

Having secured the featherweight belt with a lightning-quick knockout in January, McGregor has taken a gamble of his own today, stepping up a weight grade to take on Nate Diaz in a quest to hold two belts simultaneously. Diaz puts up an immediate roadblock, however. The men trade hard in the first round, and Diaz sustains a cut above his eye, but hammers McGregor onto the canvas with a takedown that he twists into a merciless rear naked choke. McGregor grimaces in pain, and taps out.

In the post fight interview, commentator Joe Rogan tells Diaz, “You just shook up the world.”

“I’m not surprised, motherfuckers,” Diaz replies, which draws a laugh from the Greyhound Club patrons, though Eire shirt is quiet and dejected. The fights now over, patrons spill out of the function room and onto the pavilion for a few more beers in the late afternoon sun, ready for the greyhound races to jump. The barman moves about the function room, resetting chairs and clearing the empty glasses. He’s an MMA fighter himself, dominant in wrestling, and missed out on attending UFC193 because he was competing in a semi-pro fight in Perth that weekend.

“I’ve been watching the UFC since the early days, back before it became mainstream,” he says, admitting that he once contemplated taking a shot at the UFC. “I used to watch those old fights and think, ‘I could do this.’ But at the time it didn’t seem like a real life, a career.”

Now in his mid-30s, and having suffered a bad knee injury, the barman is resigned to touring the domestic MMA circuit, and admiring the glory of the UFC through satellite TV. Still, he’s happy to see the sport becoming so prolific and popular, noting the various MMA and “jits” (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) gyms that have opened in the region.

DSC_0150Outside, the greyhound races have commenced. Before each race, the dogs are paraded along the track to the sounds of the Baja Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out?” When they are locked inside their starting line boxes, the music switches to the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.” It will indeed be a good night for some patrons – the guy in the black Eire shirt included, who backs a long-odds dog that runs into third place.

“Hey you, Number 4!” he shouts at the dog as it’s led back to the kennels. “Hey you, yeah you! Thanks!”

DSC_0147Moments later, a schooner glass topples from his table and shatters on the concrete. Shouts of “Taxi!” echo around the pavilion. The excitement of a victory after Conor McGregor’s tapout is perhaps too much to handle. Or maybe it’s just the steady intake of cheap Carlton Draught. At any rate, it’s been a big day for the underdogs. From Meisha Tate to Number 4, the magnanimous barman to Eire shirt guy, the Sale Greyhound Club has put on a winning show.

Everyone in Fluoro: The Canberra Warehouse Rave

A generic Fyshwick warehouse hosted a spectacular party on February 19, 2016 (photo by Tom Fry)

Fyshwick is dark and empty, far too late for the daylight businesses, much too early for the gentleman’s clubs to be in full swing. The Uber driver quietly follows the prompts from Google Maps, curious about the out-of-the-way nature of this fare. He pulls up outside a warehouse on Townsville Street, surprised to see the little groups of people milling about on the footpath. The front windows glow blue and rattle with the muted thud of a kickdrum.

“What’s going on?” the driver asks his passengers.

A warehouse party, they explain.

“Oh,” he nods. “Cool.”

The revellers might as well be going to a picnic. They carry cooler bags and eskies, some big enough to need two people to lift, laden with beer cans, wine casks, and plastic bottles full of pre-mixed sprits. The BYO policy is liberal – glass containers notwithstanding – and open to interpretation, so an ecstatic dude stops to bump some cocaine before disappearing down an alleyway to the warehouse entrance.

The February 19 event is sold as being a rave, a callback to an era where abandoned industrial spaces became temporary party venues, hidden away from the scrutiny of authorities. Decades later, with electronic dance music now well and truly part of mainstream musical culture, the need for clandestine parties has all but disappeared. It’s a presentation choice rather than a practical necessity, but it makes for a novel setting. Event promoters Escape Ferocity have put on an impressive show, transforming the sterile warehouse into a colourful cave, a stage backdrop of painted screens, white walls covered in bright projections, the roof humming with rolling techno basslines. Even though it’s an above-board event, the promoters withhold the precise location until a couple of hours before the doors open. “In the interest of a sweet party, please don’t put this address online, inc. social media,” they plead in the advisory email: “Let’s avoid crashers and nubes with no idea.” The idea is doubtless to further invoke the secretive spirit of old raves, but perhaps also to minimise forewarning to law enforcement.

German techno producer/DJ Ann Clue, signature cigarettes waiting beside the decks (photo by Tom Fry)

Sure enough, the police show up anyway – and early, just over an hour after the party commences. It’s a single patrol, three officers in fluoro vests. One of the promoters comes out to meet them, assures them the requisite paperwork is done, points out the copious amount of private security on hand, their concerted efforts to contain revellers within the warehouse fenceline. The police want to see for themselves, however, and push through the dancefloor, flashing accusatory torchlight on any squirrely hand movements. Collars, collars everywhere, bumping against the cops with mistimed dance moves! Such is the bizarre cognitive dissonance dynamic at work in the modern rave scene – the police could arbitrarily select 20 people, pat them down, and the majority would be carrying an illicit substance. They know this, the security guards know this, the promoters know this, and the people on the dancefloor know this. But for now it’s an awkward truce, and the police presence is about visibility rather than outright enforcement.

That balance is in danger of shifting, however, when a young guy drops to the concrete floor, overwhelmed with chemicals. He’s placed in the recovery position, and although conscious and responsive, is taken away in an ambulance. The police return and complete another lap by torchlight, doubtless delivering some stern ultimatums to the promoters. But the party goes on, the warehouse filling out by midnight and rapidly raising the temperature, sweat condensing and dripping down the windows. A shirtless, long haired guy smiles broadly and nods along to the music as he navigates the dancefloor, holding up a goon bag and offering it around to strangers. His gesture epitomises the happy and communal vibe, which relishes in the novelty of the setting and the DJs on offer, a pure celebration of electronic dance music.

“How good is this!” enthuses a girl who, for her part, is sharing around a tall can of beer. “An actual, proper techno rave in Canberra, this would never have happened a few years ago. This is so amazing!”

Boris Brejcha played a two-hour set, followed by a back-to-back session with Ann Clue (photo by Tom Fry)

The two headline DJs are stripped-back techno types from Germany, and have probably already played their fair share of industrial venues (legally or otherwise). Nevertheless, the crowd’s enthusiasm is infectious. Ann Clue is the first international to take the decks, chain-smoking as she delivers a rolling set full of euphoric melodies, extending her arms out to embrace the crowd’s adulation. (Clue later remarks on Facebook, “I’m still speechless about last nights warehouse party in Canberra [monkey emoji] that was so super cool!!!). Boris Brejcha, who produces for (and runs) the FCKNG SERIOUS label, takes over a couple of hours later, slipping on an elaborate harlequin mask as he gets underway. Brejcha takes the driving techno into darker territory, but retains the melodic underpinnings established by Ann Clue, who makes frequent cameos to dance on stage, cigarette in hand.

The Germans eventually share the stage for a back-to-back set, pushing the party through until after sunrise. But for those revellers not charging on illicit energy, that’s a bit of a tall order after a long Friday at work. Instead, they request another Uber; while they wait on the street, they strike up conversation with a drunk guy who’s just tripped over a speedbump in the alleyway. He remembers the venue from when it actually served as a warehouse.

“We used to come flying through this alleyway during our lunchbreak, absolutely fanging it, and we’d hammer over these speedbumps,” he says. “Then we’d chuck smoke bombs in at the guys who were working there.” He laughs. “Did it heaps of times, that was great fun. Good use of a Commonwealth car, hey?”

The morning after. Escape Ferocity switched the door branding from a stamp to permanent marker partway through the night to identify legitimate ticketholders.

The Commonwealth might be looking to get its revenge tonight, however, with another AFP patrol showing up during Brejcha’s set. There’s more of them now, more flashlights, more scrutiny. But the rave goes on, as it has always done. And the revellers love it, with glowing Facebook reviews popping up throughout Saturday: “such a killer party. Good vibes all round!” and “one of the best nights I’ve ever experienced in Canberra,” and “That was nothing short of phenomenal!…Canberra has the most wonderful group of good eggs. Feel blessed to know so many wonderful souls and cannot wait to share some boot scooting again soon!” Escape Ferocity struck a winning formula with their warehouse rave, and will surely want to repeat the event’s success in the near future. Word of mouth will be strong, however, so it will be interesting to see how the promoters continue to walk the complex line between exclusivity, accessibility…and those other guests in fluoro, the police.

The Low-Poly Gravity Battles of B.U.D. and the Warthog

grow home 2
Although a sci-fi adventure, Grow Home doubles as a simplified flight simulator

Picture a cube on a level surface that weighs about a kilogram. Push it and it slides, or topples if the right force is applied. The cube transforms into a sphere. Push it and it rolls. Flip the surface vertically, the object drops away. Here are the gameplay fundamentals for the excellent Grow Home, an in-house experiment that blossomed into a commercial hit for Ubisoft. It’s a visually striking title with peculiar control mechanics, almost infantile in their clumsiness, which underscore the childlike wonder and innocent triumph of a little robot’s perilous ascent through a colourful fantasy world and back to his mother ship. Yet it also evoked strong memories of a straight-edged military flight simulator I played relentlessly as a kid, A-10 Cuba!

Released in 1996, A-10 Cuba! was developed by Parsoft Interactive, a studio that burned brightly (but briefly) as a standard bearer in flight simulator complexity and detail during the 90s. As with its prequel A-10 Attack! the previous year, Cuba put players in the highly interactive cockpit of an A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft, shifting the theatre from Western Europe to the US military enclave at Guantanamo Bay and its hostile surroundings.

The cockpit view in A-10 Cuba! featured an array of interactive switches and buttons

There are immediate visual parallels between Grow Home and A-10 Cuba! – both employ low polygon count objects with sparse textural detail. In the case of Cuba this was, of course, a product of its era and the early Pentium-powered context in which it was produced. Grow Home’s visual style is something of an homage to this era, much in the same way that recent titles like Proteus and the Shelter series embrace blocky simplicity to paint their worlds. In the case of Grow Home, however, the low poly count may be as much a consequence of its “proof of concept” origins as it is a deliberate artistic choice.

There is a lot to be said for this low-poly art style. It might not be as immediately evocative as ultra-detailed titles like Until Dawn that are clawing their way out of the uncanny valley, but the prominent geometry in low poly games feels easier to connect with, somehow – like you’re driving a car with the bonnet removed, the engine and moving parts proudly on display. With this type of art style – be it a deliberate choice, or one made due to development constraints – it’s almost as though the audience is invited to fill in the blank textures, taking environmental cues from broad brush strokes rather than minute details.

A-10 Cuba! featured progressive damage modelling that affected the aircraft's handling
Progressive damage modelling affected the aircraft’s handling

Having said that, the world in A-10 Cuba! still felt wonderfully alive and packed with attention to detail. It functioned as a sandbox game, in many ways – players were given a specific mission to carry out, but the world was inhabited by numerous other military aircraft (friendly or otherwise), tanks and trucks, even civilian cars. All would go about their pre-programmed business, but if the player chose to stray off the mission path, the game was flexible enough to allow for some spectacular emergent moments.

Ejected pilots would bump and roll down hills at the mercy of the physics engine

Before I obtained the full version of A-10 Cuba! I spent countless hours replaying the demo version for MacOS. The setup was always the same – take control of an inert A-10 on the tarmac at Guantanamo, a couple of F-16s scrambling to intercept some enemy MiG-29s across the bay, a C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft lumbering in on slow approach. If you went by the book, it meant waiting for the C-5 to land before commencing your own takeoff. If you were quick enough, however, you could pull onto the runway and watch gleefully as the Galaxy’s AI pilots desperately tried to pull up and go around for another landing attempt. Sometimes they succeeded, fuselage barely clearing the runway before they gained altitude; other times, they would clip the ground and lose control, the hulking aircraft grinding across the airfield and shedding large chunks of its airframe before exploding in a bright polygonal fireball. The pilots were usually sensible enough to eject when faced with this outcome.

Here is another point of convergence for A-10 Cuba! and Grow Home – both share a strong physics model, rooted in tangible gravitational forces. In Cuba, the physics felt like they had real weight and consequences. When taxiing, the A-10 would sway listlessly during turns, and its nose would dip if you hit the brakes too hard. The game physics even replicated the A-10’s legendary durability – the segmented aircraft model could lose a wingtip to battle damage (or just as often, skylarking), and while it was possible to continue flying the aircraft, it required careful airspeed management and control input to keep the A-10 level and stabilised. It’s the kind of care and due regard for gravity that was needed to navigate B.U.D. around the more vertiginous parts of the Star Plant in Grow Home. Misstep and stumble and the physics could be merciless. You might be able to make a desperate grab at the plant, or deploy a leaf glider to sail back around for another attempt at scaling it. Too often, though, it meant sending B.U.D. into a thousand metre freefall that ended with him shattering into dozens of pieces at the base of the plant.

Altitude loss critical! Typical outcome of careless navigation in Grow Home

At the end of the day, Grow Home and A-10 Cuba! are vastly different gaming experiences, of course. One is a meticulously researched flight simulator, the other an exploratory sci-fi adventure (albeit with occasional flight simulator aspects). But to me, it feels like they stem from much the same place: A desire to accurately replicate the laws of mechanics and motion that we, the audience, are governed by every day. No matter how low-fi the fighter jets or roaming sheep may appear, we can immediately intuit the forces that we can apply to these objects, and accurately infer what the outcome might be – crash, shatter, restart.

From Half-Life 2 to Rocket League, strong and pervasive physics modelling is not exceptional in modern gaming. But the presentation style of A-10 Cuba! and Grow Home arguably lends these games – or their physics engines, more the point – a sort of bare bones impact. Their no-frills objects, chunky and sharp-edged, seem to carry a certain knowable weight to them, like dropping a brick from a freeway overpass. Even with worlds full of hostile MiGs and carnivorous plants, the primary adversary in A-10 Cuba! and Grow Home is gravity – and by the same token, it is the feature that provides for some of their most entertaining moments.

UFC193: A Song of Merchandise and Ire

The queue for the merchandise stand on the pavilion is longer than the ones to enter Etihad Stadium. People wait ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, even after the preliminary fights have commenced. They want their Reebok-branded keepsakes. They want to declare their allegiance to reigning champion Ronda Rousey with a AUD$110 t-shirt, or a $10 stubby holder at the very least.

Etihad Stadium, Melbourne, 15/11/15

Rousey is a phenomenon, a prodigy, an icon. The most successful female Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) competitor in the short history of the women’s bantamweight division, undefeated in her professional mixed martial arts career, sending her opponents home with busted elbows or splitting headaches in a matter of seconds. A promo video plays again (and again and again) on the big screens around the stadium, a slow-motion montage of key points in Rousey’s life – childhood introduction to judo, 2008 Olympic bronze medal, training for the UFC. The plan, Rousey says, is to retire undefeated. The 7:1 betting odds against her opponent, fellow American Holly Holm, are pretty confident that Rousey will take another step towards that goal today.

The event set an attendance record for the UFC, even without a full stadium

The UFC is banking on Rousey’s invulnerable allure to draw a big crowd. Victorian laws were amended in March to permit cage-fighting, which the UFC immediately jumped on by announcing a high-profile fight card in Melbourne. The UFC grew into a large-capacity arena business many years ago, but Etihad Stadium is a whole new scale of venue with room for 60,000 punters, thick rows of plastic chairs laid out on the field area. While the upper tiers look a bit patchy, UFC attendance records have been broken today.

Large groups of police move through the crowd, body armour tucked beneath their high-vis vests, the gunshots of Paris doubtless ringing loudly in their pre-event briefing. The audience is asked to observe a moment’s silence for the French attack victims; even when a blast of electro house suddenly cuts through the silence, the crowd remains standing, mournful and confused.

The crowd turns to watch the next fighters walk into the octagon

The majority of fights at UFC193 feature Australians, something of a host country privilege. Most of the locals fare pretty well, with victories from young Jake ‘The Celtic Kid’ Matthews and Robert Whittaker drawing ecstatic roars from the crowd. Other fights are less impressive; a heavyweight bout between the towering Stefan Struve (Netherlands) and stocky Jared Rosholt (USA) is a dull affair of timid circling and lethargic wrestling. The crowd repeatedly boos, demanding bloody satisfaction. “You’re allowed to punch him, big fella!” someone shouts, which draws a big laugh from the restless arena.

The co-main event for the day – which is to say, the second most prestigious fight – is a showdown between reigning women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk (Poland) and Valerie Letourneau (Canada). Like Rousey, Jedrzejczyk has dominated her division since its inception, and the prediction is that Letourneau will end up on her back, bleeding profusely from multiple gashes to her face. Instead, the women trade shot-for-shot through five excruciating five-minute rounds. Jedrzejczyk ultimately emerges victorious, taking out the fight on points from the judges, but her struggle sets an alarming precedent for the day’s main event.

Ronda Rousey’s calling card is Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation”, and when the arena darkens and the song’s opening riff kicks in, the stadium echoes with a thunderstorm of cheers. Holly Holm’s reception is muted by contrast. It’s almost superstitious, like the crowd is welcoming a new victim into the lion’s den. The fight begins, with Rousey refusing the courtesy of touching Holm’s gloves before they start trading shots. “Here we go,” remarks a guy in the crowd. “Thirty seconds and we’re done.”

From the outset, however, Holm plays it smart. Slips in to land a quick punch or kick, then backs off. She’s wary of Rousey’s legandary ability to grab her opponents, throw them to the mat, and twist their arms into ungodly angles to force a tap-out. Holm slides in again, lands another punch. Another. And another. Rousey’s nose busts open, and she blinks in surprise. The invulnerable aura is fading, fast. “Ooooh, we might make it to the end of the round!” the guy in the crowd remarks.

A dejected Ronda Rousey waits for referee Herb Dean to raise the hand of new division champion Holly Holm

And sure enough, the bell dings and the women are sent to take a thirty-second breather. The crowd is going ballistic – it’s been almost two years since anyone has managed to take Rousey to the second round. Holm is deconstructing the legend, one blow at a time. Then it happens – Holm manages to stagger Rousey, then knocks her out cold with a kick to the head. She dives in to finish off the champion with a blur of punches, but it’s overkill – Rousey is finished, the referee waves off the fight, the impossible is done. Etihad Stadium is on its feet, roaring its approval, screaming out in support of Holly Holm the Queenslayer.

As the thousands spill out onto the concourse and into the Docklands area, many decked out in their Ronda Rousey gear, there is a sense of having witnessed sporting history. Not everyone is pleased, though. “Ronda ‘Can’t take a punch’ Rousey!” shouts a fat guy in an askew ball cap, unsteady on his feet as he pushes through the exodus. “Fucking stupid bitch cost me a thousand dollars.”

Note: This article was written immediately following the event in November 2015

Out of it but still into it (August 2008)

“You used to see some good football in Captains Flat,” explains Kevin Radburn. The 77 year old sits alone and gazes out over the patchy, uneven surface of the town’s playing field. “Used to play myself, back when I was in my twenties.”

He lapses into a thoughtful silence.

“This is no joke,” Kevin continues eventually. “Some of the blokes that used to play here eventually got a run in the Sydney competition.” There is another long pause. “This is the first time I’ve seen a game here in thirty or forty years, though.”

It is Round 15 of the George Tooke Shield, the ACT region’s amateur rugby league competition, and the secluded town of Captains Flat is today playing one-off host to a match between the Bungendore Tigers and the Harman Seadogs. It’s a bright, pleasantly warm Saturday afternoon – though the exciting novelty that surrounds the match would be enough to draw a large crowd no matter what the weather conditions.

Large is a relative term in a town with 450 residents, of course – a term that is measured in scores rather than hundreds or thousands. Large is, however, large enough to warrant the presence of local MP Steve Whan, who will be using today’s gathering to announce a $10,000 grant for the town’s school and tennis court. “It’s a really good day for Captains Flat,” the member for Monaro says, overtly looking the part of the football fan in his large Canberra Raiders jacket. “Today’s event has brought a lot of people out,” Whan observes, looking around at the SES sausage sizzle, the Rural Fire Service first aid tent, the jumping castle. “It’s important to show that kind of community spirit.”

At two o’clock, referee Paul Baker blows his whistle to signal the start of the match, and within minutes Bungendore have scored their first try. It seems like an ominous sign of things to come. Sure enough, the Tigers take a convincing lead only a quarter of the way through the game. The Seadogs’ frustration becomes increasingly evident, and when one of their players is kicked after being tackled, a fight breaks out between the teams. There is uproar amidst the spectators. “Fuckin dog!” yells Rhett Blanco, 25. He holds out his hands in disbelief when the Bungendore assailant is permitted to keep playing. “Bullshit! Send him off!” he bellows.

Rhett has been intently pacing the sideline since kickoff, alternately yelling encouragement and tactical advice to the beleaguered Harman team. It turns out that Rhett is a Seadog himself, and would be playing today if not for an unfortunate injury he sustained during pre-season training. “Broke my left shoulder in a trial match about two months ago,” he explains. “It’s put me out of action for the rest of the season.” Still, his passion for the game remains intact. “I might be out of it, but I’m still into it,” he grins. It is clearly red tape, not fear of physical pain, which is keeping Rhett from stepping over the line and into the action.

For Kevin, however, relegation to the sidelines is a simple matter of age – although he, too, has an injury to exhibit. And in a roundabout way, it’s also football related. “See that?” he says, leaning forward and pointing at a scar that runs across his forehead. “Got that when I was working in the mine back in the 1950s.” With its vast iron ore reserves, the Captains Flat mine was once integral to the Australian economy – although such riches were extracted at a price, with the mine claiming its fair share of lives until it closed in 1962. “Had the roof cave in on me once,” Kevin recalls. “That’s how I got the scar. The rocks smashed down onto my helmet – fractured my skull, almost tore off my right ear. Broke my right leg as well.”

Kevin drifted in and out of consciousness during the rescue, and his recollection of the morning is accordingly vague – although one unsettling memory has stuck. “Nobody expected me to live,” he says, a jarring frankness in his voice. “Most of the guys that had the roof collapse on them would die sooner or later. They didn’t rate my chances.” But Kevin had a surprising advantage: rugby league. “I used to be pretty fit in those days from all the football I played,” he says. “So in a way – and this is no joke – football saved my life.” Kevin was eventually evacuated to Canberra, where he remained in hospital for six months while he recovered.

“Let’s smash these guys!” claps one of the Bungendore players. The Tigers have scored yet another try – a drop in the ocean by this point. “Let’s make it embarrassing for them!” the player urges. It’s close to the end of the second half, and the match is arguably already embarrassing enough, with Harman still having failed to score. “They’re killing us today, mate,” Rhett concedes, though still with a grin and a paradoxically upbeat tone. “It’s just not happening for us.” When the final whistle blows a few minutes later, his enthusiasm carries him over the sideline and into the midst of his Harman team mates, a moment he has visibly been longing for over the past 80 minutes. In spite of the defeat, Rhett shakes hands, pats backs, congratulates – he’s one of the team, after all. Out of it but still into it. He’ll be ready to make it embarrassing for Bungendore next year.

In the meanwhile, though, the Tigers revel in their victory. Steve Whan presents them with a commemorative trophy – an aluminium miner’s helmet atop a plaque of polished jarrah, custom designed for the match by a town resident. It is at this point – predictably, perhaps – that Whan elects to make his grant announcement. But with the sun now getting low, and the cold rapidly descending on Captains Flat, the post-game formalities are quickly wrapped up. There is an exodus to the pub, a stream of locals and out-of-towners alike. It will be a healthy night of trade over the bar – a blessing for an establishment that, like so many businesses in Captains Flat, seems to perpetually stare down the barrel of closure. Football may not save the town like it saved Kevin Radburn some fifty years ago, but as today demonstrated – and this is no joke – there is still plenty of life left in Captains Flat.


Braidwood Film Festival (December 2008)

It’s been a beautiful, sunny Saturday in Braidwood, but there is a faint trace of rain in the air as the daylight starts to fade. “I hope the weather holds,” says Susie Edmonds, grimacing slightly as she looks up at the sky. “It’d be a real shame if it rained.” It seems odd to hear a Braidwood resident lament the possibility of rain when the region is in the middle of a long and painful drought. But today, Susie’s wish is completely justified.

The town is celebrating the 21st anniversary of The Year My Voice Broke, an AFI award winning film shot entirely in Braidwood and its surrounds. Wallace Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, has been closed down by the local SES and turned into a makeshift open-air cinema for the evening, complete with a large inflatable screen that has been transported down from Sydney. Seating, however, is a BYO affair, and as the audience begins to arrive, Wallace Street gradually fills out with a colourful array of outdoor furniture.

The iconic National TheatreSitting quietly off to the side is the National Theatre, reputed to be the oldest operational cinema in Australia. It is one of Braidwood’s most iconic buildings, but its modest size has prevented it from being used for the screening. Still, the old cinema is due to host a pre-screening reception for some key members of Voice’s cast and crew – and its intended function has not been completely neglected, either. “The National Film and Sound Archive loaned us copies of Dad and Dave, Robbery Under Arms, and the Mick Jagger version of Ned Kelly,” says Braidwood Film Club president Michelle Robison. These (somewhat less acclaimed) examples of Braidwood’s film history have been playing in the theatre throughout the day. “We’ve had a great turnout all day. There are a few locals who were extras in these films, and for some of them, it’s the first time they’ve seen themselves on screen!”

From the footpath outside, Jill McLeod watches the National Theatre’s ad-hoc cousin take shape. Although a Braidwood resident for almost twenty years, Jill does not feel she has earned the right to refer to herself as a local. Instead, she calls the town her “adopted child” – one that she carries an evident fondness for. “We have a strong, caring community here in Braidwood,” Jill says. “But there’s not a great deal of money in the town. You have to be fairly self-sufficient – mentally and financially – to live here. If you want something to happen, you have to work for it!”

Which is exactly the attitude that Tracey LaMont, vice-chair of Braidwood’s tourism board, adopted when she set about organising tonight’s event. “I emailed [production company] Kennedy Miller in March about arranging a screening,” she says. Coincidentally, a DVD release was scheduled for December, so the company was happy to mark the occasion by partly sponsoring a screening in the film’s hometown. A large part of the project’s funding was, however, sourced closer to home. “I mentioned the project at a barbeque one evening, which aroused the interest of a generous local,” LaMont explains. The anonymous resident would subsequently volunteer to cover the majority of the screening costs.

Turning the main street into a cinema would prove to be more problematic. “The levels of bureaucracy were pretty frustrating,” admits LaMont. Because Wallace Street forms part of the main highway linking Canberra to the south coast, the Road Transport Authority and local council were concerned about the length of time that it would be closed off. “But they came around in the end. They realised it’s an important community event.”

Come the evening of the screening, LaMont’s work is still not done. She rushes around the National Theatre, dancing an intricate hospitality ballet with Michelle Robison and other film club members as they make final preparations for the pre-screening reception. Such cordiality is a defining trait of Braidwood – which still resonates with Voice’s director, John Duigan, despite the time that has passed. “We were warmly received by the town,” he fondly recalls during the reception. “I have very happy memories of filming here.”

Even the weather was generous. “The colour scheme that I’d worked out for the film was blue, gold, and brown,” Duigan explains. “Braidwood was in the midst of a drought when we came here, and I was desperate for the colours to stay for the duration of the shoot.” Fortunately – from an artistic perspective, at least – the rain held off for the six weeks it took to wrap production. “The day we drove out of town it poured with rain. A couple of days later, it was all green.” Duigan summarises this extraordinary luck in simple terms: “The film was blessed.”

21 years later, the blessings continue. By the time the sun sets, the threat of rain has passed, producing a crisp, clear evening for Braidwood to sit back and enjoy Voice’s anniversary screening. A few shops along Wallace Street have elected to stay open late; some of them even make cameo appearances in the movie. Purchasing a coffee from an establishment that is simultaneously on-screen is a curious feeling – even more so when the celluloid version is not that different from the one you are standing in. But such timelessness is the reason John Duigan chose Braidwood after all – and it is perhaps also the reason the town has maintained its warm demeanour in perpetuity.

(POSTSCRIPT: This piece was originally set to appear in a local community magazine, The Berra (which perished before the article was published). To adhere to the set word limit I excluded the interview I did with the film’s lead actress, Loene Carmen. Not the wisest choice, in hindsight – Loene was very pleasant and forthcoming. The complete interview can be found here)