Hotel Coolgardie: disturbing doco follows two backpackers in the Australian outback

Lina (left) with kindhearted local The Canman - one of the few benevolent figures in the troubling documentary.

Lina (left) with kindhearted local The Canman - one of the few benevolent figures in the troubling documentary.

The relationship between backpackers and the Australian outback is a popular subject for fictional horror film, but according to new documentary Hotel Coolgardie the reality is almost as disturbing.

While the movie is devoid of the blood and gore of Wolf Creek, its portrayal of the experiences of two Finnish girls working at a pub in a tiny West Australian mining town is terrifying in its own right.

After being robbed of all their savings in Bali, twenty-somethings Lina and Steph head to Perth to find work.

They score the dubious honour of being barmaids at the local watering hole in Coolgardie, a speck of a town 38 kilometres from Kalgoorlie populated predominantly by miners – most of them men.

The gruff pub owner cycles through female employees every three or so months, giving them food, money and a place to sleep in exchange for hard work and minimal complaints.

Greeted by a chalkboard sign outside the pub that excitedly declares “New Girls tonight!”, Lina and Steph are flung into a world of dominant masculinity.

“They grow a leg when there’s new girls in town,” the owner proudly says of his patrons amid shots of rough-and-ready blokes gazing lasciviously at what they clearly regard as fresh meat.

The sign that greets Steph and Lina upon their arrival into Coolgardie.

Steph and Lina replace two British women who have taken to the job with ease, welcoming slaps on the bum and language that would make Ozzy Osbourne blush. The Finnish women are less at home.

“Maybe we should have some sort of competition – jelly wrestling or wet T-shirt,” one patron suggests, referring to the new arrivals and their predecessors.

During their time at the pub, Steph and Lina are accosted by men propositioning them, promising sex that will be “very bad but very quick”, and turning up unannounced in their rooms, often refusing to leave.

“Damn it they’re disgusting,” Lina says to Steph in Finnish after their first shift. “Mum wouldn’t want to see this.”

It’s a troubling portrait of small-town Australia and one that’s sure to stir up controversy on the international film festival circuit.

Director Pete Gleeson is surprisingly uncritical of his fascinating subjects, insisting they had good intentions, but didn’t quite know how to express themselves.

“I really love each of the characters,” Gleeson tells The New Daily.

“Many of the guys in the film have a few conflicts or elements of their past that they’re still trying to come to terms with and that comes out in how they relate to other people. [One man] says things that are laced with bitterness and violence but I think he’s trying to reach out.”

Lina and Steph must contend with a cantankerous boss (centre) and lascivious locals.

There is some good amongst the rampant sexism, particularly in kind-hearted, foul-smelling local The Canman, who becomes a father figure to the girls.

But others display a concerning attitude towards women, with one patron complaining “b***hes don’t like me” and suggesting “killing them” as a solution to his lady problems.

Gleeson, a Perth local, decided to make the film after regularly spending time at the pub, confessing his own “interest” in the barmaids.

“Whenever I dropped in you’d be able to pick how long the girls had been there by the look on their face or how well they were coping,” he explains.

“Most girls would get on great – they adapted well and would leave with an authentic outback story to tell.”

Gleeson and his team aimed for an “observational style”, keeping his subjects at arm’s-length and never intervening in the sometimes-concerning action.

“When there’s a dominant culture at play with certain norms and customs you do need to fall in line … without joining in. It wasn’t our job to go out there and judge.”

The real heroes of the film are Lina and Steph, who display a stoicism despite being thousands of miles from home in a hostile environment with few allies and, for Lina, very serious health struggles.

An authentic outback story indeed.

Hotel Coolgardie is in cinemas from June 15.

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