Australia's suburban revolution

The Triangle Wars (M). Director: Rosie Jones. 90 minutes

At one tip of an island of crown land, sandwiched between The Esplanade and Jacka Boulevard in the Melbourne bayside suburb St Kilda, sits the vaguely decrepit yet still impressive Palais Theatre. Spitting distance from the parted lips of Luna Park's monolithic guardian, Moonface, this art deco theatre remains one of Melbourne's most popular music venues, due in no small part to its charming Baroque interior and sublime accoustics.

This charmed and charming venue was at the heart of one of the most heated development controversies in recent memory. The Victorian heritage listed building is in need of serious surgery. During the past decade the local council sought to discharge responsibility for its resurrection to a private developer. He would, in turn, be permitted to develop the adjacent land (currently consisting mostly of a car park) for commercial use.

The Triangle Wars documents the public outrage that erupted around this proposed development of the so-called St Kildia Triangle, described by one protester who wrote to Eureka Street as 'four levels of parking, retail, pubs and night clubs'. It would, detractors felt, destroy favourite views of Luna Park, the Palais and the bay, and turn St Kilda's unassuming heart into a kind of hedonistic, commercialistic mecca.

Rosie Jones' documentary largely eschews explicit commentary or investigative endeavour. It draws its energy from the passion and emotion that surrounded this fraught dispute. Oppostition to the redovelopment seems occasionally over the top (one protester laments the 'immorality' of blighting the foreshore) or even hysterical (fear of the 'drunks' and 'druggies' the new precinct will attract) but is always compelling. 

The film is sympathetic to the protesters, crystalised around the lobby group UnChain St Kilda who represent the concerns of thousands of locals, and spruiked by celebrity supporters including actor Rachel Griffiths (whose mother Anna is one of the main players in the protest movement) and comedian Dave Hughes.

By contrast, the councillors who support the redevelopment are given little chance to defend themselves. Their motives are questioned, but these aspersions remain untested by the fimmakers.

But to some extent their motives are beside the point. This is a story about 'the people' confronting government powers they feel have lost sight of the interests of those they are supposed to represent. Certainly the redevelopment was pursued with scant community consultation and with little attention given to the concerns that were raised. In this respect The Triangle Wars is a story about democracy undermined, then reasserted.

There are fascinating characters on both sides of the debate. Notably UnChain St Kilda figurehead and, in the film, candidate for local government Serge Thomann. Thomann, a successful music photographer, was born in the Alsace region of France, on land that has historically been contested by France and Germany. There is an inference that this history informs his current passion over the contested space of the St Kilda Triangle.

The often garishly attired Councillor Dick Gross is abrasive in his self-promotion, but there are dark eddies to his personality and an eloquence to his manner of speech that fascinate rather than repel. When he loses an election he feels like 'dead flesh swinging in the wind'. Following one of UnChain St Kilda's failures on the way to ultimate success, he is 'pleasured beyond orgasm'; but finds it 'frigid comfort'; a Pyrrhic victory.

The developer, on the other hand, does plenty to reveal himself as a villain. One-on-one to the camera, he implies that opponents of the redevelopment are merely elderly people with nothing better to do. When, ultimately, the project falls over, he intones that 'there's always another pretty girl around the corner'. The lascivious connotations do little to endear him to the viewer, or to encourage sympathy for his modus operandi.

The film makes use of St Kilda iconography — notably carnivalesque images of Luna Park — to manipulate mood and underscore its themes. A hallucinatory montage of gaping, rotating clown heads and of Moonface's massive, looming upper jaw lend a gutful of horror to references to improper practices (the so-dubbed 'white witch scandal') and vested interests within the Council executive. The undulations of its famous Scenic Railway rollercoaster hint at the tumult of the global financial crisis that threatens to upset the developer's vision.

There is a pervasive romance to all of this. While standing for election, Thomann describes himself as a 'one issue candidate — love of this city'. His words segue into a dream-blurred montage of the Ferris wheel in full sweep, the spinning, luminous carrousel, a Mr Whippy van silhouetted against the darkened evening ocean. The film will appeal most to those who know and love St Kilda, though its David and Goliath theme is universal.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street The Triangle Wars will be screening from 6 October at Theatre Royal CastlemaineCinema Nova Carlton,Peninsula Cinema Rosebud, Peninsula Cinema SorrentoThe Classic ElsternwickThe Cameo BelgraveState Cinema Hobart, and Narooma Cinema.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Triangle Wars, St Kilda Triangle



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