Don't buy a ticket to see Hotel Coolgardie if you're feeling emotionally vulnerable. It's a difficult film to stomach, for many reasons, and just as tricky to critique. Directed by Pete Gleeson, the documentary follows the story of Steph and Lina, two young Finnish travellers set down in Perth to make some money after having their bank accounts drained in Bali. It's there that they're groomed by a recruiter to do some country pub work in the little town that gives the movie its name.
"It's quite a big mining area, so a lot of the clientele of the pub[s] are going to be gentlemen," the recruiter says, ominously. "You have to be the kind of girls that are okay to have male attention and not really sweat it." Shortly after, when they arrive at the Denver City Hotel pub where they'll live and work for the next three months, the pair are greeted by a welcome sign that reads "New Girls Tonight".
Lina and Steph meet the previous barmaids Becky and Clio. They've done their stint and seem almost sad to be leaving, partying with the locals at a final send off. They're bubbly and flirt with the clientele; they lean in and act like perfect barmaids. Steph and Lina do not. They're reluctant to play nice, can sometimes barely understand the thick local accents, and don't win a lot of sympathy from the men who have them trapped. Pouring drinks, they soon learn, is not the only task barmaids are expected to perform at the pub. The message is clear: be complicit in maintaining a structural framework that oppresses you, or GTFO.
What follows is a deeply uncomfortable look at toxic masculinity, male domination of public spaces through microaggressions, and the binge drinking culture that rots small mining towns. The ensemble of local blokes bring a playful Aussie cadence to their misogyny, one that strikes a light-hearted note against the darkness. Admittedly, Coolgardie isn't entirely bereft of kind folk. But if this documentary doesn't make you feel physically sick, you may be part of the problem.
Director Gleeson has been criticised in some corners for not taking a firmer stance against the mistreatment of Steph and Lina. The doco self-identifies as a "sometimes amusing, sometimes appalling, surprisingly moving portrait of small-town insularity, fragile masculinity and the plight of the outsider forced to adapt or face the consequences". The line between observation and interference can be hard to find, for documentarians and photographers alike. Once found, it can be similarly tough for the audience to stomach.
Regardless, prospective viewers should not be deceived: the mild description belies a dark documentary that exposes the reality of life for marginalised folk (in this case, women and tourists) in patriarchal, racist outback Australia. If you've ever felt othered, Hotel Coolgardie will resonate with you like nails on a chalkboard.