Hotel Coolgardie movie still of despairing backpacker barmaid leaning on bar

Hotel Coolgardie

Hotel Coolgardie is a fascinating doco that transcends its obvious intentions, eliciting a mix of complex and sometimes paradoxical responses.

Review: (rolanstein)
In Hotel Coolgardie, debut feature director Pete Gleeson tracks the experience of Finnish backpackers Lina and Steph during a 3 month stint working as barmaids at the sole remaining pub in the remote and forlorn no-horse town of Coolgardie.

Grandiosely and perplexingly named The Denver City Hotel, there’s nothing urbane about this joint. As you’d expect, it’s patronised mostly by heavy-cussin’ heavy drinkin’ blokes who work at “the mines.” With no company but each other and nothing to do but get pissed to the eyeballs every night, they see new barmaids as a major event in a desperately bare social calendar. Thus, Lina and Stephs’ arrival is heralded on a chalkboard propped in front of the pub, which shouts “New Girls Tonite!” The lads inside use cruder – and, given their presentation, risibly ambitious – vernacular, referring to the newcomers as “fresh meat.”

Throwing a couple of 20-something foreign women with no experience of bar work to this pack of mangy wolves is, of course, a recipe for severe culture shock, conflict, humour and drama – and rich pickings for a doco-maker. Cudos to Gleeson for seeing the potential and going with it. With a mini-crew of one or two on cameras, he operates on a miniscule budget and stays out of the way of the subjects as far as possible. There is no narrator. The action seems to unfold as it happens. This is well-managed cinéma vérité, seductive and compelling in its fly-on-the-wall sleight-of-hand framing of ‘reality.’

But to state the bleeding obvious, despite appearances to the contrary, WYS is not WYG. The doco maker is, of course, necessarily selective in choosing which footage to keep and how to present it. The devil is in the editing.

Gleeson acknowledges as much. In this article, he states that in assembling the film from 90 hours of footage, he focused on “the moments that had the heaviest impact on the two backpackers”, which meant omitting instances in which they were treated with warmth and kindness.

Not all instances, mind. One of the barflies, a perpetually inebriated but sweet-natured old wreck nicknamed Canman, comforts Lina and Steph with gifts emblematic of more civilised, feminised climes (bracelets, shampoo, biscuits), and takes them into Kalgoorlie for some shopping and R&R (shame his old ute is so rank with the stink of his dogs’ urine and faeces that he has to pull to the side of the road so Lina can vomit). Canman has no ulterior motives. He knows he has no chance with the girls. He just does his best to be decent to them and make their stay more bearable.

Overall, though, the patrons of the Denver City are depicted as ugly, stupid, obnoxious, insular, bigoted and ignorant – grotesque versions of the Aussie Ocker of yesteryear. You can guess how their interactions with Lina and Steph go. Yep, there’s sexual innuendo and a few crude passes made, everything’s fuckin’ this and fuckin’ that, one bloke launches an investigation into Finnish culture with the question “Youse eat seals n shit, donthca?”, another boasts that he’s downed 86 cans of Bundi and coke in a night, and one classy cove stands around in a Tshirt emblazoned with the declaration “I fucked a goat.”

It’s excruciating but often also funny. You allow yourself a chuckle because the girls acquit themselves pretty well, retaining a sense of dignity, rolling with the punches and throwing a few back. Utterly unfunny, however, is the harassment and ridicule their bully of a boss, Peter, dishes out in front of the customers as they struggle, untrained, to make sense of his barked directions.

The most disturbing moment, though, is when one of the girls appears at serious risk of sexual assault from a drunken customer who has entered their sleeping quarters uninvited.

It might seem hard to make a case for these guys, but the reviewers who have dismissed them as “just” misogynist trash/bogans/dreadful people/insert-something-derogatory have sold them – and the film – short.

Gleeson has stacked the deck against the blokes in favour of the two girls. He has a story to tell, and he wants our sympathies to be with Lina and Steph. And they are. How can you not feel for them, the outsiders, struggling to cope in a testosterone-toxic community of foul-mouthed, leering, perpetually shitfaced hicks?

However, and this is key, Gleeson has included footage that offers glimpses through chinks in the guys’ armour into the pain, sadness and heartbreak that lies beneath. They’re damaged, uncared for, ill-adjusted human beings, and it’s a fair bet that the mines and The Denver City Hotel are all that stand between them and dereliction on the streets of some city.

And here’s the most intriguing aspect of the film: the blokes are the ones who stay with you after credit roll (except, perhaps, for those who dismiss them with reductive labels).

Why? Because there’s an inescapable realisation that they are the true outsiders. The girls are well-adapted people, free to choose any number of urban communities to live in with the certain knowledge that they will fit. They are temporarily sympathetic characters; our interest in them expires with the end of their outback trial. By contrast, the men who feature in Hotel Coolgardie are misfits and rejects, loners clinging to the company of other loners, in exile without end. At the end of the film, you know they’re still out there trying to drink some comfort into their barren lives.

Hotel Coolgardie is a fascinating doco that transcends its obvious intentions, eliciting a mix of complex and sometimes paradoxical responses. It is open to all sorts of interpretations and extrapolations, which speak as much to the viewer’s mindset and attitudes as the film itself.

Movie website:

Hotel Coolgardie features: Finnish backpackers Lina and Steph, and patrons of the Coolgardie hotel
Writer/Director: Pete Gleeson
Runtime: 83 min

Australian release date: Hotel Coolgardie showing from Thurs 15 June at Luna Leederville and Luna On SX.

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2 thoughts on “Hotel Coolgardie”

  1. “Hotel Coolgardie is a fascinating doco that transcends its obvious intentions, eliciting a mix of complex and sometimes paradoxical responses.”

    I would only say “apparent” rather than “obvious” – otherwise, yeah, you nailed it. It makes for uneasy viewing, but is always absorbing and, as you say, often funny.

    Another perceptive review, rolanstein!

  2. Thanks, Karen, and great to get a comment from you.

    I dunno about “apparent” rather than “obvious.” I think both apply, while pointing to different facets of the film. If there was a word that combined both meanings I’d grab it, but as far as I know there’s not. Which leaves me scratching my head over this one…


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