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Head On (1998)


Nineteen-year-old Ari (Alex Dimitriades) walks out of a Greek wedding in Melbourne. He is young, handsome, unemployed and bisexual, alienated from just about everything. His father (Tony Nikolakopoulos) calls him an animal, his mother (Eugenia Fragos) pleads with him not to leave home. Ari’s closest friend Johnny (Paul Capsis) is open about his cross-dressing, but Ari can’t face the ostracism and derision that would follow coming out. Instead he seeks short-term ecstasy in large amounts of drugs and anonymous sex in seedy alleys and public toilets.

The movie follows him and his friends through 24 hours of excess – from a family party where he almost has sex with his best friend Betty (Elena Mandalis), to a Greek nightclub where Johnny arrives dressed as his mother, calling himself Toula; to a gay nightclub where he meets up with Sean (Julian Garner), an Anglo man he fancies. In the morning he stands on the docks at Williamstown, where thousands of Greek migrants first set foot in Australia. He dances a Greek dance, alone and still defiant.

Curator’s notes

In terms of iconoclastic daring, Head On has no equal in Australian cinema. It broke so many rules, offended so many polite conventions, attacked so many silences, that it left audiences stunned and gulping for air. It depicts 24 hours in the life of a young man whose life should be full of expectation and promise. Ari is 19, intelligent, reasonably well-educated, articulate and handsome. He should be happy, embarking on a career with plenty of prospects and friends. Instead, he is unemployed, restless and desperately unhappy, spiralling out of control in a world of drugs and anonymous meaningless sexual encounters. Ari is caught between everything – between Greek and Australian, between gay and straight, between belief in the future and a sense of hopelessness about the present. The film’s depiction of the second generation of children of Greek migrant parents is exquisitely painful, not to mention shocking.

Ari is the most alienated among his friends, but by no means the only one. Generational conflict is a constant in films about migrant experience in Australia, but no film has depicted it with such savage honesty, or such energy. The conservatism of Greek culture, its emphasis on family and family honour, are part of what feed into the film’s savagery. Johnny’s dance in the nightclub (clip three), dressed as his dead mother Toula, is perhaps the film’s statement of a manifesto. It is an act of provocation and extreme bravery, a direct confrontation of the hypocrisy of a culture that celebrates men dancing together, but not sleeping together. Toula’s desire to dance confronts sexism, homophobia and patriarchy in one grand, foolhardy gesture that even they don’t really understand. ‘They loved me’, she says, running after Ari, a statement that tells us how deep Johnny’s self-delusion might be (or how complete his performance as Toula has become). The film’s aesthetics are always more self-aware, but no less brave, or inflammatory.

Head On is not just about the state of denial within the Greek community in Melbourne. It’s a bomb aimed at the placid and polite styles of Australian film. Ana Kokkinos’ first short feature Only the Brave demonstrated an extraordinary confidence and ambition. Christos Tsiolkas’s book Loaded has a similar furious energy. The combination of these two talents – both raised in Greek families in Melbourne – was explosive, especially when Kokkinos was able to convince Alex Dimitriades to play the role of Ari. Head On presents very confronting material for an actor – full-frontal nudity, aggressive sexual scenes – but Dimitriades gives the best performance of his career to date in the role. Ari is an extraordinarily complex character, buffeted by many pressures and emotions, but we’re always able to see these written clearly on his face.

The intensity of Head On, compressing all of its drama into one 24-hour period, is almost without precedent in an Australian movie. The film rejects all the conventions of what came before it – the gradualism of conventional scripting, the careful crafting of character, the demands of plot and audience expectations of what an Australian film ought to be. It is more like a Scorsese film, a descent into a form of hell, in which the main character must battle his demons or die. The extraordinary finale, in which Ari dances on the docks where so many migrant families arrived on Australian soil, coupled with a narration that remains defiant and unapologetic, is one of the most beautiful and enigmatic endings of any Australian film.