‘Head On’: The film that helped change Australian culture

Twenty years after making its mark on Australian cinema, Neos Kosmos looks back on 1998 cult film 'Head On'

When Head On hit screens in 1998, it would go on to change the lives of everyone involved. From author Christos Tsiolkas, whose book Loaded was the basis, to its director Ana Kokkinos, lead actor Alex Dimitriades and supporting actor Paul Capsis.

All three Greek Australians involved were nominated for AACTA Awards (previously the AFI Awards), with Head On receiving nine AFI nominations, taking out Best Editing. It even made a name for itself internationally, awarded in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and was screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

The film shocked audiences and critics for its thought provoking and illuminating portrayal of Ari, a 19-year-old gay Greek Australian.

Back then Australia was a different country. Gay characters and stories were not as prevalent on our screens as they are now, depictions of homosexual sex were never mainstream, and same-sex marriage certainly was not enshrined in law.

But it wasn’t just the story of Ari dealing with his sexuality that proved provocative.

Head On was a window into the lives of second-generation Greek Australians and seeing them rebel against their ethnicity, familial burdens and taking drugs was too much for sections of the community.

“I remember when we were at the Cannes Film Festival with the film it was very divisive and everyone was talking about it,” Kokkinos told Neos Kosmos.

“Generally speaking, those who were under 40 really loved the film and those who were over 40 hated the film, and they hated the film with a vengeance. Even here when I returned there were a lot of Greek people who were angry with me.”

One of the key things Kokkinos was looking to explore was the way offspring or the children of first generation migrants carried burdens and expectations, which was quite personal for the director.

“It was through the character of Ari in Head On that I wanted to explore that idea of two cultures. We wanted to be part of our Greek culture and we needed to rebel against it. We needed to reject it and needed to get out from under the constraints of that more oppressive conservative side of Greeks and at the same time be able to be free express who we are and our sexuality,” the director explains.

Director of Head On, Ana Kokkinos.

For Tsiolkas, he recalls Kokkinos approaching him about adapting his debut book as his lucky day. But says he is just as thankful that Dimitriades was prepared to take on such a role, claiming that it was the actor’s portrayal of his protagonist that made the film.

“For a young Greek Australian to choose that role, that was a very brave decision and that was a formidable performance, a great performance,” he says.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it. For me, Ari the character in Loaded and Head On belongs as much to Alex as it does to me.
“I’m really proud of that book and that film. It feels like it changed something in the Australian culture.”

It’s well-known that much of the character Ari is based on Tsiolkas’ own life experience. Unsure of whether he would go on to write another book, the author admits he put as much of himself into the story as he could.

“That first book I wanted to express something about the confusions of masculinity and sexuality and ethnicity,” he says, and while it was from a Greek Australian experience, it was one that resonated with the wider community.

“We’ve got stories to tell but they are Australians stories as well. We from the second and third generation, we have these experiences that we need to communicate and I don’t think that they had been heard before or seen before or written in that way in literature or via cinema.”

Christos Tsiolkas, the author of Loaded. Photo: AAP/Tracey Nearmy

The other big performance in Head On was from Paul Capsis who played Tula, Ari’s friend, the drag queen. Capsis had been a drag and cabaret performer in Sydney during the late 1980’s and mid 90’s. But the Greek Maltese Australian performer says appearing in Head On was both career and life altering.

“Everything changed from that movie,” he recalls. “All of a sudden people were interested in me, to talk to me or put me in a show … I had one of the greatest experiences of my life working on that film. The people I met, working with Ana Kokkinos, working with the crew. The discipline of getting up early in the morning, learning your lines. Ana demanding so much from you to get the performance she wanted. It was a glorious time of my life.”

Paul Capsis as Tula in Head On.

Looking back at Head On 20 years later, Kokkinos says despite the controversy and backlash she experiences, the greatest achievement is the response continues to get two decades later – proving her film has stood the test of time.

“It has become a landmark film. It’s one the audience feels deeply engaged by,” she says.

“It’s also in the fact that people have watched my work and said, I understand what this person is telling me; I sense this difference, and it speaks to me very directly. This is a very powerful thing that storytelling can do, it can touch us in a way that makes us feel less alone in the world. Particularly when we come from a non-mainstream experience.”