East of Cannes, West of Wagga Wagga

13 04 2010

'Samson and Delilah'

Around this time last year, I spent a couple of days in Alice Springs, the Australian town to which the young heroes of Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah flee midway through the film. With a population of just 27 000, Alice would, by most people’s standards, be considered a small or medium-sized town. By Outback standards though, it’s a metropolis, and a focal point for cattle stations and Aboriginal communities for thousands of kilometres around.

As a visitor to the town, one of the first things that you notice is just how polarised the lives of its inhabitants are. While the non-Aboriginal population shops and sips lattès in the busy town centre, Aborigines can, by and large, be seen on the margin of things, wandering along the dried-up bed of the Todd River or sitting apart, under trees in small groups.

Without wanting to romanticise their position at all (there are huge alcohol and substance abuse problems in the indigenous community), it almost feels as if the town and everything in it has fallen down around these people’s ears, while they’ve just stayed put and tried to get on with things as best they can. And, historically speaking, that kind of is what happened.  After all, for at least 40 000 – some would say 60 000 – years native Australian culture went its own way, developing in glorious isolation from the rest of the world. European culture, with its settled farming, its jealous God, and (catastrophically) its booze, arrived only 200 years ago, and in some places closer to 100.

Cinema of course, is part of that culture and, on the surface at least, a part that seems to be about as far removed from traditional Aboriginal culture as it’s possible to be. Aboriginal art from across Australia tends to be what we outsiders would see as abstract rather than representational. Weaving together myths of the ‘Dreamtime’ and descriptions of places involved in those myths, it avoids ‘lifelike’ depictions of people or objects, preferring instead patterns, shapes, dots and colours.

Cinema, on the other hand, is based on representational art; on the ‘lifelike’ traditions found in European, Asian and American painting, theatre and photography. It makes basic assumptions based on those traditions; assumptions that would appear to have very little to do with indigenous Australian culture.

So Aboriginal film-makers are faced with a problem. How do they take what is essentially an alien art form and make it their own? And how do they express their culture through film without betraying or cheapening it?

Well, the brief answer is that they’ve barely had the chance to get started. The first film to feature Aboriginal actors was made as late as 1955, and by a whitefella director at that. Jedda, directed by Charles Chavel, told the story of an orphaned Aboriginal girl who is brought up by a white farmer’s wife and forbidden from mixing with her own people. This was undoubtedly a brave film to make at a time when the Australian government was still encouraging the ‘assimilation’ of Aboriginal children. But still, in terms of its tone and the way its story was told, Jedda owed more to the Deep South movies then being made by Hollywood liberals than to any specifically new and radical Australian sensibility.

'Rabbit-Proof Fence'

More recently, other white Australian directors have picked up and run with Aboriginal stories with varying degrees of success. Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) told the story of three half-Aboriginal children who, in the 1930s, escape from a government-run re-education centre and set out on the long walk home. The film heralded an important change in Australian society, with those in power facing up for the first time to the legacy of ‘the stolen generation’ of indigenous children. It is an important film in those terms then, but one which, ultimately, is told from a guilty white liberal perspective, rather than from the point-of-view of the conquered and baffled native.

Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008), on the other hand, was less concerned with righting past wrongs and more with telling a ripping good yarn, albeit one in which white heroes would be given attitudes years ahead of their time. The way that Aboriginal characters and ‘issues’ were shamelessly crow-barred into the film’s birth-of-a-nation-style narrative was widely criticised as flippant and dismissive.

Much better than either of these is Walkabout, by the British director Nicolas Roeg. Released in 1971, it tells the story of an encounter between two English children abandoned in the bush and the lone Aboriginal boy who saves them. Roeg takes, as his basic premise, the idea that there is a vast unknowable gap at work here between people and cultures. His film is about the limits of communication, and perhaps tells us more about the relationship between pre- and post-1788 Australians than any number of well-meaning homilies ever could.

In recent years, native Australian film-makers have begun to get in on the act too, exploring new ways of using cinema to tell stories about their own communities. Ten Canoes, released in 2006 was, its true, co-directed by a Dutch-Australian, Rolf de Heer. But, on the other hand, it was the first feature film to be made entirely in an Aboriginal language and it does attempt to tell a story entirely from an Aboriginal perspective.

The setting is Arnheim Land, in remote Northern Australia, some time before first contact with whites. A young man hunts for duck eggs and tries to conceal his jealousy about his brother’s new wife. As he does so, his companions tell him a story about a famous ancestor in a similar predicament who comes to a sticky end. The film’s present is shown in black and white, the past in glorious, sun-dappled colour; perhaps an obvious way of showing the importance of myth in Aboriginal cultures, but an effective one at that.

'Ten Canoes'

By contrast, Samson and Delilah has a contemporary setting, and concerns itself with the very real social problems that confront indigenous communities today. Samson (played by 14-year-old Rowan McNamara) is an inveterate petrol-sniffer: an addiction that is presented in just as matter-of-fact a way as his love for near-neighbour Delilah (Marissa Gibson). The two run away from their Outback community in search of better things, only to find that life in the big city (Alice Springs) can be equally tough. Warwick Thornton’s film is by turns urgent and depressing and beautiful, but never sentimental. Above all, it seems fuelled by the need to make Aboriginal communities sit up and take notice of where they’re going. In one particularly shocking scene, for example, Delilah is kidnapped by a car-full of white youths while Samson, bottle of petrol pressed to his nose, walks along in an oblivious daze a few steps ahead of her. The message couldn’t be clearer. Wake up! Do something!

And so, Aboriginal cinema takes its first few steps out into the world. Elsewhere, other indigenous film-makers are learning their craft too, taking this most alien of art forms and using it to re-tell old myths or to assert new truths (see the Brazilian Birdwatchers and the Inuit Atarnarjuat in particular).

What kind of cinema results from all this activity? And what happens when people who have never seen a film, or who have only the dimmest idea of what Hollywood or Bollywood is all about, are involved in making a film, as actors? Do we see something new and fresh in their performances and in the way that their stories are told? It’s early days yet, but given the self-confidence of films like Samson and Delilah and Atarnarjuat, I would guess that indigenous cinema from around the world still has a lot more to tell us, even as the cultures it depicts threaten to dwindle and disappear.

Samson and Delilah is in UK cinemas now.


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