Geelong Advertiser, Monday 15 May 2009, p. 19.
If Baz Luhrmann’s Australia was not Australia’s greatest film of recent times, then a small, understated entry to the Cannes Film Festival might just be it. Warwick Thornton’s love story of two Aboriginal children is as tough, and cinematically realistic, as Luhrmann’s is romanticised. It is a gut-wrenchingly honest in its portrayal of the environment in which so many youngsters find themselves and yet it reveals profound truths about the deeper interactions and relationships between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal Australians—and about the human condition.
Samson and Delilah is a story about two Aboriginal youngsters growing up in central Australia and how they gradually form a relationship which survives the challenges they encounter. The girl is by far the stronger character and it is her resilience and skills which save the couple. In that she reflects the traditional role of women in Aboriginal society over the years where they have sustained their people, while the males engaged in politics, ceremonies and chasing wildlife, probably bringing in less sustenance than they expended in the process.
As cinema the film is brilliant. There is minimal dialogue and the pictures and the musical soundtrack tell the story and reveal the moods of the participants. Subtitles convey the snatches of Walpiri language. The landscapes and backgrounds are stunning, contrasting vividly with the human habitations and their ugly surrounds.
While it is not its purpose, the film shows how Aboriginal Australians have drawn on European artifacts and technology for their own purposes where they found them useful, as they have done since the first explorers and settlers arrived in this country. Nowadays this includes four-wheel drives, windmills, telephones, rifles, electric guitars and amplifiers, and dirt bikes. Also the ways in which people are able to turn their talents into survival skills in an alien world comes through clearly. Even when they are exploited by unscrupulous art dealers the girl and her grandmother produce marvellous pictures from which they gain a tiny but significant income.
One of the hardest things to convey in cinematic terms is the slow pace of life in places where nothing much happens. Thornton takes us through a cycle of a day and a bit, showing that the obstacles to daily living remain the same throughout. The young man wakes to his petrol sniffing before he can face the day, and the girl pushes her grandmother to the health centre and the church in a wheel chair, which will not travel through the soft sand across the unformed road surface. Occasional, seemingly random, but actually explicable, episodes of violence punctuate this almost still life.
When the grandmother dies the two youngsters head for Alice Springs where they find themselves sleeping out under a bridge over the dried-up bed of the Todd River. Here they meet an alcoholic white man who tries to befriend them, but in a shocking change of pace, the girl is abducted and raped, off screen, by a group of youths while the boy is so bound up in his substance-soaked existence that he does not notice that it is happening. Attempts to sell paintings to tourists for a fraction of what her grandmother’s work is selling for in an art shop illustrate the uncomprehending discrimination against those who are struggling for existence in this society.
But this is no didactic, message-driven film and people will take an enormous range of impressions from it, some confronting, some uplifting and all very moving. The young non-professional actors, Marissa Gibson and Rowan McNamara, are superb. Thornton says that in the latter stages of the film they even took over the direction insisting that the film had to have an affirmative ending, rather than the predictable death of either or both of them.
Though the film is on general release it does not seem to have been picked up by the major chains and as a consequence Geelong audiences may not get a chance to see it. But it should be shown in every school in the country and it is well worth making the trip to Melbourne to see it, if word of mouth does not result in its much wider screening.