Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Australian filmmaker wins Camera d'Or at Cannes

Congratulations are due to Warwick Thornton, whose first feature film Samson And Delilah has been awarded the Camera d'Or prize at Cannes. The award is for a first-film by a first-time film director.

El from elswhere has previously reviewed the film and its Extraordinary premiere in Alice Springs here at Sars Lite, and I highly recommend it to those who missed her post.

I am somewhat disgruntled, though, that the media keeps referring to Thornton as an Aboriginal filmmaker. I know, and respect the fact, that Warwick Thornton is a proud Aboriginal man, who is strongly connected to his family and community in Alice. But why aren't Australians, and our media, ready to simply celebrate our writers and filmmakers and artists and musicians (and their achievements) as art makers first and foremost, and then, yes, Australian, and, yes, certainly Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander if they are of that background?

Why are the media reports of his win constantly referring to 'Aboriginal filmmaker Warrick Thornton'? Why not 'Australian filmmaker'? Am I too sensitive in presuming an undercurrent of 'wow, he's managed to win it despite being Aboriginal'?

Is Thornton being Aboriginal the story, or is how good a film Samson and Delilah is the story?

Yet Samson and Delilah is constantly referred to as an 'Aboriginal film'. Surely it is that but more, and everything else besides? Thornton himself considers it a love story first and foremost (and at least The Age picks that up in the headline 'Australian love story wins Cannes prize'), and yes its actors, characters, setting and plot drivers are Aboriginal, but surely this is not a only, or purely, an Aboriginal film?

If anything, the jury at Cannes seems to get it, describing it "as the best love film they had seen for many years."

I don't doubt that Thornton being Aboriginal is important to his approach to and success in the film – possibly securing him access to country, actors, community support, and certainly the context for the story – and it is unlikely that non-Indigenous filmmakers would have had the opportunities and entrepoints to make this project a success (though that is debatable, looking at David Vadiveloo's success with the online film/multimedia production UsMob). I have no doubt that being Aboriginal is important to Thornton, and has informed and coloured his practice as a filmmaker.

But perhaps, first and foremost, Thornton is a very fine filmmaker. And he was won a major prize at Cannes.

You can hear Thornton speaking to the ABC's Lisa Millar (links to audio mp3) about his reaction to his film winning the Camera d'Or and, endearingly, how he's ready to come home from the red carpet glitz of Cannes to reality and sit on his veranda in Alice Springs .

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Friday, May 15, 2009

RIP Charles "Bud" Tingwell

As has been widely reported, Charles "Bud" Tingwell died overnight, aged 86. Upon hearing the news, my first thought was, "Oh no, not Gramps!" My second thought was to consider the possible inappropriateness of my first thought. Given Tingwell's long and varied career, was it somehow disrespectful that my immediate thoughts were of his relatively minor role in the much-loved D-Gen pisstaké "Charlie the Wonder Dog"?

Yet Tingwell's performance as Gramps exemplifies - for me at least, and I suspect for many others of my generation - Tingwell's talent and his spirit. Here was a guy whose career predated tv, who had appeared in everything from The Shiralee to Thunderbirds (yes, Thunderbirds!), not to mention over one hundred episodes of Homicide. Here was this legend of Australian film and tv, hamming it up on a late night comedy show, and he was utterly brilliant. Tingwell not only got the joke, he embraced it; his performance was pitch-perfect and still makes me laugh today. Ok, Gramps is far from being Tingwell's most significant role, but the fact that he took it on and made it work so well demonstrates his skill, professionalism and generosity.

Looking at Tingwell's IMDB profile brings home just how versatile an actor he was. Although perhaps best loved for avuncular characters such as QC Lawrence Hammill in The Castle, Tingwell largely managed to avoid being typecast - just last year he played Winston Churchill in ABC's Menzies and Churchill at War. On top of all this Tingwell was by all accounts a lovely bloke with a generous soul. Of course, the entertainment world always speaks highly of its recently deceased. I suspect in Tingwell's case the praise is more than justified.
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Monday, May 11, 2009

There beneath the brown suburban skies

Reporting the opening of the NGV’s John Brack retrospective, Channel Ten news declared that Brack “specialised in depicting the colours of Melbourne”, thus conveying the impression that Brack’s contribution to the visual arts was the equivalent of an Age liftout spruiking Melbourne’s “vibrant”, “cosmopolitan” culture and lifestyle. Of course, the opposite is true: many of Brack’s early Melbourne paintings - Collins St., 5 pm and The Bar, to offer two well-known examples - are satirical pokes at the drudgery and artificiality of urban and suburban life. As for “colours”, Brack favoured the dourer end of the palette; he was the go-to man for depicting mid-twentieth century life in all its umber, olive and piss-yellow glory.

Judging by the crowd that packed the front half of the exhibition on Sunday morning, Brack’s necrotic nudes, grimacing suburbanites and creepy shopfronts retain a good deal of popular appeal. This is explicable in a way – Brack’s early stuff is either iconic in itself, or it deals with iconic imagery – but it’s also slightly odd in that these paintings are consistently acidic and nasty. The paintings give off a strange aura: even the pinks and greens feel yellow and brown.

In a recent interview, Brack’s widow, Helen Maudsley, described Brack’s Melbourne paintings as little more than “sneering” jibes at “people who don’t know the right words”. There is some truth to this, but equally there is some truth to the paintings themselves. Sometimes a contemptuous sneer is called for, and paintings like Collins St., 5 pm take conformism and drudgery to task with an admirable all-consuming bitterness. Slagging off suburbanites is as old as the suburbs themselves, and often twice as dull, but paintings like The New House – in which a gaunt, grim-faced husband unlovingly clasps his aproned wife against a classic fifties kitchen backdrop – and The Girls at School – with its parade of tight-lipped Veruca Salts – have a double resonance. That is, the paintings are simultaneously cultural artefacts – satires and/or grotesques of the era in which they were produced – and also, for the contemporary viewer, satires of the revisionist Howardian (John, not Tim) view of the fifties as a kind of Golden Age. Elitist, maybe, but still fascinating art.

Early Brack wasn’t all suburbanite bashing. Amongst the collection there are some cartoonish horse racing paintings, a self-portrait that is so clich√© (looking into the mirror, shaving) that it verges on genius, and the famous series of ballroom dancing scenes, all pink taffeta and artificial gestures. (Plus the greatest male wedgie in the history of Western art. I forget which painting it’s in, but you can’t miss it.) More disturbing are Brack’s famously asensual nudes – inspired by the Holocaust, according to Maudsley – and his various still lifes of slicing machines, artificial legs, butcher’s shopfronts. These paintings are desolate and powerful, and show Brack attempting to shift away from local satire towards a generalised critique of modernity.

The second half of the exhibition covers Brack’s work from the 1970s onwards. There are more nudes – chubbier now, less grotesque, although still rather off-looking – but by this time Brack was moving into abstract symbolism. There was rather more elbow room in this part of the exhibition which to be honest was hardly surprising: going from the fairly straightforward representations of human beings to depictions of warring pencils and wooden hands holding up postcards of historical figures makes for an abrupt change of scenery. The postcard paintings seem slightly clumsy to me, a hodge-podge of elements with which Brack occasionally works wonders, eg. 1066, and especially The Hands and the Faces. The pencil paintings are much simpler conceptually, and pack a greater punch. The major work is The Battle in which the Battle of Waterloo is reimagined (with “historical accuracy”, the accompanying plaque assures us) as a fight between factions of pencils holding aloft playing cards.

I’ll spare you further sub-VCE art criticism: Robert Hughes I ain’t. Nevertheless, I highly recommend having a look at the Brack show if you're in town. It is on at The Ian Potter Centre, Federation Square, until August 9.
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Saturday, May 2, 2009

'Samson and Delilah': Extraordinary premiere in Alice Springs

Friday evening at the Bush Telegraph station. A large screen is set up on the banks of the Todd for the Alice Springs premiere of local Aboriginal film-maker Warwick Thornton’s first feature, Samson and Delilah. Aboriginal bush bands play on a small stage beside the screen: the Desert Mulga Band, whose music supports the film, and another of Thornton’s favourites, the South East Metal Band from Santa Teresa. Kids dance in front of the stage: there’s a competition for give-away hoodies inscribed with Samson and Delilah graffiti. Behind the screen, an orange rockface glows in the dusk.

The sky is purple with clouds, ironically given the lack of rain in central Australia. But even an hour before the film’s start, the natural amphitheatre in front of the screen is filling fast. It’s a free event, including drinks and a sausage sizzle. People have been bussed in from outlying Aboriginal communities -- Papunya, Yuendumu, Hermannsburg, Santa Theresa. Afterwards, it’s estimated that over 1,500 attended: 400 cars were counted and there was a minor traffic jam on the way out.

I’ve lived in Alice Springs for over five years, and this is one of the largest mixed black and white attendances I’ve ever seen at a community event, with the exception of footy grand finals. It’s big for a film screening: community people will turn out if Aboriginal cast members, especially locals, are involved (Us Mob; even Australia), but it’s rare to see them at arthouse cinema offerings. Usually only a couple, if any, attend outdoor screenings of Flickerfest, often people who’ve crept in round the sides to watch.

Filmmaker Warwick Thornton stands off to one side, a stockman’s hat exchanged for his usual baseball cap, arms folded across his chest, talking to a few young Aboriginal men. His publicist tells me Thornton feels ‘half and half’ about the screening. He’s worried about how the town might respond to the film.

Once the bands leave the stage, the cast members are introduced amid cheers. Thornton takes the mike. He admits to the audience that the film’s premiere in Alice -- and the turnout -- is ‘pretty overwhelming for me’.

Samson and Delilah has already premiered as part of the film’s funding agreement at the Adelaide Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award. The Alice Springs premiere is the first public screening; the next will be at the opening of Message Stick Film Festival on 5 May at the Sydney Opera House, just before its national cinema release on 7 May.

A pre-screening of the rough cut was held for members of the cast, crew and the Aboriginal communities involved. In an interview earlier that day, Thornton told me it was important to get the communities’ approval, for them to have a sense of ownership, before the film was released.

‘They absolutely loved it,’ he says. ‘Most people have said to us, “It’s a good film and an important film, and they want people to see it to understand that things are not right in communities".’

Thornton wanted Samson and Delilah to premiere in Alice before it received national exposure. The location of the screening is itself significant for a film about Aboriginal youth: the Bush Telegraph Station once housed members of the Stolen Generations.

What does Thornton think the town’s response to the film will be? Does he expect controversy, even outrage?

‘Bring it on, bring it on!’ he says. ‘I’m sick of it. I love this town; it’s my town.

‘But this is a hard town, a really hard town. We try and sweep stuff under carpets or behind rocks or we try and hide it.’


Samson and Delilah tells the story of two teenagers in central Australia whose youthful infatuation takes a more serious turn when circumstances force them to leave their remote community. The pair run away to Alice Springs, where they experience a rapid and hellish descent into life as street kids -- shoplifting from Coles to feed themselves, sleeping under a bridge in the Todd River, hawking paintings to tourists, and so on.

The local townsfolk are portrayed as largely dispassionate, at best oblivious to the two teenagers’ situation. Delilah (Marissa Gibson) is subject to some particularly hostile incidents, which are all the more galling because the man she loves is so consumed by petrol sniffing that he fails to notice she’s in danger. Previously a ‘good girl’, she eventually succumbs and joins Samson (Rowan McNamara) in his habit.

From this sequence of events develops a more necessary love borne of survival: what Samson and Delilah have is each other. Ultimately, the pair return to an outstation on their traditional lands outside the community. The film’s ending suggests that their bond can trump adversity, although what the future might hold for them seems far from certain. There’s a sense of Groundhog Day for Delilah: the film opens with her looking after her grandmother and closes with her caring for Samson in a wheelchair.

Samson and Delilah is fairly bleak until its resolution: at one point, I thought the only place it could go was death. The film’s most controversial aspects are its depiction of life in the community and in town for Aboriginal teenagers. Samson and Delilah is frank in portraying the boredom, the mindless violence, the lack of attention or protection that often exists for young people in community life. It’s a brave gesture for an Aboriginal film-maker to put this material up on the big screen, especially when so many nuances of community life might be lost or subject to misinterpretation by mainstream audiences.

Thornton was born and grew up in Alice Springs. He spent his teenage years ‘living on the streets, hanging around at two o’clock in the morning in the Mall.’ Samson and Delilah draws directly from his experience: ‘Everything that’s in the film I’ve witnessed personally, seen it happen.’

Much of the impetus for making the film grew out of his concern that Aboriginal youth were being treated like untouchables in Alice Springs:

‘Kids can’t even walk into shops in this town without being followed. People cross the street when Aboriginal kids are walking down that side of the road.’

He points to the lack of diversionary schemes and even a youth centre for young people in Alice Springs:

‘Why are all these kids on the street? Well no one created a hub for them, a place of safety we’re they can go when there’s trouble in the camps or people are drinking or that sort of stuff.

‘There’s nothing for them. This is really basic, one-on-one youth diversionary stuff this town doesn’t even think of. Tangentyere and places like that are doing amazing things, but they need back-up from everyone, they need back up from the Council, they need back up from the Territory and federal governments.’

The film is beautifully shot using a single Panavision 35 mm camera to give it a high quality look, while remaining appropriately spare. Producer Kath Shelper explained to me before the screening that they deliberately avoided the encumbrances of a big production: ‘We made it low budget to give ourselves creative freedom. We knew that we would get the best results if we had a small, intimate family team.’

One of Samson and Delilah’s most arresting features is the lack of dialogue: the two teenagers communicate mainly through non-verbal gestures, particularly during the early sequences in the community. The spell almost seems broken once more dialogue (and in English) is introduced later in the film.

The untrained Aboriginal actors are particularly captivating. Mitjili Gibson, the title lead in Nana, provides another standout performance, which seems all the more remarkable given that she’s a member of the Pintupi, one of the last mobs to have come out of the desert. Rowan McNamara, himself a resident of Hidden Valley town camp, is compelling in his portrayal of a sniffer’s deterioration.

Thornton says that rather than bringing in trained urban actors, he deliberately chose kids from communities because ‘they bring their experiences.’ Neither of the teenage leads were sniffers but ‘they’d seen that stuff in their communities, so they could relate to it, draw on it.’


There is universal applause after the film but the mood is thoughtful. People hoping to relax on a Friday night to a romance, perhaps to a low budget Aboriginal version of Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet, are likely to have been disappointed. The film has been confronting. Some query whether it should have been screened as family entertainment, given its hard-core life material.

A friend, a local health worker, comments to me, ‘It made this town out to be a hard, uncaring place. I don’t think that’s the whole truth. There are some people who do some pretty amazing work here.’

She’s unhappy about the film’s depiction of the apparent lack of outreach and access to services for Aboriginal youth in town. She refers to some scenes where the increasingly destitute Delilah is ignored by a parish priest and then by the patrons of Bar Doppio, Alice Springs’ local latte sippers, to whom she tries to sell art. It’s common to see hawkers, more usually middle-aged Aboriginal women, trying to sell dot paintings in the town’s cafes.

‘I don’t think that people would have let a fourteen year-old girl go like that,’ my friend observes. ‘Someone would have at least asked about her.’

Thornton admits to being a local latte sipper and finding himself filtering out the hawkers: ‘You don’t know the story behind that person trying to sell you a painting.’

Blair McFarland of Youth Link Up Services, who has worked with petrol sniffers in central Australia for over twenty years, says that the film depicts is more indicative of the situation almost decade ago. With recent legislation and more local agencies targeting sniffers, it’s more likely that teenagers such as Samson and Delilah would be picked up when they come to town: ‘We would have been on the job like a shot.’

He endorses the film strongly, saying it’s ‘the most realistic thing I’ve ever seen’, except that ‘rather than one or two sniffers gathering under the bridge, two would have quickly become four, which would soon have become twelve.’

Local Aboriginal people refer to sniffers as ‘dingos, because they hang around the camp looking hungry.’ Teenagers such as Samson and Delilah, who don’t have the support of extended family members, have to fend for themselves.

McFarland hopes that Samson and Delilah will raise Australians’ awareness of the problems here, the need to work with Aboriginal youth, rather than focusing more energy on overseas aid projects.

Producer Kath Shelper says that in making the film, they wanted ‘to bring some understanding of these kids’ to the broader Australian community. She’s adamant, however, that Samson and Delilah is not as ‘issues’ film: she hopes the audience won’t be made up ‘of only people who are interested in Aboriginal issues.’

‘Warwick always says, “There aren’t issues for those kids in the film; that’s their life.”

‘It’s a film that’s designed to take you on a journey and to make you feel something and to be engaged. To think about yourself, more than to think about “Aboriginal issues”, in inverted commas.’

Love is Samson and Delilah’s through-line: ‘These kids are…trying to work all that out,’ Thornton says. ‘Anybody can relate to that, whether it’s a community they’ve never seen, witnessed or even thought about.’

Shelpa elaborates on why love became so central to the film: ‘It was really a conscious decision of Warwick to make it a love story for Australia more than anywhere else. To make you want to care about these kids, and want to watch them and care for them, and want to know their story.

'For Warwick and I, the most important thing was that Australia sees the film and embraces the film.’


After the screening, audience members pack away the remains of their picnics, roll up their swags and fold their deck chairs. Things are perhaps a little quiet for such a large gathering. People around me offer cautious, considered opinions: overall they think the film’s quality is high, even unexpectedly so, but they’re still weighing up its portrayal of the town’s issues.

It’s hard to generalise about what such a diverse audience might have felt: even during the film, there was laughter from community people in what were to me unexpected places. Tjilpi Buckley, a friend who attended with some local mob, tells me they were largely silent, reflective at the film’s close, although Aboriginal people tend not to volunteer opinions in a hurry.

It seems that whether or not they liked the end-result, Samson & Delilah touched the thoughts and hearts of the people whom Warwick Thornton has known all his life, and whose story he set out to tell.

Samson and Delilah premiered in Alice Springs on Friday, 17 April 2009.
This feature was written for Screen Hub, where it was published
on 20 April.
Photo credit: Facebook Samson & Delilah's Photos - Alice Spring Premiere

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