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


  1. What an evocative post, thanks so much El. I'll see the film, but I wish I could have seen it in Alice Springs.

  2. Thanks so much for that -- I love posts/articles/whatever that are about experiencing art, rather than sticking to the conventions of reviewing -- especially when those conventions aren't fully understood as is so often the case in the blogosphere though not, of course, at this fine blog.

  3. This is magnificent. Thank you El.
    Andrew Burke, the WA poet, has asked me to write him a review when I see this film but I really think he needs to read this instead :-)
    and I'm sending him straight over.
    Great to see a particularly fine and nuanced slice of Screen Hub in this company, too.

  4. Yep, Genevieve is right - it's a terrific piece. I've just seen the film and was very 'engaged' by it. I have lived on a remote community where the drug of choice was alcohol, although gunja played a minor role. My wife tells me of her experiences in Hermansburg (spl?), which sound a lot closer to this film's scenario.
    I left the cinema in tears, pushing past the line of people waiting to get in for the next screening. They must have wondered what was in store for them ... This is a film I'd like to sit down and talk to people about - which is precisely its best effect on an audience.

  5. The whole reception thing has been interesting because I think people in Alice have been more muted, more critical about the film than in the kind of responses from elsewhere. I think the reason is that people in Alice are more used to this scenario (even anaethetised) and as I indicated above, find the film's representation of life in town unbalanced -- or at least think it's more complex and nuanced than what's depicted in the film (tho mind you, there's only so much you can pack into a feature).

    I also think S+D does have craft flaws but that the emotional punch overrides these factors (which is fine, of course).

    (God, no wonder no one's posting comments on this blog -- it's so bloody complicated!)

  6. Here here! These are but some of the reasons I left Alice in the first place! However, the last time I visited, about 5 years ago I went to a hip hop club and saw some aboriginal kids getting into that scene, I felt it was a shame that they have to embrace american black culture, but at least it's something they can feel a part of and some, if not most, hip hop music does have a really positive message about accumulating skills and picking yourself up outta the dirt and so on.

    I have mixed feelings about coming back in 2 weeks' time and have to admit I hope to find that things have changed somewhat in my 20 year abscence. On the other hand, I'm also wondering what I could do whilst I'm there to be part of the solution, or at the least, not part of the problem!

    Also, I'd love to see the film, maybe someone has a copy of it on DVD? It's the first I've heard of it. Ahhh.. so many things to find out about in the new chapter of the adventure.


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