In my week focusing on Australian films, I’ve already covered some modern classics including Aboriginal director Tracey Moffatt’s beDevil (1993) and a number of documentaries interrogating Australia’s colonialist and racist societal dynamics, notably Another Country (2015). Warwick Thornton is probably the most prominent director from an Aboriginal background currently working in the country, and over the course of a number of short films and two features has burrowed into this history, stepping back to the 1920s with his most recent feature Sweet Country.
From Sand to Celluloid: Payback (1996)
An early short film by Warwick Thornton shot in grainy black-and-white, dealing with Paddy (George Djilaynga), who is preparing to be released from prison. The justice of the white prison guards is contrasted with Aboriginal customs, giving the film a distinctive Australian meaning, suggesting Paddy’s displacement and position within this society.
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Warwick Thornton; Starring George Djilaynga; Length 12 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 12 August 1998 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Thursday 6 September 2018).
Green Bush (2005)
An extended short film which packs a whole feature into its 27 minutes, as young DJ Kenny (David Page), shows up to his outback radio station broadcasting to an Aboriginal community. There he finds himself at the hub of the local area, as people pop in for cups of tea and food, to get medical help, or just to chat. It’s suggested that this is an everyday reality, and though there are hints towards darker stories — violence and abuse, neglect in the community, and the paternalistic attitude of the (white) authority figures — it’s still somewhat warming. The director has this way of making even the darker stories seem part of the warp and weft of everyday life, and shooting them with a colourful gloss that belies the (presumably) low budgets he’s working with.
Director/Writer Warwick Thornton; Cinematographer Eric Murray Lui; Starring David Page; Length 27 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 7 September 2018.
This short film is like a sketch towards the same character (played by the same actor, Mitjili Napanangka Gibson) as she appears in Samson and Delilah a couple of years later (see below), the elderly Nana sitting outside her rural home, hunting for ‘bush tucker’ and painting colourful pointillist artworks. The film is narrated by a young girl and the music choices and child-lettered title card suggest a naively sentimental documentary portrait, but when Nana beats up some guys who are illegally transporting liquor, it takes a wryly amusing turn.
Director/Writer Warwick Thornton; Cinematographer Jason Ramp; Starring Mitjili Napanangka Gibson; Length 6 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 6 September 2018.
Samson and Delilah (2009) [certificate 15]
Somehow, on the basis of his work that I’ve seen, Thornton manages to make films which are both gorgeous to look at but also utterly bleak. I’m not sure I’d call this a romance, exactly, but it’s certainly some kind of coming of age — albeit one of the ones in which our teenage protagonists take their hits in making it through to whatever adulthood is allowed to them. They live in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, where there’s apparently little to do except huff fumes and play repetitive country guitar music on the porch. Delilah (Marissa Gibson)’s nana is ailing and soon dies, leading to her being beaten by her family, while Samson (Rowan McNamara) also gets a familial beating for wrecking their musical instruments under a haze of intoxication, and so they hit the road, and, somehow, things just get bleaker. There are barely any words in the film (Samson is deaf, it seems), so the actors’ expressiveness and the choreography between them, all ably captured by Thornton’s camera, does the heavy lifting in advancing the narrative. It’s a gorgeous film.
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Warwick Thornton; Starring Rowan McNamara, Marissa Gibson, Mitjili Napanangka Gibson; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 6 September 2018.
Sweet Country (2017) [certificate 15]
A slow-paced film set in a dusty outback of rickety wooden structures and barren ground not best fit for growing much of anything, with vast expanses not just seen by the camera along the horizon but heard in the quietness and evident in the contemplative way things unfold. And yet there’s a lot of anger in here, buried very close to the surface, and expressed in moments of violent outpouring. After all, set in the early-20th century, this is a place in which the Aboriginal people are treated little better than slave labour to white landowners (like those played by Bryan Brown or Sam Neill here), who are more frequently lazy and drunk. There are lots of great performances, not least from Hamilton Morris, the Aboriginal man at the centre of the drama, and the filmmaking carefully intersplices silent flash-forwards and flash-backs artfully throughout the film, which imparts a sense of unavoidable tragedy to a story that on the face of it moves from a straight police procedural to a courtroom drama of sorts.
Director/Cinematographer Warwick Thornton; Writers David Tranter and Steven McGregor; Starring Hamilton Morris, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown; Length 113 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 4 March 2018.