Two Recent Australian Documentaries: Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018) and Another Country (2015)

Australia, like a lot of Western countries, has a demonstrable problem with white nationalism and racism, and a number of recent documentaries directed by women have addressed this issue head-on. This racism, a holdover from the colonialist politics of the British (the country only gained its independence at the start of the 20th century), is directed not just towards the indigenous Aboriginal population but also towards those seeking refuge and asylum from nearby conflict zones (this latter dealt with admirably by Gabrielle Brady’s Island of the Hungry Ghosts). An increasing number of feature films, including those by Aboriginal filmmakers like Warwick Thornton as well as (rather more eliptically) beDevil (1993) by Tracey Moffatt, have examined some of this prejudice historically and as it functions today, and it’s also the subject of director Molly Reynolds in Another Country, which follows the experience of prominent actor David Gulpilil (probably still best known as the boy in Walkabout, and from his appearances in the Crocodile Dundee films). It’s worth noting here that, while I wouldn’t want to sideline his troubling personal history (which includes alcoholism, violence and domestic abuse), it is undoubtedly deeply tied into the conditions still experienced by Aboriginal people in Australia, and some of this comes across powerfully in the documentary.

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Criterion Sunday 142: The Last Wave (1977)

There’s a slow-building foreboding intensity at work here that sets up its mystery plot nicely — darkness, torrential rain, apocalyptic imagery. The film explores that liminal space between dreams and reality, underpinned by indigenous Aboriginal culture and beliefs. The film makes a lot of play on tribal affiliations and mystical rites and objects, which sometimes comes across as a bit naive, especially given Richard Chamberlain isn’t the most effective lead, and there’s a bit of condescension at work it seems to me. Still, the Aboriginal cast (led by David Gulpilil) are excellent.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Weir; Writers Peter Weir, Tony Morphett and Petru Popescu; Cinematographer Russell Boyd; Starring Richard Chamberlain, David Gulpilil; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 February 2017.

Criterion Sunday 10: Walkabout (1971)

At a surface level, this is a coming-of-age film set in the Australian outback, but there’s a lot more mystery to it than such a summary would suggest. In fact, I’ve had great difficulty trying to describe it to friends. In part that’s because of director Nicolas Roeg’s coolly modernist structuring, with its associative editing practices which embeds both different timelines (flashbacks, memories, or, as in the final sequence, more an act of imagination) and places, as well as brief snippets of a dangerous and forbidding natural world that works in conjunction with its central characters’ journey. Jenny Agutter’s English schoolgirl and her younger brother (there are no names, but played by Lucien John) are stranded in the outback when their father commits suicide; this setup is all presented very obliquely and with a minimum of explanation (aside from a lingering sense of suburban ennui). Eventually they stumble across a young aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil), who is also apparently undergoing the title’s rite of passage, and a connection slowly develops, though it’s never insisted upon. At times, there’s a certain National Geographic pseudo-ethnography to the depiction of aboriginal life as untouched by Western civilisation, but this ultimately lends a fabulist, mythical dimension to the story, which enacts the naïve, and ultimately destructive, meeting between the races and the tragic difficulties of communication.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Cinematographer Nicolas Roeg; Writer Edward Bond (based on the novel by James Vance Marshall); Starring Jenny Agutter, Lucien John, David Gulpilil; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Wednesday 21 April 1999 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 23 November 2014).