We didn’t come to blows …

… but we did have a spirited conversation over pizza after seeing Samson and Delilah last night.

20e7fdb0-7ada-482b-ad9e-cd778fb0bf4d.jpgWe both agreed that it’s a marvellous film, that it’s just beautiful to look at, that the performances are miraculous, that the almost complete silence of the main characters is devastatingly effective. We’re both glad it won that prize at Cannes and we both disagreed point blank with statements (quoted from US trade journals) about how joyful and humorous it is.

Where the conversation got spirited was when my companion, who knows much more than I do about such things, lamented the misrepresentation of life in and near Alice Springs: where were the other sniffers? where were the social services, the Tangenyere Council, the camp in Todd River of people from their mob? where were all the Aboriginal faces in the mall? how come the community at the start had a store and a health clinic but almost no people? why did the women who beat Delilah up not know that she had taken care of her grandmother when in such a small place surely everyone could see that’s how she spent her days?  I assume she’s right about these and other complaints. But I thought maybe she was wanting a kind of documentary verisimilitude that the film wasn’t pretending to. After all, in the community where the film starts, a group of men sit on a verandah and play the same boring fragment of music over and over day in and day out, which works brilliantly to create a mood of deadening boredom, but which is clearly not meant as a literal representation of life on a community.

No, she insisted, she wasn’t wanting a documentary, but the film suffered from its distorting of reality in this way: the young protagonists’ profound isolation was profoundly improbable, and this made it hard to take their suffering seriously – unless you were a Cannes jury and understandably ignorant of the condition of Aboriginal people in the Centre, both their devastation and their resilience. I insisted in turn that a story teller doesn’t have to tell the story. All he (or she, but in this case he) has to do, all he can do, is tell a story, and this film tells its story very powerfully.

I think we were probably both right. The only actual disagreement we had was whether the character Gonzo was Aboriginal (as I thought) or not (as she did). The internet has just told me that I was right – at least, the actor is Aboriginal, director Warwick Thornton’s brother, in fact, playing a character based on himself.

When we got home I went to Bernhard Schlink’s Guilt about the Past. He’s talking about representations of the Shoah, but I think it’s relevant:

We don’t want fiction just for the facts being presented to us. We want reality to be presented to us and explained to us and turned into something that, even though it is not our reality, we can imagine ourselves into. We read [and go to the movies – JS] because we want to share the lives of those we read about, we want to empathise with them, fall in love with them, train our hatred on them, and ultimately learn about ourselves from them.

Even though the composition of these fictitious realities with their fictitious plots and situations and characters is something other than a presentation of facts, I experience it as something that has to be true. … I don’t know exactly what I mean and how to define this truth. What I am talking about is the feeling I have when a story that I have thought about, played with, thought about some more, and played with some more is finally ready to be written. … The feeling doesn’t have to do with me putting something autobiographical or something else of which I am particularly certain into the story that I am going to tell. It doesn’t concern having a message I want to convey that I am finally about to convey successfully or with any other agenda. It is a feeling devoid of any agenda except: now I have it, now I can tell it. And it feels like I have found the truth.

I think Warwick Thornton found that kind of truth here, and handed it to us.

(Incidentally, in interview on Cinema Autopsy, the blog I linked to above, referring to his brother Scott, Warwick Thornton says that Gonzo, the parky who shares what little he has with the two lost young people ‘is in a sense the audience’. My own point of identification, which caused some soul-searching, was a woman in the cafe who watches Delilah go off down the street off her head on petrol: the woman’s face shows genuine concern, but it’s clear she’s not about to do anything about it.)

9 responses to “We didn’t come to blows …

  1. This film sounds intriguing and I wonder if I’ll ever get a chance to see it in the States. Long being fond of Australian film, I fear my exposure to it is limited to those global mainstream films that have been around a long time: Peter Weir’s work, “Walkabout”, “We of the Never Never”, “Where the Green Ants Dream”. What I will say, however, is that I like your comment about the writer telling “a” story vs. “the” story. This a very good point. I think the bugaboo in story telling comes when a dissonance occurs between the plausible and the poetic. If one crafts a story in such a way that a metaphoric element or quality is not obvious to the reader/viewer, then the message gets mired, if not drowned like a sheep in a billabong (I’m assuming this happens to sheep down under?). It sounds as if this film suffered from this problem, hence your debate.

    • shawjonathan

      Iain: I gather from Will, regular commenter here, that a wide range of Australian films is available through Netflix. Of course, Samson & Delilah won’t be there yet, but since it won the Camera d’or at Cannes it’s probably got some chance of a theatrical release. I actually think the things my companion (and I, to tell the truth) found distracting were just that, distractions, rather than deep problems withthe movie

  2. Jonathan’s right–even Ten Canoes is available from Netflix, and I’m not sure that ever got a theatrical release in the US. The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith was just released on DVD as well.

  3. shawjonathan

    That was quick, Will!

  4. Good Lord, I suppose I look a little foolish being surprised by this…but Netflix is available in Australia? I didn’t realize it was a global operation. Truly I continue to be astounded by how small the world has become. You’re all literally on the other side of the planet from me, but all the same stuff is available. I’ll keep my eyes open for it through my Netflix account. Now, if only we could invent teleportation, I could just beam myself into Alice Springs and see how things are for myself!

  5. shawjonathan

    No No, Iain. Netflix isn’t in Australia. Or at least if it is that’s not what we’re saying. will has found that Netflix in the US has a wide range of Australian movies for hire on DVD. But the teleporting sounds like fun anyhow

  6. Still, the world is so much smaller!

  7. It’s interesting to hear from someone who knows that that kind of isolation wouldn’t exist in (black) Alice Springs. But in some sense the film is about isolation and how terrible it is, and that kind of isolation certainly does exist in the world.
    On the ‘not looking after the grandmother’ issue I had assumed that it was a kind of ritual blaming activity having nothing to do with what they actually believed about her actions.

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