Wednesday, 3 February 2010


It was a long time coming. I've been familiar with the work of director Warwick Thornton and producer Kath Shelper for a long time, through their joint efforts on award winning shorts Green Bush and Nana, as well as Kath's hella prolific work producing shorts over the last few years in Australia. When it was announced in, what, 2007 that they had fully financed their debut feature Samson And Delilah and were off to start shooting it in remote Australia I was very excited, couldn't wait to see the end product. Of course, it released in Australia after I left, then went on to win the Camera d'Or at Cannes last year. Yes, it played at the London Film Festival, but I missed out on tickets, much to my chagrin. And then an angel sent me a copy of the DVD, and I got to indulge in the joy of watching one of my most anticipated titles of last year.

It didn't disappoint, not at all, probably because everything I heard about it from reviews both at home and internationally seem to speak entirely true. The title characters (played extraordinarily by first-timers Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson respectively) are two teenagers living in an Aboriginal community out in the bush. Samson sniffs petrol to get through the boredom of his days and the fact that he doesn't seem to have any real discernible family or friends - though the concept of 'family' in Aboriginal communities is very broad, he seems to be alone. Delilah lives with her grandmother (played by Mitjili Gibson, who also played the titular character in the aforementioned Nana to much acclaim), a painter who sells her impressive canvasses to a white man for a couple of hundred dollars, who then onsells them to a gallery in Alice Springs, where they sell for thousands of dollars (sadly, this is a widely condemned but presumably still oft-practised ritual with Indigenous artists.)

Nana makes jokes about Samson being Delilah's husband, but Delilah seems to not want a bar of it. Samson pushes, forcing himself into her life, until he is sleeping alongside Delilah and Nana outside their little shack. As though seeing that Delilah now has someone else to rely on (however poor he may be at coping with real life outside of his petrol-fume haze) Nana soon passes away in her sleep. In response the two escape their community, stealing a car (which soon runs out of petrol) and making their way to Alice Springs.

They find themselves living under a bridge with alcoholic Gonzo (Scott Thornton - it's a family affair!), stealing to survive, siphoning petrol to numb the pain. Horrible events transpire, mostly directly affecting Delilah, while Samson appears to struggle with any sense of responsibility, friendship or love. He does love her, that is very obvious, but his desperation runs so deep that when something more happens, he does not know how to cope and recedes into his familiar drugged state. It is then left to Delilah to get angry, to get motivated, to get focussed. But the one thing they never give up on is each other.

It is an extraordinary film. There is very little dialogue, and at least half of it (presumably, since the Foreign Language branch of AMPAS qualified it in the shortlist of nine for Best Foreign Language Film last year) is Aboriginal language. Gonzo provides most of the talking, the rambling talks of a drunk, but nary a word is spoken between the two young lovers. In fact, Samson only speaks once, his name, a horrible stutter when entreated by Gonzo in exchange for food.

The performances all round are fantastic. Cinematography by Warwick is beautiful, but not corny beautiful. He doesn't linger on the romance of the outback, simply laying it bare, giving the film a foundation. He lingers just as long on the poverty, on the pain, on the slum-like residence under the bridge. But he doesn't judge it - it is presented, and it is up to you to interpret. Similarly, the story is simple and there for you to make what you want of it. As mentioned, very little is said through the film, at least from the characters mouths. Instead you have to watch the movements, the hand waves, the blinks, the stares, the lack of response, and draw from that what everyone is going through - and they are going through a lot. Warwick lays it all out on the table and allows you to make up your own mind. The film discusses drug abuse in Aboriginal communities, but doesn't lay blame or provoke animosity. He looks at white exploitation of the indigenous population, but doesn't aim for anti-colonialist sentiment. Instead, by seeing it through the eyes of these Aboriginal teenagers, you see that these things so often blown-up in the white media in Australia, so often held up as reasons, excuses or causes for interventions or policing are in fact just a fact of life for those in question. For Samson and Delilah, this just is, and through it they need to find a way to go on.

The film's reception was extraordinary. Outside of the Cannes prize it won a bunch of Australian Film Institute and IF Awards, the Audience Award at the Adelaide Film Festival, a couple of Australian Writers Guild awards, the Asia Pacific Screen Award for Best Feature... everywhere it goes it seems to be loved. And deservedly. Apparently the rating at is 100% fresh - damn fine. But it is not only critically adored, but was a fair commercial success at home. In a stellar year for Australian films at the local box office, Samson and Delilah led the way for most of the year, taking in over AUD$3mil. That may not seem like a lot, but if you look at the track record, especially for non-blockbuster or non-starred films it is absolutely phenomenal. For a little Aboriginal film with virtually no dialogue, no known performers, from a first time filmmaker to go that far is virtually unprecedented, and is, quite frankly, encouraging. After years of being wary of local product after being pummelled by a whole pile of shit for too long, audiences finally returned when the going was good. To see that an Indigenous musical, Bran Nue Dae, is now pulling similar figures this year shows that it wasn't just a fluke, an aberration, either. Go team.

5 perfect stars. I don't know if it has a Nth American or UK distributor, but I hope it gets one. Otherwise, it's well worth checking out where you can order in a DVD copy from Oz. And here's hoping Warwick and Kath get to go for a second round soon.

No comments:

Post a Comment