The phrases ‘Aboriginal time’ and Gone walkabout’ are generally uttered with pejorative intent “ they’re seen as part of the ‘failure’ of Aboriginal society. But as film director Ivan Sen would say “ indeed he did at his film Toomelah‘s Sydney Film Festival debut in Australia “ that’s all a matter of perception.
And challenging perceptions is what Sen is all about here “ a fact recognised by his selection for this year’s Cannes Film festival ‘Un Certain regard’ section….films with significant difference. He himself went walkabout to kick this film into life “ walking the 15 kilometres from the nearest town, Boggabilla to the old Toomelah Mission “ where his family came from. He then spent 3 weeks there finding his story “ based upon a feisty 9 year old called Daniel in both film and real life. Three months later he had a script; and he was heading back solo into the Mish to cast, rehearse, film and record the locals (plus Dean Daley-Thompson, star of Blackfellars) in this challenging drama. Amazingly, even his producer David Jowsey stayed away from a process that allowed for real authenticity, but must have been absolutely exhausting work.
The result is a film paced by Aboriginal time “ much more so than its Central Desert cuz, Samson & Delilah – with long, lingering silences and answers eventually spat out expletively as Daniel, determined for a variety of reasons to be a bad cunt lives through episodes of parental neglect and failure, inexplicable grandparental Dreaming of the good ol’ Mish days, exclusion from school, the heady temptations of the local drug-lord taking him seriously, and even the ego-trip of a boxing match victory that impresses his girl.
Actor Daniel Connors holds the screen with his huge brown questioning eyes remarkably throughout.
At the end, his character may just have learnt enough to come good “ standing hopefully outside the ‘Lingo’ class in which old aunties teach the kids remnant words of Gamilaroi. Throughout, there are tantalising hints of the old ways and beliefs “ even the toughest of drug-dealers has respect for the threat of the Kadaitcha Man! Totemic animals are identified “ but the system for allocating them is lost, and therefore mocked. Memories of corroborees by the river persist. The exclusivity of ‘Men’s business’ round the fire at night has ongoing authority. These have survived the White and Mission onslaught “ though proactive elders are missing to give them continuity and authority.
And this struggle to maintain traditional Aboriginal customs in Australia’s modern society is quite a theme at the moment. Stephen Page’s new dance for Banagarra, Bloodland “ opening in Brisbane on July 1st “ offers his take on this issue. Intriguingly, the great Chinese film director Chen Kaige latest historical epic “ Sacrifice (also featured in the Sydney Film Festival) is another magnificent attempt to tell the ever-modernising China that great tales with moral worth for today lie richly in the country’s past.
But, back in Toomelah, with Mum on the bong and Dad on meths “ though his tragedy is that he knows what he should be doing “ and a Daniel determined to go wrong, the great irony in the film is that it’s the man who went most wrong and has just come out of prison who best predestines Daniel’s worst fate. Another irony is Ivan Sen’s own music for the film “ yes he did everything! – which maintains an optimistic, New Age quality that seems to belie what we’re experiencing. Is this a matter of perception again? Or is Sen “ whose third attempt it was to get the soundtrack right “ consciously offering a more optimistic slant on Toomelah the township than he can find in his film?
Whatever “ the constant riff in the film is Where you going? Nowhere. More irony “ when Daniel, the clear role model for his character in the film was transported to Cannes, he was, according to Sen, a transformed character, quite capable of functioning in such an unfamiliar world. So, logically, he should leave disfunctional Toomelah. But if he and his ilk leave, then Toomelah is no more!
Ivan Sen promises a follow-up to Toomelah in nearby Moree “ tackling the female side of growing up. I hope he checks out Dennis O’Rourke’s experiences when filming young women in Cunnamulla!
Toomelah, at last goes on national release from Thursday 24th November