One of the must-see films on Australian cinema screens this year is a story of teenage love, set in desert Australia. It is all the things discerning audiences yearn for in quality cinema: it tells a compelling story featuring characters you can't get enough of, it is visually extraordinary, it is set in a place where most have never been or had the understanding to accurately imagine, and it has an emotional punch that is overpowering.
The film is writer/director Warwick Thornton's Samson and Delilah. It was filmed with a tiny crew, a cast of non-professional actors, and for very little money, in the middle of nowhere. A lot of people would think it was the middle of nowhere, anyway, but not Thornton and those who, like him, live in Alice Springs.
Samson and Delilah had its world premiere at the vibrant Adelaide Film Festival in February. Of all the films from across the world shown at the vibrant 11-day event, it was voted the best. It floored the audience at every screening and, during its first, got a standing ovation.
“It is the strongest film in the whole program,” AFF director Katrina Sedgwick said, long before the audience votes were counted. The film opens across the nation on May 7. That night it also opens the Message Sticks Film Festival, an annual showcase of the work of indigenous filmmakers.
The story begins in a remote community where life is slow and monotonous. After Delilah is blamed for the death of her beloved nana, she and Samson travel to Alice Springs, although she initially resists their interdependence.
The film is not always easy to watch: Samson and Delilah hardly say anything, even when their hold on life becomes extremely tenuous, and there are a couple of sudden incidents that shock. It is the cumulative effect of the film's generally understated nature that gives it such a momentous feel. At last, here is a moving drama for the big screen that conveys what it feels like for some indigenous kids growing up in remote Australia.
Samson and Delilah is Thornton's first feature but he has already made an impact with other films that provide windows into indigenous life: with Green Bush, which was set in a community radio station in the desert and tantalized audiences and won many awards; and with Nana, about one woman's efforts to keep a community free of alcohol.
Mitjili Gibson, the woman who plays the title role in Nana and is a renowned painter, plays Delilah's nana in Samson And Delilah. She is also the real-life nana of Marissa Gibson, the very accomplished Alice Springs high-school student who plays Delilah. It seems Thornton is showing audiences what is real in a number of ways.
Thornton, who was also the cinematographer on Samson And Delilah, clearly has exemplary storytelling and craft skills. He has built this up over many years, as a trainee at the Central Aboriginal Media Association, from his work on hundreds of productions (his and other people's), and through his three years studying at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.
Right from when it was established in 1993, importantly, he has also had the support of the indigenous branch of the now defunct Australian Film Commission (AFC), the Federal Government agency that used to have responsibility for developing the Australian film industry.
“All my development as a filmmaker has been because of them,” says Thornton of the indigenous branch.
The merits of the Federal Government's so-called intervention into remote indigenous lives continues to be debated, but this intervention by the government, to give indigenous people a voice through film and television, is applauded by all. Screen Australia's decision to double the branch's annual funding to $4 million from 2009/2010 – Screen Australia has taken over from the AFC and two other former film agencies – is a demonstration of that admiration.
Most film and television makers in Australia owe their careers to taxpayers in terms of their investment in training and in the development and production of projects. Indirectly, the government also assists with legislative assistance, such as the local content rules that prevent television being as over-run by American screen entertainment as Australia's mainstream cinemas.
Devoting resources to the indigenous branch is no different to what happens in the broader industry. But on another level, the intensity of the training style adopted by the branch has created very compelling work and very skilled filmmakers.
The branch identifies talent and resolutely backs it over several years, using a very hands-on process. It doesn't allow filmmakers to bite off more than they can chew but helps them develop and produce a short film or two, then a longer film, and so on. In the lead up to each film shoot, participants are expected to attend laboratories and workshops stacked with filmmakers of note. Much importance is also attached to fining audiences.
“There is a production outcome and usually there is a broadcaster involved,” says branch head Sally Riley. Often the broadcaster is SBS. Riley deserves credit for the success of the branch – and Wal Saunders before her – but she has also been trusted to rethink and reinvent the model as she sees fit. Allowing such independence is not always the way a government institution operates.
“We take them from conception to delivery using a one-on-one process where they get feedback on their scripts, workshops with cinematographers and actors, editing sessions. We end up with a better product because it is such an intensive, rigorous process. We set the bar very high and really push them.”
The work of the unit means that Australia is starting to see indigenous stories – like Samson And Delilah -- told on the big screen from within the community, rather than by outsiders. Despite the number of films made with strong indigenous themes or content, very few have been written and directed by indigenous filmmakers. The barriers are as with any minority: lack of education, opportunity, expectation, confidence, and so on.
The features that have been made are Bryon Syron's Jindalee Lady, Tracey Moffat's Bedevil, Ivan Sen's Beneath Clouds, and Richard Frankland's Stone Bros., which will screen at this month\'s Dungog Film Festival. Rachel Perkins directed Radiance from a script by renowned playwright Louis Nowra.
There is much anticipation about Perkins' new film Bran Nue Dae, an adaptation of composer Jimmy Chi's popular musical in which a teenage Aboriginal boy runs away from boarding school and goes on an epic journey across Australia. Her other directing credits include the extraordinary short feature One Night The Moon, and the ambitious, compelling SBS series First Australians.
Bran Nue Dae's cast includes Geoffrey Rush, Ernie Dingo, Missy Higgins and many others and the word from the few that have seen it, is that it is an uplifting joyous experience. The choreography is by Stephen Page, artistic director of the Bangarra Dance Theatre.
Perkins grew up in a political family – activist and public servant Charlie Perkins was her father -- and has fought hard for indigenous people to have equal access to filmmaking resources and Australian screens. She has done this while employed at SBS and the ABC, and while acting as a director on various boards.
Among those who seriously track the independent film industry worldwide, including scouts from international festivals and sales agents who buy Australian films and sell them to other countries, there is a strong sense that some of the most interesting projects to come out of Australia in the near future will be those from indigenous filmmakers.
Many projects are now on the boil. They include poet Romaine Moreton's Touch The Wire, Wayne Blair's Godfrey, a family story about two brothers – one adopted -- who fall in love with the same woman, and Beck Cole's The Place Between, about three generations of women reuniting. Shelper expects to be in production on The Place Between in Adelaide in early 2010.
Watch 'Samson and Delilah'
Thursday 5 August, 8:30pm on NITV
Friday 6 July, 12:15pm on NITV
Now streaming at SBS On Demand
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Warwick Thornton
Starring: Rowan McNamara, Marissa Gibson, Mitjili Napanangka Gibson, Scott Thornton