Samson and Delilah director Warwick Thornton retells real-life ghost stories with the help of several Australia actors.
The Darkside is a film about ghosts and ghost stories but it isn’t scary. I think that’s part of the point. It’s the follow-up project for filmmaker Warwick Thornton whose Samson and Delilah feature attained for its enthusiasts instant classic status on release in 2009. This new film is another feature, it’s non-fiction but it’s not quite a documentary and it certainly isn’t close to what most casual punters expect from a drama. Thornton is an original talent, for whom it seems daring comes naturally. Or maybe he’s frightened of boring himself. Anyway, on the evidence of his work, it’s fair to say he likes to challenge an audience and The Darkside I reckon will. That’s partly because it appears to hold some truths to be self-evident. For instance, it takes for granted that our waking life is shared with the spirits of those dead, thought gone forever. In one way, that’s not an especially strange notion in movies or life. Still, the film’s convictions, its open disregard for forensic analysis, its very premise and philosophy, seems calculated to aggravate sceptics.
Thornton is an original talent, for whom it seems daring comes naturally
Then there’s the way the film looks and feels. The Darkside consists of 13 stories, each a monologue, delivered to camera, in most cases by an actor. The cast includes Aaron Pedersen, Jack Charles, Deborah Mailman, Claudia Karvan, Bryan Brown and Sacha Horler, and they make the most of the material, finding its humour or pathos or weirdness. I think Thornton wanted actors so he could build and control a certain tone; intimate, sometimes grave, rarely light or playful. There’s a subtext, too, in that cast of characters and choice of performer: ghosts, he seems to be saying, don’t recognise class or race, place or circumstance. They just are.
Thornton, who not only directed, also shot it, and favours here a locked-off frame that traps us in the moment. He makes strange the often-banal locations of beach, fireside, pub-bar, and bedroom by the way he uses light and composition; the characters are never really allowed to dominate the space and colour tones are sometimes unnaturally subdued or tuned too bright. The effect is exciting and immediate: it has us lean into the voice of the storyteller as they spin their long, detailed narratives. The technique seems to be a reminder that these ghost stories took place in the real world and that the real world can be a strange place, full of mystery and coded messages.
For those whose minds run to such things (and mine does), the title is double-edged. As is by now well known, The Darkside started out as a kind of film experiment. Thornton advertised asking for folks to submit Indigenous ghost stories. He received over 100. His final selection has ambitions. It seems designed as a commentary on the nation’s 'dark’ (some would say hidden) history of violence between black and white Australia, as well as a rich discussion on the ghost story telling tradition itself.
For instance, it’s intriguing how many of the stories here fall into the archetypal shapes we know from books and films. There are stories of relatives lost too young. Their terrestrial visitations seem to express regret and a longing for what’s been lost, cut short, and offer a reassurance to the still living.
What’s remarkable is how many of them feature ghosts whose intentions could best be described as benign. Amongst the exceptions is a tale of, well, exorcism (I can’t think of a better word) told by Lesigo (Merwez Whaleboat), a Thursday Islander and Christian who encountered a spirit that was anything but blithe.
Two of the most memorable stories speak, in their own way, to Australia’s colonial past. One, from Graham White (Bryan Brown), is about a fisherman who sees an apparition: a young Aboriginal girl, not of this age, on a remote spot on a beautiful river. The other from Kim McCarthy tells of a group of tribal Aborigines who emerge out of the night on a rural property. The white narrator of that story, played by Sacha Horler, had asked her friends who had owned the land before them, and they had told her, 'no one". These ghosts, by the way, mean no harm. Indeed, the mood is conciliatory.
Thornton makes this theme of grim history and restless spirits explicit in the film’s best episode, which breaks from the formal discipline of straight interviews he uses elsewhere. We travel into the bowls of the National Film and Sound Archive and Thornton’s camera takes on a spirit-like aspect. Filmmaker and researcher Romaine Moreton then explains an experience of how, while examining ancient footage of white anthropologists and their scientific experiments on tribal Aborigines, she underwent a spiritual transformation. Thornton cuts in some footage that is instructive and disturbing; the well-meaning (one assumes) scientists move their 'subjects’ about with an attitude that can’t be mistaken for anything less than epic indifference. The Indigenous people, bound in irons, poked, embarrassed, look shamed. (Who wouldn’t be?). I can’t really explain Moreton’s detailed and moving testimony here and it would be wrong to anyway. But it and the whole film reminded me of a quote from William Faulkner: 'The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’