Previously at the Wellington Film Society: an unflinching portrait of an Australian community.
Ivan Sen’s 2010 film Toomelah ostensibly covers similar ground to the previously screened Samson and Delilah—young deprived indigenous Australians in a race to self-destruction. The protagonists this time, however, are considerably younger, lending even more urgency to their fate. The film also weaves in historical elements to powerful effect, incorporating characters such as victims from the Stolen Generation, who are well and truly dislocated from their siblings and their community, and forced colonisation that had effaced cultural bonds.
The tale is told through the eyes of Daniel (Daniel Connors) who looks so baby-faced, that part of the film’s poignancy comes from his teetering between childhood and a far-too present adulthood. He comes from a broken family, both of his parents being victims of substance abuse, and he seems barely able to contain his energy. He skips school, and finds himself part of a petty gang composed of much older men. When a turf war kicks off, the consequences for all seem far too final for someone as young as Daniel.
Sen does not film the proceedings with sensationalism or earnest morality. Even the climactic violence feels banal, as if the damage imposed on and by the characters is far too commonplace. The film is shot in an urgent cinéma-vérité style, with shaky handheld camerawork and images shifting in and out of focus. This style of cinematography is arguably overworked, and the emphasis on ‘reality’ camera movement a little too awkward. The jitteriness doesn’t help much either in terms of the narrative. Though an otherwise restrained picture, perhaps a more contemplative and subtle approach would allowed it to resonate that much more.
That said, the Sen’s use of setting and light is impressive. Toomelah is a mission reserve in northern New South Wales, and the film’s restless energy has the effect of circling around and around the town. It certainly assisted the film—which admittedly is relatively clichéd in its depiction of poverty and escape—capture a group of inhabitants who are restless and constantly on the move, but in the end, are going nowhere. The poignant reminder that the Lucky Country is anything but for many of its original inhabitants is also hard-won—its ending has a quiet but hopeful desperation to it.