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Entries in Indigenous (2)

Monday
Jun192017

WE DON'T NEED A MAP

Featuring: Warwick Thornton, Adam Briggs, Baluka Maymuru, Bill Harney, Bruce Pascoe and Dee Madigan.
Writers: Brendan Fletcher, Warwick Thornton,
Director: Warwick Thornton.

Opening Night selection for the 64th Sydney Film Festival; screened at the State Theatre on June 7.

Rating: 2.5/5

When director Warwick Thornton opened up about his views regarding the misappropriation of the star body that Aussies affectionately call ‘The Southern Cross’, the reaction was swift and brutal. In 2010, the director of the Cannes winner Samson & Delilah likened the iconic configuration to the Swastika, in the wake of its new symbolism as a moniker for the shameful re-emergence of old-school racism Down Under.

In his wildly idiosyncratic doco We Don’t Need A Map, Thornton works through the issues, both societal and personal, that he was addressing when he made the comment. More specifically, he attempts to realign the Southern Cross as a beacon of a more enlightened national identity, by both re-examining its significance within indigenous culture and seeking academic and artistic perspectives from the broader Australian community.

Thornton is a fearless, at times frantic storyteller; We Don’t Need a Map opens with a rat-a-tat, punk-ish energy that sets a feverish tone. The director employs marionette puppetry and figurines known as ‘bush toys’ to depict the landing of the first fleet, the seizure of the land and the slaying of its original inhabitants. So energised is Thornton to convey his message, the first third of his film takes on the feel of a stream-of-consciousness rant; seemingly random voices emerge (the first to offer comment is lead singer of The Drones, Gareth Liddiard, whose involvement only comes into focus an hour later) and film styles run the gamut from jump-cuts to sped-up footage to scratched negatives.

But the energy wanes as the films settles into a more conventional talking-heads doc format. Thornton takes his camera (operated by his son, Dylan River) into the indigenous heartland, where elders of the Yolngu, Warlpiri and Wardaman people reveal the dreamtime symbolism of the Southern Cross. These sequences are crucial to realising Thornton’s goal of retaking the star pattern on behalf of the wider community, but they lack a cinematic quality; We Don’t Need a Map shifts from a bracing and bold movie experience to an overly familiar aesthetic usually the hallmark of small-screen projects (it is due to air on NITV in late July).

As Thornton’s film cuts back-and-forth between the lounge rooms/offices/recording studios of rapper Briggs, historian Bruce Pascoe, Professor Ghassan Hage, street poet Omar Musa, concert promoter Ken West and image consultant Dee Madigan, We Don’t Need a Map provides multiple perspectives on the nature of national symbolism. But all these voices speaking as one slowly hogties the film’s momentum; even at a scant 85 minutes, the essay feels overlong.

Most compelling is the footage of the 2005 race riots at Cronulla, a shameful uprising that solidified the Southern Cross as the symbol for local white supremacists. Thornton, a feisty frontman not afraid to middle-finger colonialism, chooses not to face-off against the Far Right nationalists about their claims to ownership of The Cross, no doubt conscious that taking on such a mindset would spin his film off into a whole other realm entirely. He instead cites historical precedent, noting that the Southern Cross once emboldened a flag under which European settlers terrorised Chinese migrants during the establishment of the new Australian nation.

We Don’t Need a Map maybe could have used one. It is slyly funny, insightful and slickly made, but it plays like the film version of a pub debate, with different voices and loud opinions bouncing in all directions. There are plenty of valid and passionate points being made, but they impact with a varied effectiveness due to a garbled delivery.

Wednesday
Jun082016

GOLDSTONE

Stars: Aaron Pedersen, Alex Russell, David Wenham, Jacki Weaver, Michelle Lim Davidson, Pei-Pei Cheng, Michael Dorman, Max Cullen, Kate Beahan, Tommy Lewis and David Gulpilil.
Writer/director: Ivan Sen.

Opening Night Film of the 63rd Sydney Film Festival.

Rating: 4/5

Australian auteur Ivan Sen accomplishes that all-too-rare sequel every bit the equal of its predecessor with Goldstone, a compelling continuation of the journey of damaged detective Jay Swan. Having established a richly atmospheric sense of outback geography and populated it with vivid genre character types in 2013’s Mystery Road, the director recaptures his fluid handling of dusty tough-guy dynamics while succinctly revisiting weighty thematic strands.

As with Mystery Road, classic ‘western’ beats with a strong hint of ‘noir’ intrigue pulse through Goldstone, so named for the one-cop/tin-shed township and its barren surrounds in which Sen sets his action. Seeming to exist only in service of the mining conglomerate that is gutting the sacred land of the region, the pre-fab settlement appears to consist of a police station, a brothel and the mayor’s home office (why such a meagre outpost has a mayor at all is never fully explained).

Young and alone in his new posting is cop Josh Waters (Alex Russell, solid), who has learnt to keep the peace by not ruffling too many feathers, notably those of mining boss Johnny (a slimy David Wenham) and mayor Maureen (Jacki Weaver, bringing her best ‘Barbara Stanwyck’ in a cheerfully untrustworthy role). The status quo begins to unravel after Josh cages a barely-conscious drunk driver, soon revealed to be Sen’s complex anti-hero, Jay Swan.

Reprising the role of the grief-stricken, dangerously depressed indigenous officer is the terrific Aaron Pedersen. Carrying the emotional burden of a father denied his daughter in every shuffle and grimace, Pedersen’s remarkable performance is also one of immensely understated heroic might. As convincing as the hard-as-nails machismo is conveyed, the actor’s best scenes are quieter ones opposite national treasure David Gulpilil, as the elder who re-energises Swan’s sense of self during a journey into the spiritual heartland.

The central narrative involves Swan’s exposing the trafficking of young women, shipped in to stock ‘The Ranch’ and service mine employees under the watchful eye of Mrs Lao (respected Chinese star, Pei-Pei Cheng) and the quest to find a missing girl who took flight into the unforgiving desert. Sen’s script explores exploitation on several levels – the land, its rightful owners and the legacy of abuse and misuse that has been endemic since the earliest days of outback settlement (the film opens with a sepia montage of immigrant labour images from Australia’s shameful past). Goldstone revels in its genre roots, but like Sen’s best work (Beneath Clouds, 2002; Toomelah, 2011) it offers social and cultural insight into the issues and history of minority abuse in Australia. The presence of Pedersen, Gulpilil and fellow indigenous acting great Tommy Lewis (The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, 1978) speaks to the respect afforded the filmmaker and his storytelling by the Aboriginal community.

Coupled with some downbeat moments, Sen’s pacing occasionally feels laboured (an observation that your critic levelled at the mid-section of Mystery Road, too); the beautiful Kate Beahan turns up for an odd cameo as a roadside hooker called ‘Pinky’, doing business from a caravan straight out of ‘Priscilla…’ But these are minor distractions in an otherwise fine dramatic thriller, primed for festival and specialist theatrical distribution both at home and abroad.

Technically, the production is first-rate; superb use of drone cameras allows the multi-hyphenate filmmaker, acting as his own DOP, to capture stunning desert landscapes from towering angles, in a film whose palette and framing reflects the director’s affinity for the red rock and ochre setting.