- 31 Mar 10
The debut film from Australian director Warwick Thornton, Samson and Delilah – a road movie about two homeless teens trekking across the Northern Territory – has won many plaudits internationally, including the Camera D’or at Cannes and Best Film at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. The filmmaker describes it as “Romeo and Juliet but set in an Aboriginal community.”
Few films can claim to have made a splash quite like Warwick Thornton’s Samson And Delilah. A powerful and exhilarating road-romance between two homeless Australian teens trekking across the Northern Territory from one set of dangers to another, Mr. Thornton’s debut feature has already scooped the Caméra d’Or at Cannes and has been named Best Film at the recent Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, the Australian Film Institute and just about anywhere where statuettes are handed out in earnest.
“Addiction stories travel,” Mr. Thornton tells me on a recent publicity stopover in London. “Wherever you go in the world, there are teenagers in love and in trouble and on the street. It’s a story everyone has some experience of. And I’m a romantic, you know? I always had it in my head I wanted to make Romeo And Juliet but set in an Aboriginal community.”
The writer-director took rather more specific cues from his own boyhood growing up as part of the Kadjey tribe around Alice Springs. Having left school at 14, Mr. Thornton taught himself how to read and write and pursued his cinematic education through the documentary sector.
“I was very lucky to get that break,” he admits. “My family were very easy going so when I decided I wasn’t going to school, that was fine; it wasn’t my fault. And of course I wanted to hang out with my mates instead. So there’s nothing in this film I didn’t see growing up.”
Samson And Delilah is not, he insists, a campaigning film but it does express a poignant case on behalf of the young Aboriginal male; “You see it in Europe as well,” says the director. “Kids who are stuck between modernity and tradition. The Aboriginal male is under pressure to look after man’s business and go through traditional rites of passage; at the same time he’s bombarded with MTV pictures of gangstas and getting rich quick. It’s psychologically very difficult and very fucking complicated. Substance abuse can sometimes be a nice place to hide in your dreams. I don’t have any answers, I just have questions and information.”
In recent years, we have become accustomed to seeing disclaimers attached to films such as Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes spelling out the conditions under which the Aboriginal cast was filmed. Film may no longer be regarded as soul stealing, but it is still unusual to find someone of Warwick Thornton’s background causing box office waves in the film sector.
“There have been strained relations between Aboriginal peoples and film sometimes,” says Mr. Thornton. “There is a lack of indigenous filmmakers; it’s just hard to get the breaks. And white filmmakers, in turn, are very careful filming us. We’ll pull them up if they get something wrong. Keep in mind there were hundreds of tribes and hundreds of languages, each with their own clan structure and elders. Each one is a different way of life so details are important. But yeah, there are only a few Aboriginal filmmakers. And sometimes they make crap films or get the details wrong too.”
There may be several notable films about Aboriginal culture from white filmmakers, but while The Tracker and The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith might have the ring of authenticity, it’s difficult to imagine a white filmmaker approximating Samson and Delilah.
“I think they’d be too wary of it,” says Mr. Thornton. “I think a film like this could quite easily get shot down if you had a white writer because you’re dealing with issues of neglect – not just neglect from government and state – but neglect by families and other Aboriginal communities. But I truly believe we shouldn’t be precious about this. Take cues and influences where you find them. I think about Italian neo-realism as much as I do about New Australian Cinema. In Australia, we have enough stories to go around and non-indigenous writers and directors today are incredibly savvy. For me it always comes back to how well they can tell a story.”
A great deal of Samson and Delilah’s narrative clout is derived from its two impeccable and gorgeous leads, Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson, neither of whom were professional actors when they were cast in the lead roles.
“We auditioned for the roles around the schools and communities and town camps in Alice Springs, talking to principals and chairmen and families. We explained we were making this film and people knew my other documentary films so it was all very organic. People started suggesting names and then we talked to their families and got their permission to take a photo and do an audition. It was very tightly scripted down to the brush of an eyelash but what Marissa and Rowan had was chemistry and timing that I hadn’t anticipated. It was great to watch.”
It was no mean feat for the two stars who remain silent for most of their time on film; “I always knew Samson would be mute because I was mute around girls at that age,” laughs the filmmaker. “I never understood those films where teenage boys would walk right up to a pretty girl and start into an interesting monologue. When I was in love for the first time, it was all nerve endings and electricity and feelings I didn’t quite understand. I could just about spend time near the girl, but there was no way in hell I could talk to her.”
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