Ghost stories and cowboy hats: Australia’s Indigenous directors delve into genre

Posted on Mar 16, 2014 in Feature Film, Film Industry, Indigenous Film

by Rochelle Siemienowicz -

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Two major feature films emerged in 2013 from established Indigenous directors: The Darkside – Warwick Thornton’s highly experimental collection of true ghost stories (which screened recently at the Berlin Film Festival); and Mystery Road, Ivan Sen’s moody detective thriller, set in a racially divided outback country town, complete with cowboy hats, corrupt cops and tense shoot-outs.

What we see with these two very different films is the impulse to engage with genre, to play with established forms and tap into ready-made audiences. We also see a desire from both filmmakers to transcend expectations about the kinds of subject matter an Indigenous filmmaker ‘should’ be tackling.

Ivan Sen maps out new creative pathways

Thornton’s stated desire to move into genre is contradicted by his actual work. From the Camera d’Or winning Samson and Delilah (2009) through to his recent successful forays into video art exhibitions and this latest experimental feature film, it seems the art world – and the corresponding world of art-house cinema – is the one that best responds to Thornton’s work, funding it, rewarding it and fully appreciating its stark beauty and cheeky humour.

Reading between the lines, one suspects Thornton would love to break out of this aesthetically rarefied enclave and make something that was pure blockbuster fun, but he’s not confident of the pathway forward.
With Mystery Road Ivan Sen is mapping one such path, and he has said this explicitly: that the murder mystery with its Indigenous cop (played with stunning understatement by Aaron Pederson) is ‘a stepping stone’ to pure genre, which is where Sen wants to go. His next project will be a sci-fi action romance that he imagines in the vein of Blade Runner.

Experimenting with genre: The Darkside by Warwick Thornton

Thornton has said in the film’s press kit that The Darkside emerged from his desire to ‘have a go’ at genres like horror and thriller, but that he felt these were ‘shark infested’ waters and that he should start his ‘journey across the ocean’ with the safer form of documentary. Yet ‘safe’ is not the word that first comes to mind when we watch The Darkside, a multiplatform hybrid project that is the antithesis of traditional narrative filmmaking.

The Darkside is a piece of work that asks a lot of its audience, not just because of its mix of documentary and drama, its episodic format of 13 individual stories (sourced from real people but mainly delivered by actors, both white and Indigenous), and its ambitious insertion of dance, painting and music, together with a supporting interactive website of additional audio stories from members of the public.
Most ambitiously of all, The Darkside demands quiet patience from its audience, because most segments are determinedly simple and stripped-back: a stationery camera on a single person who tells an inconclusive and often rambling story. These simple tales feature glimpses of ghosts, lost children by the roadside, malevolent Ouija boards and family members returned from the dead to give wisdom. Some are more powerful than others – an eerie fireside tale featuring Aaron Pederson (Mystery Road) and a final segment in a hospital ward, featuring Shari Sebbens (The Sapphires) are highlights – but none will convince stubborn sceptics of anything more than our human desire to make sense of death, loss and the unresolved issues of past.

The biggest challenge is to overcome industry and audience expectations

Both Thornton and Sen have paid their dues in every respect. They’ve won international and local awards, attended countless festivals as ambassadors of Australian cinema, and made powerful and important films highlighting Indigenous problems. Both directors, now in their early 40s, have proved to be agile and multi-skilled filmmakers working in the low-budget Australian tradition that makes a virtue out of necessity. (Both Thornton and Sen write and shoot their own films in addition to directing; Sen also edits and scores his work).

Perhaps now, the biggest challenge facing Australia’s Indigenous filmmakers is whether we, as an audience and as a local industry, can let go of our own expectations about the kinds of films they should be making, and the kinds of subjects they should be tackling, and support them to make films which might have nothing at all to do with their Indigenous identity.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a Melbourne writer, film critic and former editor at the Australian Film Institute. She has a PhD in Australian cinema and was the long-time film editor for The Big Issue magazine. She currently reports for Screen Hub, reviews for SBS Film and is Film Columnist for Kill Your Darlings. She tweets at @Milan2Pinsk.

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