Warwick Thornton’s debut feature film Samson And Delilah is already an established critical hit and is the taker of a a succession of gongs, most notably at Cannes where it collected the Palm D’or in 2009. Producer Kath Shelper recalls it as two years between the story’s first mention and the point of production but a perusal of Thornton’s earlier shorts reveal a gestation process going back much further as characters and themes are nurtured.
That is not to detract in the slightest from the heaving heart of a film that is Samson And Delilah, though it does beggar the question as to what might eventually constitute his second film, if it is necessary to big a feature film production up with character and details developed through shorter work. Thornton, an indigenous filmmaker, has jested that the next film might be a horror, but his intelligence and eye for the unusual are probably best adhering to meticulously structured drama like this.
Samson And Delilah is slow burn but certainly not slow cinema. Dialogue is used economically. But set as it is in a community made up of a smattering of buildings that make the average shanty town look like upmarket real estate. Furnishings are non-existent and sometimes neither are there walls. Language is kept to a minimum as each day bleeds into the identical next with the result that there is nothing new to say.
Samson (Rowan McNamara) is a boy who is tongue-tied as it stands. He wakes to his brother’s band practising on the porch and daily also gets in a few discordant strums on his brother’s guitar before the brother immediately stirs to feedback and grabs it from him. He mopes about the street and blocks the path of a boy in a wheelchair repeatedly until the boy concedes defeat and leaves the chair for Samson to take his place.
The wheelchair is one of the few props in this scorched earth village and is an essential toy in the play of the locals. Delilah (Marissa Gibson) cares for her beloved grandmother (Mitjili Gibson). Between them they produce art which is collected for a significant dollar sum (this like many other details crop up later in the narrative with greater resonance) for the indigenous art collectors market in the cities.
Samson takes a shine to Delilah and unable to express himself verbally tries to draw her attention by lobbing stones at her. She reciprocates with a gift of sweets and Samson decides to move into their picket-fenced home, the two young people struggling with a mattress, he taking it in, she driving it out, until finally relenting, all to the chuckles of her grandmother who jokes that this is the girl’s ‘husband.’
The lightness evaporates with the grandmother’s death. Delilah suffers an unfair ritual beating for her grandmother’s death, she cuts her hair short in mourning and the bad timing interferes with the courtship, causing Samson to attack his brother, clubbing him with the guitar, the brother returning on him with more brutal force.
Samson steals the only car in the village and the couple flee to the city, and take residence under a bridge with a ranting, singing hobo, Gonzo (Scott Thornton, the director’s down and out brother) who does all the talking. Samson’s addiction to petrol fumes stunts his awareness, and leaves Delilah vulnerable, and the tale becomes darker still as white urban Australia snuba and abuses them, digging a deep hole for their dreams.
Samson And Delilah is a delicately stepped drama which ebbs out and in washing the viewer with rollers of emotion. I am normally against movies that cast non-actors but in this case Thornton can be forgiven. Casting the aboriginal players would have been too difficult and the young leads are ideal to their roles, interview footage showing them to be quite ordinary kids, McNamara likely infused with an ennui, whereas Marissa Gibson is sold on the spotlight yet is perhaps too simple a girl to carve a future in acting. In the right hands Marissa is able to tap into those emotions, and recovering from an assault and turning to petrol fumes to the desperate barks of madness are terrible to watch. Thornton places enough shocks in before setting upon their rescue.
Supporting material comes with the two discs. There are a number of behind the scenes and cast and filmmaker interviews which vary in quality; McNamara and Marissa Gibson not the most stimulating interviewees. Thornton is always great to hear from and his wit and wisdom outshines any challenge. He is also a good anecdotalist though it helps that people are still largely ignorant of Australian aboriginal society, its traditions and the behaviour of the people, as this makes discussion of their world still very fresh.
Of course, this is equally true of the film. Thornton’s intelligence is at best shown in an episode from a cinema programme seemingly taken from Al-Jazeera in which the director discusses the film with an Adelaide audience which includes an older white Australian couple whose bigotry and ignorance are upfront. They question the negative image of the city and the equally bad representation of its white population, though they seem to have no problem with the equally poor picture that is drawn for the aboriginal characters in the film. They do, however, in a closing camera interview seem to make amends with their outright support for the film.
Four short films by Thornton are included which display a visionary range but also reveal borrowings from his own work for that first feature. The earliest is Payback from 1996, in which an imprisoned aborigine is visited by a spirit promising that the white man’s punishment of jail will be followed by one more redolent of his culture on his release. It is a curio and no more.
The 2002 film Mimi is a comic fantasy in which a white Australian buys two pieces of indigenous art, a painting, and a carved stick called a mimi, both for financial investment. The stick, though, is alive, and a mimi, the culture’s equivalent of a gremlin, playful and destructive, it eats the fish in the painting and then fucks up her feng shui. It’s genuinely amusing with several outright laughs. Thornton will again attack buyers and dealers in his later feature film.
Nana (2007) could be a mini-prequel to Samson And Delilah as the remarkable Mitjili Gibson takes centre stage again in a grandmother and granddaughter tale. This time the girl is much younger, and is the narrator, a love letter to her nana. The tale ends on a sinister note, as two old ladies attack two young white Australians running liquor into their community, as the child watches unaffected telling us that when she grows up she wants to be just like her nana. Sinister it may seem to some but the violence may again be more traditional and the cause for it a protectivism of a society rocked by drug and alcohol abuse… the beatings again a lesson rather than deadly intention, though without explanation it does look like they intend on murder in the story.
The fourth film is the longest at 26 minutes and that is the 2005 production Green Bush which takes place at a single-handed rural community radio station with a volunteer DJ, Kenny (David Page) whose play-list includes aboriginal rock ‘n’ roll and more traditional music. Vulnerable locals, elders and children, turn up at the station and expect a cup of tea, though they normally flock there because they fear the angry bored youths who have no respect for their elders and are prone to sudden acts of violence against anyone.
The DJ wants them to fend for themselves but lives in a middle place where he makes a living in the civilised world and puts back into his traditionalist background with the station. He is not willing to sacrifice all and the station is under heavy protection with no windows, barbwire and heavy doors. He knows that nothing will change and he will be back the next night, back to his snarled up tapes and emergency backup vinyls. The radio show is familiar as it is heard in Samson And Delilah, suggesting that the events of this single night take place at a time that is coterminous with that at one point in the feature film.