Warwick Thornton’s debut feature Samson and Delilah opens on a tiny remote community somewhere in Warlpiri country, north-west of Alice Springs. A few dilapidated houses are clustered next to a dirt road. Old women watch the wandering dogs. A band practices on a verandah. A young man in a darkened room stays in bed, sniffing petrol from a can.
It is an odd setting for a classical allusion. But, by the time young Delilah cuts her hair out of respect for a dead relative about a third of the way into the film, Samson and Delilah has given its title a subtly layered meaning, and her act becomes a heartbreaking moment in which Indigenous mourning tradition resonates with the Bible story. Thornton thereby sets Aboriginal culture in place as one of the world’s great traditions, Aboriginal religion on a par with Christianity, and simultaneously speaks to the fact of colonisation: these cultures are already infected with one another. This resonance becomes beautifully ironic when, rather than being his downfall, Delilah becomes Samson’s strength.
It’s no mean feat that the grief of Delilah (played with precocious skill by Marissa Gibson) is so compelling. Thornton presents a relationship that seems to live solely in gesture. Samson (the mesmerising Rowan McNamara) throws a rock at Delilah; she drops a packet of jerky in his lap. Samson writes "S4D" on the wall of the store; Delilah rolls her eyes and keeps walking. Samson sniffs at his petrol can, fights with the verandah band, follows Delilah on her daily walk between the store, the clinic and her house. For the first third of the film, nothing more happens — and yet it is thoroughly absorbing. Eventually, circumstances send the two teens on the run. They wind up in Alice Springs, living a semi-suicidal existence under a bridge in the dusty bed of the Todd River.
It is an apparently simple story, but the more you consider the structural challenges Thornton has set himself, the more impressive his achievement becomes. Those challenges include the fact that the film has almost no dialogue; there are a few curt conversations in Warlpiri, and the mad mutterings of a homeless man in the riverbed. But Samson and Delilah hardly look at one another. They barely touch. Here and there, music speaks for the characters — the way only songs can when we are too young to articulate our feelings. Thornton has said he struggles to write dialogue, but he manages to turn this into a compelling personal style. Gibson and McNamara may be inexperienced actors, but their bashfulness lends itself to this subtle arrangement of gesture and facial expression. In making this nearly un-stated relationship the core of the film, Thornton and his young stars have taken an enormous risk — and pulled it off with seeming effortlessness.
After gaining the Audience Award at this year’s Adelaide Film Festival, Thornton brought the theatrical premiere home to Alice Springs, where an estimated 2000 people gathered on the lawn at Telegraph Station, sprawled on swags, to watch for free. There, the continuity between the landscape of the film and the rocky backdrop of the actual Todd echoes the sense that this film is a slice of everyday life for many people. While the film’s moments of abrupt violence shocked many people in the audience, they were met with laughter from Aboriginal children watching. For some white women sitting near me that reaction was inappropriate, but for me it was another reminder of our cultural differences. Laughter and horror reflect the spectrum of reactions to life here, and the film we were watching was simply consistent with it. Thornton grew up here in Alice. I wonder how the film will translate to audiences far away who are less familiar with its context.
Petrol sniffing among Indigenous youth is not as rife as some sensational reports suggest, but it remains a serious social problem. It is also a very visible symptom of a broader set of issues that culminate in self-destructive behaviour. Children give themselves brain injury for a number of reasons, and intergenerational trauma, feelings of powerlessness, the absence of self-determination and lack of opportunity play an enormous part. Years of violence lead to more violence and self-harm.
But hopelessness is also a powerful imposed narrative, a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have become inured to a culture of desperation in remote communities. In a post-Intervention context, we are all drilled to expect a constant state of emergency. I don’t want to be another white person trying to write authoritatively about that life — I want people to speak for themselves. But there is rarely much room given to stories that come directly from the people who live in remote communities. From the place journalists like to call "on the ground".
Monotony is not easy to film. In another director’s hands, this nearly silent, brutally realist film could be mind-numbing, but in Thornton’s it throbs with life and even humour. There is unrelenting boredom in the teens’ remote existence, and it is bleak here, but it’s presented with a deftness of touch that veers easily from comedy to violence without losing its authenticity. It is perhaps the blackest of comedies, but the humour only makes the lives of these kids more real to us. To pick one example, the look on Samson’s face as he carries a ‘roo he’s caught back to camp is priceless — it could be any proud teenager, from any culture, and yet it is exactly this boy, in this life. The ability to make the particular universal is one of this film’s great strengths.
There are occasional jarring moments. Perhaps these young people are made to go through too much, too quickly. Perhaps the ramblings of "Gonzo" the homeless man they meet become a little hammy. But there are very few moments in which Samson and Delilah looks like a debut feature. Thornton’s cinematography is impeccable throughout, with moments of stark grace. The desert light is used to full advantage, from its unforgiving middays to its golden-syrup dusks, but avoids sliding into sentimentality.
Though a simple story, it has a narrative complexity: there is little justice, less redemption, and the heroism to which it bears witness is the smallest and most significant of human heroisms: that refusal to lose hope in one another, in life itself, in the face of brutality. The film takes us into unsafe, challenging territory: the realities of petrol sniffing and the cruelties of family and of strangers. It may remind viewers there is a story behind the person selling Aboriginal paintings in the mall, or sniffing petrol under a bridge; but that it does this without preaching, without ever deviating from the central story, is a remarkable achievement. These nearly-silenced teenagers carry their own symbolism, but they are brought to us as real people.
In the context of films such as Australia, and a mainstream industry which still offers a fantasy of the outback as frontier, an empty backdrop on which whites can play out their moral trials, Samson and Delilah presents a powerful contrast. We have the Indigenous stories of Ten Canoes, Rabbit Proof Fence, or Radiance (on which Thornton was cinematographer) but Thornton’s gritty, realist fiction adds something remarkable to the canon of Indigenous film. It is the job of fiction to make other lives real to us. It is that empathy which was lacking when the Little Children are Sacred report was brutally misused by the Intervention. It is that lack of understanding the "other" as a human being which lies at the root of our racism, and which makes this film such a necessary voice in Australian culture.
Rather than offering pat answers to the mess of colonisation, or an angry victim’s reaction to it, Thornton’s gentle approach does not shy away from the insoluble. The film left me, as life in Alice Springs sometimes does, with a feeling of desolation, and perhaps its refusal to comfort will vex some audiences. But at the core of this story is a hard nugget of hope and survival. Like other reviewers, I can see it making an impression at international festivals; it has already been chosen for the Un Certain Regard Official Selection at Cannes, and I think it will be hard to beat.
After Thornton’s award-winning shorts (at the Berlin International Film Festival Green Bush won a Panorama award in 2005 and 2007’s Nana won a Crystal Bear) have already made him an emerging director to watch, Samson and Delilah confirms him as an important new voice in Australian cinema.
Samson and Delilah opens 7 May at Message Sticks Indigenous Film Festival and in selected cinemas around the country. See samsonanddelilah.com.au for details.