Most Parisians might not share Stephane Jacob’s appreciation for Australian shiraz, Vegemite, and John Williamson’s music, but a growing number are starting to like his taste in art.
Twice a week, Jacob, an art collector, merchant and all-round Australiana-phile, invites friends and strangers to his apartment in a stately residential area in northwest Paris to explain, admire and sell Aboriginal art.
Last Tuesday, Jacob entertained an audience of nine well-heeled guests over hors d’oeuvres and Yellowtail shiraz. With the help of a fading map, he pointed out the Barossa, the Hunter Valley and Margaret River. "You can get great wines from these areas," he explained. Formalities out of the way, he moved on to the art.
Most in the room confessed to being relative novices in Aboriginal art — with a year’s experience at most — yet were taken aback by the diversity and beauty of the works Jacob showed.
"What I love about Aboriginal art is that there is not a taste — it’s a representation of the environment, the space," he explained. "Like a Michelin map, they describe a geographical location." Rotating a canvas, he demonstrated how the painting looked different depending on the perspective. "What was at first hot, and passionate, is now restrained and calm."
In a few days’ time, a very different work of art from Indigenous Australia will shed a light of its own, potentially changing French perceptions about Aboriginal life.
Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah opens in cinemas across France on Wednesday after a successful run in Australian cinemas and six Inside Film Awards. The gritty story of two Aboriginal youths in central Australia has not had the blitzkrieg marketing campaign that was mobilised to promote Baz Luhrmann’s Australia last year. But then again it hasn’t needed to: the film won the 2009 Camera d’Or prize at Cannes for the Best First Film which assured it of a general release here and possibly an audience as well.
While the film was a near-unanimous hit with the cinephiles at Cannes, opinions vary on how it will be received by the general French public. Its depiction of the neglect, abuse and poverty in Aboriginal communities stands at odds with the general perception of Australia as a paradise of rugby, surfing and kangaroos.
In France, little is known about Aborigines outside of their increasing popularity as artists. In February, TV station France 2’s program An Eye on the Planet, briefly highlighted the plight of Western Australian Aborigines in its hour-long dissection of Australia. And the release in August of the French translation of The Tall Man, Chloe Hooper’s account of Cameron Doomadgee’s death on Palm Island, attracted little attention. But based on the audience reaction at a recent preview screening, it’s unlikely Samson and Delilah will escape notice.
The film was part of the Cinema des Antipodes in St Tropez, a free annual event celebrating New Zealand and Australian film held in October. One person in that audience, professional translator Charlotte Rastello, told me the impact was powerful. "The film showed at 5pm, so it was mainly retirees in the room. Most were there just because it was a free film, perhaps also attracted by its religious title. They were shocked. Most would have had no idea about what Australia was like. Some didn’t even realise the film depicted a modern-day reality, thinking it was set 30 years ago. They said, ‘If that’s what Australia is like, I’m never going’."
Isabelle Audinot, another professional translator who wrote the French subtitles for Samson and Delilah and also for Ten Canoes, added that many French people have only a rudimentary understanding of Aboriginal culture. "Aborigines are the guys who sit in the nude and play the didgeridoo. Some French don’t even know that they live in Australia. People even think they are called Arb-origines!"
As a result, according to Rastello, "This film might not change perceptions about Aborigines — it will give a perception."
In Audinot’s opinion, the film was a hit in Cannes because of its universal theme of exclusion. "Some of the scenes could take place anywhere. It’s about power in society." Furthermore, she said it stood out for its contemporary portrayal of Aborigines, far from the romanticised myths proffered by other recent Australian films, such as Australia. "Samson and Delilah was great because it showed Aborigines in the supermarket, like everybody else."
Audinot, a self-described pessimist, said that if the film raised awareness about the situation in certain Aboriginal communities, then that was an achievement in itself. "Very few films effect change on a grand scale," she said. A recent exception was the 2006 French film Indigènes, about African soldiers who fought for France in World War II, only to be denied the pensions due to them as soldiers. After seeing the film, then president, Jacques Chirac, agreed to honour the value of pensions owed to 80,000 non-French soldiers.
On the other hand, Rastello said French audiences might find the film hard to relate to. "The French have always been in our country; it was us who colonised other nations. The history of Australia is so different from France. It’s like watching a film about the Inuits in Greenland. We don’t identify that it’s our community. It’s not our problem."
At another preview screening in late October, Samson and Delilah‘s director Warwick Thornton showed the film to an invited audience at the Pantheon cinema in Paris’s chic 5th arrondissement. At the end there was silence — then applause.
Asked what message he hoped to convey to the French audiences he said, "I made this film for my own community. It’s amazing to be here in France talking about this."
But in his opinion, at least, the film does have a relevance wider than its immediate context. "This film gave information to people, a view that has not been possible in 10 years of reports on the 5 o’clock news. My message that French people can take away is that maybe on the street you’ll see someone that could be Samson or Delilah, and you’ll give them a helping hand."
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