Cannes winner an indictment of Australian racism

Review: Samson and Delilah, Directed by Warwick Thornton
In selected cinemas now

SAMSON AND Delilah, written, directed and shot by Aboriginal film maker Warwick Thornton, tells the story of two young teenagers’ lives amidst extreme poverty, substance abuse and violence. Set in remote Central Australia and Alice Springs, it is a disturbing indictment of the racism of successive federal governments and their refusal to adequately fund remote Aboriginal communities.
While social problems in Aboriginal communities are often presented by politicians like Mal Brough and mainstream newspapers like The Australian as some kind of problem within Aboriginal culture or Aboriginal people’s failure to integrate, Samson and Delilah manages to humanise the people facing these problems.
For Samson there is no work, no money, no food—nothing. When he opens the fridge there is only a lonely slab of butter. He goes from the empty fridge straight for the can of petrol. Community social workers often report that people sniff petrol to make the hunger go away.  So, Samson spends most of his time getting high on petrol and following Delilah around the camp.
Delilah lives with her grandmother, looking after her and working together on their traditional paintings. The paintings they spend days producing are collected by an art dealer every so often for which they receive a miserly couple of a hundred dollars.
Samson and Delilah are forced to leave the community when Delilah’s grandmother dies and Samson has a violent outburst. The two travel to Alice Springs where their plight worsens. They are forced to live under a road overpass and getting by is a daily struggle. Tragedy follows tragedy and the resolute Delilah comes to a point where even she feels the need to escape into petrol sniffing.
Thornton portrays the hyper exploitation of Aboriginal culture and the racism in Alice Springs that sustains it. Whilst walking through the city centre, Delilah sees one of the artworks she and her grandmother created in an art dealership’s shopfront.  Its price tag is $22,000.
Delilah sees the extent to which she has been ripped off and is spurred to produce an artwork she can sell. She steals some paint and a canvas and paints an artwork to take to the same art dealer. The art dealer won’t even look at her work. She tries to sell it on the street but most people barely notice she’s there or if they do she is not much more than a nuisance. We are confronted with the reality that Aboriginal people are an under class in this country.
One criticism to be made about Thornton’s film is that the narrative, for the most part, is removed from a historical or political context. Thornton had an opportunity in this film to go beyond simply representing the dysfunction within remote Aboriginal communities. Audiences across Australia and the world may walk into the cinema with prejudices and walk out with their prejudices unchallenged.
The MT Theo program at Yuendumu for example, was a community initiative that kicked the scourge of petrol sniffing and helped many young people get training and into jobs.
Now the elders who established the program are having their pensions quarantined by the Intervention. And Labor is pushing ahead to all but abolish the Community Development Employment Projects that provided the funds for many successful community organisations. This will make thousands more Aboriginal people unemployed.
But when dysfunction enters these communities it is the people that are blamed. The film does show that the basic services and infrastructure like schools, health clinics, housing and jobs that are rights for mainstream Australia simply do not exist in Aboriginal Australia. If Aboriginal people want some kind of access to these rights the Australian government wants them to move off their land into what they deem to be “viable communities”.
This tragic film is beautifully shot and gives a very intimate portrayal of poverty and social dysfunction facing Aboriginal Australia. With an overwhelmingly Aboriginal cast and crew, the success of the film is a great source of pride for many.
But the same night that Samson and Delilah was receiving accolades in Cannes, the federal government announced another chapter of assimilationist policy, with plans to “compulsorily acquire” the town camps in Alice Springs. (see page 9).
This will bring the imposition of harsh new tenancy rules, pushing many more people into the river bed where Samson and Delilah were forced to camp
By Matt Meagher


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