4 July 2016

Picture This: The call of the wild

Forty-five years ago, a British director made a striking, surreal film about the idea of civilisation, shot in the Australian desert.

Sometime in the ’60s, a British filmmaker looking to make his transition from cinematographer to independent director zeroed in on a novel called The Children, by James Vance Marshall. First published in 1959, the book was about two American children stranded in the Australian outback after a plane crash. An Aboriginal boy helps them survive and make their way back to Western ‘civilisation’, but himself dies from the influenza virus he catches from the two.
I haven’t read Marshall’s book, but here’s what I see this narrative as suggesting: that cross-cultural communication in an unequal world is possible, but ends inevitably in tragedy for the colonised. And that white people might fail to communicate their emotions and intentions, but they communicate their diseases effortlessly.
The film, however, dropped the influenza part of the plot. The Children was written for a ‘juvenile audience’, today’s YA. I imagine that Nicholas Roeg — for that was the filmmaker’s name — wanted to retain the childlike excitement of the colonial adventure, but also produce something more open-ended and complex. Working from a screenplay by the British playwright Edward Bolton, Roeg made the children English residents of Australia. He also played with a shift of focus to the Aboriginal side of things: the film starts with this text: “In Australia, when an Aborigine man-child reaches sixteen, he is sent out into the land. For months, he must live from it. Sleep on it. Eat of its fruit and flesh. Stay alive. Even if it means killing his fellow-creatures. The Aborigines call it the WALKABOUT. This is the story of a “WALKABOUT”.”
Having announced this theme, however, Roeg’s camera — and our gaze — stays largely with the white people. Walkabout, released on July 1,1971 — exactly 45 years ago this week — cast Roeg’s own son Luc (credited as Lucien John) and the striking teenaged British actress Jenny Agutter as the siblings, while giving the role of the Aboriginal boy to the extraordinary David Gulpilil (wrongly credited in the film as Gumpilil).
Yet right from the opening scenes, the film is intent on defamiliarising white ‘civilisation’. The uneven, nasal drone of the Aboriginal didjeridoo is overlaid onto scenes from white Australian urban life, emphasising people’s disconnect from their surroundings: a middle-aged man in a suit sits down in a strangely alienating space; a little boy (John) in school uniform looks into a book as he walks. A magnificent shot shows the little boy walking home, framed by the ominous shadow of a gnarled old tree.
Strangeness, Roeg suggests, lies in the eyes of the beholder. Interspersed with the Aboriginal instrument are white-people sounds that seem as jarring — a single phrase of spoken French; a classroom full of white girls chanting the vowels of the English alphabet in unison. A woman making dinner in a white-cube apartment listens to a radio programme about the ortolan, a bird overfed in captivity and then drowned in alcohol to create a gourmet French dish.
Then things get really weird. A few minutes into a desert picnic, the father starts shooting at his children, and then kills himself. The girl (Agutter), being the older one, keeps what has happened from the boy. Gathering up the radio, a bottle of lemonade and tins of food, she walks him further into the desert.
Roeg’s cinematographic eye is extraordinary. Panoramic views of windswept dunes, flat red rocks and circling mountain ridges alternate with vivid close-ups of colourful, sometimes dangerous creatures that live in this landscape: frilled lizards, chameleons, scorpions, porcupines. The film pauses its narrative for us to observe these creatures, so comfortably at home here — unlike our hatted-coated protagonists, who are so profoundly not.
The little boy is initially excited to be on an adventure, but in a few days they have reached a state of extreme hunger and thirst. It is then that they encounter the Aboriginal boy. He looks blankly at the girl as she pours out floods of anxious words, but when the younger boy mimes drinking, he laughs and instantly crafts a reed pipe to draw out water from the ‘dry’ ground. He is as much of this world as the animals he kills for food. He can make spears out of branches, sunburn salve out of animal blood, and food out of nearly any living thing.
The white children, now shielded from the harsh vagaries of the landscape, begin to revel in its idyllic freedoms — swinging from branches, swimming in pools, roasting meat on naked fires. But what makes the film particularly intense is an unspoken erotic tension, the web of mutual fascination that quivers between Agutter and Gulpilil. But that fascination is ill-fated, because Agutter’s character is afraid of it, afraid to admit to it.
Before Walkabout, few films had dealt with Australian inter-race relations. Most notable was Charles Chauvel’s Jedda (1955), in which an Aboriginal baby is brought up in a white family. Jedda’s white mother is appalled when the teenager wants to join her Aboriginal age-mates on a walkabout. The tragic climax is framed by a white view of the wildness of the land — and the people.
A few years after Walkabout came Peter Weir’s eerie Picnic at Hanging Rock, based on the bestselling 1967 novel about a group of white schoolgirls who disappear while on a Valentine’s Day picnic in 1900. Weir, too, partook of the mystery and wildness of the Australian landscape — though here, any erotic charge was expressed by young white women, and suppressed by their Victorian schoolmistresses.
Those films could not go beyond whiteness, or the idea of a separation of spheres. In contrast, Walkabout feels startlingly fresh. The white girl and the black boy circle each other warily, their interactions filled with a nervous energy. Dreamlike though his film is, Roeg makes no outlandish claims. Things end badly for the boy. But it is her life that is forever shadowed by the remembered grandeur of the wilderness.
Published in BL Ink, 2 July, 2014.

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