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Samson and Delilah under the stars in Alice Springs

The Alice Springs screening of Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah took place under the stars at the Telegraph Station, curtained only by the Todd River embankment. I was amongst the 4000 people who went to see the film that night (April 17), many of them travelling from remote communities. We formed a jumbling, cramped silhouette, lying across each others’ swags and blankets by necessity. A group of little kids, tchi-tchi, sat up the front, their necks craned backwards and glued to the screen. From out of this mass of people there were two audible audiences, laughing at different moments, yet all in it together. It was an appropriate setting for an extraordinary film – a film that expresses so much about the communication gap at the heart of this country.

Reviews of Samson and Delilah are appearing thick and fast. The public debate has so far centred on the negative portrayal of race relations and life in remote Indigenous communities. Thornton’s film has achieved an important feat  — and that’s aside from its impressive aesthetic and narrative elements. However, there is another, more positive, aspect to this film that deserves some attention: communication and media in Indigenous communities.

I had coincidentally met Warwick Thornton prior to the Alice Springs public screening during a lunch at CAAMA, the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association. Warwick used to be a DJ on CAAMA radio, Australia’s first full-time Aboriginal radio station, with a show called Green Bush (he made a short film with the same name in 2005). Now an esteemed film director, he stood there at lunch in his big hat, laughing with the other DJs about his experiences at the station. I observed how the staff admired his having made it onto the national stage and Warwick’s obvious respect for the organisation. He has skilfully woven that media experience into his debut feature film.

Interestingly, although the theme of communication is at the heart of the film, the two protagonists barely speak. Samson (Rowan McNamara) and Delilah (Marissa Gibson) are teenagers living in a remote Indigenous community. Their home town is nothing more than a couple of bare concrete houses, a health clinic and a shop. Samson is dealing with boredom through mischievous behaviour and petrol sniffing. He gets around on a wheelchair for fun, symbolising his self-inflicted teenage dysfunction, or possibly a joke on the disadvantage of living in a remote community. By the film’s end the wheelchair has become a more serious sign of rehabilitation where their only chance is each other.

Delilah is different; she cares for her Nana (Mitjili Napanangka Gibson), helping the old woman create artwork and taking her to the health clinic. Samson is in love with the responsible Delilah. He gets out his black marker pen, sniffs it, then writes “S 4 D onley ones” (sic) on the wall. She is drawn to him and yet keeps him at a distance, throwing his mattress over the fence when he tries to move in. Her grandmother approves of the union, cheekily referring to Samson as “your husband” and laughing hysterically at Delilah’s shyness.

The teenagers communicate in Indigenous sign language and through their actions. Samson throws stones in Delilah’s direction to get her attention. She throws stones at him too, implying ‘Go away’, or ‘Not yet’. A public phone is ringing at the start of the film, but nobody bothers to answer it. The voiceless communication of the characters makes their relationship more compelling.

When things take a turn for the worse, the two are united in their need to leave the community. The film becomes seriously bleak in Alice Springs where poverty, violence and addiction take over. The teenagers’ silence stands in contrast to their new friend, an urban Aboriginal tramp. Gonzo (played by Scott Thornton) talks and sings incessantly, including the Tom Waits lyrics: “Lord, I’ve been so good, except for drinking, but I knew that I would”. He implores them to say something if they are going to accept his hospitality under the bridge, in the dry Todd River bed. Samson finally says his name out loud, a surprising moment which makes you rethink his character entirely.

This exquisite exploration of interpersonal communication sits alongside a parallel theme involving remote Indigenous media technologies. I recognised the phone at the start of the film as one of the community telephones constructed by the Centre for Appropriate Technologies. The tough silver case encloses a cheap, easily replaceable receiver, designed to overcome desert conditions and solve billing and maintenance issues. The day before the Alice film screening, Senator Conroy announced 300 new public phones for remote communities. In his Ministerial press release, he stated that the phones will “improve connections to health, education, safety, business and other services as well as provide social and family contact”. When life turns seriously bad for Delilah in Alice Springs she tries to call home but the phone rings out again. The telephone is a symbol of avoidance, an impossible cry for help in a world that has become too hard. Technological solutions alone are not enough.

Intermittently throughout the film we find Samson listening to an Aboriginal radio station, hugging the receiver close to his body. Many non-Indigenous Australians will not know that an extensive system of Aboriginal radio and television exists across the outback, Top End, the Kimberley and Cape York. Eight remote media associations (CAAMA is one) produce radio and video content, much of it in language. The DJs and video-makers are often trained in their own communities and produce programs on basic equipment, linked via satellite networks. Towards the end of the film, Samson receives a message from home via a DJ dedication, which causes him to squeal with delight. Radio  — an obvious passion for Thornton  — is depicted as an essential and positive element of life in remote Australia.

That night, under the stars, Samson and Delilah was itself an example of the importance of media that reflects the lives and culture of Indigenous Australians. Aboriginal families had come from all over to see themselves represented, maybe with nowhere to stay afterwards (due to the shortage of temporary accommodation in Alice), just like the two protagonists. The film’s message is that country and family matter most  — but that music and media are essential, particularly for young people. As a non-Indigenous viewer, one of the film’s great achievements is that it shows Australia through the eyes of remote people.

And with not one useless or insincere word.

Samson and Delilah won the Audience Award at the 2009 Adelaide Film Festival and has been accepted in the Cannes Film Festival. The film opens on May 7. Written and Directed by Warwick Thornton.

Ellie Rennie is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University.

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