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Samson and Delilah

Warwick Thornton's first full length film, Samson and Delilah, is a quiet, understated piece about young love and the lives of Aboriginal teenagers in a small, central Australian town.

It is a political film. To me, it is primarily a political film. A lot is said about the romance between the two teenage protagonists (Samson and Delilah, obviously), but as I sat there, watching the opening scene where Samson wakes up, reaches over, and begins the take with an intake of petrol (or paint), it was hard for me to move beyond that initial statement. We're not talking love here, the film says, at that moment, we're talking life, existence, a world that continues to exist right now. The conversation continues as silence that surrounds Samson fills the film--his plight and life need another to speak for him, which in this case is Thornton--and the empty, yet routine days that both he and Delilah find themselves in. The political discourse continues when you begin to pick apart the film even more: Samson acquires a wheelchair early in the film that he rolls around on for amusement, and there is, within that, a statement about the crippled life that he leads. The wheelchair reoccurs, too, when Delilah's Nana, elderly and sick, must be taken on a second wheelchair to a clinic every day to be checked. And the wheelchair reoccurs again, at the end of the film, too, a rickety, old thing to convey the crippled lives that cannot be left behind.

I write that last line, knowing, to a degree that it sounds as if it is condemning the Aboriginal life that Thornton portrays in the film; but, without having him here to say yes or no as to it being his intention, the life that he does show is one that is crippled. The community Samson and Delilah live in is run down, aimless, a place so isolated and removed from society that the people living in it are lied too and stolen from. The community itself, in turn, is at times violent and unsympathetic, the frustration of the people in it struggling to find a way to voice itself positively. It is in response to that behaviour that Samson and Delilah leave the community, and head into the larger world, where they find a predominately white community that distrusts them, views them as criminals, objects, and where theft and low grade, ugly drugs are the only things that are available to them for a life. It's hard to watch the scenes where Delilah, in an attempt to make money, tries to sell a painting to a group of white men and women in a cafe: painfully shy, she moves from table to table, only to be dismissed with hand wave, or a shake of the head, her work ignored, her presence brushed away while they eat and live. When she returns, angry now, having become a victim to the world, her new painting is ignored, her more aggressive manner rejected until, finally, she is told that she has to leave. There is no place, the film says, for you here: you're either ignored due to your politeness and shyness, or you're told to fuck off because your anger and frustration bothers people.

To me, it is a political film, and I dug it on that level. It's neither preachy, nor angry, but rather honest and, to a degree, hopeless. There are no solutions in Thornton's film to the issues he present and the community the two leave ultimately becomes like a safe haven in response to the rejection they receive in the city.

Seeded within this, of course, is the love story that most people have written about. It's wordless and awkward, but there's an honesty between the two actors, and you hope for them to find an ounce of happiness by the end of the film, which may seem strange in the empty and silent landscape that they exist in.

Anyhow, it's pretty cool. Worth time to go and see.



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May. 29th, 2009 04:26 am (UTC)
I agree with you that it is a political film. In a self-assured, not insistent, way -- but it is showing you their life in the hope that it will move its audience in ways that definitely include politically.

I doubt Thornton is trying to condemn their lives, simply aspects of it. Thornton seems to me to have a keen eye for the positive aspects of the lives of those communities as well, though it is only indirectly seen here.

I had a bit of a different reaction to the café scenes -- having been one of the patrons of those very same cafés. What was not shown in the film, but everyone involved would have known, is that people would be quietly selling paintings on the grass a few meters from the café, perhaps to same people, and for reasonable prices (the going rate for direct-bought paintings is generally in the hundreds, not gallery prices but enough to make a living on). There is a system for selling art, and for the people involved it works ok, even for those who are painfully shy. But it doesn't work for the desperate or impatient. But she is rejected by the gallery owner, she is without the guidance of her own people. Even though she is capable of creating the art, she is not part of the system, and part of the reason she is not part of the system is the rejection of her own people.

(if she had been introduced to a dealer by her nanna, the dealer would be buying her work, or if townspeople were there to welcome and help her she would be selling it direct like they do - instead, she is rejected by both worlds)

I didn't find the love story giving much hope at the end of the story, either. Delilah has become trapped into a relationship with a brain damaged man with few prospects, in which her community now forces her to take responsibility for him. A fate she seemed to sense and fear from the beginning. The film seems to unroll deeper layers of tragedy as it goes.
May. 29th, 2009 04:42 am (UTC)
yeah, i don't think he's trying to condemn their lives, either. however, i thought he was slightly condemning (or at least the film was) of just the general living standards that the two were stuck in.

i didn't know that about the cafe, obviously, but yeah, i could see how that would change your reaction to it. actually adds a bit more to it, which is good, i think.

agree with the tragedy aspects, too.
May. 29th, 2009 06:06 am (UTC)
I saw it as a pretty potent refutation of any argument that blames the victim. One thing that most scenes in the movie have in common is that they reinforce that "escape" isn't an option. It would be hard to walk out of this movie saying "why didn't they 'just' do [insert course of action] and get on with their lives?"

e.g. When Samson and Delilah "escape" to the urban environment in which whites choose to live they're left in a worse position than before.

e.g. When Delilah hits upon the idea of painting for a living to elevate themselves from the situation under the overpass, it's a total failure due to her lack of connections or understanding of the process whereby a white buyer is convinced of the authenticity / value of art.

The final, actual escape is mental and not material -- Delilah escapes to an understanding of the inevitability of her situation, Samson to brain damaged oblivion.
May. 29th, 2009 01:59 pm (UTC)
Spot on analysis.

For context, part of the way by which 'white' (which in Alice means 'non-Aboriginal', eg African-Americans or South East Asians are effectively white) buyers are convinced of authenticity/value is by community connection of the artist - new artists are introduced by connections to established artists. Which, of course, Delilah was on track to do, until her Nannas untimely death -- and then without community connection, she does not get it (and the somewhat arbitrary community rejection she experiences seems unfortunately quite realistic, not uncommon in these situations -- Karen saw a lot of people in hospital with serious injuries from more or less the exact scenario in the film). And she is just doing the wrong thing -- by accosting people, she is sending the message that her art isn't good enough to sell itself (from experience, the people who accost you in cafés are most likely to be selling poor quality art that they hope to palm off on tourists, the good artists are generally waiting for you to approach them).
May. 29th, 2009 01:32 pm (UTC)
In effect, by selling art the way she is trying too, by getting in peoples faces when they are trying to have a coffee, she is making it a form of begging rather than simply selling art (the professional artists might be selling art by the side of the road -- but they aren't begging, they know their art is a quality product that will sell itself). This becomes clearer later in the film, when she is selling art that is clearly of pretty poor quality and getting in peoples faces more.

It is one of the signs of his really solid skills as a screenwriter, that there are lots of details and aspects of the situation that he has not incorporated into the script, simply due to the limitations of how much background can be crammed into limited screen time, but if you do know it, the script if anything becomes stronger. He is smart enough to know when to stop explaining, but true enough to the material that if you do know more than he is saying, it is no way diminished. And of course his understanding goes way beyond the superficial, as does that of his actors. Great work.

I think this one film has clearly catapulted him into the front ranks of Australian film makers in one go, especially if he can follow up with another equally strong film.
May. 29th, 2009 05:09 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the background info Dave!
Jun. 1st, 2009 01:08 am (UTC)
i'm not quite sure that i agree on the strength of his screenwriter ability based on the same point you have. i think it's strong, though, and i was actually impressed by how he managed not to make it preachy given all the topic, and his portrayal of both main characters.
May. 29th, 2009 08:31 am (UTC)
Good review. I had no interest in the film before I read this, but now, it sounds interesting.
Jun. 1st, 2009 01:08 am (UTC)
May. 31st, 2009 07:37 pm (UTC)
I thought it was brilliantly done, as you know, and i was pleased to see it won the best first feature prize at Cannes--that sort of guarantees that it'll get worldwide distribution.
Jun. 1st, 2009 01:09 am (UTC)
sweet. i'm all for that, myself.
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