SAMSON AND DELILAH is great but geez, Margaret and David, it’s not THAT good.

samson

[Samson and Delilah trailer here.]

After a five-minute standing ovation at Cannes and every second Australian reviewer giving it 5 stars, Samson and Delilah (along with Mary and Max) is renewing hope in many that Australians can make great cinema. In truth, Samson and Delilah is by no means perfect, but it is certainly a striking feature debut for Warwick Thornton, visually eloquent and emotionally vital.

warwickthorntonThe film is at heart a love story. Samson is a petrol-sniffing teenager with a mischievous streak. Delilah is more strait-laced, spending her days looking after her grandmother who is a painter in their isolated aboriginal community. Samson slowly wins Delilah’s attention though his first attempt, involving throwing rocks at her, is not so successful. Delilah is, understandably, wary of Samson’s advances but her grandmother is more than amused by the situation, urging her to engage in Samson’s puzzling courtship.

This first section is stunning. With not much dialogue at all, Thornton depicts the small community and the teenagers’ relationship by paying particular attention to the gestures and mannerisms of his characters. So much information is giving about the space and the characters visually, the fact that the characters are not prone to expressing themelves verbally never calls attention to itself.

Yet sound is really important in Sampson and Delilah. In a way reminiscent of Spike Lee’s use of different music genres in Do the Right Thing, Warwick uses music as a way of defining his characters’ cultural identities. Samson enjoys listening to country music on the radio. Delilah has a penchant for latino ballads. Samson’s brother plays in a rudimentary ska band that, much to Samson’s chagrin, practices incessantly outside his bedroom window. Right from the start of the film, it is fascinating to see how the music heard on the soundtrack will slip into another style or different styles play over the top of one another.

When a minor tragedy strikes, both Samson and Delilah become outcasts of their community and run away, ending up in a life on the fringes of Alice Springs. Here the film is less successful as Thornton perhaps too forcefully pushes his social commentary to the fore. It might lack subtlety but it’s still good, perhaps suffering from comparison with another film about life on the fringes of society, Wendy and Lucy.

Samson and Delilah ends on a happy note which you will be thankful for as an audience because Thornton takes you to some pretty dark, violent, rapey places. Yet, I also felt like the ending of Samson and Delilah‘s happy ending was a bit of a cheat. Both kids are saved out of nowhere by some benevolent man and end up in an idyllic farm by themselves far from the corruption of the big smoke and the danger of their small community. What kind of hope does this really give kids who find themselves in the position of Sampson and Delilah?

One peculiarity of Samson and Delilah is how asexual their relationship is. There is only one particularly erotic scene in the film, where Delilah gazes on Samson as he dances topless by himself in the street at night. Other than that, the characters do not display any of the raging hormones that teenagers usually have at their age. The potential eroticism of a later scene in which Delilah bathes Samson is disavowed by suggestions of renewal, purity and rebirth. In fact, that scene and the characters’ decidedly asexual teenage love might be a hint of a specific Christian aesthetic in Thornton’s work.

Still, Samson and Delilah is a vital movie and definitely worth seeing. It is certainly interesting that it takes indigenous directors such as Warwick Thornton and Ivan Sen (Beneath Clouds) to tell authentic contemporary stories about indigenous people while white Australian directors seem obsessed with fetishizing the Stolen Generation and telling dated stories from colonial times (see Rabbit Proof Fence and Australia!). We could use a few more directors in Australia who have a need to tell stories about the here and now.

SEE THIS WITH:

Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008)

George Washington (David Gordon Green, 2000)

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “SAMSON AND DELILAH is great but geez, Margaret and David, it’s not THAT good.

  1. I often think about what it must be like to be a white Australian director conscious of indigenous issues, because the point you make in the last paragraph about the quality of white Australian-directed indigenous films seems pretty valid (though there are exceptions—De Heer’s Ten Canoes being the first and most prominent that comes to mind.

    How would we interpret/appreciate Samson and Delilah differently if it was directed by a white Australian? And more to the point, could it even be directed by a white Australian? Not having seen it, I can’t answer that question. But I know that I’ve thought about becoming a film director at some point in the future, and as a middle-class white male, I do wonder how I would be able to make socially responsible films that aren’t condescending or vapid in their treatment of social issues. Hm.

    • Brad

      I think that a film like Samson and Delilah could certainly be made by a white Australian. But being respectful to a community isn’t merely doing your research in a textbook.

      Spending time in a community, observing behaviour and interactions, observing environment, hearing people’s stories and giving voice to them: These are the things that I feel a lot of ‘white’ directors neglect to do when making ‘indigenous-themed’ films and it’s the reason that indigenous filmmakers are in a position of privilege by mere fact of their experience.

      But I mean look at something like The Wire. Written by a bunch of white guys but it doesn’t feel condescending because David Simon KNOWS that community. Good interview with him (but spoiler alert) at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/10/22/071022fa_fact_talbot?currentPage=1

  2. Jake Wilson

    Interesting observations. Since you’ve suggested the comparison, what do you make of the seeming absence of sexuality in Wendy and Lucy? Love stories don’t come any more chaste than that.

  3. Jake Wilson

    I knew I should have stayed through the credits!

  4. I wish the debate and discussion hadn’t been overtaken by whether it has been too highly rated by other critics. It seems to footnote everything I have read recently. Shouldn’t a more even handed review be enough to sway the pendulum back to ‘good’.

    I know what you mean about the ending, i felt that way for a few minutes. But eventually I thought it was actually the harder road to travel in this case. The film had been holding down the grim button most of the way through, and to create an ending that convincingly steered it towards such a touching ending, with its message of devotional support was quite an achievement. It’s easy enough to imagine an alternative, darker ending if it suits.

    In terms of indigenous movies by white guys im really not sure i agree. I recommend you seek out: Backroads (phillip noyce), ningla a na (Alessandro Cavadini) and two laws (Cavadini). But perhaps you have something there, i’m not expert on indigenous cinema.

  5. I may be entering into a pedantic debate, but it’s just not a rule as far as i see it. You can add Night cries (1989) by Tracey Moffat if you want (made within the last 20 years…just). Fact is their is a paucity of indigenous focussed cinema, which doesn’t lend itself to such glib generalisations. Couldn’t the focus on the stolen generation tragedy have a lot to do with the revelations in the recent ‘bringing them home’ publication, which cracked this debate wide open?
    anyhoo.

    • Brad

      Again, Tracey Moffatt is an indigenous artist. So the rule (or ‘generalisation’/tendency whatever you want to call it) is proved.

      You’re right about the Stolen Generation films possibly being linked to ‘Bringing Them Home’. But my worry is that these films are more about cashing in on a zeitgeisty issue than actually giving a voice to the now.

  6. I don’t think the ‘chaste-ness’ has anything to do with Christian sensibilities as much as being realistic, representative of actual teenagers. That’s what Thornton says and I believe him.

    I don’t have a problem with reviewers giving it 5 (I reckon it’s 4.5 myself) but I’d prefer to see some justification for it, rather than just going ga-ga over the gorgeousness of the film.

    The film is the better for the ending. It’s the gutsier ending because it seemed to be going the way of the bleak. Bleak social realism it is NOT.

    I also compared the film to Wendy and Lucy because of the way it handled social issues. It’s not didactic, they’re there and the director is not making any overt political statements other than to show things as they are and you make up your own mind. Implicitly, he is being as critical of aboriginal society as he is of the broader community.

    I’m glad I read this review AFTER I saw the film, because I find this gives way too much plot away for someone who hasn’t seen it.

    The major creative strength of the film that few people seem to mention, is the regular distortion of perspectives. There is often a mismatch between the visuals and the sound/music, which you reference with that dance sequence. I thought it was really powerful – that scene in particular, but also two situations involving cars where there seems to be a disconnect between what we see actually happening, and what the characters see (or don’t see). Very impressive stuff that doesn’t draw attention to itself.

    Thornton has a great style, very original, very natural. Melbournians should take the opportunity to see his shorts at the Nova tonight (Thurs 21 7pm), especially the 26 minute Green Bush.

    • Brad

      I suppose you shouldn’t read reviews on this blog before seeing a film. I’m more concerned with discussing the ideas of a film rather than determining what people choose to see at the cinema.

      That said, I do try to find a balance between what plot points I can bring up to discuss and what plot points need to be experienced as a surprise at the cinema. I didn’t say anything about the film plot-wise that I personally didn’t know before seeing the film. But yeah, it’s a difficult balance.

  7. Maggie

    Hi Brad!
    Harking back to the first post to this review – I don’t think a film like this could be made by someone who isn’t indigenous Australian, or a Warlpiri person who grew up in an Alice Springs compound. Warwick Thornton is talking about his own community… his observations are based on people he is related to, cares about and can’t just walk away from (unlike most non-indigenous people).

    In one of his short films, “Green Bush”, the central character is a guy with a show on a black country radio station – he’s tired, sighs a lot and is frustrated and angered by the violence ‘out there’ in his community; but he’s there among his community, playing great black music for people who are warmed by their culture, making cuppas for the oldies who feel safe in the environment he has created at the station.

    A thing that struck me about “Samson and Delilah” is that I have always looked upon petrol sniffing and violence as an outsider looking in, and I have seen it as something outsiders do. The shadowy perpetrators are rarely viewed as individuals in media or film. But in this film, Warwick has crosses that boundary – the characters and stories of both these kids are at the forefront, even when Samson spends half the movie with a bottle of petrol stuffed up his nose.

    I think Warwick is talking about what self-determination (to use a ‘key’ word) means and what it looks like. A white director can’t do that. That’s why the love story is at the forefront; the kids in this films can’t survive in the white world, or even in their own culture. They have to work it out for themselves. By the way, I can see why Warwick decided not to make Samson and Delilah horny teenagers. Sex just seems pointless and would complicate the story.

    One more thing – and I am, for the record, a whitey writing a screenplay set on the colonial frontier – white directors do historical stuff because that’s what we have to grapple with when trying to work out this landscape we live in now. Most of us don’t live indigenous lives, and making films about the struggles of indigenous people in the here and now is up to good film makers like Warwick and Rachel Perkins.

    • Brad

      Thanks for commenting, Maggie. I disagree that a ‘white’ person can’t make an honest and insightful film about a ‘black’ community. Look at something like Dave Chappelle’s Block Party – a film by a white French director that is a more nuanced look at that particular subculture than say, ‘Notorious’. Warwick Thornton has an advantage by having a long history with the indigenous community but at the same time many people exist in communities that they have fairly simplistic ideas about.

      And I don’t have any problem at all with historical films either. But as you seem to be addressing with your screenplay, history is only interesting inasmuch as it informs the present. But if history is unable to speak to the present, it becomes a commodity.

      An interesting example is the film Munich: A historical fiction but it spoke to the political climate of post 9/11, a point made explicit with the final shot of the twin towers.

      Then take something like ‘Ten Canoes’ which was widely lauded: It makes a claim to represent an authentic, pre-colonial indigenous people but I fail to see the point. (Happy to be challenged on this point though.) Indigenous people today still suffer from the aftershock of colonisation, but is this representation really relevant to them when their own experiences are so different? So finding contemporary relevance in history is the challenge.

  8. Maggie

    Thanks for responding…

    I actually do agree with you that artists who choose to represent cultures and people who are ‘different’ to their own can do so very well – your examples of “The Wire” and “Block Party” are spot on and if we were to argue this issue down to the bare bones, you would probably be in the best possie!

    But I still think that a non-indigenous film maker would be hard pressed to make a film like “Samson and Delilah”. Even though the overall story is broad, it has such specific and personal nuances, not to mention perspective. In this case, I think Warwick’s personal kinship to indigenous material actually is more valid and heartfelt than what a non-Indigenous person could offer. This is given what I take to be his critical themes of self-determination and courage to survive, which I think are reflected in his work.

    For example, he seems to be making a pretty strong statement in the film that men are utterly hopeless and the women are the really strong ones. Would a non-indigenous film maker get away with making this statement if they were careful about being ‘respectful’? They might choose to make a doco about strong indigenous women (who speak for themselves to the camera), but to play this out in a grim fictional piece takes someone from the inside.

    On “Ten Canoes” (which I thought was pretty boring): I think the representation of Yolngu people in a pre-colonial setting worked in two ways for this film – it was instigated by Yolngu people who really wanted to see their story on film, and with pressure from David Gulpillil on their side, they got Rolf de heer to be their lens. So it was made by de Heer and them, for them, really. But it was also popular with wider Australian and European audiences who were excited by the ‘primitive’ aspects of the film.

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