As I watched this film I found myself engrossed but also at times bewildered and definitely disturbed. Toomelah was screened as part of a celebration and exchange between Bradford and Sydney as the first two UNESCO ‘Cities of Film’. My reaction was partly formed around the question of what kinds of considerations went into the choice of this film? I found that some of the other audience members I spoke to afterwards felt the same way. It was only afterwards that I noticed in the festival brochure that Toomelah had won a UNESCO prize for ‘An outstanding contribution to the promotion and preservation of cultural diversity through film’ at the Asian Pacific Screen Awards in 2011. That explains the choice of the film for a Bradford screening but there are still plenty of questions to explore. I should point out that if, like me, you prefer not to read the full blurb in the brochure before the film, this is one film where it could be a mistake.
The problem for a UK audience is that the film itself offers no context for what it shows us and therefore runs the risk that we might misread it. At the end of the opening credit sequence we are presented with close-ups of a small figurine of a boxer, a trophy or an award of some kind. The first scene then shows us a small boy waking and asking his grandmother for money which he uses to buy some chips to eat on his way to school. But at school he behaves in such a disruptive manner that the teacher asks him to leave the room. For most of the rest of the film Daniel refuses to go to school and instead tags along with a group of men led by Linden the local drugs dealer. Daniel’s mother appears to have little control over or indeed much interest in her son and his grandmother withdraws to her room when her sister Cindy re-appears after 50 years away. Daniel’s father appears to live literally ‘in the gutter’ and is usually drunk. The father was indeed a boxer and Daniel sees boxing as something he can be good at. The boy’s other relationships involve his girlfriend Tanitia and Tupac the boy he fights with at school. The community is made up of indigenous peoples – the only white Australians we see are a teacher and two police officers.
The setting of this community isn’t given (though since the film is part-funded by New South Wales Screen, we assume it must be in the state somewhere). There are occasional long shots showing the landscape and these images of great natural beauty contrast with the brutality of the language used by everyone in the community. If it was released in the UK, the BBFC would struggle to give the film less than an 18 Certificate. All the dialogue is subtitled, which I found annoying since only the occasional word is a problem, but it’s difficult not to read the subtitles. None of the characters in the narrative appear to be played by ‘actors’. Is this a documentary, a dramatised reconstruction of an event or a completely fictional story? The filming style is both skilful in terms of framing and editing but also very loose, especially in the use of a handheld camera and a pronounced tendency to ignore focus, often seeming to be adjusted during shots, as if the filmmaker had just forgotten. There is a clear narrative that involves Daniel and the return of another ‘bad c**t’ from prison who threatens to take over Linden’s business. The climax of the film is then predictable.
I’m presenting the film in this way just to emphasise how such films can come across. I said I was engrossed and that’s true. The performances are staggeringly good with only a couple of occasions when sly glances towards the camera or slight hesitations in speaking betray the non-professionals. What is also clear is that while the film in one sense reinforces a negative image of indigenous communities, one which is repeated for similar communities in North America and other parts of the world, the script is also carefully constructed so that we are aware of real social issues. The lack of employment, the aimlessness of lives, substance abuse and sexual abuse are major problems associated with the racist policies which took children away from families (the ‘Stolen Generations’) and tried to eradicate the cultural identity of communities with the loss of language and history as well as the condemnation of whole communities to a second class status in Australian society. These references are carefully woven into the fabric of the film rather than presented directly. Personally I wanted to know more, e.g. about the black and white photographs in the schoolroom showing group portraits from earlier decades in the community. Having said that there are some discussions (and school lessons) about the ‘lingo’ of the local peoples and a couple of songs.
It took me a little while to research the film and this is what I found, starting with the official website. ‘Toomelah’ is a real place, a remote community of the Gamilaroi people based around an old mission (set up in the 1930s as part of a forced assimilation project for scattered smaller groups) in the far north of New South Wales nearly on the border with Queensland. It became the centre of a scandal in the late 1980s when a leading judge visited the community and helped to publicise the shocking living conditions and social problems (the most discussed being child abuse). This in turn led to an ‘intervention’ by the federal government and later changes in policy by the New South Wales government. So, I presume that Toomelah is well-known in Australia.
The filmmaker is Ivan Sen, whose mother grew up in Toomelah. He himself was brought up in Inverell, a small town further down the Macintyre River. He trained as a filmmaker and achieved success with his first feature Beneath Clouds in 2002, winning a prize at Berlin. A fiction film drawing on Sen’s own feelings growing up as a mixed race young man, this was followed by several other short dramas and documentaries, an experimental feature Dreamland (2010) and then Toomelah. Sen has maintained his interest in his roots, returning over several years to Toomelah. The filming style of Toomelah is explained by his decision to make the film virtually by himself so that his non-professional cast of locals (many from the same family) would not be intimidated by the presence of a large professional crew. This willingness to lose the slickness of a proficient crew has been rewarded by very ‘natural’ performances – and didn’t prevent the film being selected for the ‘Un Certain Regard’ programme at Cannes in 2011.
According to its Facebook page and several glowing reviews in Australia, the film has been warmly welcomed by audiences, including those who know the community at Toomelah. However, its theatrical release in Australia seems to have been limited. I suspect it will do well on DVD and in non-traditional screening events. My concern is how it will be read elsewhere in festivals and specialised cinemas. One of the questions is about the ‘humour’ in the film which is mentioned by the filmmaker and the promotional material. I think that the film deals in authenticity and often this extends into a general sense of warmth in communal relations which we can all respond to. However, there were moments in which the film’s style reminded me of reality TV and the kinds of potentially exploitative material featured in Big Fat Gypsy Weddings and similar programmes focusing on the ‘exotic’ behaviour of particular subcultures. Are we laughing at or with these communities? Toomelah is of course made from within a community and I’m not suggesting that it is exploitative, only that it could be misread. I’m sure that most audiences want children like Daniel to have a better future than their parents’ generation. The exposure of the problems they face is best organised from within their own culture and therefore it is important that filmmakers like Ivan Sen are funded and able to negotiate decent distribution deals. How we then respond to such films is a question which I think prompts a call for better film education in film cultures generally around the world.
Here’s the official trailer from the production company, Bunya:
And an interview with Ivan Sen: