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Australian Cinema

Samson & Delilah (Australia 2009)

MARISSA GIBSON as DELILAH, ROWAN McNAMARA as SAMSON (BG), MITJILI GIBSON as NANA (still photo by Mark Rogers)

MARISSA GIBSON as DELILAH, ROWAN McNAMARA as SAMSON (BG), MITJILI GIBSON as NANA (still photo by Mark Rogers)

I’m not sure how I missed this film but I clearly made a big mistake. This is one of the most important Australian films of recent years and the section in The Global Film Book on Ten Canoes suffers because it doesn’t include discussion of this film. I hope I can now put this right.

Samson & Delilah is an Indigenous Australian film, written, directed and photographed by Warwick Thornton (DoP on The Sapphires, Australia 2012). Thornton wrote a script with very little dialogue and cast two 14 year-olds without any experience of filmmaking to play the young couple in a small isolated community in Central Australia. As might be expected, a cinematographer’s film features some beautiful compositions, a genuine feel for landscape and some excellent nighttime footage. But more importantly, Warwick Thornton was aware that working on 35mm with only a small crew and living with the community, he could complete the shoot quickly and get the best performances from his non-professional actors. The interviews with Thornton and his producer Kath Shelper on the DVD reveal just how much of a bonus a very low budget can be – especially when the decision is made to put the bulk of the money onto the screen using the the best quality format.

Samson & Delilah is a romance and a drama, but it’s also a film about a ‘social issue’ and a metaphorical statement about aspects of Indigenous culture and its place in Australian society. Samson is a young man with little going for him. He lives in a small settlement with his older brother who spends most of his time playing in a small music group. Samson spends his time generally mooching about and trying to woo Delilah, whose main task appears to be look after her elderly grandmother who she she helps with the production of craft objects featuring traditional designs. There isn’t much in the way of story but in a formal sense it is the death of the old woman which ‘disrupts the equilibrium’ and brings Samson and Delilah closer together (although in an antagonistic relationship). The story will take them away from the community and place them in the nearest ‘big town’ where they face a generally hostile reception. This in turn will raise the profile of Samson’s addiction to petrol fumes which he inhales regularly and to the point of oblivion. I confess that I didn’t know anything about this form of drug dependency before I saw this film and at first I couldn’t work out what was happening. I understand now that it is a real and dangerous social issue for Indigenous communities in Australia alongside alcohol and other harder drugs.

The presentation of the story of these two young people is interesting in several ways. It isn’t a ‘social problem melodrama’ and nobody comes to ‘save’ Samson and Delilah. It’s a humanist film and in no way sentimental. In fact it’s a tough film and difficult to watch at times – but also compelling so you don’t want to turn away. There are moments of humour and it definitely is a love story. This of course makes it even more devastating as an artistic statement about Indigenous culture in contemporary Australia. At times the narrative development is so slow that the viewer is forced into contemplation and reflection on what is being shown and how it is being shown. The Global Film Book uses Indigenous Australian cinema as a case study to raise questions about how audiences can learn to ‘read’ films from different cultures. In the book the main case study film is Ten Canoes plus a brief analysis of Toomelah (Australia 2011). On this site we have also discussed Mystery Road (Australia 2013). Samson and Delilah is different from these other three films because it doesn’t have the same sense of ‘narrative drive’ and engagement with ideas about genre that can be found in Ivan Sen’s Toomelah and Mystery Road – even though it shares a similar sense of the low budget approach of Toomelah (but an almost opposite approach to the quality of the image). Compared to the historical and sociological dimensions of Ten Canoes, Samson & Delilah offers no ‘explanations’ of the actions of characters on-screen in terms of Indigenous culture. The DVD and the film’s website do offer background information and a ‘FAQ’ section to cover traditions but in the film itself such actions are simply observed. For instance, after her grandmother’s death, Delilah cuts her hair and she is badly beaten by the other women of the community. Samson cuts his hair too and then rescues Delilah (taking the community’s collectively-owned vehicle). Warwick Thornton says everything in the film comes from his own knowledge and experience – he stresses that he doesn’t agree with every aspect of tradition. He also points out that Indigenous communities vary greatly in size and display distinct local cultural differences. As he says, some of them are well organised and successful, others aren’t. The film was shot mainly around Alice Springs in Central Australia.

From the perspective of the ‘specialised film’ audience in the UK, Samson & Delilah comes across partly as a kind of art film in which, though little ‘happens’ for quite long periods, the image (and the soundtrack which has some excellent music tracks) is always interesting. The action that does occur in the context of the love story and the struggles of youth is engaging and accessible because of the performances and the direct approach taken by Thornton and his crew. I was told by a colleague that this was the film I needed to see and I fully concur. The film won prizes around the world including the Camera d’Or at Cannes. The DVD has several worthwhile extras including an earlier ‘long short film’ that Warwick Thornton made based on his experiences as a radio DJ in Alice Springs – this too has interesting comments to make.

Trinity (UK distributor) website for DVD.

Official (Australian) website here.

Download the films Press Book here.

UK trailer:

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