Review of an essential classic
From the lens of today, the film “Walkabout”* resonates powerfully in its portrayal of our profound disconnection with nature, delivering a potent warning from nature’s first ambassadors.
Incredibly for me, I viewed it for the first time last week, and it’s a masterpiece of cinema, from the English film director Nicolas Roeg. It was loosely based on the 1959 novel of the same name by James Vance Marshall (screenplay Edward Bond). Released in 1971, the film's relevance today is palpable.
The film follows a teenage girl and her younger brother who find themselves suddenly lost in the harsh Australian outback. After a dangerous amount of time, they meet and are saved by a young indigenous man practiced in traditional ways, speaking only his community language, and with little apparent contact with western culture.
He is on “walkabout”, a rite of passage where a young man leaves his community and walks off into the bush, solo, for an extended period, living off the land.
From the start, Roeg skilfully conveys the disconnection of western life employing his signature style of disjointed editing and his sensibility for the profound and the loss we do not name.
[Warning... the rest reveals details of the film you might prefer to read after viewing]
The incident which leaves the children in the desert erupts unexpectedly and their wandering through the bush is interspersed with the detail of the extremes in which they have found themselves.
They are close to death in the middle of nowhere - like no other nowhere - when they come across a young man skilfully hunting, in complete confidence and ease, in this hostile place.
From then on, the viewer enters another world where, no matter how unbearably extreme nature is presented, there is not only a way to survive but to reconnect your soul.
Roeg is unsentimental about portraying traditional indigenous culture and the ruthless life and death played out in nature’s rhythms. He is an artist at serious play with his cinematic tools in a way that mirrors the experience of what is unfolding, helping to dislodge the viewer from their western perspective and merge with this world.
The younger child – more open to the experience, especially at a practical level - learns the beginnings of how to hunt and some of the indigenous language, but the older girl is also deeply affected. Some of the sequences where she is clearly mesmerised by what is happening (as is the viewer) linger without dialogue, without memory, typically in contemplation of a scene of nature or the young man’s interplay with it.
At the end, we are entirely with the Sydney woman (the girl suddenly as adult) as her mind wanders in the kitchen in enthral to a memory from the bush, while her husband rattles on quite innocently about news from work and a promotion.
There is a powerful scene before the children leave the indigenous man and re-enter the western world, where time stops, not that it was ever stably conveyed. The indigenous youth has been traumatised while out hunting, injured by and witness to the carnage unleashed by white-man hunters out shooting every animal that moved, just for fun, leaving a trail of carcasses. Deeply disturbed, he reacts by painting himself white and performing a dance which is remarkably frightening and haunting. The girl, with whom he has shared at times a sexual tension, is especially fearful. But the power of the young man’s dance transcends the drama between the two, it feels far more like a dark warning to the industrialised world.
In Roeg’s visionary hands, and with the revelatory participation of the indigenous young man, played by the young David Gulpilil**, what is created is somehow an urgent primeval calling from nature itself.
**Born into one of the world’s oldest continuous cultures, David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu AM, spent his childhood submerged within the customs and traditions of his peoples, the Yolngu, from Arnhem Land, and, through a long and very successful career in acting, transformed the representation of Aboriginality on the screen. Portrait by Liz McNiven.
Photo of Kata Tjuta, sacred Anangu land of the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people. Image: K Davies.