Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Vacant Possession

Writer/director Margot Nash

Actress Pamela Rabe












VACANT POSSESSION             A                                                                                  Australia  (95 mi)  1995  d:  Margot Nash

Some dreams you remember as if they were real.  Others are like fragments that float away, never to be held.  This dream returned to me, again and again.  I knew it was about home because it started here on a boat, heading for Botany Bay, birthplace of a nation, my birthplace, my home.               —Tessa (Pamela Rabe), opening voiceover narration

Initially seen at the Chicago Film Festival in 1995, where it left a strong impression, something of a revelation at the time, yet it was never released in the United States either onscreen or in a DVD format, so inquiries were made into the availability, only in Australia, apparently, but the film is currently undergoing an HD restoration with an expected DVD release in the summer.  Made by a female Australian director who is white, told from a white perspective, yet she incorporates indigenous characters and themes into the film that remind us of their racist history, as whites just took from aboriginals what they felt belonged to them, including their land, inventing laws to support their own actions, as aboriginals were denied land rights until the landmark Mabo decision of 1992, Mabo decision | National Museum of Australia, just a few years before the making of the film.  Prior to that, aboriginals were viewed as less than human, “part of the flora and fauna,” not even granted citizenship until the 1967 “citizenship” referendum, and were never included in the nation’s census count (It's 50 years since Indigenous Australians first 'counted'. Why ...).  The irony, of course, is that aboriginals had access to the entire island prior to the arrival of whites, who basically colonized and occupied their land with the arrival of Captain Cook in Botany Bay in 1770, becoming the birthplace of white Australia.  Made before Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) or Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (2002), but sometime after Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) or Tracey Moffat’s Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1990), when very little was known in America about the Stolen Generations or Australia’s dispossession of the country’s indigenous population, where the white community in general remains ignorant of aboriginal culture and the British declaration of terra nullius, vacant land without ownership, claiming the entire continent as property of the British Crown.  A prominent theme in the film is the concept of home, viewed quite differently by whites and the indigenous, who take a more historical view, as it was the land of their ancestors since the beginning.  Set on the Kurnell Peninsula on the eastern shores of Botany Bay, an historical place where British explorer Captain Cook first came ashore, not far from what is now the airport, and beyond that the skyline of Sydney lies off in the distance.  This land that was once filled with fish and endless mangrove trees is now polluted by rows of toxic oil refineries and commercial shipping traffic, an Edenesque picture of Paradise Lost.  One of the few films to integrate memory as trauma, a prodigal daughter Tessa (the remarkable Pamela Rabe) returns home after the death of her mother, never accepted after she became pregnant by an aboriginal boyfriend as a teenager, with a particularly punishing white father Frank (John Stanton) who basically kicked her out and disowned her, exiled in some foreign land ever since.  With her past still an open wound, she attempts to come to terms with an uncertain future by revisiting her dilapidated family home, uninhabited, still haunted by painful memories, seen through extensive flashbacks, leading to a day of reckoning that leads to a healing or reconciliation, where exploring the past attempts to address the aboriginal legacy in Australian history, becoming a metaphor for the entire nation. 

According to the writer/director Margot Nash:

The great white Australian dream is to own a house but for Aboriginal people the dream is to regain ownership of the sacred land. When Captain Cook took possession of Australia in 1788 in the name of the British Crown, the land was deemed ‘Terra Nullius’ ie vacant, uninhabited. This principal (sic) was not overturned legally until the historic Mabo decision of 1992.

Vacant Possession is a film about an empty house, an inheritance inhabited by dreams and memories.

Growing up in Australia I never saw much less met Aboriginal people until I was an adult. The history books didn’t tell the stories of dispossession and destruction of the land, the stories of injustice and racism. While Aboriginal people live with the devastating consequences of colonisation many of them pity white people because we have no ‘place,’ no dreaming. We don’t know where we belong.

I wanted to explore notions of house, home, land, place, family and belonging from a white point of view. I wanted to explore the image of the house as a psychological space that could be possessed and I wanted to tell a story of a dysfunctional white family ripped to shreds by alcohol and the effects of war.

The opening premise of Vacant Possession is the death of the mother. After years of estrangement Tessa returns home when her mother dies leaving her and her sister the family home. A house haunted by emotional memories. I started writing about the mother/daughter relationship, about grief and estrangement and the past. I saw it as a metaphor for the breakdown of relationship to land, country and place. I wanted to engage with contemporary issues such as environmental destruction and family breakdown. I ended up making a film that was also about the father/daughter relationship, about repressed male grief and the complexities of reconciliation in the present.

This film is a first feature following a series of low-budget documentaries, a bold attempt by a white director to contribute to an ongoing dialogue with indigenous Australians, creating a memory play, an impressionistic mosaic blending together the present with the past, continually drifting between dream and reality, often in the same shot, like Greek director Angelopoulos, with Tessa moving from room to room, haunted by the ghosts of the past, where an extensive use of flashbacks explores different aspects of her past.   Returning after many years, she is flooded by memories, which are very fragmented and abstract, yet poetically beautiful, shot by Dion Beebe, who has worked with Clara Law and Jane Campion.  Trying to set her life in order, she reconstructs bits and pieces of the past as they intrude into the present, using dream fragments, memories, and voiceover thoughts to express her changing perspective, becoming a morality tale told with a modernist sensibility, with Tessa exhibiting very liberated views for her time, still feeling very contemporary.  In this film the white characters are trapped, or exiled, from their own family dysfunction, while the Koori aboriginal families that live nearby exude a more natural freedom that is rare in Australian cinema.  Tessa freely intermixes with them, befriending a bright young aboriginal girl named Millie (Olivia Patten), who becomes, in effect, the child she never had, sharing stories and personal experiences together, becoming the one character in the film she can trust.  Her innocence is in stark contrast to the more overcontrolling will of Tessa’s older sister Kate (Linden Wilkinson), who already has designs on taking her full share from selling the house, claiming their mother left it to her, which is a major jolt to Tessa, who claims her mother always meant for them both to share the home.  But she has been gone for a long time, surviving as a professional gambler, never really establishing roots anywhere.  Recalling the incident that drove her away, Tessa is loath to see her father again, never the same since the war, dealing with recurring flashback episodes, reliving the war in his own kitchen with paranoid delusions, a rifle constantly at his side, having his own traumatizing issues to deal with.  His racist animus directed towards her teenage aboriginal boyfriend leads to a drunken shooting spree, driving her away and never looking back.  Early on we see Kate shares her father’s sentiments towards black-skinned neighbors, appalled they would come in and out of the yard, as Millie does frequently looking for her missing cat.  As Tessa goes through her mother’s things, she discovers an old faded newspaper clipping with the headline “Health Fears Over Botany Bay Mercury Find,” revealing how the waters have been poisoned by the discovery of toxic metals in the bay, which may account for her mother’s ill health, and might also explain Tessa’s throwing up on a neighbor’s lawn, which doesn’t at all surprise Auntie Beryl (Rita Bruce), Millie’s grandmother, who’s seen it all and knows all about the polluted waters.  It was Auntie Beryl’s son Mitch (Graham Moore) who impregnated Tessa and was the object of Frank’s ire, filing trespass charges against him that sent him to jail for years, dying from a heart attack not long after his release.  In a spirit of good faith, Tessa considers offering the home to Auntie Beryl in compensation for losing her son.  It’s Millie, however, who chastises her, “We don’t want your house.  Why do you white people always think you know what we want?”

According to Australian film critic Adrian Martin, Vacant Possession - Film Critic: Adrian Martin, “It’s unquestionably one of the best and most impressive Australian films of the 1990s.”  Among the first to view an early draft of the film was an aboriginal audience from La Perouse, the original setting of the film, the only Sydney suburb where aboriginal people have kept their territory from Cook’s settlement until today, where the director heard harsh criticism about how racist it was, with a large plurality sharing that same sentiment, so she brought in an official aboriginal advisor, Kathy Kum-Sing, who helped her reset the story to the other side of Botany Bay, as despite being a fictional story the aboriginal community assumed it was about them and felt culturally undervalued and not listened to.  This harsh rebuke taught the director an essential lesson, “I came to understand that as a white person I couldn’t tell aboriginal stories.  That’s for aboriginal people to do.” So she changed the focus to become a broader “mythical story” of self-discovery, a very personal story revealing deep psychological issues to resolve, with a shared history of relationships with aboriginal neighbors, which helped her tell the story she wanted to tell without patronizing issues of cultural bias or blindness.  The question becomes one of how to reconstruct a shared future, how to mend the psychological rifts and allow some degree of healing to begin.  The film eschews sentimentality and empty platitudes, often defying explanation, using surreal dreamlike imagery where snakes become a recurring presence, viewed completely differently by whites and aboriginals, one living in fear and the other in harmony with nature.  There’s some cool original jazz music written by Alistair Jones, kind of an improvised cello, piano and trumpet riff that feels particularly inspired, adding emotional heft to the scenes, spending plenty of time in the old home where Tessa grew up which becomes a major character in the film, as if it’s haunted, filled with weird sounds and ghostly skeletons to explore, using powerful imagery to depict important themes, like dispossession, which is at the root of the family and the nation’s instability.  Because so much takes place at a single location, it has the depths of a stage play, though much of it feels wordless, with flashback memories recurring with regularity.  Developing a relationship with the land, even when ownership is uncertain, is of primary importance, as we learn Tessa’s father built their home himself, with designs to get it back, troubled that he won’t ever be whole without it.  We learn her mother received the land in a lottery, by a stroke of luck, with the courts awarding her the house in a divorce dispute afterwards, leaving her husband the odd man out, perpetuating his feelings of angst and alienation.  But Millie gets it right, acknowledging simply “A home is a place.  It’s where you belong.”  There are few other films that this resembles, perhaps reminiscent of the incomparable Jeanne Moreau in Wim Wenders’ sprawling 5-hour epic Until the End of the World (Bis ans Ende der Welt) (1991), both feeling uniquely original, as if testing the waters, filled with vibrant characters that matter, never really knowing what to expect.  Highly ambitious while routinely taking risks, it won’t please everyone, as there are underlying subconscious layers of symbolism that not everyone may recognize, while others may feel they are heavy-handed, yet there’s something uniquely satisfying about this picture, an art film with aspirations to become culturally relevant by being blisteringly honest.   

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