Thursday, August 20, 2020

Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy

Director Tracey Moffat


NIGHT CRIES: A RURAL TRAGEDY         B+                                                                       Australia (17 mi) 1990 d: Tracey Moffat

Look at that sunset, Howard!  It’s like the daytime didn't want to end, isn’t it?  It’s like the daytime was gonna put up a big scrap, set the world on fire to keep the night from creeping on.                 —Rosemary Sidney (Rosalind Russell) from Joshua Logan’s PICNIC (1955)

Among the more culturally impactive and critically acclaimed short experimental films, this one, at only seventeen minutes, seethes with an underlying power that reaches out of the frame and literally grabs viewers by the throat, displaying a rare visual assurance and raw, unadulterated drama, likely leaving viewers surprised, yet blown away by the experience.  Feminist assertions run into difficulty when confronted with an Aboriginal filmmaker, adding layers of underlying complexity that might not otherwise be encountered, such as Australia’s history of forced adoption, making this intense mother and daughter experience especially difficult, yet the filmmaker, first and foremost, demands to be viewed through an artist’s lens.  Tracey Moffat may be Australia’s most successful artist, one of the few to have established a global market for her work as a photographer, filmmaker, installation artist and music video director, holding around 100 solo exhibitions of her work in Europe, the United States, and Australia, while at least two of her films have screened at the Cannes Film Festival, with this film premiering in the Best Short Film category at Cannes in 1990.  Moffatt has the experience of growing up “between cultures,” born to an Aboriginal mother and a white Irish father, she was adopted by a white working-class family and raised in the Brisbane suburbs, where her birth mother would come visit, reminding her of her Aboriginal identity, yet her life was surrounded by the prevailing European culture, becoming fascinated with Hollywood movies, where among her earliest influences were the black-and-white, everyday photographs appearing in Life magazine in the 1960’s, basically documents of American culture imprinted in snapshots.  Studying film and video at the Queensland College of Art, she’s become an internationally renowned photographer, where her subject matter mirrors her own life, feeding upon themes of childhood memory and adolescent alienation.  While addressing issues of identity and survival through an Indigenous Australian viewpoint, often resorting to a dreamlike imagery, where memory becomes imprinted with trauma and pain, she is reluctant to be thought of as an Indigenous artist, believing she is expressing universal themes of despair, anger and frustration, and ultimately grief.  While she may view the world around her in a photographic sense, it’s perhaps essential to incorporate a more historical view, as the Australian colonial history towards Aboriginals has been abysmal and pathetic, much like the United States policy of segregating natives to “out of the way” reservations or reserves, yet the Australians went further, mandating a curfew from sunset to sunrise in the reserves, while also implementing a government and church policy of assimilation that mandated the forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families from 1910 to 1970 (The Stolen Generations - Australians Together), with hopes of “civilizing” them, considered wards of the State, sent to re-education camps where they were raised as Christian whites, forbidden from speaking their native language, with their Native dress, customs, and history purged from their collective memories, not to mention their families, punished severely for non-compliance, with the sole purpose of training them to work in white society, a racist policy literally wrought with the most vile primeval instincts of the human condition.  While there have been a multitude of films depicting the horrors of this ethnic cleaning, including Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), Phillip Noyce’s RABBIT-PROOF FENCE (2002), Rolf de Heer’s THE TRACKER (2002), or Warwick Thornton’s 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #8 Samson and Delilah and Sweet Country (2017), none have portrayed the trauma quite like this film, which veers into the abstract and avant-garde.   

The first thing that stands out is the degree of artifice, using a hyper-saturated color scheme that places this outside all boundaries of reality, living instead in a world of dreams or myth, set in the vast emptiness of a surreal desert landscape, revealing a troubled relationship that is immediately at odds with each other, an elderly white woman in a wheelchair requiring full-time care and an Aboriginal caretaker who is none too pleased with her role, where the only real action to speak of is wheeling her to the outdoor outhouse to do her business, waiting impatiently, having a smoke, occasionally drenching herself in water from the oppressive heat, dreaming of faraway places, reading a brochure about South Molle Island, where once sacred Aboriginal land has become a tourist resort destination.  This uneasy relationship of co-dependency is at the heart of the film, with photographs on the mantelpiece suggesting this is her adoptive mother, with recurring black and white flashbacks that establish a longstanding relationship, yet what’s most provocative is the aural sound design, including recorded sounds of screaming during a voodoo ceremony in Haiti, forcing viewers to contend with an internalized trauma that largely goes unspoken and unrecognized.  Drawing from a couple of Australian cultural landmarks, the film pays reference to the Charles Chauvel film JEDDA (1955), released in the UK as JEDDA, THE UNCIVILISED, notable for being the first to star two Aboriginal actors in the leading roles, while also the first Australian feature to be shot in color.  Made during a time when it was Australian law to remove Aboriginal children from their homes and place them in white foster families, the film follows the travails of Jedda, an Aboriginal child whose mother died in childbirth while delivering her, raised by a white woman in a white world with no regard for her real ancestry, setting the stage for a tragic intersection of colliding cultures.  Moffat’s poetic work challenges the underlying premise of Chauvel’s film suggesting Aboriginals are primitive, seen wrestling with crocodiles, living in a world that resembles the jungles of King Kong (1933).  The second influence is Aboriginal painter Albert Namatjira (Albert Namatjira - Artists Profile - Cooee Art), whose work saturates the coloring and the light of the film (more can be found here:  The Heritage of Namatjira: The watercolourists of Central ...), an assimilated artist who was himself separated from his family at the age of 13 and sent to live in Hermannsburg Mission run by white Lutheran missionaries, becoming the first prominent Aboriginal artist to work in a western idiom.  His western-influenced watercolors of the outback bore a significant difference from the abstract symbols and designs of traditional Aboriginal art, yet his own tragic life reflected the harsh realities of racism, a celebrity selling out exhibitions in Melbourne, Adelaide, and Sydney during the late 1930’s, becoming the most popular Australian painter of his time, perhaps even in Australian history, earning a sizeable income, but as an Aboriginal he was not allowed to buy property or own a home, so he ended up living in poverty, becoming a subject of public outrage.  Australia eventually passed a law granting him full citizenship in 1957, which allowed him to vote, own land, build a house, and even buy alcohol, which was his ultimate undoing, as while he was allowed to drink, other Aboriginals were not, eventually arrested and charged with supplying alcohol to an Aboriginal person.  This conflict of Aboriginal custom, where everything was expected to be shared, and Australian law, which restricted alcohol solely to one individual, led to his imprisonment, released after a few months for humanitarian reasons, but he died a premature death shortly afterwards at the age of 57.  The irony is not lost that it was his citizenship, issued a full decade before citizenship was granted to the rest of the Indigenous population from the 1967 referendum, that prevented him from living long enough to reap the benefits, as up until 1967, Aboriginals in Australia were not viewed by the government as human and were not even counted in the nationwide Census.    

The film has an unusual opening, featuring Aboriginal singer Jimmy Little dressed in a suit and vest singing a mainstream song about how God will answer our “phone” prayers, a hit record that topped the charts in Australia, Jimmy Little - Royal Telephone [Bandstand 1963] - YouTube (3:02), a song of faith that recognizes the influence of Christianity on Indigenous families.  Little and Namatjira were extremely popular figures that helped change the way Australians perceived Aboriginal people, where it is no accident that Moffat chose two assimilated Indigenous artists to be placed in such prominent positions in her film.  Much like the photogenic sensibility of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) released the following year, both artists understand the deeply affecting quality of photography, where every frame of the film is imbued with the compositional qualities of a still life.  For them, filmmaking is that profound intersection between sound, image, art, history, and personal experience, literally merging them into a unique artform.  Moffat’s choice to present the film in a stagy, theatrical manner is intentional, as the cliché’d Australian film has an obsession with photographing real landscapes, instead exploring themes of being trapped and oppressed by one’s personal experiences, revealing the difficulties involved in transcending these cultural limitations.  The caretaker in the film is played by Aboriginal academic and activist Marcia Langton, who is a stand-in for the director, as the film embodies her own cultural separation issues.  A commentary on aging and loss, the contrast between the two individuals is stark, an old, withered white woman (Agnes Hardwick) on the verge of dying, who is toothless and may already be blind, wearing a prosthetic hand, viewed as totally helpless, and her daughter, who clearly doesn’t want to be there, but she is performing her obligatory family duties, reflecting back at earlier times together, where a sullen Aboriginal child is being scrubbed by a white woman and placed in a typical middle class party dress, offering no further comment, allowing the images to speak for themselves, where the singlemost aspect of the experience is unrelenting trauma and pain, which is never explained, yet is inherently revealing, exposing the difficulties of coping with the situation, at first tenderly, but growing more aggressive, offering small hope of any spiritual redemption.  Little is seen again near the end of the film, but his voice is muted, representative of the silence of Indigenous history, while the song is also representative of cultural assimilation, as he’s dressed as a white man, singing words more reflective of white culture, where assimilation is seen as a means for survival, creating a psychological fracture or divide, expressed through a curious montage of audio and visual disorientation, at times resorting to radical choices, where earlier images have been disassembled, as if waiting to be reconstructed and remembered anew, where each frame in the film is haunted by sound.  Other than Little singing the song, there is no dialogue in the film, accentuating the importance of the surreal sound design, moving from the emotional extremes of loving and hating, such as the gleeful hysteria generated from the sound of a whip (contrasted against her mother sleeping, jumping convulsively with each crack of the whip), then moving quickly to the quiet tenderness of washing the old woman’s feet, both quietly humming “Onward Christian Soldiers,” a song associated with missionaries.  The emptiness of the exterior landscape couldn’t be more pronounced, suggesting the emotional disconnect between mother and daughter, where another flashback sequence reveals a startled child at the beach momentarily losing track of her mother, suddenly finding herself all alone, becoming frightened and distraught, sobbing in pain, where Little’s soothing song is shown to be little more than an illusion.  This situation repeats itself at the end, with the daughter lying in a fetal position on the floor reduced to infantile cries of a baby, where a lost emotional connection speaks volumes, leaving one paralyzed in fear.  

Patty Mills Opens Up About Racism and Social Injustice  NBA basketball player describes the effects of racism and growing up black in Australia, August 2020, YouTube (30:13)

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