A couple of weeks ago I watched “Samson and Delilah” at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station along with maybe 1700 other people, black and white, on the grass or swags and a few on camp chairs. It was a spectacular place for a premiere, the screen set up against red cliffs and white gums.
Several reviews have come out, by David Stratton, and by Julie Rigg on the ABC.
It’s a bleak fairytale that’s beautifully filmed and staged – the light at different times of day and in different places, the shadows when Samson is dancing, the strangeness of living under a bridge in the Todd River.
The squalor of petrol-sniffing, the violence, the dust and dirt in which the outstation dwellers live, the boredom and lack of hope and new opportunities are all too real. Some will take this as justification for the Intervention in the Northern Territory, without thinking about whether the Intervention is actually providing any alternatives, any real hope. In fact, life on the fringes of Alice Springs in this film is more hopeless and dangerous than life on the outstation.
The end is a fairytale ending, perhaps a fantasy of male hope – that a beautiful young woman would leave her own car and gun to go off with a petrol-sniffer, come back and find the car and gun still working, that she would have her own outstation, and would then dedicate herself to looking after the brain-damaged, wheel-chair-bound petrol-sniffer on her own. Julie Rigg takes this as the commitment demanded by love. I take it as obsession. Good outcome for Samson, lousy for Delilah.
David Stratton’s review is entitled “A world beyond words” and words are what’s absent in the film. Everyday chat, everyday laughter, everyday interaction, doing things together, all the things that make life on outstations much less bleak than the portrayal here. And the family connections are missing – are Delilah and Samson two lost children without parents, sisters, brothers, cousins, who no one looks out for? Or indeed without fellow petrol-sniffers?
Traditional religious practices (the mourning practices that result in Delilah getting hit on the head, and Delilah and Samson cutting their hair) provide less comfort than Christianity (crosses, churches, Delilah in her white hoodie coming to symbolise the Madonna).
Carrying the story mostly in silence highlights the fairytale quality, the obsession of Delilah and Samson with each other, and Samson’s loss of speech from brain-damage. The people who do most of the talking (in Warlpiri) are the older women. Young Indigenous people are often silent in the presence of adults. But among themselves? If you don’t know the kinds of things that teenagers talk about amongst themselves, then you can’t risk false notes in the dialogue. Silence is safer. And perhaps that’s a mark of ethnographic films made by grown-ups, by outsiders.