Wednesday 21 June 2017

We Don't Go Back #49: Walkabout (1971)

I confess, I'd never seen Walkabout until this week. I knew about it, sure; I remember my brother saw it at school in an English class (really) and the controversy that arose from that. I recorded it off the TV some years ago on a PVR that broke before I could watch it. Finally, a few months ago I bought the Blu Ray.

And it sat on the shelf and I've watched literally everything else I haven't watched before and a raft of things I have.
But I haven't been able to bring myself to watch Walkabout until this week. I'm not really sure why that is. Maybe it was the film's fearsome reputation. I was expecting something slow and strange (Nicolas Roeg, see: Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth) and... I was sort of expecting I wasn't going to like it. I just couldn't gather up the energy to watch a film that I was sort of sure I would end up being disparaging about, particularly one that critical consensus adores (the late Roger Ebert, always humane and interesting, even if I disagree with him, listed it as one of the Great Movies, for example). And maybe it was something to do with how I felt it probably deserved some investment of time and effort.

Walkabout is the sort of film people write PhD theses on.1

Which is fair, because it's a really dense film.

We see a well to do family; a young boy (the director's son Lucien) and an older sister (Jenny Agutter, all of 17), both at (apparently private) schools; a father leaves work. He looks troubled. The mother listens to a radio program about cooking. The kids play in a swimming pool. The father (John Meillon) watches the daughter with a slightly unsettling regard, ignores the son. The man takes his children into the desert, for a picnic.

And then he pulls a gun on them and starts shooting. The daughter, whose rigid body language in the car has suggested that she is well aware something is wrong, drags her uncomprehending little brother behind the rocks. The father rants, orders them to come back, and then sets the car on fire and shoots himself in the head.
The girl sees this, and, as any decent older sibling would, lies to her little brother. They start walking.

He wants us to keep going.

He'll catch up with us.

They last a couple of days on the picnic supplies. And then, just as the girl is starting to think they might not survive, they meet an Aboriginal boy (Australian screen legend David Gulpilil in his first role, here miscredited as"Gumpilil").

A card before the start of the film has told us that young Aboriginal men, at 16, go on a "walkabout", a rite of passage involving being alone in the outback, and so we are invited to understand that this is why this boy is in the desert. He's fine. He knows how to find water, he's an adept hunter (and Gulpilil himself is shown bringing down real kangaroos, real lizards).2 He can treat the little boy's sunburn with a poultice made of berries.

But he can't speak English.

The girl can't get past this communication barrier except in the most elemental way; but the little boy, shielded from the worst of their predicament, who communicates with the older boy in sign language, and then, later, in a few words of his language.
The Black Boy (as he is credited – none of the characters have names) is lithe and graceful and frankly beautiful, and the White Girl can't help but find herself regarding him, appraising him,even while she speaks about him to her brother in patronising terms.

The Black Boy returns the favour. There's this scene where he's about to sleep, and he stares at the smooth, bleach-white limbs of trees that look like nothing more than the split of a thigh, the bend of a pale knee. He sees her swimming naked in a watering hole.

The Black Boy's motives for helping the two are complex. On one occasion they pass right by a settlement, and a woman greets the boy, and he cannot reply to her in English, and so he passes on, leaving the White Boy and White Girl oblivious as to how close they got. But you see snatches of the settlement, and what goes on there, Aboriginal workers exploited by white bosses, making tourist knickknacks, and you you wonder if he has decided already that this is the wrong place to leave them.

It comes to a head, inasmuch as it can, at an abandoned farmhouse, where he paints himself and begins a lengthy courting dance.

She can't reciprocate. She doesn't reject him, but she can't respond in kind, doesn't know where to begin, and indeed it scares her; she decides that she and her brother will leave him in the morning, and suggests, though her brother won't understand, that she is afraid the older boy will rape her.

And of course, being old enough to know what was wrong with her father also makes her old enough to have swallowed colonial slanders against the Aboriginal people.
In the end, the Black Boy takes matters into his own hands, in the most tragic way.

The way in which Walkabout frames the outback is both romantic and unsentimental; lush photography shows a wilderness full of violence, of threat. Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, we see ants crawling over picnic food, but the meaning is different here, suggesting a Western world that decays when it meets the wilderness, that is consumed by it.

And the White Girl is both consumed by the wilderness and isn't. She cannot act on her own evident desire, but her first experience of her return to "civilisation" is rejection, and she remains haunted by her experience long after. Having found that she cannot live in the wilderness, she can never wholly live out of it.

Walkabout, although titled after the older boy's rite of passage, and although telling us in printed text that the film is about that, cannot in fact be about it. Walkabout is a film made by a British director with American money, where two of the three leads are British and where we are not expected to understand what the Black Boy is saying.3
The White Girl can't comprehend his language any more than she can his culture, and the film suggests that she is simply too old to understand him. She appreciates something of danger in a way that her brother doesn't. She already knows something is wrong with her dad – the film shows you that most eloquently and knows exactly what the Aboriginal boy wants; but she won't allow herself to play along. But that essential life skill, the raising of barriers, so vital for survival, is also the atrophy of our capacity to trust.

Should she though? Is it her fault that she won't sleep with him? The glimpse of her future as the film ends suggests that she'll end up giving in to white people's marital norms, and regretting it, haunted by it, but in some ways her choices are always set. None of this is her fault. The narrative of the colonist and the colonised forces her into this. It's inevitable.

This was her rite of passage, not his. It's her walkabout. The boy arrives partway through the journey and is gone before it ends. He, for all that her influence affects him profoundly and tragically, is part of her story, not she of his.
Walkabout shows the complex interaction between two different sorts of injustice; a young white woman achieves adulthood, with all that is good and bad about it, and makes her own decisions, but in so doing beings destruction to the people she is a part of colonising. The Australian outback is shown with an outsider's eye, but that's an ambivalent thing. It's as scary as it is beautiful. But although it's alien, and it is, it's a white person's view of this place, it already belongs to the invader. A settlement sets Aboriginal children to work making plaster statues of Aboriginal people to sell, presumably, to white people; a group of scientists, sitting at a lab table set up incongruously in the middle of a barren plain, send up the weather balloons that the three children will find. Even the dreams of this place have been colonised; the ghosts of explorers on camels make their way across the younger boy's vision, and we are left to work out what that means.

The annihilation of the boy's way of life is part of the horror of the film; the invader, even though it's us, it's our point of view, kills children, and treats women as property. It rides roughshod over the literal dreams of a landscape. It imposes itself. It steals stories. This should be an Aboriginal story. But the white people – that's us – we steal it. Whether we want to or not.

Even the act of telling a story about the theft of story is an act of theft. Walkabout is a film about colonialism that is itself a colonising act, that makes us party to it in the act of watching.
So yes. I liked Walkabout. It's a complex, deeply troubling film. I don't think I've seen a film that, despite its (perhaps deliberately) somewhat misleading title card, shows so much more than it tells. I'll always go for showing rather than telling myself, so that I turned out to love Walkabout is perhaps in hindsight not a surprise.

1OK, confession time. This is stupid but I also kept thinking about a film I saw on TV as a kid (it was at my grandmother's house, so it must have been in a school holiday, on a Friday) called, as I remembered it, Lost in the Desert, which is about a kid with a superficial resemblance to the one in Walkabout who survives a plane crash in a big sandy desert. This film terrified me as a kid. I particularly recall shots of the sun beating down with an elemental terror and a particularly cruel, harrowing bit with a scorpion (which was all, will it sting him, will it sting him, maybe it won't... THEN IT STINGS HIM). I wondered if I had imagined it, or if I had been confused by a misremembered snatch of Walkabout.

Having now been inspired for the first time in like thirty years to research it, I find that it does in fact exist, that it's a South African film from 1969, originally titled Dirkie (Lost in the Desert was its British title). The BBFC gave it a U certificate, but they gave Watership Down a U, so that's hardly a recommendation of harmless family fun. I suppose Lost in the Desert falls into the Traumatising Family Films category that so characterises the period (I imagine Traumatising Family Films from Apartheid Era South Africa is a pretty small subcategory). I don't know whether it's any good. I'm almost afraid to track down a copy. (back)

2Speaking of certification, there has been some controversy over the years as to Walkabout's certification. Although the packaging says it's a 15, it is actually a 12/12A (that is, you can buy it if you're 12 or over and watch it in the cinema if you're under 12 if you're accompanied by an adult). The commercially available DVD/Blu Ray package has some 15 certificate extras that means the whole package has to be sold as a 15. The BBFC is frankly confusing in the way it doles out certificates Рas I understand it, while there's a certain number of swears/instances of nudity/acts of violence that will push a film into each successive category, the censors also include a bit of wiggle room if they, you know, think it's a good film with some artistic merit. Which is why the longest commercially available version of The Devils is the British one, why Saló has a certificated release at all, and why Walkabout is a film I could theoretically take my children to see in the cinema.

In fact, the main question with Walkabout is whether it should even be legal. It includes full frontal and topless shots of a girl of 17 (and while 16 is the age of consent in the UK, it's been illegal since 2003 to market sexualised images of under-18s. This issue is not helped by the hordes of people who, you know, objectify Jenny Agutter. I have spoken to more than one person who describe Walkabout as "a film where Jenny Agutter gets her kit off".

Also, animals die in Walkabout. A lot. David Gulpilil, brought up in the outback and a trained hunter, is shown bringing down, cooking and butchering kangaroos and lizards. PETA would not be happy.

In the end, though, the nudity isn't as problematic as it could be. It's not that it isn't sexualised, both male and female – arguably in fact, the boy is sexualised even more than the girl. As the girl stares, closeups of Gulpilil's scantily covered crotch, and bare thighs and backside abound. But the film is about a rite of passage into adulthood, and part of adulthood is how we respond to our sexuality. The film frames that. It's sexualised, but it's not for titillation.

Likewise, yes, we see animals killed, but this is part of a way of life that is fading, it's almost documentary.

The actual reason why I  wouldn't let my kids watch it is because of how horrfying the first sequence is. It would traumatise my kids for life. (back)

3After watching Walkabout, curious, I went back and looked at a few scenes with the subtitles turned on to see if they translate the boy's lines, but even in the subtitles all you get is "[speaks Yolngu]". I have no doubt Gulpilil is saying entirely appropriate things in his native language (and that it was seen by Yolngu speakers) but it actually doesn't matter, because we're not supposed to understand him, and that's because it's very much a film made for people who don't speak Yolngu.(back)