Redemption and Exile

When the story-telling arts attempt to explore how the difficulties of relations between races are propagated, they often turn to examining the lives of adolescents. The trope of black and white children confronting the prejudice and dysfunction of adult society as their youthful friendships are torn apart resonates in the novels of Americans like William Faulkner but seem curiously absent from film. Director Peter Carstairs’s recent Australian meditation on the subject, September (2007) is a modest, low-key affair, although it did receive international attention at film festivals in Toronto and Berlin in addition to its premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August 2007. The blurb on the DVD’s cover describes the “unraveling” of the friendship, rather than a more savage rupture, and the description is apt. There is little is the way of high drama; emotions are muted and often more intimated than expressed. The dialogue is sparse, fragmented, and seemingly directionless, recalling the early parts of Ivan Sen’s Beneath Clouds (2001) in this as well as in its gorgeous depictions of the endless spaces of rural Australia.

Set in the Western Australian wheat belt in 1968 as wages for Aboriginal workers are legislated, the film mirrors the changes induced in the economy of pastoralism and farming in the changes that occur in the friendship of Ed, son of the white farming family, and Paddy, son of the Aboriginal couple who share the labor of the land. Ed and Paddy’s fathers were boyhood friends who grew up together on this land. The grown men now work it, side by side in the fields though not as equal partners. It is clear early on that both the economic and social patterns of the fathers will not survive the next generation.

There are no surprises to the story line; history already revealed the outcome to us. But the treatment that the story receives is compelling and engaging, in part because it is told in such an understated manner. There is no grand narrative arc, just an accumulation of incident and detail. The shifts in the characters’ relationships are often characterized by the choice of a single word. Early on, Ed repeatedly responds to Paddy’s question “What did you learn in school today?” with a simple “Nothing.” Later, when they have begun to drift apart, Ed talks to Paddy about “entomology,” and then has to explain: “insects.”

All of this plays out in a vast landscape that is comprised of two dominant visual elements: the vast, golden wheatfields that are the locus of an implied equally golden and innocent childhood, and the narrow roads that stretch through them. These are roads that let the outside world into the edenic land, and roads that lead the boys away from the stasis of that idyll. 

The film’s other informing metaphor is the boxing ring. The boys’ shared enthusiasm for the ring is the narrative element that Carstairs uses to make us understand from the first what binds them–as they anticipate the arrival of a touring boxing troupe and build a practice ring out in the farm’s fields–and what separates them–when they watch newsreel footage of Lionel Rose in a segregated movie theater during a fraught excursion into town.

And it is to the boxing ring that the action of the film unrelentingly leads. The slow dissolution of the bond between the boys, brought on as events in the outside world intrude on them, accelerates into the film’s only moment of sharp and therefore all the more shocking violence as their playful sparring turns abruptly real. In the wake of this instant of blooding and bruising, Ed and his father cut down the ropes of the boys’ ring (and in doing so invert the metaphor of repairing fences that serves as the persistent visual image of the relationship of the two fathers and their work on the farm). Paddy knows that there is no place for him any longer in the wheatfields, and takes off down the dusty road to join the traveling boxing troupe.

Although this departure is meant to be seen as inevitable, it also serves to resolve the tensions of the story and to hold out the olive branch of reconciliation. At the start of the film, Ed’s return from school is a daily ritual of reunion for the two boys, each released from his labors to share in the pleasure of friendship again. On this final day, they pass each other silently, heading in opposite directions along the dirt road that was the scene of that quotidian encounter.

But Ed is unable to leave his friend so bluntly and leaps into the ute he has had so much difficulty learning to drive. He overtakes Paddy; with few words between them, the two boys share common purpose one last time as Ed persuades Paddy to get in the truck and, with some coaching from the Aboriginal boy on how to ease out the clutch and move on without stalling, drives him the rest of the way into town. The boys part with a hug outside the boxing tent; Ed’s face fills with incipient tears as he throws his arms around Paddy’s back.

Although there is clearly an intent to provide the film with an ending that is uplifting and that leaves the viewer in a “feel-good” mood, I find that I’m ambivalent; indeed, I wonder whether there might be a subversive desire to induce that ambivalence in me. History tells us the ending is inevitable: blacks were forced out of farms and stations by the requirement that they be paid equal wages. (This element of the story is fully developed in parts of the plot line I’ve elided here–along with other crucial elements–in my attempt to spoil as little as possible of the exquisite storytelling that September contains.)

Do we rejoice in the endurance of the friendship, knowing that affection still burns in the boys’ hearts despite the pressures of history? Do we understand that both boys have lost something in the process of growing up, and yet retain something from their childhoods as well? Surely, the answer to both those questions is yes.

But their fates are ultimately unequal. For Ed there is this final moment of redemption, in which he learns that Paddy has been his true friend, and one who deserves his support, however he is able to give it. But in the end, Paddy’s lot is exile and homelessness, by far the harsher outcome. 

To give Castairs his due, I think we are meant to come to this realization in the end. No matter how touching our final view of Ed is, Paddy’s extended leave-taking is ultimately more heart-rending: his mother’s silent farewell, his reluctant leave-taking from his baby brother, his departure without seeing his father one last time. On that last count, Carstairs’s habitual indirection and oblique narration do not disguise the fact that it is Ed’s father who keeps Paddy’s father out in the fields as the boy leaves home, just as it is the farmer’s inability to afford the wages he ought to pay that breaks the families apart.

Ed’s parents deal with the problem of legislated wages and their inability to change the economics of work on the farm with a stoic refrain: “That’s just the way it is.” And so it was, and to some extent, so it remains today. September may try to disguise the fact for the modern moviegoer, but in the end the film recognizes that black people, finally and repeatedly, bear the heavier burden of change, even that which ostensibly benefits them.

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