Short Films of Warwick Thornton, Part 1: Payback (1996)

This week brought the disappointing news that, despite having made it to the short list for the Oscar’s Foreign-Language Film award, Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilahdidn’t make the final cut. Given how much the Oscars are dominated by networking, advertising, and insider access, I’m not at all surprised. Even those films that do make it to the final five rarely move beyond the art-house circuit here in the US, so perhaps the short list isn’t all that bad. I’ve heard no word yet about a theatrical release, but at least the film is listed in Netflix’s database now. All of which makes me glad that my copy of the DVD finally arrived (covered with Swedish postal stickers—explain that to me). But I’m doubly glad because in addition to the film itself and Beck Cole’s fascinating documentary The Making of Samson and Delilah, the package contains four short films by Thornton. I’d already seen (and written about) the longest of the four, Green Bush (2005) which starred Bangarra’s composer David Page in a role based on Thornton’s own experiences as a DJ for CAAMA in Alice Springs. Also included are Nana (2007), which Thornton has described as the “back story” of Samson and Delilah, and the hilarious Mimi (2002) which stars Aaron Pederson, David Gulpilil, and Sophie Lee.But today I want to talk about Payback (1996), which near as I can tell, was Thornton’s first film, one on which he was writer, cinematographer, and director. Made as part of the SBS From Sand to Celluloid project (clips available here), Payback was Thornton’s portayal of the makarrata on film from an Indigenous point of view; according to the Creative Spirits notes on the film, ABC had filmed such a ceremony, but made a mess out of it. Payback is a thing of beauty, an extraordinarily complex piece of work, and for all that it is only six minutes long. Shot in black and white, it takes the language of that dualism and bridges Indigenous and whitefella law, inside and outside themes, guilt and expiations, and throws in a sidelong glance at Christian as well as Indigenous concepts of expiation.The story line is utterly simple: a prisoner, the night before his release, is visited in his cell by a vision of a tribal elder in ceremonial regalia who warns “Tomorrow is your payback.” The next day, the prisoner, Paddy, is released; the elder and two younger men await him outside the prison gate, where he is speared in the thigh and told “Now you have your payback.” It is the telling, not the tale, that absorbs, and makes for brilliant cinema.

Thornton uses all the conventions of early Hollywood prison movies and the atmospherics of film noir to great advantage. In the opening shot we see a searingly lit hallway in a prison. A guard’s voice announces “lights out,” the switch is thrown, and the set plunged into darkness. Against the black and white grid of bars, the film’s title appears in tall, formal script that announces the hommage to films from the 30s through the 50s. 

In his prison cell, Paddy is another study in light and shadows, bars and windows. We see his face in close-up and suddenly here a voice singing a traditional melody. Outside the cell, an old man in white body paint, naga and feathers, spear in hand, strides slowly down the corridor. Despite the general ghostliness of the sequence, the old man appears solid, not at all ethereal or the product of a guilty imagination. Two prisoners look out from the bars of their nearby cell, listening intently. Again, one’s face can be seen clearly in the light that streams from the corridor, but the other is deep in shadow, an outline of blackness.

The elder appears outside Paddy’s cell, but now he is ghostly, disembodied, a voice, and a presence. Then Paddy shouts with fear as the elder steps toward him in his cell. The light coming from the barred window above Paddy’s bunk falls strongly on the elder’s face, blanching him even more than the body paint has done; it illuminates the point of the spear he carries in a composition that is worthy of Hitchcock at his most unsettling. “Tomorrow is your payback.”

A quick cut to a tall wall, brightly illuminated by sun streaming through a complex of bars and casting angled shadows high on the wall, announces a new day. Thornton announces the promise of release in a short sequence as he pans across the floor of a visitor’s room in the prison. The bars of cells and catwalks are replaced by the uprights of table and chair legs and, among them, the legs and feet of prisoners and their visitors.

Another cut takes us to the processing desk, where Paddy’s belongings, taken from him on his incarceration, are returned. He unwraps the package, picks up his watch, winds it, and smiles ironically as time restarts. The guard says, “Have a nice life,” and Paddy replies “Yeah,” not losing his tone of irony.

A guard turns a key in a heavy padlock; a door swings open with a groan that would return us to the conventions of Hollywood, did it not suddenly become elided into the moan of the makaratta song resuming. Paddy progresses through a series of gates, each quieter than the last, through a series of rooms and corridors, each brighter than the last.

Before he approaches the last door, Thornton turns the camera back to the corridors and catwalks of the prison’s interior: this time they too are brilliantly illuminated by the sun shining through a tall window that resembles nothing so much as a black and white stained glass portal in a cathedral.

Paddy pauses before the final door. Through a gap at the sill, he can see the shadows of people’s legs and feet moving outside. The image recalls the earlier shot of the visitor’s room, shot through now with a sense of foreboding brought on by the insistent moaning of the makaratta song.

As the door opens, the bright sunlight falls on Paddy’s face, making him flinch. He steps out into the glare, and winces again as a battery of strobe flashes go off in his face, causing him to cover his eyes. A news crew is waiting outside for Paddy. The small forest of boom mikes and cameras surrounds him as clapsticks begin to beat out a rhythm. It looks, in an odd way, like a forest of banumbirr poles at a traditional rom ceremony, despite it being whitefella high tech.

There is a swift cut to the elder from the night before, standing waiting for Paddy, now accompanied by two younger men in regalia, carrying spears. As Paddy walks towards them, the cameramen and sound engineers swirl around him; the beat of the clapsticks stays steady, but there is a sense of incremental tension with each step. Paddy is in the center of a maelstrom. He suddenly crouches; the tension goes up a notch, the vertigo increases. One of the cameramen swings his equipment off his shoulder, holding it down in front of him, closer to Paddy’s thigh. The spearmen cross, point their sharp weapons, and Paddy suddenly falls over with a groan. The clapsticks go silent.

Paddy is helped to his feet and the elder approaches. “You’ve got your payback. Now you’re free. Don’t do it again.” Paddy is lifted onto a gurney and rolled to the back of an ambulance. The attendant closes the double doors, and then she and the elder get into the front of the ambulance. As the elder snicks the door shut, the film cuts to black.

Thornton has taken the simplest of dichotomies, black and white, and built his morality tale on it. He uses light and dark to construct the spaces of the prison; bars and shadows speak of absence and presence, positive and negative space in a penal institution taking on moral and metaphysical freight. Darkness and light become metaphors for inside and outside and Paddy’s release from prison is told in a procession from night to day and dimness to glaring brilliance.

Our conventional, Western association of dark and light with evil and goodness is caught up in Thornton’s Christian imagery and metaphor: the prison’s windowed wall becomes a cathedral at the moment of the prisoner’s release: there is salvation in freedom, or freedom in salvation. The elder’s injunction, “Now you are free. Don’t do it again” echoes a priestly directive to “Go, and sin no more.” Payback is, of course, a form of penance.

Thornton began with a story filmed by the ABC. In Payback he brings the television news into his story, and turns the tables on them. Rather than having white newsmen report an exotic ritual, he portrays those newsmen themselves in the guise of singers and dancers from the Top End, conducting a ritual where their boom mikes become doubles of morning star poles, and they are themselves caught in the web of representation. Despite their presence, the moment belongs to the elder and to Paddy, and there is no protest lodged when the elder, responsible now for the man he has had speared, accompanies him in the ambulance to the hospital, where whitefella medicine will play its own part in the ceremony now that blackfella law has been settled.

Thornton’s achievement in this first short film is pretty staggering. You can see in Payback the beauty of his cinematography, the awareness of tradition (his own and Hollywood’s), the ability to speak with images rather than words–in short, all of the qualities that stunned viewers of Samson and Delilah on its release last year and made it an international success. And it was clear then that Thornton had some heavy hitters in his court. In addition to George Djilaynga as Paddy, the film stars father and son artists Charlie Matjuwi and Peter Datjin from Elcho Island; Rachel Perkins is listed as line producer, Mervyn Bishop as stills photographer, and Bangarra gets a nod in the final acknowledgements. It’s an astonishing accomplishment, and one that rightly deserves the broader audience that it will achieve via this DVD release.

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One Response to Short Films of Warwick Thornton, Part 1: Payback (1996)

  1. Pingback: No Mere Survival | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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