An Interview with Warwick Thornton

Warwick Thornton’s masterwork (to date, at least), Samson and Delilah (2009), winner of the Camera d’or at Cannes last year, is on tonight in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as part of BAMcinematek.  The official New York premier takes place Friday night, October 15, at the Village East Cinema.  In advance of the opening, I had the incredible privilege to speak with Thornton on the phone today.  What follows is the transcript of my notes of our conversation, which covered far more ground than I had expected.  Thornton was a generous, articulate, and engaged interlocutor, and I’m delighted to be able to share some of his reflections on the film, its context, and its reception with you today.  I hope tonight’s showing at BAM is a total blowout, a great celebration of a great film and the start of a successful run across America.

The American Eye: Samson and Delilah opens tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  Is there anything in the way of background, or context, that you think it important for American audiences to be aware of before they experience it?  Or are you willing to let them take it as they find it?

Warwick Thornton: No, not really.  Anything’s good; if you don’t have any information about Indigenous Australians you’ll still find connections all the way through.  It’s a teenage love story.

AE: Why do you think Samson and Delilah was such a success in Australia?  Do you think the fact of or people’s attitudes toward the Northern Territory Emergency Response made a difference to the film’s reception?

WT: For sure, absolutely.  People were desperate for information about what was going on. The news outlets, the ABC, the five o’clock news and the Murdoch papers weren’t giving much information about what was happening.  It’s interesting that people looked to a fictitious drama for information.  People were desperate for the Indigenous side of the story.

samson and delilahI wrote the film before the Intervention began and shot it after main thrust of Howard’s actions had happened in the communities.  I got incredibly angry:  I live in Alice Springs and the Intervention was all around me.  There was a point where I was going to rewrite the film and bring in the Intervention, bring in the army and what they were doing.

And then I realized, after I calmed down, that it would make the film current, it would date the film.  The irony is that we have lots of interventions with Indigenous people. They come and go.  The Intervention will come and go, and these kids will still be neglected.

AE: Do you think your films contribute to empowering Indigenous people?  What’s been the response from communities, both urban and remote?

WT: Absolutely.  For any Aboriginal person, especially Central Australian, to hear your language in a film, to see your plight onscreen—look, people said to me, that’s my story.  Fifty year old men, they told me, I did that in the 70’s, went into town, I sniffed and got into trouble, and I had to go out to country, to my homeland to clean myself up. These people connected to the film and felt empowered by it.

But this is my Central Australian mob I’m talking about, my people.  Some people in the city felt that I was airing their dirty laundry, but that was a small minority of Aboriginal people who didn’t like what I did or thought it was inappropriate.

AE: Do you think there are important differences between Samson and Delilah’s situation and that of Aboriginal youth in urban environments in Australia?

WT: It doesn’t matter where you are, in a dry community 200 kilometers northwest of Alice Springs or in Redfern, you’re still there with those dangerous things.  The most dangerous thing is a bored teenager.  They have the stigma of being Indigenous, Aboriginal, and all the trappings that come with it.  The connection does come a lot more from those kids, desert or not.  They’re stepping out into the world.

There are different dynamic pressures on them; kids from dry communities have a peer group of bored kids, no jobs. Plus, the heavy responsibilities of law and culture are incredibly powerful in the desert.  There are these two dynamics they have to juggle, becoming a man, like Samson, doing chores, like Delilah.

In the cities Aboriginal kids have got much more pressure from the P. Diddy kind of capitalism, the get rich quick, black American kind of success they see 24/7 on TV: the Rolls Royce and five beautiful women.  There’s an enormous amount of pressure to be that way and they think the only way to do that is to steal. Racism and that kind of thing don’t help. The only way to get out of Redfern is to sell drugs—that’s the perception they face. The interesting thing is that there’s lots of people in the city who were looking for information about what it means to be Aboriginal.

AE: Yeah, I hear some urban artists, visual artists, talk about how hard it can be for them to discover an Aboriginal identity.

WT: Urban artist have to face the stigma not only from white Australia but black Australia too; that’s horrific when people say that their art isn’t “Aboriginal” if it doesn’t have dots or lines or moieties in it.  That attitude is naive and narrow-minded. Urban artists have to work harder to step out of the stigma.  They have to try three times harder to please in the face of the dynamics of traditional Aboriginal art and the racism that comes with it.

AE: I recently watched Darlene Johnson’s River of No Return, which looked at Frances Daingangan’s life, aspirations, and career after Ten Canoes.  How are Marisa and Rowan managing these days?

WT: Rowan is a black Sid Vicious, in a strange way, in real life.  He has this anarchy aura around him.  And that’s why we cast him [as Samson].  He has this dry lightning spark about him.  Marisa, when I met her the first time, she was this earth mother, grounded.  She was learning Japanese at the time and she speaks four languages, Luritja, Warlpiri, Pintupi, and English.  They kind of lived the lives of the characters: Delilah is grounded; Samson is a punk.

Today they are still living those lives.  Marisa’s got her nose in her textbooks.  She’s doing incredibly well in school.  She doesn’t want to act any more, at least right now; she’s driven by the thought of finishing school.  She may be the first one in her family to do that.

Rowan has gotten in trouble with police, been a complete ratbag.  So we’ve tried to focus our attention on him, after the film was done, looking out for him.  He’s got a job now, packing at night at the Kmart or Coles.  He’s more forward thinking.  He’s thinking about maybe acting some in the future—he’s gotten some offers but isn’t taking any of them up yet.

AE: Silence plays a large role in your movies: the characters often speak very little–the tjilpi in Green Bush, the convict in Payback, Samson and Delilah both.  But they are different kinds of silences.  And yet music can be a substitute for speech in your films: again, I’m thinking of Kenny (in Green Bush) and Samson.  How does the music work as an alternative to speech?  Does it work?

WT: It’s sort of where I come from. I come from a place where you don’t need to talk all the time.   There are sign languages you learn.  When you’re in other people’s country you don’t speak your own language out of respect. You don’t need to speak.

In most of my films I write the music into the script.  I’m listening to songs and lyrics that empower the themes of the film.  There’s a lot of Indigenous music that has not been heard widely and I love the idea of giving that music to the rest of the world.

I love music more that language: it’s the best, it’s universal. Like the Anna Gabriel song that Delilah listens to in the film.  I don’t know what she’s saying but I know its romantic, passionate.  You don’t actually have to understand the song to be emotionally moved and uplifted, whereas with language it becomes quirky and analytical.

AE: Can you comment on what’s in the works now?  What’s next?

WT: There are two films I’m working on, but I won’t tell you about one of them.  The other’s in a third draft now.  It’s a period film about a small orphan boy who’s sent to a Benedictine monastery in the 1930s.  He’s confronted by the whole psychic weight of having Catholicism and Christianity thrust upon him.

AE: I’m guessing it won’t be Bran Nue Dae.

WT: No, there won’t be any singing and dancing in this one.  This will have a much more internal focus.

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2 Responses to An Interview with Warwick Thornton

  1. Me says:

    Hi there,

    Samson and Delilah is a film that really touched me.
    As a new migrant to Northern Australia, I have often wonder where do I fit?
    (Am I just part of another wave of invaders?).
    People who pay attention can see situation like in this movies nearly on a daily basis, and yes racism towards Australian Aboriginal is very often present. More than what a lot of people would admit it.
    Yet you also see some people getting their life on what could be called the right track, in a modern world.
    It is a very complex situation, and the place and composition of the Australian Aboriginal art world is sometime surprising.

    This interview is good, and between this one and other that I have read or seen on screen, of Warwick Thornton, he seems to be a very generous man. Giving clues about a difficult situation.

    Thank you for this post and this interview.


  2. Neil says:

    Thanks for this Will. S and D will go down as one of the most significant movies in Australia. It really split movie followers on blogs here in Australia; there were very few middle ground stances. Those who didn’t like it argued that it was blaming white Australia (trotting out the old line of “why should we be responsible should mistakes of the past” as an excuse to abrogate any responsibility) for the situation, or that Aboriginal people are responsible for their own situation (blame the victim). Those who supported did for all the obvious reasons. I used to teach on a community in central Australia and felt I was watching a documentary; it is even more powerful as it is made by an indigenous director (not a whitefella interpretation). Now is Thortons time; he is the right person at the right time and Australia needs to listen to him (or watch him!).

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