At the Sydney Film Festival: Toomelah

Director: Ivan Sen

Ivan Sen’s debut feature film was 2002’s Beneath Clouds: a road movie about two Indigenous Australian teenagers trying to escape the depressing realities of their lives by fleeing to Sydney. It’s a solid film and I was thoroughly looking forward to Sen’s third feature, Toomelah. Especially as it was the only Australian feature I chose to see at the festival. Not for lack of choice and possible quality mind you; Scarlet Road, which I wanted to see, was sold out and I knew Sleeping Beauty would be in theatres soon.

Toomelah takes its name from an Indigenous mission in northern NSW that Sen’s mother originates from. The film tells the story of Daniel (Daniel Connors), a ten-year-old boy who stops attending school and drifts into the small time drug trade of the community. His parents provide little in the way of parenting and he adopts marijuana dealer Linden (Christopher Edwards) as a role model.

Sen spent a month in Toomelah observing the community and in a Q & A after the screening stated that every line of dialogue is taken from a community member he recorded. After this he went away for three months and formed his notes into a structure. Sen returned to Toomelah and filmed the script himself with little crew. The low production values come across in the film. Natural lighting is regularly used and the camera work is shaky and handheld, almost Dogme 95 in style. This works with the realism of the film but interestingly the image is not gritty but clean.

Sen is the archetype auteur. He writes, directs, shoots, edits and composes the soundtrack. This seems not to reflect any sort of egomania however; in the Q & A, Sen was softly spoken and considered. One man asked how Sen handled filming explicit content with the main character a minor. Sen replied that he filmed the scenes involving drugs and violence without Daniel present and then cut to Daniel in the same location. This careful approach worked well and I didn’t notice Daniel was never in shot during illegal activities until told.

White Australians are a peripheral presence in the film. There are only two white characters and they are seen just twice, in long shot, without dialogue; they are police officers shaking hands with the drug dealers they are supposed to be investigating. This is a different and enlightening take on the usual portrayal of police-Aboriginal relations, depicted in films like Sen’s own Beneath Clouds. Instead of unwarranted harassment the police are ineffective and disinterested.

Casting a child as the protagonist and many other children as important characters is a clever choice. Things get progressively worse for Daniel but we don’t notice partly because of the cute factor and partly because it is Daniel’s future being destroyed, so there are no immediate effects. It is as if the audience is fooled into a sense of complacency that is only revealed late in the film.

In the Q & A one lady said she found the content confronting. Sen replied that ‘for some it’s confronting. For some it’s daily life.’ So while I feel Sen did know the effect of having children in such troublesome situations on parts of the audience, it wasn’t out of any deviousness but a desire to show life as it is in Toomelah. This seemed to be confirmed to me by a surprising amount of laughter during the screening. While there were some amusing parts, I tend to think the laughter came mostly from the members of Toomelah’s community that had been bussed down for the screening. It’s always entertaining to see the familiarity of yourself, your friends and your home on screen.

Unfortunately, I feel the acting and the occasionally awkward delivery of dialogue held the film back. Sen used many non-professional actors from the community. This can often work wonders but, for whatever reason, doesn’t quite come together here. Nonetheless it is a subtle and intelligent film that I would like to see again because I feel something more is going on. I look forward to Sen’s next films; I’m sure his varied style will one day yield something great.

Peter Francis

Peter Francis is a student at UTS undertaking a Communications degree and majoring in Writing and Cultural Studies. This in no way prepares him for life outside university.

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  1. Thanks, Peter. I enjoyed the film a lot more than you seem to have, if ‘enjoyed’ is the right word, especially the last 10 minutes or so, when Daniel tries out a number of possibilities. One small correction: there is a third non Aboriginal character, the white school teacher, who actually has a couple of lines early in the movie and appears in the background of the final hopeful scene with the Aunties.

    1. You’re right. I completely forgot about that character. Thanks for reminding me. I think the reason i didn’t like it so much is i went in with too high hopes. I still think it is a good and important film though. I did really like the sub plot with Daniel’s Aunty.

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