Warwick Thornton talks 'Samson and Delilah'

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Forget pretty images of the bush: ‘Samson and Delilah’ is a down-and-dirty portrait of modern Aboriginal life. Wally Hammond meets the film’s director, Warwick Thornton

The new Australian film ‘Samson and Delilah’ is set in the remote, hard-pressed indigenous bush communities around Alice Springs, in Australia’s Northern Territories. It’s a sharp, affecting adolescent love story and a hopeful tale of the survival of two 13-year-old kids, Samson (Rowan McNamara) and Delilah (Marisa Gibson), from the Warlpiri community. But it’s also a film with more than its fair share of ignorance, squalor, isolation, substance addiction, unexpected death, theft, abduction and rape.
 
‘It’s quite a list!’ says 39-year-old Warwick Thornton, the film’s candid, passionate, but quietly spoken debut director, above the hubbub of a Mayfair restaurant. ‘But everything in the film I have witnessed or experienced myself. I made this film to talk about issues, but I also wanted to talk about good things – how wonderful these people are.’

The complexity of Thornton’s own life informs this arresting first feature from the new Indigenous Department of Screen Australia, which belies its £750,000 budget as it traces with a close, clear eye the inauspicious bonding, escape to a harsh, unwelcoming town and return of its two biblically named young lovers. As a ‘tearaway’ member of the Aboriginal Kaytej nation, Thornton was sent away to a monastery in his mid-teens and still laughs at his inability to spell. Yet, partly under the influence of his television producer mother, Freda Glyn, he has mounted a varied and successful career as a radio DJ and a maker of short films and documentaries which explore the culture of the people he calls ‘his mob’.

‘There’s a scene in the film when Delilah tries to sell her finger paintings outside a café in the city and is rejected,’ begins Thorton. ‘Well, I’ve been on both sides of that coin. I’ve been on the streets, incredibly hungry. But suddenly, I’m the person sitting there with the latte. That’s why I write about these things. I’m there to keep the bastards honest!’

Thornton’s training as a cinematographer also enabled him to minimise the distance between himself and his non-professional cast. ‘I shot the film with the camera on my shoulder. It was beautiful. Because I designed it that way. I wanted a one-to-one with these kids. To be able to talk to them normally, not through megaphones, or Chinese whispers passed on by the assistant directors. And we filmed in sequence when we could. These kids were the characters – they come from that world – but it helped them understand who they were as film characters.’

Thornton admits he threw his heart into his first feature. ‘Well, what are you going to do? Write a romantic comedy, with shades of beige? Or get stuck into the colour of blood, with purple, black and white and the whole gamut? That’s where I like to write from.’
He continues: ‘Before writing this film, I was writing something another film that turned out to have shades of beige – and my head was saying: This is wrong! Put in that love story, put in all those emotions – spit it out! So I ditched it and started again.
‘It made me feel much more free. And the response has been fantastic. It’s been a vindication of the work I’m doing. It makes me feel stronger, and walk taller.’

Read our review of 'Samson & Delilah'

Author: Wally Hammond



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