Review: Toomelah

16 Nov

If there’s one thing I respect in film-making, it’s passion. Ivan Sen has something to show his audience, and whatever technical blips that may exist in this film he does exactly that.It is the kind of understated that can breeds two things of it’s audience: Boredom for some, and plenty of subtext for the read-too-much-into-thingers. For example, the lead character Daniel and the repetition of his name brings up a lot of associated images, which may or may not have been the intention of the director. Either way if you’re a pretentious twat you’ll have all the meat you can chew. Toomelah is an entirely sympathetic depiction of the settlement from which he came, and Sen does what more film-makers should be doing. He doesn’t just show us what cripples a community, tugging at our guilt strings and dragging us through the emotional mud.  He offers a solution to Toomelah, a way forward, something to do. This Aboriginal Mission, created by whites and neglected by the same, can turn itself around if it wants to.

As Daniel wanders around the rusted husks of cars, corrugated iron, hard-packed earth and mired shacks of his home, he is repeatedly asked where he is going. The answer is always ‘Nowhere’. It isn’t subtle, but it reinforces Sen’s themes effectively. Daniel is suspended from school for his inappropriate reactions in social situations. When you then see his father, former-boxer-current-methylated-spirit-drinker, and his mother, maternal but remote, and his silent Nan, and his equally silent Aunty Cindy, his surrogate family of wastrel dealers, his reactions are perfectly understandable. The contrast between Daniel and Tupac, the boy he threatens and eventually fights, like his newer home and his responsible and active grandmother, demonstrates that this is still a hierarchical  society.

It also mourns the subversion of traditions and social culture. The chauvinism runs deep, as does the respect for male role models. Daniel suffers from too strong a connection with men he shouldn’t be near, but isn’t able to get close to the female relatives who would protect him due to encroaching masculinity. As he spends more time with the small-fry drug dealer Linden and his cronies in a dilapidated caravan he learns about a man’s way of life in this mission, where being a bad guy is a noble thing. The wanna-be gangsters kick it up a notch after an old king-pin returns from prison, and expose themselves as foolish, addled, and very dangerous.As Linden and the boys sit around the fire talking they struggle to remember drips and drabs of their heritage, playing at traditions they don’t fully understand. Their culture has been lost to them by a stolen generation and a lost one, alcohol, prison and substances having long since taken their teachers and friends. Through acts of violence, degradation, depression and emptiness, Daniel comes to see that education and a true understanding of his culture are the only ways out of this place, and the only way to make it better should he stay.

This is a quiet, contemplative film, and powerful in it’s immersion in the invisible heart of modern Australian Society. The fact that this even is Australia seems to be belied by the use of subtitles, acknowledging that to the audience this may as well be a foreign country. I’d heartily recommend dragging any racists you may know to this film. If they feel no pathos for the hopeless plight of the people, or admiration for the young ones who could break the cycle, then resume smacking them around.


Lizzie Lamb,


One Response to “Review: Toomelah”

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