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Daniel Connors, Toomelah Daniel Connors, Toomelah
TOOMELAH IS A SPECK ON THE MAP BETWEEN MOREE AND GOONDIWINDI IN NORTH-WESTERN NEW SOUTH WALES. A FORMER MISSION, ITS HISTORY REFLECTS THAT OF AUSTRALIAN BLACK/WHITE RELATIONS IN EERIE SYNECDOCHE: POLICIES OF ASSIMILATION, CHURCH INTERVENTION AND THE STOLEN GENERATION; RECOGNITION OF LEGAL RIGHTS, CULTURAL AMNESIA AND THE SOCIAL CORROSION WROUGHT BY DRUGS AND ALCOHOL; POLITICAL APATHY AND INEPTITUDE, INTERRUPTED SERVICES AND DECAYING INFRASTRUCTURE.

Toomelah came to national attention in 1987 when it was visited by Marcus Einfield, then President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, to see first-hand its appalling living conditions, then again in 2008 when its District Nurse resigned, exhausted by 20 years of bearing witness to endemic neglect and abuse. It’s also where director Ivan Sen’s (Beneath Clouds, 2002, Dreamland, 2010) mother grew up. His third feature is a quietly gripping portrait of the community and paean to childhood. The film opens with a young boy, Daniel (Daniel Connors), waking to an empty house—and fridge. His mother spends her days in a haze of marijuana smoke, while his grandmother sits quietly in the sun, alone with her memories. Free to fend for himself, Daniel wags school, dreaming of becoming the boxer that his father (Michael Connors) was before alcohol claimed him, or a ‘gangsta’ like Linden (Christopher Edwards), the local dope dealer and default father-figure to Daniel.

The film unfolds gently, what plot there is arising from the sluggish rhythms of daily life in the settlement. Daniel’s Great-Aunt Cindy returns for a visit, decades after having been stolen from her family; Daniel valiantly pretends he doesn’t care whether 10-year-old Tanitia (Danieka Connors) likes him or not, while nursing a grudge against another child, Tupac; and Linden struggles to maintain control of the local drug trade when Bruce (Dean Daley-Jones) is released from prison and returns to town.

Daniel Connors, Ivan Sen, Toomelah Daniel Connors, Ivan Sen, Toomelah
Connors is excellent as the mischievous Daniel, a wide-eyed observer in an adult world, discovering its limits with thoughtful curiosity. It is at times a brutal world however, and Sen is unflinching in his depiction of the community’s degraded circumstances—some may be turned off immediately by some extremely coarse language—while simultaneously showing tremendous compassion towards his subjects: the elderly, burdened with a history of dispossession and cultural destruction; their addiction-ravaged offspring; and the new generation who seemingly face a bleak future of stunted opportunities and more of the same.

Sen wrote the film after visiting for several months, his observations of daily life and transcriptions of local conversation providing the raw grist for his script. Despite the spectacular natural beauty of the surrounding country, monumental landscape shots are few and far between; Sen instead shoots his script using a handheld Panasonic 3700 in a rough and ready naturalistic style that suits the material. In this respect, the film employs techniques Sen explored in his experimental second feature film, Dreamland, allowing the story to develop to some extent as the film was shot. Although he doesn’t strive for the kind of visual poetry achieved in Beneath Clouds, Toomelah brims with unobtrusively observed visual detail: black and white photos of people in traditional garb hanging on the school library wall; late afternoon sunshine cutting across kids playing footy in the dusk; a broken exercise bike lying discarded amongst rusted car bodies.

Some may feel the film’s technical limitations detract from its overall impact, however the benefits gleaned outweigh the advantages of a full production unit. Sen’s approach is personal and direct, allowing a level of community engagement that would otherwise have been impossible. Most roles are played by local non-professional actors, their efforts bringing an immense sense of authenticity to the film. That said, the acting, although generally effective, occasionally sags, a fact not helped by Sen cramming historical information into dialogue, to the detriment of the film’s otherwise mesmerising realism. Also, at 106 minutes, it goes for a quarter hour longer than necessary, its pleasing messiness sprawling into flab.

Ivan Sen has remarked that the film should “not be seen as political finger pointing”, and indeed it stands on its artistic merits. However, once the reality represented in Toomelah is accepted, politics must inevitably intrude. “What are you going to do with yourself?” Daniel is asked. “I dunno—what can I do?” is the ingenuous reply. Answering such a question is impossible for Daniel without having any perception of the realities of his circumstance—it is to Sen and the people of Toomelah’s credit that the beginnings of such an understanding might be gleaned from this wonderfully ragged film.

Toomelah was screened at 2011 Cannes International Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard Official Selection and at the 2011 Sydney Film Festival. Australian cinema release date to be announced.


Toomelah, writer, director, Ivan Sen, producer David Jowsey/Bunya Productions, www.toomelahthemovie.com

RealTime issue #104 Aug-Sept 2011 pg. 35

© Oliver Downes; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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