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Online e-dition June 26, 2013

Country, self-discovery and belonging

Katerina Sakkas, Catriona McKenzie’s Satellite Boy

Cameron Wallaby, Joseph Pedley, Satellite Boy Cameron Wallaby, Joseph Pedley, Satellite Boy
In Catriona McKenzie's Satellite Boy, two Indigenous 12-year-olds take a journey into country, and we walk the land with them.

Charting the experience of Pete, who runs away with his best friend Kalmain in search of the mining company which has repossessed the home he shares with his grandfather Jagamurra (David Gulpilil), Satellite Boy is a meditative, expansive film which enfolds us in its depiction of the remarkable Kimberley region of Western Australia. Though effective as a film for adults, it possesses the archetypal qualities of a classic children's story: resourceful child heroes, a voyage of self-discovery and a pervasive innocence.

This is McKenzie's first feature film, but the assurance gained through an extensive career in short films and Australian television drama (including such series as RAN, The Circuit and Redfern Now) is apparent in her sensitive use of imagery and her ability to convey the essence of a story without distraction. Satellite Boy has a mythic simplicity: at its heart is the land itself and our relationship with it. McKenzie, who is Gurnai from the Gippsland region in Victoria, chose to set the film in the Kimberley because "the country is strong. It hums with stories" [production notes]. As the film's young protagonists divert from the road into the wilderness, we move into country which is sometimes stark and at other times surprising in its richness.

David Gulpilil, Cameron Wallaby, Satellite Boy David Gulpilil, Cameron Wallaby, Satellite Boy
McKenzie and her DOP Geoffrey Simpson (Shine, Romulus My Father, Sleeping Beauty) give us both intimate detail and the bigger picture, dividing the cinematography between majestic landscape shots and close-ups of faces and bright details (a green frog under a dripping tap; Pete's red toy robot). There is a sense of great space throughout the film, of magnificent isolation. The boys ride their bikes over cracked earth, dwarfed by the landscape. Aerial shots display the Kimberley's vastness. Skillfully, McKenzie creates a sense of events unfolding in real time, her attention to the rhythms and changing light of each day enveloping us in the boys' experience. Sound is for the most part naturalistic, David Bridie's breezy refrain brought in strategically during Pete and Kalmain's most playful scenes.

The land in Satellite Boy is an active presence. Formidable yet reassuring, its message merges with the voice of Jagamurra, as it prompts, "Who are you? Listen!" While Pete and Kalmain are in a sense lost and struggling with issues of identity, the country they walk through is far from the malignant entity represented in the archetypal 'lost child' narrative of European Australian fiction. Though not to be treated lightly, it is ultimately a place of belonging for Pete, a protective force. As Pete says, quoting his grandfather: "You look after country; country will look after you." The sacredness of country is emphasised verbally by the refrain "everything is connected" and visually by the recurring elemental motifs of stars and fire.

Satellite Boy has similarities to Australian children's classic Storm Boy (1976), whose name it echoes and Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout (1971), both of which McKenzie has cited as formative influences [Filmink, May 2013]. In all three films, characters are caught between the powerful, sustaining world of the land, with its ancient lore; and the fast-paced, less trustworthy world of modern commercialised Australia, with each film offering a very different outcome.

David Gulpilil, Cameron Wallaby, Satellite Boy David Gulpilil, Cameron Wallaby, Satellite Boy
David Gulpilil plays the role of guide and protector in all three films: a mediator between the land and the other characters. In Walkabout, he's the adolescent boy who leads the deserted sister and brother to safety, with devastating consequences for himself. As the nomadic Fingerbone in Storm Boy, he becomes friend and mentor to the free-spirited young protagonist. In Satellite Boy, he's the grandfather who steps in to care for his grandson after the boy's mother leaves for the city, and who teaches him the survival methods and lore of his people.

Performances in Satellite Boy are uniformly strong. Young leads Cameron Wallaby and Joseph Pedley convey the highs and lows of their characters' journey with expressive naturalism, their rapport seemingly authentic. It would be easy for McKenzie to allow the sublime quality of the landscape to overshadow her protagonist's story, but this doesn't happen. In this deceptively simple film, all elements are balanced. The humans are part of the land, and the land is part of them in turn. This is a thoughtful, arrestingly beautiful film with a warm and inclusive approach to both characters and audience. A celebration of friendship, belonging and the infinite significance of country, it's a worthy addition to the Australian cinematic canon.

Satellite Boy, writer-director Catriona McKenzie, cinematography Geoffrey Simpson, editor Henry Dangar, sound designer Liam Egan, composer David Bridie, Hopscotch and Satellite Films in association with Screen Australia, Screen NSW, Screen West and ABC TV, 2012; in national release June 20

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. web

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