Warwick Thornton's debut, the Australian film 'Samson & Delilah' begins as a tale of young love. Rowan McNamara plays Samson, a seemingly mute, petrol-sniffing Aboriginal teenager who lives with his older brother. His is a life of tedious routine, he wakes up, sniffs some petrol, tries to play guitar in his brothers reggae band, wanders around aimlessly, and listens to his radio.
The whole community has nothing to do, many are unemployed, life is bleak and uneventful. Nearby, Delilah (Marissa Gibson) looks after her enterprising Nana (Mitjili Gibson, Marissa's real-life grandmother). They pass the time making aboriginal paintings which are bought and sold in a gallery in the city. Little is said by anyone, Aborigines prefer body language and gestures to speech. The first third of the film shows us the painfully slow, utterly hopeless routines of this community.
Samson has feelings for Delilah, but has the social skills of a kangaroo, and Delilah wasn't going to fall for any of his antics. But they develop an unlikely friendship. The title of the film may suggest some religious themes, it's quite common for Aboriginal people to have Biblical names, many having grown up in Christian missions. Though Delilah does cut off her own hair, when her Nana suddenly passes away, a tragedy that her aunts blame her for and decide to beat her.
Samson throws a tantrum in retaliation at Delilah's treatment, and like typical teenagers they run away by stealing the community car, heading for the city of Alice Springs. They take shelter and refuge under a bridge, where the homeless Gonzo resides. Gonzo is played by and based on the director's own homeless, alcoholic brother, Scott Thornton. Scott was cast under the proviso that he had to go to rehab first.
In the city, things go from bad to worse for Samson and Delilah, with some shocking results. The film becomes more and more confrontational, serving as a powerful reminder of modern Australian society's attitudes to the Aboriginal community who all seem like ghosts to them.
Warwick Thornton states "if you want to tell the world what Australia is like today, you should watch Samson and Delilah". Over the past decade Australian cinema has made a habit of creating gritty, honest tales of real Australian life, and none as good as David Michod's recent 'Animal Kingdom'. 'Samson and Delilah' is not an easy film to watch, there's very little dialogue, and the first half of the film was probably too long, the many fantastic shots of the Australian outback couldn't hide its pedestrian pace.
But the film is shaped by Samson and Delilah's unconventional relationship, a completely innocent, practically speechless one. They show a tenderness to each other which you couldn't help but embrace. The film is beautifully shot by Thornton, the Australian sun is used in all its glory to capture some stunning moments throughout the film. The ending was a bit of a surprise, there was perhaps three scenes at the end which could've all marked the end of the film. Unsurprisingly, Thornton doesn't give you any answers. Nobody knows the answers to the problems facing the Aboriginal community. 'Samson and Delilah' is worth persevering with, a touching, provocative film, full of questions but very few answers.
on 10 November 2015
The politics behind the story we see here are not overt and need not be. Instead, we see their effect — a poverty and misery made by a politics of cynicism, neglect and contempt, an incompetent and disastrous politics meant to be incompetent and disastrous, because what white Australia really wants is for the first Australians, the real Australians, to be elsewhere, to be gone and disappear. If this weren’t so the native culture by now would have been studied, embraced, celebrated, supported and protected by the people. White Australians would have taken pride in it by studying its traditions, rituals, languages. After all, the wisdom of 50,000 years of steady survival in a difficult land might be considered a natural resource worth treasuring. The schools and textbooks and universities would have reflected this, and the popular culture would know its music and other rich traditions. Australia would be a normal country, a modern, mature and civilised one, an integrated and multi-cultural one.
Instead, this — what we encounter in this film: dispossession. As a word, it’s only a word. But what it does to people and communities is criminal. It hurts, maims, scars, belittles, demeans and demonises them. It wears them down, eroding their livelihoods, traditions, self-esteem. It causes them to doubt themselves, to lose their sense of value and purpose. It tells them they are nothing, have always been nothing, will always be nothing. Dispossession is another word for destruction. White Australia wants the first Australians, the Aboriginal peoples, destroyed.
Samson is 14. If he has parents, we never encounter them. They are gone, possibly dead, possibly locked up. The prison system in the Northern Territories and elsewhere is a gulag, a system of control, harassment, debasement and intimidation. They were built, the Aborigines are told, for their protection. Orwell might have named his famous book “Australia”, not “1984”.
Samson sniffs petrol a lot. It keeps him high, disengaged, light headed. The reality he is asked to face daily by his country is vile and unpleasant, so he opts out as best he can. He is shiftless, feckless, a layabout. He doesn’t do much all day but sit around, sniff petrol, scrounge food, throw stones, pester the neighbours. He also picks up his older brother’s electric guitar when the brother is not around. He plugs it into the amp, turns the volume high, thrashes at the guitar, jumps around like a rock star. No one is around to notice his glory. Only he in his head for a moment is a star.
His long hair is unkempt. He’s dyed it a copper or bronze. Why, because it makes him almost look half-caste? We’re never told why. He changes his clothes once in a while, but not often. Mostly T-shirts, always jeans, sometimes sneakers, usually barefoot. He bathes once in a while. Flies buzz around his head, land and crawl on his face, but he doesn’t notice, or doesn’t bother to swipe them away.
Education? The thought sounds dodgy. It’s doubtful Samson can read a book. He’s never seen with one. Furthermore, he has a speech impediment and is nearly mute. He’s stutters his name once in the film, but that is all. He will never be an orator, lawyer or politician. He will never be anything from the looks of it. He lives like a dog and has been treated like one.
Between he and the brother there is no brotherly love. One day Samson picks up a large wooden club and hits the brother with it. Why? Who knows? Some old festering grudge, perhaps. He knocks the brother out with the blow and runs away. But he returns later and goes to his bare room and sleeps on his mattress on the floor. He and his brother live in the shanty. The brother enters Samson’s room with the same big wooden club and beats him senseless with it.
The neighbour girl is named Deliah. She too is 13 or 14. She lives in her shanty with her old grandmother Nana. Nana is a painter. She paints pictures from the Dreamtime, ancestral images handed down through the ages. Many dots, shields, swirls: images from an inner state of seeing. She paints for her livelihood. An aggressive white man comes round once in a while. In fact, all the whites seem aggressive or surly. They are unhappy beings too, but for different reasons. The white man is her agent (of sorts). Actually, he raids her talent to enrich himself, a middleman operating between the artist and an Alice Springs dealer, whose exorbitant mark-up fleeces the well-off tourist who visits Uluru, doesn’t know any better, pays with a credit card, takes his memento mori of spiritual Aboriginal culture back home with him, tacks it up on a wall, then impresses his provincial friends who have never been to Australia with tales of his exploits and derring-do Downunder.
Deliah loves Nana and Nana loves Delilah. Again, there is a missing generation — no parents around to parent Delilah. Nana’s health is not good. Delilah insists that she take her pills every day. Nana hates the pills and hates taking them but does so at Delilah’s insistence.
Samson throws pebbles and small stones at Delilah. She hates this and throws them back at him. They never speak. He can’t and she doesn’t want to. She only speaks to Nana, the only human being she treasures. There are other people in this bush shanty town outside Alice Springs. I say town but it isn’t. It’s only a settlement, a collection of a half dozen broken-down shacks. Outside them the hulks of old cars rust amid assorted junk lying scattered about. Through such rubbish mangy dogs occasionally sniff, searching for rare scraps of discarded food. A few broken families live near Delilah.
Nana dies. It’s terrible. Yesterday she was fine. Now, this morning, she won’t wake up. Delilah is distraught. She weeps over the corpse of the only human being she has loved — alone, suddenly alone, and the terror that comes from such a terrible thought. Samson seems to sense this. He tries to befriend and comfort her as he can, but she won’t have it. She cries and grieves stubbornly on her own. Or she is proud and this is a way of honouring her lost grandmother. At any rate, she is treated dishonourably by neighbouring women. They accuse Delilah of neglecting her grandmother, of selfishly or stupidly failing to care for her. She is the reason her grandmother has died and now she must pay for it. Several women beat her with sticks. They behave like savages. Delilah is hurt and lies bleeding.
This happens at about the time Samson has been beaten up as well by his brother. Misery finds comfort in fellow misery. The morning after Delilah has been beaten Samson is there for her. He puts a cold cloth to her face and wipes away the hardened blood. She is hurt badly enough to stay in bed all day. Samson stays with her or does not drift far away. He even gives up petrol sniffing while he’s with her.
She survives, regains her strength, fetches a hunting knife, lops off big chunks of her hair. Her long hair is gone now. Her hair is short and she looks like a boy. The change must be part of a ritual, another show of respect for the departed. Delilah looks sad and miserable. Samson is too and notices. One night he steals a truck, a sort of beat-up Land Rover that belongs to the communal settlement. He wraps Delilah in a blanket and carries her to the passenger seat. He gets behind the wheel and drives the vehicle away. Thereupon they become Bonnie and Clyde without guns and thoughts of robbing banks. They just want to get the hell away, to anywhere, just away.
Samson is not a great planner. His plan is to keep driving till the petrol runs out. It does and they are stranded. They walk away from the vehicle and into the bush. Delilah is cold and Samson wraps the blanket round her shoulders. She notices this act of kindness. You can tell by her body language.
They come upon the outskirts of Alice Springs. They sleep rough beneath a highway overpass, sharing the spot with a homeless man fond of drink and talk. He’s lonely and welcomes them, even if they don’t make for interesting company. He is white and they know what this means, or think they do, so they say nothing, giving nothing away. They don’t trust him, even when he gives them food. They get food of their own in the supermarket. Delilah has a little money and pays for hers. Samson just takes what he wants, stuffing it in a coat he has found. If he knows the white word ‘shoplifting’, it’s doubtful he understands the concept. He’s hungry and food is there. Simple enough. What’s the problem?
There’s food in the bush as well. We know it because earlier on, back at the settlement, Samson killed a kangaroo with a heavy stone he threw at it. He carried it proudly back to the settlement, the joey hanging off his shoulders, its long tail waving across his back as if still alive. He gutted it and cooked it over an open fire, sharing some of the meat with Delilah and her grandmother. So, he’s not so useless after all. He can steal vehicles, drive, take care of Delilah, sniff petrol, shoplift and hunt in the bush when he has to. I’ve known more useless men than him in my time.
Survival back in the days was easier in the bush. The land was rugged, harsh and dry, but they knew it well, knew its breath, its pulse, moods and rhythms. They knew its water holes, caves, gullies and the creatures that lived in them. They lived off these creatures and the land. They survived by ingenuity, endurance and solidarity with their kin. They were never alone unless one boy, to become a man, set out on the walkabout, the journey that would make him a man. In its way a good life, complete and fulfilling, and always, yes always, looked over and protected by the ancestors, ancestral gods and the land. Out there the bush was home and still spiritually was. What was strange, alien and dispiriting was sleeping under a concrete overpass. Who would make such a thing, and why?
To earn money Delilah paints. She saw how her Nana did it and she sometimes helped. She can do it to now on her own, or, not quite on her own. Nana’s hand, one feels, guides that of Delilah’s from beyond the grave. The granddaughter paints well, steadily and with concentration. The result is simple but beautiful, or beautiful because simple. Yet, uncannily, she can’t find any takers for it. The rude art dealer whose shop she enters utters only two words to her: “Not interested.” She understands and leaves, even though he didn’t even look at it properly. The tourists aren’t interested, either. They eat their meals outside fancy restaurants and look at her with revulsion, or look right through her. In frustration she throws the painting down on a table and walks away. Who are these white people and how do they think? A painting done by an old Aboriginal woman like Nana was displayed with her photo in the window of the art shop. The price tag on the painting said 22,000 Australian dollars. But Delilah’s, much the same, is worthless. Has the world gone mad? Yes, it has.
Some awful things subsequently happen to Delilah. She is abused and hurt, then has an accident and is hurt again. Samson is so spaced out and high on petrol fumes he doesn’t notice danger and harm on both occasions. She is hurt on his watch and he fails to see. The second time he thinks her injuries have killed her. An ambulance speeds her away from him. Thereafter he hits rock bottom. Alone under the concrete overpass he takes the knife to his hair. He lops off chunks of it. He loved Delilah, he realises, and now she is gone.
Somehow he survives, not caving in to despair. The petrol fumes help, but even he knows they are a palliative that mask pain. He knows, as all addicts know, that they are only fooling themselves.
But in this life, as in the movies, miracles do happen. Delilah survives. She was injured but still walks with a brace on her leg and the use of a cane. She and an elder from her extended family arrive in a vehicle. They find Samson under the overpass, badly malnourished, weak, barely alive. The man lifts him and carries him to the vehicle. He places him in the back seat. Delilah sits there too with her head resting on his shoulder. He looks out from the vehicle window wanly at the rising sun, and on his lips we see a barely perceptible smile. It’s the smile of hope and gratitude.
They stop at a petrol station to gas up. Samson is roused and wants to get at the petrol. But Delilah holds him back and the elder sternly tells him it’s over. The sniffing is behind him now, in his past. It cannot continue. He has Delilah to look after, and she will look after him too.
An old tin shack in the bush has been prepared by the elder for them. They will live there on their own. There is an old windmill pump and deep well for water. Inside the shack is a rifle and ammunition for hunting. We see Delilah bag a kangaroo and bring it back to the fire. In the kitchen cupboards too there are plenty of canned goods. Probably the elder will keep them supplied. It’s how things were done in the old days, everyone looking after everyone else and no one ever wanting, and always with nobody owning anything and everyone sharing. Marx failed in his social experiment but the Aborigines never did. They worked it all out for themselves 50,000 years ago.
It’s the strangest love story I’ve ever seen, and among the most beautiful. There is no courtship, no romance, no love songs or sex; not even any talk between them. Plus there’s only one kiss, a tiny peck Delilah puts on Samson’s forehead, not on his lips or cheek. That moment is sweet. There is goodness, tenderness, generosity and solidarity between them. There is what it takes to endure, and in the end we truly wish this couple all the best. Somehow we think they will succeed. They are young, healthy and strong enough. Plus they are Australians, true Australians. The land is theirs, as it always has been, and from it they will find the strength to survive and prosper.