Samson & Delilah: new sounds of Australia

Marissa Gibson and Mitjili Gibson in Samson & Delilah
By Anwyn Crawford

Warwick Thornton's 2009 film Samson & Delilah opens our eyes and ears to indigenous Australia.

Two teenagers fall in love with other over the course of a few weeks, without exchanging any words. They communicate using tiny hand gestures, sidelong glances, smiles. One of them might have a speech impediment, or even be deaf, but we don't discover this until late in the film. These teenagers, boy and girl, endure a great deal – a series of traumas any one of which might prompt a person to exclamation, or outcry – and though their reticence with each other might be compounded by trauma, it also precedes trauma: a good amount of self-possession is built into it. Quietude, we discover, is not the same as silence.

Warwick Thornton's Samson & Delilah (2009) is an Australian film, but this national designation hardly captures its uniqueness. It would be more accurate to say that Samson & Delilah is a blackfella film in a country ruled by whitefella stories: even given the upsurge of cinema by and about indigenous Australians over the past two decades, Samson & Delilah is unusually uncompromising. A contemporary romance set in a remote desert community far removed – in every possible sense – from the experience and imagination of most coastal-dwelling Australians, particularly white Australians, Samson & Delilah never seeks to explain itself; never assumes a historical or anthropological perspective on black Australia. A viewer must meet the film on its own terms, which means, among other things, to sit and listen.

Samson & Delilah opens with the sound of Charley Pride – the only African-American country singer to ever be inducted into the Grand Ol Opry – singing 'Sunshiny Day', as a young Aboriginal boy, about fourteen years old, sits up amid a pile of blankets on a bare concrete floor, scratches his head of blonde-tipped curls, and reaches for a tin of petrol to sniff from.

As Charley Pride plays on – country music has a passionate indigenous audience, and there are many highly regarded Aboriginal country musicians – the teenage boy is air-drumming to a beat we cannot hear. The sound cuts from overdub to location as the camera follows Samson (Rowan McNamara) out of his bedroom and onto a rough verandah where three men – drummer, guitarist, and bass player – are practising the same ska riff, over and over again. Samson snatches the guitar, unleashes a blast of noise, and is quickly reprimanded. The reprimands will grow harsher as the film continues, but the song stays the same: the music of this makeshift verandah band marks the repetitiveness, boredom, and gradual entropy of everyday life in an isolated community. A few scenes later, Samson's counterpart Delilah (Marissa Gibson) is seen pushing her frail grandmother (Mitjili Gibson) in a squeaking wheelchair across the hot dust as a public phone rings, unanswered. One might glimpse Samuel Beckett's bleak humour in such a tableaux, but it is important to resist reading this desert environment as a 'wasteland'. The economic poverty may be unremitting, but this land is country – somebody's country, where a repository of knowledge, culture and stories are interwoven with the natural environment. The British Crown declared Australia terra nullius – empty land – for the purpose of colonising it without the bother of compensation to its owners, but the land has never been empty.

What little dialogue there is in Samson & Delilah takes place mostly in Warlpiri, a language group covering the Tanami Desert in Australa’s central northwest, though the film's most voluble character, a street alcoholic named Gonzo (played by Warwick Thorton's real life brother, Scott), speaks Aboriginal English. Gonzo lives beneath a highway overpass in the regional town of Alice Springs, where our teenage protagonists are driven (literally and metaphorically) by events, and he keeps up a rambling monologue of anecdotes, advice, and songs. "Well just fuckin' say something!" he yells at one point, frustrated by his neighbours' lack of conversation, at which point Samson, with great difficulty, stammers out his name.

It's the first clue for an audience that the lack of spoken communication between Samson and Delilah might have reasons beyond cultural strictures and teenage inarticulateness. Ear infections in early childhood often go untreated in Aboriginal communities, for lack of basic medical services: in one scene, Samson covers and uncovers one ear and then the other with his hand, and his experience of sound, as relayed to the audience, is uneven and muffled. But the film does not explain this for us, nor does it offer any commentary on the subtle, non-verbal communication prevalent among Aboriginal people, where eye contact is often considered rude, and where strong cultural taboos exist against the "shame job" of drawing attention to oneself in public: both practices deeply at odds with the self-promoting individualism of Western culture.

There is also the matter of Samson's serious addiction to petrol sniffing, which leads him, in Keith Gallasch's succinct phrase, to an "aural oblivion" – an oblivion that has nearly fatal consequences not only for himself but for Delilah. As Samson sinks further and further into his habit beneath the overpass in Alice Springs, until it seems likely that there will be no way out but death, the reverberant thump of the traffic passing above is like a sinister heartbeat: time passes, but action becomes nearly impossible.

Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson

For all its harsh truths, Samson & Delilah is not without hope. What hope there is lies mostly with Delilah: an extraordinarily grounded teenager who is, nevertheless, subject to the same vagaries of love that possess us all: sometimes she throws rocks at her shyly courting boyfriend, and sometimes she smiles at him with unclouded tenderness. Delilah's refuge is the cabin of a rusting four-wheel drive where she retreats at night with a cassette tape of Ana Gabriel, the Mexican popular singer whose swooning Latin ballads voice a lush romanticism that Delilah herself would never give utterance to. In one gorgeous scene Delilah watches through the windscreen as a shirtless Samson dances to the radio: she's listening to Gabriel, he's listening to heavy metal, but she gazes at his lithe body with a intensity that could burn a hole through the glass. It's an image of radiant teenage lust from a perspective rarely seen in Australian cinema or any other cinema: black, indigenous, female. She mightn't say much, but we hear Delilah loud and clear.

Samson & Delilah (writer/director/cinematographer Warwick Thornton) won the Camera d’Or at Cannes, 2009 and was awarded Best Sound at the Australian Film Institute Awards, 2009 and Best Achievement in Sound Design at the Australian Screen Sound Awards, 2009.

Anwyn Crawford is an Australian writer based in New York.

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