In the twentieth century, many of the most notable depictions of Indigenous Australians and their culture in feature films were steered by white filmmakers: see, for example, Jedda (Charles Chauvel, 1955), Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Fred Schepisi, 1978), Manganinnie (John Honey, 1980) and The Fringe Dwellers (Bruce Beresford, 1986), to name a handful. While these are foundational and generally empathetic works, their dramatisations of Aboriginal life nonetheless exhibit signs of misguided exoticism, cultural appropriation and inauthenticity: on Jedda, for example, director Chauvel had the voice of lead actress Rosalie Kunoth-Monks (then Ngarla Kunoth) dubbed on the soundtrack due to uncertainty about presenting Indigenous voices on film, signifying a colonial hangover.
While Indigenous directors helming films about their culture was a case of exceptions in the twentieth century – for example, beDevil (Tracey Moffatt, 1993) and Radiance (Rachel Perkins, 1998) – in the twenty-first century, it has become more of a norm, as evidenced by Perkins’ Bran Nue Dae (2009), Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah (2009) and Sweet Country (2017), Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires (2012) and Top End Wedding (2019), and Ivan Sen’s Beneath Clouds (2002), Mystery Road (2013) and Goldstone (2016). Beneath Clouds was a watershed moment in this history of celluloid representation, with Sen becoming the first filmmaker of Indigenous descent to win Best Director at the Australian Film Institute Awards. That year’s awards proved a significant year for Indigenous-themed films – on top of Sen’s Best Director win, the Best Film gong went to Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002) and Best Actor went to David Gulpilil for The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, 2002), and all three films were nominated for or won multiple categories – but Sen’s victory in particular represented a symbolic turning point in which Indigenous directors became the pre-eminent chroniclers of Indigenous stories onscreen.
Beneath Clouds follows two Indigenous teenagers hitch-hiking to Sydney through rural New South Wales: Lena (Dannielle Hall), the daughter of a negligent mother and an absent Irish father; and Vaughn (Damian Pitt), a juvenile delinquent working on a prison farm who discovers his mother is ill. Both characters resolve to escape their prisons – literal for Vaughn, metaphorical in the case of Lena’s small-town life – and embark for Sydney: Lena to see her father, and Vaughn to visit his ailing mother. They meet on the road and travel together. Initially cynical of each other and verbally combative, they forge a strong bond as their journey unfolds.
Beneath Clouds marked the feature film debut of the talented Sen, who previously helmed the short films Vanish (1998) and Tears (1998). The film is a study in opposites, as highlighted by the contrast between the often beautiful scenery and landscapes of the Wiradjuri and Gamilaroi regions where the film was shot and the harsh, disadvantaged lives endured by those inhabiting these regions. Throughout the film, Sen presents the institutionalised racism Indigenous Australians face from both authorities and members of the general populace. He also shows the limited opportunities afforded to young Indigenous Australians, and the resulting friction in their communities between young and old, and men and women – the latter friction colouring the relationship between Lena and Vaughn.
As befitting a road movie (albeit a road movie on foot), there is a sense of constant motion to Beneath Clouds: even when compositions are still and silent, there is an underlying itch to move forward. While their journey is slow, these characters have no time to waste, which manifests in the spartan dialogue between the protagonists, shorn of superfluous niceties: Lena and Vaughn speak to each other in jabs and digs, none of them wasted, all conveying essential character-building information. This economical storytelling extends beyond the dialogue: silences between them speak volumes, and while there is little eye contact between the characters as they journey side by side, their glances and moments of eye contact are all meaningful. There is an element of silent-film grammar and acting to this economic filmmaking, and while it isn’t always particularly naturalistic, it nonetheless feels authentic within the screen story.
Much of this accomplishment rests on the shoulders of Hall and Pitt, who both deliver strong performances. Alternately hardened and coarse, taciturn and abrasive, and ultimately wounded and sympathetic, Lena and Vaughn are roles that could have appealed to histrionic acting instincts, but there is an understated, naturalistic flatness to the actors’ delivery, giving those key emotional beats even more charge when they arise. Both are pained, often cynical characters: Lena is resigned, weary but yearns for a better life, while Vaughn’s yearning has eroded and his resignation has turned to anger. The actors convey this nicely – Hall suitably laconic, Pitt knotted and simmering – and their eventual reconciling of perspectives and mutual understanding is moving. Alas, this would be both performers’ swansong as well as debut roles, with neither appearing on-screen again. Melancholic but ultimately hopeful, Beneath Clouds offers viewers lightning in a bottle, enshrining the work of two novice performers with tremendous raw potential.
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Beneath Clouds (2002 Australia 90 min)
Prod. Co: Australian Film Finance Corporation, Autumn Films Prod: Teresa-Jayne Hanlon Dir: Ivan Sen Scr: Ivan Sen Phot: Allan Collins Ed: Karen Johnson Prod. Des: Peter Baxter Mus: Ivan Sen, Alister Spence
Cast: Dannielle Hall, Damian Pitt, Jenna Lee Connors, Mundurra Weldon, Athol French, Kevin Pitt, Judy Duncan