One Night the Moon


One ignores the local guide at one’s peril, for he is telling us how to survive in this country, and survival depends not just on the right sort of physical treatment of the country, but also on what one says about it, writes about it, and the images one makes of it. (Benterrak, Muecke, Roe, 28)

Since the period films – or so-called ‘AFC genre’ – of the 1970s, historical landscape films have often been labelled anachronistic in a predominantly (sub)urban society such as Australia. In the 1990s, films such as Oscar and Lucinda (Gillian Armstrong, 1996) and A Country Life (Michael Blakemore, 1994), met with neither critical nor commercial acclaim, perhaps in part because they were deemed to be covering ‘old territory’. However, it seems particularly pertinent that a contemporary Australian film about ‘unfinished business’ between black and white returns to the past and the (ongoing) issues of landscape and land ownership. Rachel Perkins’ One Night the Moon (2001) demonstrates that far from being an “aesthetically exhausted impulse” (Dermody and Jacka, 37), as Dermody and Jacka have described it, the Australian period film represents ‘unfinished business’ when it comes to telling stories incorporating an indigenous perspective. The film is the result of collaboration between musicians, songwriters, and scriptwriters and indeed the necessity of collaboration between black and white is one of its principle themes; signalling the ongoing process of reconciliation outside of public policy debate. The music, which is a collaboration between Paul Kelly, Kev Carmody and Mairead Hannan, is a vehicle for moving the narrative forward (2) and underscores a central theme of the film. That is, the music’s polyphonous and hybrid form signals the effectiveness of harmonies which both acknowledge and celebrate differences of viewpoint, producing what might be called reconciling harmonies that rely on a sympathetic discordance of voices and sound.

Inspired by Michael Riley’s documentary, Black Tracker (1997) about his grandfather (Alex Riley) (3), One Night the Moon incorporates historic, lyrical and symbolic elements in a very effective way. Set on an outback property in 1932 and filmed on Andyamathanha land (Flinders Ranges), the narrative focuses on a couple’s anguish when their only daughter, enchanted by the magical light of the full moon, follows it and goes missing. The settler/father (Paul Kelly) hastily organises a search party but refuses to allow an indigenous police officer and tracker, Albert (Kelton Pell), on his property to direct the search for his lost daughter Emily (Memphis Kelly). The settler’s refusal to allow the black tracker on what he sees as “my land” has tragic consequences as the white settlers and police are unable to locate Emily. One month later, the mother (Kaarin Fairfax), without her husband’s knowledge, eventually goes to Albert to ask him to help find the child. He tracks the child to the place where she died and takes her home, placing her wasted body in the arms of her incredulous father. Faced with this loss and with the knowledge that it was his racist fear of the black tracker which prevented the early rescue of Emily, the father commits suicide.

Given this subject material, One Night the Moon can be situated within contemporary debates about issues of land and belonging, the trope of the lost child, and settler/indigenous relations. Perhaps the most important emphasis in the film concerns the settler’s fear of the black tracker. The settler’s racist rejection of the black tracker is underscored by a fear that the black tracker’s knowledge of the land casts doubt over the settler’s rightful ownership of it. It is this depiction of the unsettlement of the settler, a condition described by Gelder and Jacobs as a “productive feature of the postcolonial landscape” (Gelder and Jacobs, xvi), which makes One Night the Moon a pertinent text to analyse.

One Night the Moon

“This Land is Mine/This Land is Me”

One Night the Moon shows that landscape in the Australian cinematic sphere is still a contested site, still the grounds on which notions of national identity are played out. The film’s sense of visual melancholy is achieved through the process of bleach-bypassing in postproduction which drains the images of pink tones and gives the landscape a rugged and brooding presence. (4) After the child goes missing, time-lapse photography depicts the clouds rapidly rolling in and nestling on the horizon above the rocky outcrops. This reinforces the harsh weather which, after the passing of every day, further threatens the child’s survival and the difficulties of the environment in which she is lost. Ross Gibson notes that in contemporary Australian films the landscape is often a “duplicitous object” and “oddly doubled”. (Gibson, x) This is not only because of the historic inadequacy of settler knowledge in a ‘new country’, but also the ambivalence experienced by the settler in occupying lands which were once well known by indigenous owners. A similar point is made in a recent study of Australian ecological thought by Martin Mulligan and Stuart Hill where they point out that: “noticing that the indigenous people were so obviously at home in this foreign land must have made the settlers feel uncomfortable from the start”. (Mulligan and Hill, 5) This “separation of belonging” as Terry Goldie (Goldie, 12) has described settler displacement, induces a state of envy. Envy of indigenous belonging produces the kinds of violent denial and expulsion from the land that we see depicted in One Night the Moon. In particular, it is the figure of the black tracker, as a haunting figure of colonial history (in the settler’s mind), and as a challenging figure of ‘true belonging’ who looms over the settler’s derangement.

Key amongst the unsettling forces within Australian (settler) culture is what Tom Griffiths has described as the “psychological legacy of the frontier” – that which leaves white Australia haunted by colonial violence and dispossession. One Night the Moon depicts the development of this “psychological legacy” in the character of the settler. His early statement to the police, “no blacks on my land”, highlights the means by which settler possession (“my land”) is predicated on exclusion (“no blacks”). This sentence represents both a statement (a desire) to exclude Albert and also a (rein)statement of an exclusion of indigenous people throughout colonial history. This is important for a number of reasons. The settler’s desire to exclude Albert evokes the history of colonial dispossession of Aboriginal communities from their land – to the settler, Albert is simply one of the “blacks” and therefore metonymic of Aboriginal colonial history at large. The ‘legacy’ of this colonial history of violent exclusion then returns to the settler in the form of the permanent loss of Emily. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that the statement “no blacks on my land” is made at the expense of his (and his daughter’s) own future.

Albert’s involvement with the rescue comes through his relationship with the local police force. At one point, his sense of belonging and possession is registered by one of the white police officers who, in response to the settler’s refusal, interjects with: “Excuse me sir, this is Albert’s country, he knows this land”. Despite this appeal, the black tracker’s expertise is refused. Perhaps the police officer’s appeal serves to confirm exactly what it is that unsettles the settler in the first place: Albert is denied access precisely because it is ‘his country’. This scene in the film brilliantly depicts the multi-levelled nature of settler anxiety. The whites here (police and settlers) simultaneously know and refuse this knowledge of Albert’s relationship to the land. Such knowledge (of Albert’s relationship to the land) is an uneasy admission of prior ownership.

Paul Carter notes in A Road to Botany Bay that while “it was the Aborigines’ spatial command of the country which presented the greatest threat to white interests” (Carter, 335-336) this ‘spatial command’ was also commandeered by white interests in order to facilitate colonisation. One Night the Moon does not draw explicit attention to issues of black tracker complicity. (5) Instead, the film emphasises the fact that Riley’s tracking skills (regardless of how they might have been used) demonstrate his belonging. While early settlers and explorers were often impressed by what they perceived as the ‘instinct’ (6) or excellent eyesight (7) of guides and trackers, Aboriginal people were ‘reading’ the country rather than merely looking at it; ‘reading’ here suggesting a cultural practice rather than an innate or magical skill. As Paul Carter notes, it wasn’t the Aborigines “keen-sightedness”, which made tracking possible, it was that thousands of years of occupation of land meant that the “Aborigines knew what they were looking for”. (Carter, 337) Indeed this knowledge constitutes a particular form of land ownership where reading becomes a form of being in and belonging to the land. The authors of Reading the Country (Benterrak, Muecke and Roe) describe it in these terms:

‘Ownership’, in the Aboriginal sense, is circumscribed by extensive and intimate knowledge of particular places. Individuals who function as guardians of these places do so only by virtue of the knowledges they hold about the land. The land is not attached to their names; they, as individuals or clan groups are instead identified with the names of the country. (Benterrak, Muecke and Roe, 147)

In the film there are competing concepts of what land and place might actually mean. The duet between the black tracker and settler, “This Land is Mine” (written by Kelly and Carmody), expresses lyrically and harmonically, the discordant beliefs held by the black tracker and the settler in regards to their incommensurable views of land ownership. Unlike early Australian films, such as Charles Chauvel’s biblical Sons of Matthew (1949), where tilling the land leads to a sense of belonging to the land (possession through utility), in One Night the Moon, working the land doesn’t offer the settler any reassurance; we may read the settler’s rejection of the black tracker as an indication that the settler is never really sure of his possession. While the settler articulates a defined ownership over the land “all the way to the old fence line” and sings his insistent and desperate refrain of “this land is mine”, the black tracker sings “this land is me/rock, water, animal, tree” and, more importantly for the musical form of the film overall, “they are my song”. Interestingly, in this duet the settler takes the high register which in this context emphasizes both his desperation and worried insistence that he must own the land, be in charge of it, his to survey. While the settler’s song reassures him that he can “see” all the way to the old fence line, across to the mountains in the distance, this also implies that the landscape cannot possibly hide his daughter from his scopic privilege. What the settler discovers and what the black tracker and the other white police officers might have tried to tell him is that there is a difference between seeing and reading the land. He might be able to see the length of his land ownership, but he cannot read the land for the signs of his daughter’s wanderings.

The settler’s view of the land (that seeing and working is owning) constitutes a peculiar settler perspective on landscape which has been articulated by many Australian writers including Judith Wright. Wright has argued that the very concept of landscape within a Eurocentric tradition is comparable to a painter’s perspective where the land is framed as an object external to the self. (Wright, 32) This concept of landscape is at odds with alternative ways of viewing the land which are not based on an opposition or separation between land and self. The debate that we see in the film between Albert and the settler is partly a debate over these different views of land ownership. (8) This debate is registered in two ways. Firstly, but not primarily, through cinematographic technique; at the beginning of the search the camera moves swiftly around the settler as he walks off in his straight line towards the hills – an important movement which disrupts the frozen lens-like perspective which marks his view of landscape-as-object. Secondly, it is depicted in song; during the performance of “This Land is Mine”, two incommensurable views of being-in-the-land are brought into parallel by a passionate self-belief and Pell and Kelly’s harmony of “they won’t take it away/They won’t take it away from me”. These two lines sung in harmony by the settler and the black tracker hold very different meanings for both men. This song is indicative of the way in which the music utilises reconciling harmonies; as musical structures, harmonies contain, display and elaborate on (tonal) difference itself, lending themselves well to evoking dramatic and narrative discordance.

At a compositional level, the relationship to land is also imagined through a fusion of culturally different music styles. The Celtic/Cretan sounds of the minor chords played alongside the settler’s imaginings (especially in the beginning of “Night Shadows” and “Hunger”) invoke the settler’s derangement, his loss of place and disorientation. The didgeridoo playing alongside and echoing at the end of “This Land is Mine” suggests the enduring rhythms of indigenous knowledge that the settler’s imaginings try to repress. This is again brought to us in the form of the next piece in the soundtrack “Black and White” written and performed by Kev Carmody. As the settler searches for his child he looks up at the rock ridges above him and his face bears the expression of utter hopelessness and failure, brought face to face with a ridge that he cannot climb. His look suggests a feeling of being overwhelmed by the enormity and apparent refusal of the landscape around him and the threat it poses of ever finding his daughter. At this point, the plaintive strings echo the land’s apparent refusal to take part in the colonist’s conquering dream. His eventual suicide, presumably on the land (he is last seen walking out the front door with a rifle), is symbolic of the settler’s inability to survive on the land without collaboration. But his death also signifies the death of the European (masculine) Self and its bodily incorporation into the land itself – both a Loss and a recognition of the land’s pre-eminence.

“What do you know?/ What can you see?”

One Night the Moon

While the settler/father is the primary mouthpiece for the settler perspective on the colonial contest over land, it is his wife who articulates the personal and domestic angst caused by the loss of the child. Interestingly Perkins, who entered the project in early 1999 as director, shifted the script’s focus somewhat from that of Tracker Riley’s story to the mother’s story and the loss of a child. For much of the film, the mother appears wrapped in a shawl, sitting in her rocking chair on the veranda of the homestead looking out and awaiting news. That she is veranda-bound is important; it is an ambiguous space neither wholly in nor out of the domestic scene which enables her to imaginatively wander and stare across the land in search of her daughter while being enclosed and protected by the homestead. And it is to the mother’s grieving face that the camera often returns – a gauge of the failure of the settlers’ search and the ramifications of the loss of this child.

Importantly, the white woman’s position on the veranda also signals the cultural position that she is ascribed in the film – a position which white women are often ascribed in postcolonial texts, that of cultural mediator. One Night the Moon makes full use of this equivocal position of the settler woman. Firstly, she is seen in one of the opening scenes drawing her daughter away from friendship with the daughter of the black tracker – thereby signalling a role that settler women played in colonial society in the enforcement of racial segregation. But it is the maternal role that she occupies which leads her to seek out the help of the black tracker to locate her daughter after the failure of her husband’s search. The duet which she sings with the black tracker starts with the lyrics: “Every day I’m with the child/she walks on my dreams/Everywhere I call she’s there/and the spaces in-between/ Unfinished business”. The title of the song, “Unfinished business”, represents the unfinished business of locating her daughter’s body, the unfinished business of apologies over the exclusion of the black tracker from the search and the ‘unfinished business’ which the Reconciliation movement continues to draw attention to. The maternal figure becomes of increasing importance and potency in the film, as it is she who collaborates with the black tracker to find her daughter’s body and it is his wife (played by Ruby Hunter) who sings the funeral song at the lost child’s funeral. The absence of the black tracker’s own daughter at the funeral is notable for its invocation of the loss of the stolen generations, the other side of the story of ‘the lost child’ trope.

“No one’s lost who finds the Moon” (9)

Australian cultural texts are replete with tales of white explorers and children going missing or being swallowed up by an alien landscape. In The Country of Lost Children: An Australian Anxiety, Peter Pierce argues that throughout Australian cultural texts (art, literature, film) the theme of the lost child recurs primarily because it draws on the settler separation anxiety; ‘lost’ from the mother country (Britain), deserted, stranded by her in this foreign, threatening, dry, arid, unwelcoming, hostile land. A particularly poignant scene in John Heyer’s classic documentary, Back of Beyond (1954), shows two children lost in a desert-landscape going around in circles unable to find their way back home. In Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout (1970), a teenager and her young brother go missing in the bush after their father commits suicide and leaves them out ‘in the middle of nowhere’. In his reading of Picnic at Hanging Rock, which clearly develops the theme of the lost child in the bush, Pierce writes:

Both novel and film of Picnic at Hanging Rock want the human dimension of the lost child story to be reduced to a puzzle without an answer, to the scrabbling of people across a vast animate, indecipherable landscape, or their disappearance into it. And yet in doing so, Lindsay and then Weir have perhaps returned the story of lost children that they tell and retell to its symbolic origins: to the anxious suspicion that Europeans do not belong in this country: that therefore they should go back to England, or escape into another time, or simply vanish. And in vanishing, whatever else they have intended, or accomplished, or been compelled to do, these children have forever escaped from childhood. (Pierce, 164)

In an extension of Pierce’s argument in The Country of Lost Children, it is also worth noting that children, particularly lost children, may well also symbolise a claim for innocence on behalf of the settler culture. This is especially pertinent in the case of Nicki Webster representing ‘Young Australia’ (in terms of settler history and in a generational sense) in the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. She is an image of an innocent white Australia and, as a child, it is difficult to associate her with colonial violence, frontier conflict and cultural genocide. What she can be seen to represent, however, is a representation of a settler desire to find a blank slate, a pure, unadulterated white canvas with which to start again.

The loss of another white girl in One Night the Moon can be situated as a contemporary post-colonial variant of the lost white child trope; the loss of innocence, unsettling the settler, the ‘hostility’ of the land and the arrogance of white attempts to ‘own’ it through pastoral care and a surveyor’s view to the ‘fence line’. But the film takes these familiar stories a few steps further by locating that loss as part of the settler’s refusal to collaborate, to allow co-existence and indigenous knowledge into the frame. In One Night the Moon this results in the inability of the settler to thrive in the land as he loses a daughter and his own life. While settler anxiety is conveyed through the father, the collaboration between the settler woman and black tracker to find the body of the dead girl signals the discordant harmonies of reconciliation; “unfinished business/you and me.” (10)

* * *

This is a refereed article.

Works cited

Benterrak Krim, Muecke Stephen and Paddy Roe, Reading the Country, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1984

Carter Paul, The Road to Botany Bay: An Essay in Spatial History. London: Faber, 1987

Dermody Susan and Elizabeth Jacka, The Screening of Australia: Anatomy of a National Cinema, Currency Press, Sydney, 1988

Gelder Ken and Jane M. Jacobs, Uncanny Australia, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1998

Gibson Ross, Postcolonialism and the Narrative Contruction of Australia, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1992

Goldie Terry, Fear and Temptation: The Image of the Indigene in Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Literature. McGill Queen’s University Press, Kingston, 1989

Griffiths Tom, “A Haunted Country” in Tom Griffiths (ed.) Land and Identity, (Proceedings of the 1997 ASAL conference), ASAL, 1998

Mulligan, Martin and Stuart Hill, Ecological Pioneers: A Social History of Australian Ecological Thought and Action, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001

Peter Pierce, The Country of Lost Children: An Australian Anxiety Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999

Wright Judith, “Landscape and Dreaming” in R. Graubard (ed.) Australia: The Daedulus Symposium, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1985


  1. “This Land is Mine” P. Kelly and K. Carmody, One Night the Moon (original soundtrack) Mushroom, 2001
  2. One Night the Moon is the first in a series of screen-based works in which different Arts are integrated — a recent funding initiative known as mdTV (Music Drama Television). See “One Night The Moon: Interview with Rachel Perkins and John Romeril” by Kathryn Millard in Senses of Cinema, Issue 17 Nov-Dec 2001 at: http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/17/moon_interview.html
  3. Michael Riley was “first choice as director” because, as John Romeril explained to Kathryn Millard, “a) because it was a family story of his and b) because, on the evidence of Empire, it’s already an abstract cinematic eye that he has and we could all imagine him applying himself to a musical film really well.” http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/17/moon_interview.html
  4. Kathryn Millard in dialogue with Rachel Perkins and John Romeril, Senses of Cinema, Issue 17 Nov-Dec 2001. See http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/17/moon_interview.html
  5. See Jack Bohemia and Bill McGregor, Nyibayarri: Kimberley Tracker, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1995, 30-33
  6. Lieutenant F. Wheeler on 16th May 1861 referred to the Aboriginal troopers: “They will each take a track and follow the one track by instinct. They follow different tracks and in a strange country and go a mile away from each other and meet again.” Qtd in L. E Skinner, Police of the Pastoral Frontier: Native Police 1849-1859, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1975, 344-345
  7. See for instance, ‘The eyes had it’ in Jean Schmaal, Tales of the Troopers: Stories from the Wild Colonial Boys, Wakefield Press, Kent Town SA, 1999, 158-159
  8. Ross Gibson points out that the notion of landscape also assumes mastery over it: “[f]or a tract of land to be regarded as landscape — that is, as part of an artistic discourse — the people utilising it need to feel in charge of it.” “Formative Landscapes” in Scott Murray (ed.) Australian Cinema, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1994, 49
  9. From “Moonstruck” by Kev Carmody, One Night the Moon (original soundtrack), Mushroom, 2001
  10. “Unfinished Business” by Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly. One Night the Moon (original soundtrack), Mushroom, 2001

About The Author

Fiona Probyn teaches in the Department of Gender Studies at the University of Sydney. Catherine Simpson lectures in screen studies in the Media & Communications Department at Macquarie University, Sydney.

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