The sun-drenched, semi-arid and rugged ranges of the Arkaroola Sanctuary, in South Australia’s Flinders Rangers, are an appropriately desolate and inhospitable location for Rolf de Heer’s feature The Tracker. Set in the racist past of the 1920s Australian frontier, stunning widescreen images capture the beauty and unrelenting harshness of the landscape. The Tracker is a ballad of bad men, shot in a bold, minimalistic style that enhances every spoken word and drives every instance of action into the recesses of the audience’s consciousness for inevitable contemplation.
This Australian anti-Western places four individuals, The Fanatic (Gary Sweet), The Follower (Damon Gameau), The Veteran (Grant Page), and The Tracker (David Gulpilil) in each other’s company as they pursue The Fugitive (Noel Winton), an indigenous man accused of murder.
The film is unique, not only because it is the first feature film to deal directly with the massacre of indigenous Australians that occurred on the Australian frontier (1), but also because of the manner in which instances of brutality are established and represented to the audience. Nowhere else is this distinctive manipulation of image and sound more evident than in the scene that depicts the murder of six “blackfellas” by the aforementioned travellers. “They’re peaceful boss, he’s not with them”, The Tracker remarks in reference to the native campers and The Fugitive they seek. But this is of little interest to The Fanatic.
The three troopers, mounted and armed, ride into the indigenous camp. The Aboriginals are caught and chained together so The Fanatic can begin his interrogation of them. The lyrics of Archie Roach on the soundtrack drown out the actual sound of the interrogation, but the mood intensifies as The Fanatic and The Follower appear to enjoy the power they wield over their helpless Aboriginal captives. The camera cuts between the instances of confrontation and a shot that moves into a close-up of The Tracker, watching disdainfully from under a tree. His contempt is understated but clearly apparent as the lyrics sing out “they’re my people”, and the close-up holds on The Tracker’s burdened facial expression.
The tension continues to build and the interrogation becomes increasingly physical, as close-ups of The Tracker’s face become more frequent. Just when the scene feels like it’s about to implode on itself, it does. The image of The Fanatic’s revolver pointed down a captive’s mouth is the cue for the last close-up of The Tracker’s pained face before a hail of gunfire and haunting screams halt Roach’s lyrics: “they’re my people”.
The harrowing screams and gunfire continue as the scene cuts and holds on a painting that offers a stylised tableau of the genocide taking place (painted in ’scope aspect ratios so they could be appropriately incorporated into the film, and featuring bright, symbolic colours that hint at the massacre taking place and the blood being shed). The rapid sequence of paintings, combined with their further deployment later in the film, shocks the audience into recognising that the paintings are describing more than just a singular occurrence (2). The scene foregrounds aspects of Australia’s colonial past that have been continuously swept under the rug of mainstream culture and its history.
The use of Peter Croad’s paintings (described above) makes the unrepresentable representable, and offers a reprieve to the viewer, while alluding to the way these scenes cannot be adequately served by one form or symbolic register. Violence “needs to be more and more graphic to have the same effect”, de Heer explains, “But at the same time, by being more graphic it obviously desensitises us even more” (3). The Tracker mediates on the ugliness of racism through painting, image and sound, as well as the actions and interactions of The Fanatic and The Tracker.
De Heer uses Graham Tardif’s soundtrack, performed by Archie Roach and other musicians, to transcend the practical limitations of speech, transforming the director’s otherwise understated sensibility into a poetic work of art. De Heer clearly recognised the power of Roach’s voice, requesting that he perform the soundtrack live during the film’s premiere screening at the 2002 Adelaide Festival of Arts. The sound, combined with the chosen sequence of compositions, generates tension within the scene; it speaks to the audience and puts their mind’s eye into the perspective of The Tracker. Tardif and Roach’s collaboration on the musical score, combined with Croad’s artwork, allowed de Heer to create a truly cinematic event. It is a multi-textured representation of a not uncommon incident of brutality during a period that saw governmental policy in relation to Aboriginal Australians amount to little more than genocide.
In no other scene has the Australian taste for understatement been fused with the self-reflexiveness of the Australian “anti-Western” in such an expressive and validating way.