I. Where the Crocodiles Are: Mad Bastards

I am really proud of this movie most of all because it does justice to the tough men of The Kimberley who have transformed their lives by tempering their wildness, and channelling their strength into their kids, their families, their communities. I find that very real and inspiring.
Brendan Fletcher(1)

We first hear the term ‘mad bastards’ in this film from a boy, one of a group who burn down an old house—for something to do, it seems. The child who throws the Molotov cocktail is Bullet, played by fourteen year-old Lucas Yeeda. We’ll soon meet some of Bullet’s family as he’s picked up and taken to the police station by his policeman grandfather, Texas (Greg Tait), and when his mum, Nella (Ngaire Pigram), strides into the jail, beer can in hand, and is told by Texas that she ‘stinks’.

But the film soon cuts to the Pigram Brothers, Stephen and Alan, sitting like playful gnomes under tree trunks, before a stony path through the country. It’s as if they’re commentating like a Greek chorus on ukulele and mandolin, opening up the film with their song, ‘Nothing really matters’. The path might be metaphorical as well as physical. And we’ll see and hear that at the same time as nothing really matters, some things do matter. The shadings of colour, of the tree trunks, corn-yellow grasses, sweet green leaves and high blue sky are subtle. The set, the Kimberley environment, is breathtaking. And the song takes us to a scene of black hands in beige-red soil, prints in sand as an elder passes on art/life skills to kids. This last scene wasn’t planned. The sand drawing was going on and director, Brendan Fletcher, thought he should capture it. The song finally takes us to another corner of the flawed paradise that is the Kimberley to an elder, Johnnie (played by John Watson), surrounded by children, all talking and walking through country together. Doing things that matter. They may be taking a better road than Bullet.

The Pigram Brothers, Mad Bastards

Stephen Pigram encapsulated what the term, ‘mad bastard’, meant to him:

A mad bastard is our name for the one who is dragging the net in the deep end where the crocodiles are. They are brave to the point of being mad. We were all mad at some point, especially when we were young and full of stupidity because we’d been drinking. (2)

By the time Brendan Fletcher met the Pigram brothers, they hadn’t had a drink for twenty years. In a real-life interview at the end of the film, Greg Tait, who played Texas, tells us that he himself was getting locked up before he was ten years old. Now, however, he was taking time off from his job as the police officer at the nearby township of Hall’s Creek to work on the film. He too gave up drink long ago, he said, realising he didn’t have to be part of the violence and brutality around him, violence and brutality that were there along with other positive things. He realised he could start to believe in himself and become a role model for his family. What we see in this mountain of a man, who has also been a country singer and musician, is pretty much him, he tells us: ‘I’m still a mad bastard to a point. How I control it has changed’. Something Mad Bastards does well is to acknowledge and deal with this something that is as wild and chaotic in us as it is in what we label ‘nature’. And this ‘something’ challenges the model of the successful, individualist, techno-bourgeois adult of our society, a society with a war on nature—as well as on the poor and the under classes. It’s as if the fire at the opening will be refound throughout the film, on people’s journeys, welcoming and warming them, like that central fire in all of us that can burn and harm others, or warm and engulf them tenderly.

As well as acknowledging this fire, Mad Bastards is a film in which our music isn’t banished. It’s like the body of the film is fleshed out around its musical spine. The music and world of the Kimberley infuse everything—in the film and the everyday life of the people who create it. The way this is done makes me think of Rainer Werner Fassbinder quoting Douglas Sirk, when he said,

You can’t make films about things. You can only make films with things, with people, with light, with flowers, with mirrors, with blood, in fact, with all the fantastic things which make life worth living. (3)

And more soberly, David MacDougall:

In fiction films as well as non-fiction films, we use ‘found’ materials from this world. We fashion them into webs of signification, but within these webs are caught glimpses of being more unexpected and powerful than anything we could create. These may be qualities we discover in human beings or in the plenitude of the inanimate world. A good film reflects the interplay of meaning and being, and its meanings take into account the autonomy of being… In making films, wise filmmakers create structures in which being is allowed to live, not only in isolated glimpses but in moments of revelation throughout the whole work. (4)

You wouldn’t have Mad Bastards without the Pigram brothers, whose country/folk/blues/calypso music and song speak the Kimberley and its people. What has turned out to be great collaboration between Sydney-based director, Brendan Fletcher, and the Broome-based brothers started back in 1996 to make music videos—without money changing hands. The brothers took Fletcher fishing. (5) The romance of the Kimberley was real for Fletcher, who was taken with the vitality of the place and its people. And he was taken into the Pigram family itself. Fletcher wanted to capture their world, one he also adopted, where, significantly for this film, he believed he learned how to be a man in the modern world. Preparing the film, he began taking shots of the country, discovering, along with the locals he collaborated with, what the film was about. When in the course of their travels, Stephen Pigram sat down in the middle of the national highway and plucked at his ukulele, the music recorded for this ‘test’ ended up staying in the film. It was better than the version they did later, more authentic.

Also used off screen, is music by Kasey Chambers and native American rap performer, Aki Redbird. And bringing Alex Lloyd’s presence, style and voice to the Pigram brothers mix was an inspired move. The Kimberley was the kind of place for Lloyd where you’re hunting and fishing with ‘experts’, and ‘there’s like poetry in the air and you’ve just got to grab it’. It’s not hard to make music in such a very special place, and for him, he said, music and the Kimberley went hand in hand. As does improvisation, according to Alan Pigram, who, as well as producing and appearing in the film with his brother Stephen, became the grip when the grip became the leading man! This improvised, home-made quality of the film seems to help keep it real. It’s like extra insurance against fakeness. Combined with beauty, honesty and judgment on the part of the participants, it makes for a potent mix.

Appearing to be quieter than his brother in public forums, Alan is full of ideas and stories when it comes to doing, to making things work—usually with sparse means. There just wasn’t infrastructure in the bush in earlier times, he tells us. If you broke down here, you couldn’t just call a mechanic—you had to improvise. And as he talks, he runs us through the way he made a side mount for a door which Fletcher pointed out needed to be a fair bit safer for the $500,000 camera they’d be using. Not phased, Alan set about thinking how to make something better, designing and constructing, coming up with the kind of rig no one else would have. (6) Playing lead guitar, ukulele, mandolin, and the tiple, Alan describes music as the ‘glue’ that ‘collects’ all the characters in the film. ‘The music, us, the Kimberley characters, the stories’, he says, ‘somehow they’re all joined but they’re separate. It’s like I think that’s a magical perspective’. I think he’s right.

For Brendan Fletcher, visually, it was hard not to walk around the area and see shot after shot. Rugged hills and ranges, massive mudflats, snaking rivers, and the town of Wyndham at the very end of the national highway, where it dissolves into scrub, were irresistible. ‘Wyndam is a movie set’, said Fletcher, ‘you walk around and you feel like you’re on a lot’. Moreover, you were ‘surrounded by movie stars’. Stephen’s daughter, Ngaire Pigram, who had had acting experience before this film, said that she thought people in the area weren’t afraid to be themselves in the way they might be in the city. While there were workshops and rehearsals, it tended to be up to the actors what they said and how they did things in the film. In real life, John Watson, the elder we met near the beginning, runs a diversionary program for troubled youth out of his home in Jarlmadangah, in the bush. When John asked the character, Bullet, what he did to get into trouble, since there had been no prior discussion of his offence, Yeeda/Bullet said on the spot that he burned a house down. So a scene of the house being burned was part of a pick-up shoot! Like so many scenes in the film, those with Watson, his brother, Harry, and the group of boys, are striking. John acts with the humour and firmness with which he conducts his normal bush camp expeditions. There are scenes where the brothers, small but strong men, with black faces and snow-white hair and beards, sit beneath trees by the water, in a light-filled bush cathedral whose supporting beams are lazy tree limbs that seem to shelter and protect them and their charges. If the WA and Australian tourist bureaus have any sense, they could use such scenes to market travel on our continent. But the thing here is the people in these scenes inhabit this land—responsibly. The boys actually caught barramundi and fresh prawns in the river and there are beautiful shots of them in the water pursuing a young crocodile, just their heads, neck and shoulders above the surface, like they’re gliding in formation. (They catch the croc, and we see it gutted, cooked and eaten by the proud kids.) Around the campfire at night, they’re told stories about Johnnie’s own grandfather—in the end, about what it means to be a man, something participants agree is at the heart of the film. After camp, when it’s time to return, the men and boys walk over stones, under trees and vast skies with camels carrying their packs. Often the characters aren’t at the centre of a shot. They’re always already a part of an environment, captured and presented by Indigenous cinematographer, Allan Collins. (7)

Brendan Fletcher and Dean Daley-Jones

Bullet’s father, TJ, played by Dean Daley-Jones, enters our scenario, as he stands under the Narrow’s Bridge in Perth, throwing stones into the Swan River. A powerful, tall man, his body language tells us he’s not happy with himself and the world. The Perth city skyline, overpasses, cars and the Swan Brewery are visible, and a cormorant takes off from the rocks, over the water, blessing this natural beauty spot which was a site of Nyungar (8) abundance. Fletcher knew he’d found his leading man when Daley-Jones offered himself to help out on the film as a grip. For the director, his physicality, the strength of his presence and person, fitted beautifully into the concept of Mad Bastards. Daley-Jones was so strong that he knew he could build the film around him—he just had to ease the actor/grip into the idea gradually! Intercutting with scenes in the Kimberley and its characters, we get to know something of TJ in Perth, the trouble that’s in him, the rage just beneath the surface that comes out in a pub fight. Visiting his brother in Fremantle Prison, we get TJ’s attitude to police authority loud and clear, without him needing to say much. It’s his brother who tells TJ not to leave it too late to go to see his son, handing him a small wooden horse he made in woodwork class to give to his own child. The scene comes straight from Daley-Jones’s own experience when he and his mum and sister went to see his mother’s husband in jail when he was a little boy, and he was given a toy like this. Along with TJ’s anger and attitude, we get his desperation and frustration as he fronts up to his sister and mum with the toy for his nephew and they don’t want a bar of him and his brother—they’re trying to stop the next generation being destroyed by their fathers’ demons. The film cleverly cuts from the mother rejecting the repeat-offender son to the grandson, Bullet, lying flat on his back on the mud flats at Five Rivers (Wyndham), where most of the film is set. Later, before he turns his life around, we’ll see TJ lie there in just the same way, with a similar hopeless feeling. It’s a perfect poetic rendering of what’s euphemistically called ‘social reproduction’, a term that gives no hint of the emotional charge, the drama and pain of these processes by which we live in the worlds we inherit and create.

Up in the Kimberley, we have scenes of Texas in Five Rivers making a different environment, being a husband and father to his family around the dinner table, readying himself for the men’s group he’s starting up, where, with a feed, a bit of sociability and a safe space, some of the local men can be encouraged to talk about and deal with some of their problems. (For the scene, the participants just had to sit around, say nothing, and look nervous, which, says Fletcher in the commentary, they had no trouble doing!) Though he’ll have much to go through beforehand, Daley-Jones’s TJ will end up sitting in the back corner of one of these sessions, a half-reluctant-looking participant, welcomed by Texas, who’ll announce that he’s proud that his grandson’s father is with them. I found the men’s group scenes both hilarious and realistic. But I had no idea that they were based on groups that exist up in the North, ones that Greg Tait himself started up on his Hall’s Creek balcony, where no one said anything for the first few sessions but did end up talking, otherwise we wouldn’t have this film. Mad Bastards is unashamedly educational in this way. And that education is for all of us. Living in the city, I didn’t know that this kind of hard emotional work was going on. With encouragement from Ngaire Pigram in his own life, Dean Daley-Jones made his step towards change by crossing the threshold of the Men’s Outreach Centre in Broome.

After a bad night at Nella’s house, Texas takes Bullet home to his place after ending a brawl that spills onto the street. (The sight of Nella charging out of the house like an explosive device and being restrained and carried off kicking in one of Texas’s arms is really something—and was quite a surprise to a scratched and bruised Greg Tait.) But we cut to some warmth as TJ, on his way north, calls an Aunty for money. She’s firm with him, deposits a little in his bank account, and tells him she loves him and says prayers for him. We see softness in him too as he tells her he loves her and knows she’s always been there for him. The music works its magic here as next morning, in the sunshine in Five Rivers, Texas returns home from work to the strains of Alex Lloyd’s infinitely tender song, ‘In Your Arms’. The big man patting his grandson’s head as he sleeps on the sofa, pulls a blanket over the boy, who wakes momentarily, but goes back to sleep. A song we’d usually associate with a romantic couple is all the more powerful here because it’s linked to a grandfather holding his grandson, making him feel ‘inside’ and ‘safe’. And like the director, I love the contrast between ‘Alex’s angelic voice and these big dudes’ we associate with toughness, brutality, even. Lloyd’s track stretches across time and space, taking us to Nella, crying as she wipes blood from her wall, to Bullet, now back home in the kitchen, getting the younger children breakfast. It takes us to Texas, seated at a well-laid table with his family, and completes itself as Nella’s mother comes into her home and takes empty beer bottles off the table where the kids are eating, before going to her black-eyed, swollen-faced daughter and embracing her.

Bullet and TJ, Mad Bastards

If I spoke of the musical spine of the film earlier, Mad Bastards is also something like a film-poem, rather than a classical narrative driven by Action, Conflict, and a Hero—though there is conflict in it, and some people act heroically. Alan Pigram suggested that the music was the ‘glue’ that collected the characters—that the music, the characters and the stories were all there, joined and separate. I think this can be usefully tied to Ursula Le Guin’s notion of a ‘carrier bag theory of fiction’, where she contrasts the shape of what she calls ‘life’ stories, where something that receives, like a net or a bag, is woven to contain elements that connect to each other in stories that fascinate and interest us, as opposed to ‘killer’ stories, whose shape is more linear, goal-driven, and accompanied by tools or weapons (actual or intellectual), with which to conquer and triumph. (9) In Mad Bastards, the bag is woven from music, song, characters, trees, grass, sky and water. For TJ, it’s something of a medicine bag.

On his way to see his son, who ‘wouldn’t mind’ meeting him at last, TJ meets up with some old Aboriginal men in the oval at night on arriving in Broome. The film’s scene stealer, Uncle Black (Douglas Macale), comes up to him and asks, ‘Any smoke, my boy?’ It’s an unusual greeting from a guardian angel, but that’s just what this old man is like for TJ. His slender body and small face under his big cowboy hat radiate calm, a kind of safety. ‘You not from this country’, he says. And when he thanks TJ for the smoke, it’s like a benediction. Walking around in the night, our leading man is welcomed into a party, around a fire in a 44 gallon drum, and music under the ‘Moonlight’ that the Pigram brothers sing about. ‘What’s the matter, my boy, you got trouble anywhere?’, asks Uncle Black the next day as they get a lift together and sit out on plastic chairs in the light-gold grass before a river. He guesses it’s family trouble and again, words are scarce, as they sit on as the dark descends, silhouettes of them together, the man with the demons and the one with the cheeky twinkle in his eye, at peace in himself and the world. Uncle Black is there too when Texas encounters TJ, the latter refusing to acknowledge the cop’s presence, while opening himself up, nevertheless, to the country.

Texas is aware of the pressure building in the stranger, who’s like a troubled force entering an always-endangered sanctuary. He feels it building in himself as well, and sits in a nook by the water, renewing himself by pouring water over his head and face, watching a leaf go by, like a tiny travelling boat in the calm before the storm. Nella is fierce with TJ when he gets up the courage to knock on her door, but at a gathering in the dark to a ‘Pigramized’ version of Lloyd’s ‘Slow Train’, they end up dancing together, TJ a little playful and cheeky. When Nella rejects his sexual advances, natural for him, but a problem for her after his very long absence, an explosion begins. Bullet’s there with a shovel to defend his mum from harm, and TJ smashes his hand through the wall, and takes off. ‘Will you bend or will you break? / Will you give or will you take?’, sings Kasey Chambers as he walks down a dark road into more trouble. But catharsis will come as Texas picks up the drunk man in the morning and like a couple of rhinos, they physically confront each other out on the mudflats. Just as a nervous Daley-Jones was helped by Ngaire Pigram in their previous scene—to separate himself from the role he was playing—this fight had to be rehearsed for weeks. A real fight without inhibition is easier than a choreographed one, since in the latter, you’re wanting to avoid hurt. The mud, said the men, was like concrete, but gave the fight an epic quality—as did their bodies. Post fight, both men spent, like wounded animals, they sit on a lone dead tree trunk. And later, when TJ won’t take the money Texas offers him to get out of town, Greg Tait improvised:

‘I know that I might come across as a bit of a hard bastard. But you know, amongst all the chaos and bullshit… Somebody’s got to be strong for everyone… But you’re my grandson’s father. And you belong to us now…if that’s what you want.’

It’s what TJ has long wanted and needed, and to complete the coming home, crouched by a waterfall flowing into a pool, it’s like he’s baptised by Uncle Black, healed and cleansed as the elder pours water from his hat over the younger man’s head. We’re told on the commentary that in Dougie’s tribe this is how they do their traditional welcome to country—connecting Daley-Jones/TJ to the spirits of that place where he can walk safely and be a man from now on.

At the film’s Perth premiere, a young man in the audience addressed the makers about how heart wrenching it was to see how true a picture was presented. What he saw there made him ‘proud to be a blackfella’. And in Nyungar first, and then in English, he said: ‘My old ancestors, they smile to see the beauty that you make’. One woman talked about the way the movie could be a force for positive change, having a great impact, and maybe bring ‘some people to their senses’. A wise everyday expression, when you think about it, since it takes for granted that our moral, cognitive, emotional and sensual selves don’t come in separate packages, but are all involved in being in the world and consciously working for change where we need to. Others in that audience were thankful for education, example and encouragement coming in such a wonderful and popular form, and to see Aboriginal and white people working together in this way. When Brendan Fletcher was asked about international possibilities for the film, it was good to hear him say that he wanted to stick with our own country first, because it was really important that Australians see it.

Dean Daley-Jones tells us that after a warm response to a screening at the Sundance Film Festival, men from all sorts of different backgrounds came and talked to him, saying they could relate to the story. Stephen Pigram noted that men’s groups seemed to be springing up everywhere. It seems like everyone is ‘battling to define what an Australian male is’, he said, ‘let alone an Aboriginal male’. Indeed, a problem that used not to be spoken about enough has been making its way to the fore: there’s something universal about men struggling to express themselves—about the way that vulnerability, tenderness and gentleness so much of the time sit with an inability to find expression until it bursts out in pockets or plagues of destruction of self and/or others. (The DVD cover of Mad Bastards calls it ‘a story about men’. I loved seeing it on at a cinema husting in a country town advertised as a ‘Father’s Day’ film!)

Daley-Jones grew up being labelled a half-caste, his white mother spat on in the street for being with a black man. His blaming others and a ‘poor fellow me’ attitude would come out in his drinking and that drinking used to turn into rage, he said, in the interviews that end the film. He talked too about what it was like to see his release papers after he was in prison for assault and to think about ‘the poor bastard who’s lying in the hospital that you beat the crap out of’. Then he’d start crying, he said. But it was no use getting drunk and emotional. You had to get emotional and cry when you were sober—to work, and go for that over a long period of time before things changed and you really grew up and became a man. Like many others, he said that the biggest fight he ever had in his life was within himself. He also talked about love, having to learn to love and respect yourself before you can do the same with other people. Men who have ended up in the maximum security prison near Perth have told Daley-Jones that they could easily relate to the film, to TJ’s problems. They hoped TJ could stay on track, and many wanted to a see a ‘Mad Bastards II’, where they want Bullet not to turn out like his dad, just as they don’t want their children to turn out like them—that is, the way they were.

TJ, Mad Bastards

Yet some of those who have loved Mad Bastards fear that focussing on poetics, acknowledging that in certain ways people less privileged than themselves (in regard to accessing tangible benefits of civilizational progress such as health care, housing, relative safety for their person and security for their children) might have a richer, warmer, and even saner everyday life than they do, amounts to overlooking, even denying inequalities and pain. They fear being labelled Romantic. (10) But I’d go as far as describing this fear under the old-fashioned term of ‘false consciousness’. And I think it works against people really learning from each other and thinking about alternatives and social transformation for the better—for the common good. Mad Bastards actually addresses those central existential questions of what shall we do and how shall we live (questions underlined by the likes of the artistic genius, Leo Tolstoy—whose fiction was so wise, but if ever there was a ‘mad bastard’ in real life, he certainly deserves this description!). The film suggests that we need to look after each other and our environment, treating neither people nor nature as things. ‘You won’t starve in this country,’ John Watson told his group of boys in trouble, ‘this country can look after you’. For his character in the film and Daley-Jones himself, country was like medicine for him. He stressed the need for more celebration of what is life-affirming and positive in Aboriginal heritage and life, since the positive as well as its opposite can have a domino effect. He believed that films like Mad Bastards and Toomelah, which we’ll come to shortly, can help expose people to others who are in real need and troubled. People don’t want to be ignorant, they want knowledge, he was convinced. And from this, the whole community benefits. Let’s take this even further, and suggest that the wider community at large, what is called the ‘mainstream’, needs to see and think about such films.

2. Interlude: Welcome to the Mainstream?

Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.
Friedrich Nietzsche(11)

Puritanism, at the basis of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, involved a negative attitude to all the sensuous and emotional elements in culture and religion, said the great scholar and pessimist, Max Weber. The aim of Christian asceticism was ‘methodical control over the whole man’, its urgent task, to destroy ‘spontaneous, impulsive enjoyment’, and bring order into the conduct of its adherents. (12) The Puritan idea of the calling placed the highest value upon ascetic conduct, and this, noted Weber, was to directly influence the development of a capitalist way of life. In this view of being in the world, the state of nature was to be overcome, to free man, not only from the power of his own irrational impulses, but also from his ‘dependence on the world and on nature’. (13) The significance of the Reformation was that in contrast to the situation with medieval, monastic asceticism, ‘now every Christian had to be a monk all his life’. (14) Calvinism ‘added something positive to this, the idea of the necessity of proving one’s faith in worldly activity’. (15) Weber wrote dramatically about a dramatic event in history with far-reaching consequences. Christian asceticism, he said,

strode into the market-place of life, slammed the door of the monastery behind it, and undertook to penetrate just that daily routine of life with its methodicalness, to fashion it into a life in the world, but neither of nor for this world. (16)

The yoking of moral and material progress was integral to the Puritan ethos, where Virtue and Prosperity were identified with one another. What was good and true was not of this world, but a world beyond.

Elements of this ethos, hand in hand with the perceived ‘naturalness’ of capitalist notions of modernization and progress, profoundly affected colonization processes and policies, and continue to affect the ailing American Empire today, no matter the strangely mutated forms in which Puritanism and hedonism now co-habit. The colonized, or the enemy (they are sometimes the same) have usually been found both wanting and guilty, lacking in work ethic, and sharing in the degradation believed to be inherent in this world, in the emotions, and the senses. This ethos, accompanied by deep convictions, was to be no small influence in the settling of Western Australia by Scottish Protestants—and the appropriation of Aboriginal land that went along with it.

Weber devoted much work to the study of what we call ‘reason’, arguing that we can rationalize life from fundamentally different points of view, coming from very different directions. Like the monk or the yogi, the muscle-bound gym-junkie or the dedicated anorexic, he knew that human action in the world could never be understood as only an adjustment to ‘given’ realities. The notion of autonomy was central to him. Time and time again, he noted the way in which

groups of individuals create realms of freedom by responding, through rational regularities of action, to fragmented realities. In carrying these regularities to extremes, however, the same groups may construct veritable networks of bondage. (17)

Countless community studies and our own experience tell us that people find all sorts of strange ways to make themselves feel worth something, relevant. Poor, disenfranchised and marginalized groupings can create spaces of autonomy, dignity, even splendour for themselves. Philippe Bourgois, for example, has written of the ‘explosive cultural creativity’ involved in rebellious practices and oppositional styles amongst crack dealers whom he lived amongst in New York’s Harlem. The ways of behaving in question often went along with illegal enterprises. (18) Such ways of life, Bourgois noted, can be ‘persuasive’ if you contrast them with taking the subway to work in minimum or below-minimum-wage jobs, if they’re available. (19) They’re ways of being in the world that don’t involve the subservience a menial job would demand. But as he noted in this case, these same ways of living tend to be predicated on

the destruction of [the] participants and the community harboring them. In other words, although street culture emerges out of a personal search for dignity and a rejection of racism and subjugation, it ultimately becomes an active agent in personal degradation and community ruin. (20)

In the same vein, the experience of intoxication with whatever kind of drug can take us out of ourselves, make us feel part of something bigger, better, both more powerful and more at one with the world. Writer Alan Duff has been a harsh public commentator against alcohol abuse and violence in New Zealand’s Maori community, but in Once were Warriors,he gave us some of the most seductive passages I know about the flow of drink and music, the momentary bliss, that can transport us in social gatherings—and then the anger and physical aggression that builds up and erupts in forms of sociability that escalate into violence. (21)

Man ‘is a mad animal’, wrote Cornelius Castoriadis, ‘whose madness invented reason’. (22) As well as homo faber, man the maker, the human is also, as his friend and colleague, Edgar Morin, contends, homo demens, man the undoer. In Homeland Earth, Morin speaks of our dual cosmic and earthly being, stressing that we do no live in prose, but poetically.  (23) With dispossession, disenfranchisement and hopelessness at one end of the continuum, and at the other, a surfeit of power, greed and hubris without societal bounds, our poetry can turn dark, and take on toxic forms. But any complex pictures of people, and complex, rather than reductive politics, demands a ‘full consciousness of the poetic needs of the human being’, says Morin. (24) Social science has not done too well so far in this area. Political tyrants, on the other hand, have thrived on the mobilization of these needs.

Many theorists whose goal has been to analyse social, economic, and political structures and their reproduction, have underestimated the aesthetic dimension’s contribution to our understanding of human being in the world. I use the word ‘aesthetic’ here in its original and fullest sense, not just in relation to the beautiful, but to organic, sensuous and bodily experience that isn’t cut off from what we call mind and soul. When, for example, middle class social scientists wonder why bright kids in ‘ethnic’ ghettoes, or in what were reserves or missions, don’t seize their chance to move ‘onward and upward’, it’s likely they lack the sensual and emotional experience, and perhaps the sensitivity and imagination to appreciate the ‘habitus’ Pierre Bourdieu theorized, if we enlarge it to include life-sustaining and nourishing, let’s call it, ‘horizontal’ experience. Where have we learned to feel warmed, at home, have some happiness, even experience of ecstasy? The answers to these questions become as vital as our DNA.

Weber believed that the fate of our times was characterized by the ‘disenchantment of the world’. The ultimate and most sublime values having retreated from public life, they were to be found in the transcendental realm of mystic life or in the ‘brotherliness of direct and personal human relations’, in pianissimo, rather than in the public realm or on the world stage. He advised a stoic attitude, to ‘bear the fate of our times like a man’, and meet ‘the demands of the day’ in human as well as work situations. Each of us could only find and obey ‘the demon who holds the fibres of his very life’. (25)

Yet if we get away from marginalized communities and talk about contemporary work and life in the wider society, shouldn’t we ask if it’s realistic for any of us to embrace the trajectory of work and life in the corporatized world, whatever parts of our natural matrix and the globe it’s eating up and spitting out at any particular moment? Does it make sense to hope that the marginalized wholeheartedly embrace the ‘mainstream’, which we can be sure is already shaping their lives in one way or another? Though Nietzsche’s encapsulation of the specialists and sensualists has great purchase, it’s an abstraction, of course, and doesn’t actually apply in a blanket way to those who, for want of an alternative, are caught in what Weber described as the ‘iron cage’ of modern industrial capitalism. (26) Weber was talking at the beginning of the twentieth century about the way that the modern economic order was bound ‘to the technical and economic conditions of machine production’ that determine the lives of all the individuals ‘born into this mechanism…with irresistible force.’ (27) That stoic scholar and pessimist suggested it would so determine our lives ‘until the last ton of fossil fuel is burnt to ashes’. (28) Equally sobering was the personal correlative of this. The spirit of capitalism, growing out of Puritanism’s severe judgment against human fellowship and the promotion of labour in the service of impersonal social usefulness for the glory of God, had as a consequence, the ‘unprecedented inner loneliness’ of the modern individual. (29) We can insert a ‘post’ before the word ‘modern’ or ‘industrial’, and add a ‘cyber’ to these. And we can argue as we wish about ‘God’. These insertions and arguments, however, don’t deny the prescience of what Weber wrote.

And yet… In spite of these forces, other possibilities remain. Like the Russian Prince, anarchist and naturalist, Petr Kropotkin, later resistants have also argued that the impulse towards and habits of sociability and mutual aid are as integral to our being as struggle and competition. (30) As Mutual Aid documents well, throughout history it has taken great effort, dedication and organized force to keep destroying existing instances of people acting in cooperation through common understanding. (31) For colonisers, along with the conviction that they were born to rule, the civilizing process has usually had a greedy underbelly—involving dispossession, exploitation, and barbaric cruelty towards many of those subjected to it, often societies that had made a successful adaptation to their environment, and learned to live, as Le Guin put it, ‘without destroying [themselves] or the people next door.’ (32) This has been no less true in Australia than anywhere else. We need to ask ourselves what civilization and civilized behaviour might look and feel like if we transformed it with a truly democratic ethos—mindful that these are things that must endlessly be worked for?

The makers of both Mad Bastards and Toomelah continue to swim against the tide of a civilization without civility, and a society with an insatiable appetite for natural, material and technical riches that depends on the impoverishment, redundancy and soul-sickness of large portions of the population. Mad Bastards director, Brendan Fletcher, has been active at the grass-roots project level, as a community artist and mentor, working with marginalised communities. (33) David Jowsey, the producer of both films, is co-owner of BUNYA Productions, with Ivan Sen. He has worked in Broome, and through his relationship with the Pigram brothers, began supporting the development of Mad Bastards before becoming its producer. (34) Ivan Sen’s work so far confirms his credentials as one of the most talented exponents of ‘poor cinema’—a cinema of sparse means but rich in beauty and understanding—making films at the moment. (35) Using his own money to make his films, he believes, has a profound effect on the honesty of the way he works. We’ve come to expect great things from this modest, but philosophically and artistically ambitious artist. And Toomelah is no disappointment.

3. Waves of Gratitude and Chains of Tears: Toomelah

The Toomelah mob are very talented, and their beautiful spirit transcends every scene in the film.
Ivan Sen (36)

Ivan Sen ‘controlled every aspect of [Toomelah‘s] construction, from writing the script and the score to direction, camerawork, and editing’. (37) Indeed, he was the only member of the crew. (38) In Toomelah, Sen is working in a community where his mother grew up, so is related to most of the cast. The script is written from experiences and memories of visiting the place, dialogue taken from things he’s heard during his stays in the community. Nonetheless, whatever his advantage, he clearly has a singular ability to make non-professional actors feel comfortable, and be ‘natural’ while being filmed. As Peter Robb put it,

As the grave and beautiful images unfold with rather little action and fewer words—old, young, male, female, Ivan Sen can hardly take his eyes off a face—you realise not only that you are getting to know a group of people rather well but that you care deeply about what happens to them. (39)

This is also part of Sen’s talent. It’s worth remembering that he cut his teeth, gained confidence and sureness, in still photography. He has an ability to capture what James Agee memorably called ‘the cruel radiance of what is’. (40) Robb also links Toomelah to Satyajit Ray’s film, Pather Panchali (1955), seeing it too as drawing on ‘the austere humanity of the great Italian neorealist films.’ (41) And like Ray’s film, Toomelah has a child at its centre. Daniel (played by ten year-old Daniel Connors) is both a participant and an observer. ‘The audience constantly travels through [his] eyes’, says the director, ‘as he navigates his way in search of his place in the community.’ (42) The looking is without censorship. It’s curious, matter-of-fact, and non-judgemental.

Daniel, Toomelah

Something like this also applies to the environment, to landscapes and natural beauty, which certainly made such an impact in Sen’s earlier Beneath Clouds (2002), and is just as impressive here. We never feel the director’s telling us to look at this beauty and be astounded. It’s more like we’re made aware that natural gifts are there all the time—they just need to be noticed and appreciated. After several viewings, my breath is still taken away by the beauty of so many scenes—as if, as in the Kimberley, there’s poetry in the very air. I don’t think Robb exaggerates when he suggests Sen ‘has the eye of a filmic Rembrandt or Vermeer in the unyielding gentle stillness of his gaze.’ (43) The ‘filmic’, of course, allows stillness and movement—of pale yellow grasses, tree branches and leaves, water, or enveloping grey, inky-blue, or bright-blue skies crossed by clouds. Or pigeons flying up off a red corrugated-iron church roof, in a scene shot in mellow, orange-tinged light. (The mission’s Pentecostal church was closed and fenced off years ago, and is now home to the pigeons.) An ingenious way of taking us around Toomelah is via what Jacinda Woodhead nicely described as a ‘tender subplot,’ (44) when Daniel is told to take his great Aunty, who had been removed from Toomelah many years before, around the place where she used to live, walk and play. His grandmother, whom we’ve seen give him money to go to school, doesn’t move from sitting on her bed to meet up with the stranger who’s her sister, looking on at her through a window, keeping the distance put between them so long ago. Daniel walks hand-in-hand with Aunty Cindy, who says little, but has an incredible presence and dignity: and that, together with her silence, is more eloquent about the violence done to the people herded here by government policy than any overtly critical statement could be.

Cindy wears the Aboriginal colours, her red, yellow and black pullover, like the braiding on her beanie, signalling survival in the face of white-settler-determined history, and the reclamation of pride—now. We’ll see these emblems threaded through the lives of people in the community—on walls, painted in flags on household items, in drawings pinned to boards at the school, and artwork done in jail. Like icons and prayers, they can warm and strengthen people. But miracles are another thing. As the Aunty and child walk side by side, Sen’s spare, electronic music combines with John Napier’s cello to make the journey a meditation. They pass by perfect trees, bedraggled houses and debris, Daniel with his ever-present slight frown, Cindy with her slight smile, and look of kindness, waving to children she passes. When a child they meet asks ‘how come they took you away?’ in that embarrassingly direct manner children can have, she doesn’t answer, but looks a little puzzled. We’ll learn the answer, later, however, from Daniel’s drug-dealing gang-leader mentor, Linden (Christopher Edwards), who tells him about his own old aunt who was taken away when she was little too. Taken on a bus ‘to the dentist’, she’s been gone for fifty years. ‘It’s a long trip to the dentist, eh’, says Linden, ‘what do you reckon?’ But this is the sort of thing that used to happen, he says, mixing the relaying of harsh fact with mob humour.

Toomelah had opened with a stillness, a shot on a boxing trophy, the camera taking its time to pan across to other trophies, including one with an adult and child. It meditates on these cherished fragments of achievement and passing solidity, the cello at the forefront accompanying the meditation. On his walk with his Aunty, Daniel practises his boxing moves, as Aunty Cindy sits on an old piece of corrugated iron, part of a ruined water tank that’s visible nearby. Daniel goes over to sit with her, and now we can read the slogan on her shoulder-bag, ‘Keep Kids Safe’. From this bag, she takes a short drink, talking to herself with her hands, the same hands with which she takes a long piece of dried-out grass and makes a shape from, the way children do. Later as she stands up and leaves Daniel and Uncle Lloyd without a word, and makes her way to that same spot, the latter tells the child that that place is where she used to live when she was little. And with the shots of her with the wind in the trees, the sounds of the birds, the cacti behind, and the trees and houses ahead in the distance, it’s like the camera envelops her in an environment that was part of her long ago and is still—even if she seems like a visiting spirit.

Toomelah is a very political film. However, the way Sen articulates its political nature is apt:

The movie explores the interweaving complexities of the issues facing…the community. From incarceration, deaths in custody, the stolen generations, and substance abuse, to identity, cultural extinction and education. It’s all there, but these issues never dictate to the audience. They are just a part of the fragments of everyday life.

Close to the NSW/Queensland border, Toomelah was set up as a reserve under the jurisdiction of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board back in 1937. Gamilaroi people were delivered there by truck and Bigambul people from across the river were also brought there. That same year, the policy of assimilation was introduced, under which Aboriginal people were expected to live like European-background Australians, without, however, sealed roads, sewerage, or a water bore, which came in 1987, after there had been racial violence. (During the 1980s, Toomelah was cited as having some of the worst living conditions in Australia.) It was in 1940 that ‘light-skinned’ children started to be forcibly removed. Sen’s own mother was taken away by the station manager at the age of fourteen to work on a farm where ‘she was beaten, and so scared of what might happen at night that she dragged a wardrobe across the door before she slept’, says Robb.


Nearly all of whatever she earned went to the manager at Toomelah and presumably the government. Less than 50 years ago in NSW, Ivan’s mother was the government’s child slave. It was like that for everyone sent to work, the men, the girls. Farmers used to come to Toomelah for cheap day labour. (45)

Years later, when legislation was enacted to give Aboriginal people equal pay for the same work as whites, rather than employers giving them fair wages, many Aborigines lost the jobs that they had been doing. Sen had his own schooling in prejudice, when after enjoying his childhood in Tamworth, NSW, where he had friendships with kids on both sides of the railway tracks, rich and poor, black and white, the family moved to Inverell. A smaller town, where social and racial antagonisms were more prominent and nasty, from twelve years of age onwards, he became more of a loner, more solitary. His self-reliance and empathy with young people may have blossomed from this.

At the beginning of Toomelah, Daniel mucks about in the school room, pronouncing words in his native language, or ‘lingo’, with other children. But he’s a bit like a tourist at the scene—until an incident where he threatens to stab another student with pencils, like a Joe Pesci, or Jake La Motta, people he knows don’t take rubbish, who have some kind of impact on their environment. He has to leave. But before he goes, he looks at a time-line of Toomelah’s history, pictures on the board of mission life, family groups, vehicles, warriors from the past, and information about the Myall Creek Massacre. (46) All this we see through his eyes, like he’s weighing up things, noting possibilities. The girl he’s sweet on, Tanitia, had intervened to get the pencil Daniel had been using from his neighbour, Tupac, who’d taken it, and wouldn’t give it back. Tanitia is played by Daniel’s real-life sister, Danieka Connors, and true to a common enough pattern in real life, the girl is a force for improvement, maturity. And she wants to know why Daniel hangs around with the ‘fullas’ he does, when he isn’t going to school. Like Daniel, she’s lovable. With her husky voice, her knowingness and demeanour, it’s like she’s ten years old going on fifty. Daniel’s mum, however, is abrupt with him, we don’t see affection, and at the pub, she gets the boy to go to buy a stick of yarndi (47) for her, which he does in our first meeting with Linden and company. They already know he’s been ‘fuckin’ up at school’.

It’s with Linden and his mates that Daniel feels connected and warmed. Here, with these young men with adolescent dreams, there’s some lightness and laughter—and, moreover, respect. Here ‘dickhead’ and ‘you little fuckin’ shit’ are terms of endearment. By the river, where Linden and his mates fish, Linden tells Daniel about the corroborees that used to take place there, where people danced around the fire all night, and talked their own lingo.

It’s worth remembering that some missions banned all native rituals and incantations. Gatherings could only happen in daylight, in English, outdoors and with participants wearing European clothing. By contrast, the traditional corroboree was a thing of the devil, according to Brother Hagenauer, in charge of Ramahyuck mission, ‘carried out in the forest by moonlight, with shocking gestures in satanical excitement’. Such a ritual was ‘a real festival of the enemy of the soul.’ (48)

Linden tells Daniel that when the corroborees took place at Toomelah, the managers used to come down and try to stop them. Sometimes participants were jailed. He asks Daniel if he learns lingo at school, and he talks about his own mother and father teaching him words like ‘bandar‘, for ‘kangaroo’, and ‘gooya’ for ‘fish’. He’d learned mainly ‘bush-tucker’ words. Daniel’s also with Linden as he gets his drugs from a man he meets out there in the bush, and as the group smokes dope inside the caravan. And while the friends play on the X-box, Daniel does his apprenticeship in cutting up grass and packaging it for customers. They talk about the Dreaming and totems, ‘Scammer’ having learned his totem from his Nan. Daniel doesn’t know his totem. Scammer reckons Jesus told his Nan her totem. ‘Jesus who?’, says another, ‘Everybody know Jesus’. ‘Fuck Jesus’, it’s said. Amidst the talking and laughter there’s an amalgam of history and Aboriginal and settler myth. The same kind of talk and sociability go on in the magic of the campfire at night, as these friends discuss totemic eating taboos. You can curse your own family if you breach these, if you ‘do that shit’, they agree. You’re dealing with magic stuff, ‘black magic’. And in the dark of the night, looking directly into the beauty and blaze of the fire that lights up the young men’s faces and fleshly outlines, they invoke more fear, of beings like the ‘Feather-Foot fulla’, the Kadaitcha man, who can come and grab you and finish you for good. A little trainee gangster, Daniel has some predictability and safety with this lot, and with them, he builds up on his bravado. He’s their ‘little bad boy Dan’. (‘Because they my friends’, Daniel had answered Tanitia, when she asked why he was hanging around with them.) Around the fire too they talk about jail time and the ‘heavy shit’ that goes down there—like it’s a normal stage in the future. ‘All my cousins are there’, says Linden—three times. And building up his own bravado, he says: ‘When I go to jail, it’s only gonna make me fuckin’ stronger, anyway’. And as his mates look on and smile, and the fire crackles, he performs his own monologue, makes his existential statement that’s also like an epitaph, because selling his yarndi is what he ‘has to do’. With life in jail a likely consequence of this, one of his friends says ‘they’ll be handing you the rope’, Linden miming wrapping a rope around his neck, invoking another too common pattern in real life, Aboriginal deaths in custody. When Daniel is affectionately asked if he’s ‘a virgin in the bum’, he says, ‘Na’. ‘He’s open, boys’, they joke.

The scenes between children in Toomelah are masterful. Sen and his actors are able to get not only the dialogue right, but the rhythms of real children’s speech, the exactness of tones of interaction. As Daniel plays on the X-box with a young friend beside him, Tupac, with his own friend doing the talking, challenges him:

‘Tupac wants to fight you’, says the friend.

‘Who?’ yells Daniel’s friend.

‘Tupac, you deaf cunt’, says the representative.

‘What for?’

”He said you’re a big noter like your father and stay away from his woman’.

‘He reckons he can drop you in one hit’.

‘Daniel said he’ll drop you like Muhammed Ali’, says his friend.

And this goes on, invoking more of the boys’ media action heroes. Tanitia, of course, is the ‘woman’ in question.

Linden drives Daniel to his fight, and films it with his mobile phone. Daniel’s mum is also there with a circle of others as the boys face off. Daniel is the smaller of the two, his small limbs and body making all the right moves. As he spits like an adult, there’s a way he responds with his yes and no answers as if he’s coughing them out, short and sharp, certain of himself, like an Australian version of a confident little gangster—the kind James Cagney used to play when he wasn’t dancing through his films. While they fight, Tupac slurs Daniel’s no-hoper dad, but his grandmother comes to stop him fighting, pulling him away from the spectacle by the collar. Daniel leaves with Linden and they learn that there are ‘coppers’ around.

Daniel and Gran, Toomelah

Sen manages to capture the paradoxes of age, the adult in the child and the child in the adult—who, at the same time, must take responsibility for children if there’s to be any hope for them. Sen is able to respect the kids as real little people, at the same time as conveying their need for adult protection and guidance. Later in the film, a car pulls up, and Tanitia calls Daniel over to it. He gets in the back beside her and her young friend leans over from the front seat, to ask the boy:

‘Daniel, do you still love ‘er?’

‘Who?’, he says.

‘Tanitia’, says the friend.

He gives the tiniest nod of his head.

‘Tanitia, you love ‘im?’, asks the friend.

Tanitia shakes her head, no.

‘You don’t?’, she asks, and Tanitia again signals no.

‘Daniel. She don’t love you no more. You love her?’

He shakes his head. The mediation is over.

While we do see what Woodhead describes as the ‘logical conclusions’ of two hundred and forty-one years of dispossession,’ (49) like any community and its members, Toomelah and its people can’t be reduced to their history. Along with and partly shaped by their grim heritage, there’s energy, humour, dreams and aspirations and more. Danieka as Tanitia contributes to expressing this feeling of possibility, matter-of-factly, hopefully, like a steadfast, sunny light. And it’s these ‘spirited young characters who control the narrative’, says Woodhead, who found this scene in the car where the kids ‘look at each other, in all their beauty, and at the horizon’, (5) one of the most charming and revealing in the film. That horizon is both literal and metaphorical. And we, the audience, have both hope and trepidation for them. As we do for another character in the film played by yet another member of the Connors family.

If there was a face the equal of any of those ‘ordinary’ people in the great Russian films of the silent period, it’s that of Buster, played by Michael Connors, Daniel’s dad in the film and real life. Buster too has heard about Daniel at school and out of it, and one of the film’s most poignant moments, which could be a bit of comedy without Sen’s direction and the sincerity of Connors’s performance, occurs when Buster wants to straighten out his son: ‘I’ll lift you’, he says. ‘I’ll get up out’ve this gutter…’ We feel the weight of this most concrete and metaphorical of scenes, and want to embrace the man, help him be a person in the world and a father to his son. He tells Daniel he doesn’t want him to be like his old man, like himself, ‘good for nothin’ now’. Connors senior is beautiful. His brown skin, white hair, dark eyes, and the fineness of his features belie the hopelessness of his situation. For his part, Sen says that he ‘couldn’t believe how real and how authentic [Connors’s and his son’s] performances were’. In shades of what happened with Dean Daley-Jones with Mad Bastards,Michael had gotten involved in the film as a minder for Daniel. But after he tried out for a small role, Sen instantly offered him a bigger part. While Sen was particularly happy about the premiere of the film in the community itself, where there was plenty of laughter, much recognition and validation of the people themselves (the event included kids who were problems at school, staying still, being riveted to the screen), Cannes was another overwhelming experience. There were waves of gratitude that went on for ages at the standing ovation at Un Certain Regard, and it was Michael Connors who began the chain of crying, followed by all of them, including the director himself.

The gratitude, I believe, isn’t only because members of the audience feel they’ve been exposed to exotic places or people. Nor to the poverty and social deprivation of people with whom they can empathize. While Voltaire was right, I think, that ‘life’s sorrow’ can be ‘art’s joy’, it’s not sorrow alone, nor the sincerity of the participants’ efforts that draws such a response. At the very same time as what is painful in Toomelah, we can feel the shards of something better, vectors of connection between people and country that along with the cold, has a warmth and beauty that we experience aesthetically—in our body, mind, and soul.

Beauty still surrounds the characters and is laced with menace, when fresh out of jail, involved with Daniel’s mother, and taking over Linden and his mates’ drug trade, Bruce, played by Dean Daley-Jones, enters the picture. In this film, the actor is formidably menacing. With a smile full of pride, the first we’ve seen from her in the film, Daniel’s mother introduces her ‘little boy Daniel—the champ, they call him’. The big man, also a fighter, wants a talk with ‘little Dan’, and drives him into a landscape by a river as spellbinding as anything we see in the film. Daniel is evidently scared and looks like the frightened little boy he is. He’s trapped beside this man, who asks him, in a paternal way, if he’s got a girlfriend. Looking up with frightened eyes, he listens to Bruce’s talk get nastier, as he speaks about what it will be like growing up, the way girls will make him silly, and the way that soon enough, he too will start ‘slapping bitches around’. Despite Daniel’s bravado and courage, as he has already gone into Bruce’s house and found the drugs, the money, and a weapon the gang suspected would be there, this man strikes terror into the child. Bruce has heard Daniel wants to be ‘a bad cunt’ and asks if this is true, as he runs the edge of a large knife over woven bracelets on his tattooed hands and up his arm, making a slicing motion:

‘How come you done all them bad things what they said you did?’, asks the child.

‘Suppose I’m just a bad cunt’, Bruce responds. Everyone in this fuckin’ mission want to be a bad cunt. Well here I am…’

He knows, he tells Daniel, that he was in his house, since Tupac saw him go in. The purpose is a serious warning: ‘You tell Linden and them little plastic gangsters they want to be real careful. You tell Linden bub…if I see him in there again, or if he fucks with me again, I’ll slash his fuckin’ throat’. At the end of the frightening sermon, Daniel gets out of the car, walks, and then runs for his life towards the mission. The car scene works particularly well when you know that because of the language used, Daley-Jones and Daniel weren’t actually together while the lines were delivered and Daniel’s reaction shots were captured. For the film, the child had to be protected from what might happen in actual life.

The drug drama ends, when as women and kids watch on, Linden and his friends, including young Daniel, confront Bruce, Linden striking him repeatedly, to the point where Bruce looks like a broken, almost small figure curled up on the ground.

‘Who’s the plastic gangster now?… What’re youse all looking at?… You want some too?’ asks the energized Linden, as people watch on like time has been suspended.

The warm night sky descends, and when the school bell rings next morning, the streets are empty. Tupac comes down his drive with his grandmother by his side, and takes off for school. Daniel and the grandmother watch on and exchange looks with each other, and the child takes off to his friends’ caravan. But the coppers took them all away last night, Linden’s pregnant girlfriend tells him. Now without bearings in the world he’s been navigating, Daniel walks to the riverside, where the corroborees had taken place, where there was once fire, and collective effervescence—until they were outlawed. The boy hoists a rope he found in Linden’s car up onto a tree branch. But he lets it down and sits alone and cries. The crying was real.

Back home at the mission, Daniel joins his grandmother sitting where her sister had sat. The music comes in and she cuddles him firmly, and he can receive it. And as music continues, as spare as the attenuated strands of support and affection that run through the film, Daniel walks along the school veranda, punching a ball. Inside, he examines the library shelves, and once again, the pictures. The kids are learning their language, and he looks at the work they’ve been doing, at carved shields, and colourful paintings of emus and kangaroos. Tanitia is there, participating. Tupac is drawing a splendid fish. Daniel’s face looks softer as he looks on from the left of the screen. Toomelah ends with him looking, thinking—what now? That’s a question for all of us, I believ


  1. Brendan Fletcher, director, co-writer and producer of Mad Bastards, 2011.
  2. Press Kit for Mad Bastards: http://www.madbastards.com.au. Unless otherwise specified, quotations from participants in the film are from the press kit, or the DVD Extras or Commentary by Brendan Fletcher and Dean Daley-Jones, Transmissions Films, 2011.
  3. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, ‘Imitation of Life: On the Films of Douglas Sirk’, Film Comment 11:6 (November-December 1975): 83.
  4. David MacDougall, ‘Introduction: Meaning and Being’, The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography and the Senses (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006): 4-5.
  5. See Thomas Caldwell, ‘Sharing Lives, Sharing Stories: On Making Mad Bastards’, Metro 169 (2011): 34.
  6. Except, perhaps, for the great engineer, ethnographer, and filmmaker, Jean Rouch, who, with his African friends and collaborators, combined poetry and grass-roots construction in filmmaking for over fifty years. On Rouch, his films and collaborators, see, for example, Jean Rouch, Ciné-Ethnography, Steven Feld, ed. and trans. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
  7. Collins’s first feature was Ivan Sen’s Beneath Clouds (2002). He was the first Indigenous person accredited by the Australian Cinematographers Society.
  8. The Nyungar are Indigenous Australians who inhabit the south-west corner of Western Australia.
  9. See Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’, in Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (London: Victor Gollancz, 1989).
  10. This is typically a worry, and can become a charge, on the part of anthropologists schooled in self-consciously anti-imperialist domination-focussed analysis, who are suspicious of the flights of fancy of colleagues they label postmodern. For these writers, to take one’s primary gaze away from injustice and oppression can amount to taking away the anthropologist’s alibi for dwelling with ‘others’—indeed, one of the few raisons d’être to justify anthropology today.
  11. Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Talcott Parsons, trans. (Unwin University Books: London, 1970):182.
  12. Weber, p. 119.
  13. Weber, pp. 118-119.
  14. Weber, p. 121.
  15. Weber, p. 121.
  16. Weber, 154.
  17. Stephen Kalberg, ‘Max Weber’s Types of Rationality: Cornerstones for the Analysis of Rationalization Processes in History’, American Journal of Sociology 85:5 (1980): 1173.
  18. See Philippe Bourgois, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 8.
  19. Bourgois, p. 11.
  20. Bourgois, p. 9.
  21. See Alan Duff, Once Were Warriors (Auckland: Tandem Press, 1990), and the film version directed by Lee Tamahori, 1994.
  22. This paraphrase of Castoriadis, in The Imaginary Institution of Society, can be found in Edgar Morin’s Pour sortir du vingtième siècle (Paris: Fernand Nathan, 1981): 255, my translation.
  23. Edgar Morin, with A.B. Kern, Terre-Patrie (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1996), or Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for the New Millenium, S.M. Kelly and R. LaPointe, trans. (Cresshill, N.J.: Hampton, 1999).
  24. Morin, Terre-Patrie, p. 208, my translation.
  25. Weber, ‘Science as a Vocation’, in H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds and trans., From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Galaxy, 1960), 155-156.
  26. Weber, The Protestant Ethic, p. 181.
  27. Weber, The Protestant Ethic, p. 181.
  28. Weber, The Protestant Ethic, p. 181, however I am using Ulrich Beck’s translation here from his article, ‘Climate for Change, or How to Create a Green Modernity?’, in Breakthrough Europe. http://breakthrougheurope.org/blog/2010/12/climate_for_change_or_how_to_c_1.shtml
  29. Weber, The Protestant Ethic, p. 104.
  30. See Petr Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (Boston: Extending Horizons Books, 1914). Anthropologist, James Ferguson, has used Kropotkin in relation to grass-roots movements in contemporary third-world countries. However, the erudite anarchist’s work is generally too little known now.
  31. See also Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist (London: The Folio Society, 1978).
  32. Le Guin, ‘A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be’, in Dancing at the Edge of the World, p. 96.
  33. Amongst numerous works, Fletcher directed the film, 900 Neighbours (2006), featuring tenants of the Northcott public housing estate in Surry Hills, Sydney, and in 2008, wrote and directed Cannot Buy My Soul, the live music show with legendary Indigenous singer, Kev Carmody.
  34. Jowsey has worked with the ABC in the Indigenous, religion and ethics departments, and commissioned and produced documentaries.
  35. Along with short documentaries, Sen made Yellow Fella (2005) and Fire Talker (2009). His first feature, Beneath Clouds (2002), screened at the Sundance Film Festival and won Premiere First Movie Award at the Berlin Film Festival.
  36. See http://www.toomelahthemovie.com
  37. Jacinda Woodhead, ‘A Remote Possibility?: The Uncomfortable Realities of Toomelah’, Metro 170 (Spring 2011): 38.
  38. Once again, comparison with Jean Rouch is apt here, since Rouch tended to go into communities alone and work with the help of those appearing in his films.
  39. Peter Robb, ‘Dreamland’, The Monthly (3 November 2011), http://www.themonthly.com.au/print/4159: 4. Accessed 1/6/2012.
  40. James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960): 11.
  41. Robb, p. 3.
  42. Unless otherwise specified, quotations from Sen are taken from the website for the film above.
  43. Robb, p. 7.
  44. Woodhead, p. 40.
  45. Robb, p. 2.
  46. In a well-documented incident in 1838, a group of armed stockmen attacked about twenty-eight Aboriginal people at Myall Creek Station, tied them together, and hacked and slashed them to death, later burning their remains. Descendants of those murdered and the murderers now commemorate what happened at the site of the killings in a gesture of reconciliation. The site is not far from Toomelah and close to Inverell in NSW. See, for example, http://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/history/massacres-Myall-Creek-1838.html
  47.   ‘Yarndi’ is an Aboriginal word often used to describe marijuana.
  48. I cannot locate the site of this particular quote but there are many sites devoted to various missions and missionaries, including Ramahyuk and Hagenauer, on the internet.
  49. Woodhead, p. 40.
  50. Woodhead, p. 40.

About The Author

Lorraine Mortimer is an Associate with the Department of Anthropology at Sydney University. She is the translator of The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man: An Essay in Sociological Anthropology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), and author of Terror and Joy: The Films of Dušan Makavejev (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), recently translated into Serbian as Teror i Radost: Filmovi Dušana Makavejeva (Belgrade: Clio & The Faculty of Dramatic Art, Belgrade, 2012).

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