Silence. Punctuated by the insistent ringing of a public phone. Ringing. Ringing. Ringing.
This leitmotif in Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah embodies some of the biggest issues raised in the film. It is key in expressing Thornton’s response to the formal 2008 Apology to the Stolen Generations. Audiences are first introduced to the phone at the seven-minute mark of the film, and hear it ring three times within the next eight minutes. The ring is jarring in the largely ambient soundscape, and contrasts with the bush sounds of the outback. The image of the phone is similarly unsuited to its surroundings. In a rural landscape of red dust, parched brown trees and dilapidated homes, the silver polished phone looks alien. The impression that the phone does not belong is reinforced by the way it is regarded by locals. Both Samson and Delilah acknowledge the phone as it rings, but both ignore it. Samson in particular has an almost wary look painted on his face.
Some critics believe the phone is a one-dimensional symbol, inserted to represent the isolation of the town. However, looking at the film in a post-Apology context, a dual symbolism can be asserted. From the way the phone intrudes on the landscape to the way it is snubbed by locals, it is hinted that the phone has been put there not at the behest of the town’s inhabitants, but as part of a government initiative. That this government intervention in no way serves the people epitomises Thornton’s attitude toward the government on a larger scale. In many ways, the film is an indictment of the 2008 Apology from Kevin Rudd. It depicts white Australians as uncaring and uninterested, in spite of the Prime Minister’s words. The phone perpetuates this indictment and speaks metaphorically about the Apology. While the phone has been placed in the community to try and help its people, the Indigenous town remains unresponsive.
Thornton himself said, “The ‘sorry’ word was designed for our grandmothers…. But for the Samson and Delilahs of the world it doesn’t mean shit. When you’re starving on the streets and you’re homeless, that word just doesn’t cut it” (1), “It doesn’t put food on tables” (2). While the Apology resonated with many connected to the Stolen Generation, Thornton explains that there are a new set of issues affecting the Indigenous community that need to be addressed, such as poverty, substance abuse and homelessness. The phone, much like the Apology, looks good and is designed to aid the Indigenous community, but in reality it provides no real solution. The community does not respond to the phone in the same way many Aboriginals, such as Thornton, did not respond to the Apology.
Thornton paints a bleak image of white Australians, and the dynamic within Indigenous communities, but the final phone scene should leave viewers with hope. After her ordeal, Delilah returns to the rural town with Samson and their difficult lives continue. However, a glimmer of hope is offered as the phone rings once more. This time, it is answered. From firsthand experience, Delilah knows of the desperation that can motivate a call. This experience has humanised the person on the other end of the line. It is only through being able to empathise with this person’s plight that she is willing to become involved and provide effective help. This translates to the government’s efforts to help the Indigenous community. Thornton perhaps is saying that white Australians need to walk in the shoes of Indigenous people to understand their lives and consequently be able to help in a useful way. Progression can come only from experience in, and empathy with, the Indigenous population. Until then, the phone will keep ringing. Unanswered.
Looking at the film within the context of other Indigenous post-Apology works reinforces why the phone motif is so seminal. Released within months of Samson and Delilah, Bran Nue Dae (Rachel Perkins, 2009) sits diametrically opposed to the earlier film (3). Although both can loosely be classed as “road films”, and deal with the divide between black and white Australia, the two films could not be more different. Set in 1965, Bran Nue Dae does not address current social issues, and is situated firmly within the musical genre. Post-Apology film The Sapphires (Wayne Blair; 2012) similarly takes a retrospective and uplifting look at Indigenous history, and while discrimination on screen is depicted, the characters learn to rise above it. These films are both musicals, where the defining characteristics are music and sound. Unlike Samson and Delilah, the Indigenous characters are accessible and unignorable due to their loud and energetic performances. Samson and Delilah is now; it addresses current political issues and uses sound as part of its social critique. The unanswered phone represents an authentic deafness not present in other Indigenous post-Apology films. It is key in that it raises an issue that needs to be addressed, but previously has been ignored.
- Jim Schembri, “Samson Makes Tilt at Oscar”, The Sydney Morning Herald 21 October 2009: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/samson-makes-tilt-at-oscar-20100218-oftc.html.
- Daniel Trilling, “The Film Interview: Warwick Thornton”, New Statesman 26 March 2010: http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/cultural-capital/2010/03/film-indigenous-delilah-samson.
- Craig Mathieson, “Bran Nue Dae”, SBS 14 January 2010: http://www.sbs.com.au/films/movie/4812/bran-nue-dae.