There are moments in Vacant Possession (1994) when the past becomes a material presence. Writer/director Margot Nash’s ambitious ‘state of the nation’ film probes Australia’s shifting cultural landscape, and lays the textures of history over the uncertain outline of the present. Best known for her documentary and experimental short works, this is Nash’s only feature length fictional drama to date. Those familiar with her work will recognise this as Nash’s cinematic territory; recurring tropes of race, gender, family relationships and the gaps between remembered history and reality, are all woven into the film’s sensuous form. This is a fascinating companion piece to her autobiographical documentary The Silences (Margot Nash, 2016); the two films are richly intertextual in their exploration of her own difficult childhood.
Vacant Possession collapses the personal with the political, as troubling layers of history are excavated from beneath the soil of a house on the shores of Botany Bay. Released just two years after the Mabo Case set a precedent for Aboriginal claims to ancestral land1 the film is anchored in an in-between space, characterised by dislocation and anxiety. Questions of ownership, entitlement and identity are framed by the earthy, brooding aesthetics of the land, which is at the heart of the film. Different claims to the land are bound up with disparate ways of seeing and sensing, magnified by the film’s mode of address. There are stylistic shifts between the more conventional optical representation, where the viewer watches from a safe critical distance, and the kind of tactile looking that resonates with Laura Marks’ concept of “haptic visuality”.2 Within this theoretical model, our eyes sometimes ‘stand in’ for the sense of touch; images on screen transcend their status as purely visual objects. This offers “contact between perceiver and object represented… vision itself can be tactile, as though one were touching a film with one’s eyes.” 3
Played by Pamela Rabe, Tessa’s return from self-imposed exile is first presented as the memory of a dream, immediately disrupting diegetic time. The opening sequence uses a haptic register to establish a sensual, tactile connection between memory and place. A multi layered soundscape envelops us. We hear native Australian birdsong, high pitched buzzing insects and cascading water. An ominous creaking and groaning recalls the laboured sounds of convict ships shifting in the wind, – an image that will soon be summoned in voice – over by Tessa. These sounds permeate the safety of our skin, reaching in to make direct contact. Images of a mangrove swamp are alternately clear and indistinct, suggesting uncertainty and inviting us to skim the surface of the image, without a particular focus within the frame. The camera movement reinforces a sense of direct contact between viewer and film, subject and object. Its arc appears arbitrary, implicating us as active agents in a mutual process of perception.
This kind of ‘looking’ is more interested in the texture of an image than its wider representational context. It offers up a transformative space for feeling the cinematic encounter as a textured, material presence. Vivian Sobchack calls this “making sense sensible” 4 Undulating waves are tracked in extreme close up; mobile pools of light shimmering on white caps evoke a gentle caress. When Tessa’s hand reaches into the water, her action reorients us more formally within the frame, while still foregrounding the sense of touch.
And it is sensory contact that continues to drive Tessa’s reconciliation with her past. Despite her mercenary motivation for coming home, as she shacks up in the old family house, on the hunt for her mother’s rewritten will, the actions of the past start to mediate the present, and time slips from its moorings. Memories and dreams violently rupture the walls of the house, which acts as a dangerous site of intersection between Aboriginal and White Australian histories. The dislocation of the returning resident is amplified by the ghosts of other kinds of exiles: the convicts of Tessa’s ancestors, the Indigenous people exiled from their ancestral land.
The house retains its symbolic clarity as we see scenes from Tessa’s childhood replayed without the editing usually associated with temporal transitions. By aligning the physical reality of the house with her presence in it, the house signals an interstitial space that contains both then and now. Within this framework, she repeatedly negotiates the past through a return to textures or smells; the cold remembered skin of a snake associated with her Aboriginal neighbours, the scent of the towel her mother handed her as she packed her case to run away, pregnant with the child of her Aboriginal boyfriend Mitch (Graham Moore). When she learns of Mitch’s death – and her father’s indirect implication in it – she conjures the reassuring sense memory of her mother’s arms, and is rocked into a heartbroken sleep. The aesthetic density of the house gives way to a haptic sensibility as Tessa dives beneath rippling waters, the indistinct image again inviting surface reflection, and registering as sensuous contact. The narrative is aesthetically amplified by this sequence, as Tessa and the spectator are both momentarily comforted through material contact with the image.
Outside of the house, the violent editing of the landscape is in full swing. Cranes are dredging the earth and planes from Sydney airport hurtle across the sky, blighting the former beauty of the now ironically titled Botany Bay. Nash is interested in the tensions of living in a postcolonial society, and the film’s setting is a poignant shorthand for these anxieties. She has said that “trying to find our place and our sense of belonging … is something that a lot of white people in this country have enormous confusions around.”5
The cultural disjuncture between black and white concepts of home is signalled at the end of the film. Millie (Olivia Patten) overhears Tessa telling her father that they should give the house to her family as ‘reparation’ for Mitch’s death. “We don’t want your house. Why do you white people think you always know what we want?…we was talking about a home, not a house. A home is a place. It’s where you belong.”
Tessa’s negotiation of tangible, embodied memories, and the film’s use of haptic language, offers a movement towards Millie’s understanding of home – as a ‘senseable’ place where bodies and family histories are embedded forever in the Australian earth.
Vacant Possession (1994 Australia 95 mins)
Prod. Co: Wintertime Films Prod: John Winter Dir: Margot Nash Scr: Margot Nash Phot: Dione Bebe Ed: Veronika Jenet Prod Des: Michael Philips Mus: Alistair Jones Cast: Pamela Rabe, John Stanton, Toni Scanlan, Linden Wilkinson, Rita Bruce, Olivia Patten, Graham Moore.
- Australian Bureau of Statistics, “The Mabo Case and the Native Title Act”, Year Book Australia,1995, http://www.abs.gov.au/Ausstats/abs@.nsf/Previousproducts/1301.0Feature%20Article21995 ↩
- Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000),p. 255. ↩
- Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), p.11. ↩
- Vivian Sobchack, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 3. ↩
- Claire Corbett, “Sacred Land and Haunted Houses”, Cinema Papers, 110 (June 1995): p.19. ↩