The bulk of Ivan Sen’s cinematic oeuvre – documentary and fiction (not that there is always great disparity between the two) – converges around a set of core themes: the intractable legacy of British colonialism and racism; the complex inscriptions on, and meanings of, landscape; the resilience of Indigenous Australia; the importance of cultural connection; and a quiet optimism for a just, caring Australia – one in which historical wounds can be healed.1
Toomelah fits well within these parameters. It is a film centred on the life of ten-year-old Daniel (Daniel Connors), a boy who lives in an Indigenous community marred by its colonial origins as a reserve and mission.2 When Daniel’s Aunt Cindy (Sharron Whitton) visits from Redfern, she tells a curious young girl that “it’s a long time ago that they took people away from here.” That statement, meant as a diversion to shield her from painful recollection, belies the truth of the matter: she was taken from Toomelah herself. And the trauma associated with abduction and separation has not parted ways with Aunt Cindy or her sister, Daniel’s Nan (Margery McGrady). Both have an unmistakable look of sadness and loss in their eyes – feelings and experiences that cannot be repaired. The long-lasting, potentially ineradicable effects of governmental terror against Indigenous Australia can be seen community-wide in Toomelah: connection to land and culture is diminished; living conditions are poor; alcoholism and drug-use are rife, unfortunate but inexorable products of racial and generational suffering and gross inequity. The few encounters Daniel has with his father (Michael Connors) in the film illustrate this exemplarily: the latter has been reduced to a shell of a man, stranded on the side of a gutter with no likely prospects and a highly strained relationship with a young son in much need of guidance.
Like with Sen’s touching 2002 film Beneath Clouds, Toomelah’s ultimate focus is on the future for First Nations peoples, channelled through its young central characters. Sen is not a naïve filmmaker or thinker; his films do not present as certain a utopian vision of the future in which persistent disadvantage can be completely done away with. Yet they do poignantly gesture towards the possibility of a better tomorrow. Intelligent and self-motivated, Beneath Clouds’ Lena (Dannielle Hall) has the capacity to live a better life than her predecessors if she can reconcile her cultural identity, whereas matters are less clear for the impetuous but good-natured Vaughn (Damian Pitt). And as Sen eagerly hopes, if Daniel can stay in school, maintain his relationships with his friend Tanitia (Daneeka Connors) and other relatives like Nan and Aunt Cindy, and establish resolute cultural bonds, then there is every chance of a better life for him.
Nonetheless, the film adverts to the significant roadblocks that stand in his way. After being suspended from school for threatening to stab a classmate, Daniel is left with very little to occupy him in Toomelah. His mother is not there for him, and his father cannot look after himself, let alone Daniel. Despite Nan’s kind, encouraging urgings, there is only so much she can do given her age and the trauma that apparently consumes her in every second of every day. This leads to Daniel falling into the clutches of a local drug gang led by Linden (Christopher Edwards), for which he is employed as a drug courier. Needless to say, they are a bad influence on him: drinking and smoking profusely; deploying myriad curse words; fetishising and executing violence. Things come to a head when a “business competitor” named Bruce (Dean Daley-Jones) is released from prison, sparking a confrontation of some brutality in front of Daniel, who watches on impassively, numbly.
As I have written elsewhere, Toomelah “blurs the lines between fiction and documentary, delivering us a challenging but important cinematic experience.”3 Similar to most of Sen’s other work – particularly Beneath Clouds, with Hall and Pitt – Toomelah uses non-actors (bar Daley-Jones) to inhabit, rather than perform, the roles Sen has defined. Sen was in Toomelah well in advance of the film’s inception. On one day, he saw Daniel being threatened by a bunch of older boys; instead of cowering, the boy took it to them, pulling out a knife to defend himself. Then he got suspended from school for the same reason as he does in Toomelah.4 Daniel’s family members also feature in the film: Michael Connors, who plays Daniel’s father in the film, is his real father, and his sister Daneeka plays his friend Tanitia.5 Much of the film’s narrative, and its script is said to be organically informed by Sen’s experience of observing and recording everyday life in Toomelah, in a sense recreating it through the cinematic medium – with all of its inherent possibilities and limitations for illuminating truth. Sen’s patient search for authenticity is further bolstered by other production-based decisions: filming on location in a real Indigenous community; feeding them lines in the moment; and filming without a crew, and instead with a mobile, handheld camera.6 The sum total of Sen’s directorial choices at the very least furnish an impression of reality – as good neorealist and docudrama cinema should.
But it is Toomelah’s uncertain coda and its associated implications that arguably hold most interest. For roughly 100 minutes, we have been taken on, in Sen’s words, “a fly on the wall tour of an indigenous community for the rest of Australia.”7 It is not necessarily the film’s world – its diegesis – that one ponders after seeing it. What is much more likely to occupy us is the state of Toomelah and the trajectory of the lives of the real Daniel, the real Michael, the real Daneeka.
There have been no ‘updates’ on those who featured in Toomelah. Daniel Connors would be about 18 years old now. Yet, for the vast majority of viewers, his life is shrouded in darkness, mystery. That is the duplicitous nature of cinema. It frequently gets us to care about individuals, collectives and cultures, but its temporariness, its impermanence, for the most part cannot secure real-life solutions or happy endings.
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Toomelah (2011 Australia 106 minutes)
Prod Co: Bunya Productions, Screen Australia, Screen NSW Prod: David Jowsey Dir: Ivan Sen Scr: Ivan Sen Phot: Ivan Sen Ed: Ivan Sen Mus: Ivan Sen
Cast: Daniel Connors, Christopher Edwards, Michael Connors, Dorothy Cubby, Dean Daley-Jones, Daneeka Connors, Sharron Whitton, Margery McGrady
- See Nicholas Bugeja, “Ivan Sen and Mabo, the Aboriginal Tracker, Genre, and Accessibility,” Film Matters 9.2 (2018), p. 40. ↩
- See Chris Graham, “Why Toomelah Collapsed,” New Matilda, 6 July 2012, https://newmatilda.com/2012/07/06/why-toomelah-collapsed/ ↩
- Nicholas Bugeja, “Ivan Sen’s Personal, Indigenous Cinema”, Lot’s Wife, 4 November 2017, https://lotswife.com.au/ivan-sens-personal-indigenous-cinema/ ↩
- Ivan Sen, interview with Andrew Fenton, “Real-Life Anger of Nine-Year-Old Daniel Connors Led to Ivan Sen’s Film Toomelah,” The Daily Telegraph, 6 December 2011, https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/entertainment/real-life-anger-of-nine-year-old-daniel-connors-led-to-ivan-sens-film-toomelah/news-story/25cca7a2581be1946aa2ff5dd62e573a?sv=c83863ad86ce208029013e4a9f8987cb ↩
- “APSA Academy Members: Daniel Connors,” Asia Pacific Screen Awards, https://www.asiapacificscreenawards.com/apsa-academy-members/daniel-connors ↩
- Jacinda Woodhead, “The Uncomfortable Realities of Toomelah,” Metro 170 (2011), p. 38. ↩
- Ivan Sen, quoted in Jacky Ghossein, “Small Town Ragamuffins Now Feted by the World”, The Advertiser (Cessnock), 11 November 2011, https://www.cessnockadvertiser.com.au/story/939551/small-town-ragamuffins-now-feted-by-the-world/ ↩