Expanded from his 2020 short of the same name, The Moogai is writer/director Jon Bell’s allegorical horror film about the Stolen Generation – the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families between 1910-1970 because of Australian governmental policy. This point is made in the opening scene when First Nations children must run and hide from two cops who have come to collect them. However, one child, hiding in a cave, is caught by The Moogai, a “boogeyman” that steals children, as her young sister Ruth (Aisha Alma) helplessly watches.

This ominous opening sequence, a flashback, sets the tone for Bell’s impressive debut feature, which screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The story starts in earnest as Sarah (Shari Sebbens) is about to give birth to her second child. The labour is fraught with danger and ends tragically when Sarah experiences cardiac arrest and ‘dies’ on the table before being revived. Her son, Jacob, is born healthy, and Sarah is told to rest. Both Sarah’s husband, Fergus (Meyne Wyatt), and Sarah’s Aboriginal birth mother, Ruth (Tessa Rose), hope to help Sarah relax and care for Chloe (Jahdeana Mary), Sarah and Fergus’ young daughter. 

But Sarah does not rest. She is troubled by what appear to be nightmares in which a young Aboriginal girl with white eyes whispers the cryptic warning, “He’s coming.” Sarah is further unnerved when she goes to make an omelette and all of the eggs are bloody. Is she suffering from a strange form of post-partum depression? Things go from bad to worse as an incident involving Chloe’s teacher involves the police. Sarah is soon committed by Fergus to a hospital for possible psychosis and because she may be a danger to her children. 

The Moogai, of course, shows that Sarah does have a reason to behave the way she does. While she rejects Ruth’s efforts to combat evil, there is, indeed, a very real evil spirit tormenting her and her family. The Moogai is slowly revealed over the course of the film until Sarah comes face to face with it to protect and save her children. 

Bell is addressing themes of racism and intergenerational trauma with The Moogai, and he effectively uses jump scares, sound (such as creaks and bones crunching), as well as horrifying images (of The Moogai) to ratchet up the tension. 

The filmmaker spoke with Senses of Cinema about his exciting feature debut.

– G.M.K.

The Moogai

Your 2020 short, The Moogai, was made as a proof of concept. Can you talk about the decisions you made to expand the short into a feature? You added the character of Ruth, for example.

I was writing both [the feature and the short] at the same time. With the short I was trying to make something that had three acts. A lot of shorts have just a setup and payoff. I tried to have a beginning, middle, and an end so it was a stronger proof of concept. I was trying to get everything in as efficiently as possible. Even with the slower moving shots in the short, the story is flying by in the narrative. Just because it’s short, 15-minutes, there is still so much stuff you can get in there. You can get a lot of story into a short if you pump on all levels.

It is interesting you wrote both at the same time.

There were some characters that I discovered in the long form, like Agnes (Precious Ann in the feature), who came back into the short. Originally, it was just the happenings around the house. When I fleshed that character out for the feature, I brought her back into the short. Going the other way, from the short to the feature, there was more room to explore the rest of their world, and some of the ideas. The eggs and chickens are in the short but not the snakes. That was the symbolism around the creator deity across Australia called the rainbow serpent. The redbelly blacksnake is one of my personal totems. There was a way to create a deity for us Aboriginal people, but in a Judeo-Christian concept, it is a corruptor. So, it was about how Sarah can react to discovering more of her mother’s culture. 

You open the feature with a card featuring a note about images and voices of the deceased and acknowledging the Torres Strait Islanders. Can you explain the significance or history of this? 

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait viewers, there are naming taboos. Even seeing the deceased [is fraught]. There are certain groups who believe that once a person has passed away, you cannot call them by their name, because their name might affect their afterlife. It’s not that you pull them back into this world. [The card] is something often used in Australian films out of respect. We have photos of people who have passed away around the tree when Sarah wakes up and sees all the photos. It’s there for those fellows, but generally, it is a card that goes on films about Aboriginals.

What did you know about the Moogai as a concept? How did you create the film around this spirit, entity, boogeyman and stealer of children?

We see the Moogai, it’s like a boogeyman. There are also two other words, Wongai and Dagai. When white people first came to Australia, a lot of Blackfoots [Aboriginals] thought the white people were returned spirits. The word we use for white people now is Dagai, but it was originally a name for a spirit. Moogai was originally a name for a spirit, too, but we used that for a boogeyman. 

There is still a lot of trepidation from Aboriginal families when children are born in hospitals. That there might be some judgment call and the government might be involved. So, to find the creature, I was conflating those ideas, pulling Dagai and Moogai together. The Moogai is a boogyman, like a Jinn, but in this instance, bring those two ideas together, it was preying specifically on children and certain families. The whole notion of the eggs is that when Sarah sees the chicken foetuses in the eggs, it’s a commentary on animal husbandry. That’s the way the Moogai treats the human — it takes children from families like taking eggs from a chicken pen. It’s the domesticated animal versus the wild animal. Snakes can’t be domesticated, but it’s also the way hunter gatherers take things and puts new meaning on them. It’s using fire as a fence or a totemic animal as an attack dog almost, and bringing some of those cultural points of view to action sequences in a horror film.

The Moogai

The film slowly reveals the creature. Can you talk about creating The Moogai, and how you featured it in the film? It starts as a sound, it becomes an image, and slowly goes from hands to a full-figured naked body. 

The hand was the long reach this thing has, and it has one extra knuckle. It’s enough like us that we can connect with it. It’s a bipedal hominoid. But it is also different enough that it fits in the uncanny valley that freaks us right out. That’s a big part of it, that it enters Sarah’s life. It’s insidious, sneaky, and smart and it has a clever mind and has supernatural abilities that it doesn’t use in a frivolous way. It can almost slide in unnoticed and take children.

The film is, of course, an allegory for the Stolen Generation. What are your thoughts about how a film like this can prompt interest in the topic for those viewers who don’t know the history and the pain for those that do?

Absolutely. That is the finest line to try to walk because it is a message to the Stolen Generation. That is, first and foremost, the audience I am trying to speak to. We call it “belonging.” You belong there, and there can be so much isolation and separation that the Stolen Generation have felt. The film is an attempt in some way to even if we do explore these feelings, no matter what happens, you belong to us. We are all one mob and belong together. Also, because of what happened with the Maori in New Zealand, and First Nations in the U.S. and Canada, the notion of when these colonising powers come in, it is one of the cruellest things to take people’s children by force or convince them that you can give them a better life. It is leaving a gap in a family that can never be fixed. This film doesn’t fix anything, but it is an attempt to say, “You still you belong with us, and we are all still one family, no matter what.”

The film is about intergenerational trauma. It is quite moving in the end when Sarah tells Ruth she does not judge her, she is not “less than,” and asks forgiveness. Do you think the film can provide healing? 

It’s exactly trying to provide healing. That’s the message to get across. Sarah has had benefits; she is well set up in Western society because of what has happened to her. But Ruth has paid this terrible price. Sarah says the hurtful stuff she does because she is not ready to face up to the facts. If she really sat down and deconstructed everything, she would understand that everything she has benefitted from has been the primary source of pain in Ruth‘s life. This woman has had an experience that Sarah is completely foreign to, and all of the success Sarah has had has inured her to Ruth’s experience and almost conditioned her to dismiss Ruth’s experience. It’s erasure. Where Ruth has been is the absence of Sarah. She feels the absence she missed. Sarah doesn’t feel the limb she does not know she missed.

The film features episodes of racism, especially a fear of the police. Can you discuss how you wanted to portray that theme in the film’s context?

It was important that those interactions with the system, and especially the police, were logical. The whole thing with Black Lives Matter was when other people were saying All Lives Matter —that’s not the point. The point is the law is treating Black lives like they don’t matter. That’s why this needs to be said. It was important to me to show that the system was moving in a logical, systematic way that it had been programmed to, and it also is interested in its own preservation, so it has to work in a certain way. When the police show up and ask questions, you know where it is going to go. When the doctor has certain opinions on things, he is a very good doctor – he brought Sarah back from the dead – but the system has certain points of view, and it reinforces them regardless of where the individual stands. 

The Moogai

You are an indigenous filmmaker, and you are telling a story about indigenous characters. Can you discuss the importance of that and the opportunities you have to represent your heritage and why you choose to tell a story like The Moogai?

The weight of those things – especially because they may not be as much Australian Aboriginal representation as other groups – is pretty heavy. I feel it and I’m sure other people feel it as well. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but it’s too important for me to not delve into the issues. These are things that concern me. I’d love to go make Transformers 7, and maybe I can bring these themes in those films, but that’s just how it has to be. I have to tell these kinds of stories and it was important to me to start with Stolen Children. I have a bunch of kids and a stack of grandkids, and my wife and I were nervous about the hospital having an opinion about us. That fear just lingers in the back of our minds, as it does for any oppressed group. As soon as I am given a voice, that stuff comes out. Even if I don’t mean to create it, I return to those themes that are in the back of my head.

There is also a suggestion that Sarah is suffering from post-partum depression. What influenced your portrayal of a strong-willed woman who is assumed by others to be having mental difficulties?

There was something that I was trying to dig in to with Sarah. For young people now, living in this time, they want to erase the boundaries and not have people “othered,” so we are all one group. But when that stuff pops up in your life, if you have lived without having a connection with that group, when society throws bad things at that group and they lump you in with them, whether you want to or not, it’s a big shock. When someone, society, or social media, slaps you in the face with that, it is a really confronting thing for them. Sarah is trying to deal with that the best that she knows how because she has aways been able to logic her way out of those things and provide a good argument. She’s been a star lawyer at her firm. When she comes up against something like The Moogai, it is exceedingly difficult for her to process it especially when her mentor figure in the story, her mother, is the very character she is pushing away. The film is a hero’s journey in a lot of ways, but she has an underlying thing of “You gave me up, it’s your fault.” But this is so much more complicated than that, Sarah has no idea what Ruth has gone through, and what Ruth had to deal with. Sarah’s interaction with Chloe is as much at odds as Sarah is with Ruth. Sarah is all at sea with her own daughter, and she has to be open to what her mother is trying to tell her.

You employ jump scares, sound is used specifically, and creepy images – the yuck factor of a bag of meat, the bloody eggs, and the snakes on a baby. There is also the fire circle finale, which has mythical overtones. Can you talk about working in the horror genre?

The fire is around a birthing tree. Women had certain trees that when families migrate, they had certain trees they’d go to to give birth. The fire around that is the way that the women protected the newborn baby from the Moogai. That tree specifically, which has a nest of snakes under it, they could put up a fence, an impermeable barrier and kick the Moogai out. There is also a big snake in the clouds, kind of like the creator deity protecting them. With the eggs – when you see yourself as the being that takes the eggs, rather than having eggs taken, when Sarah sees the eggs, she is baffled by it. The notion that your totem, even if it might be venomous and can kill you, it’s your totem, your sibling. Everything is going to be OK. But because we are conditioned to fear snakes in that Western framework, the notion of the snake as creative being, helper and protector and giver of life, is foreign to her. Those ideas are in there, and the Moogai is two-faced like the government, and it has a long reach and is always in dark places. It has a translucent skin and is this genderless being. The idea is that Moogais, as a species, are millions of years old and have been preying on humans. This Moogai is probably thousands of years old and preyed on this particular family for all those years. It has reasons for taking one child over another, and it works on a different time scale than humans, so its reasoning feels illusory. 

The film uses space very deliberately, from caves to the house, to the hospital. There is always a sense of freedom and restriction in every scene. How did you create a subtext of fear and uncertainty in the framing of the scenes?

We chose that house because it felt quite cave like. The first 2/3rds of the film are claustrophobic until they leave the house. Sarah can feel everything moving in on her. She doesn’t have as much room to manoeuvre as she usually does. The Moogai is kind of gaslighting her. It is using its supernatural powers in an intelligent way. How can she outmanoeuvre her. What chance does she have when she doesn’t acknowledge its existence? I try to reflect that in the house and hospital, which are very lifeless. Everything closes in on her, but when they get out of the city, and into the country, there are other things waiting out there. The forest can be frightening. The Australian bush shows up as quite threatening. We don’t have bears and wolves; the things that can eat you are in the water, not walking on the land. It is only when Ruth shows up, you feel safe. In Aboriginal culture, your elders are everything. Even if you disagree with them, you do what your elders say. They lived longer than you so they must know something, and you should take that into account. Sarah is not approaching things like that because that is not the Western way.

There are other moments of unease throughout. You shoot characters, such as the doctor, in ways that feel sinister. And images of Jacob, including one of him being moved, are unsettling. Can you describe how you approached the film visually? This goes back to the film including elements of the supernatural as well as superstitions, and the fantastic. How did you incorporate those elements into your film?

It is almost like a domestic violence situation where the perpetrator tries to isolate and gaslight the victim. The Moogai is almost doing that to Sarah. That’s the unease. Things are not alright. Sometimes, the way Sarah is viewed is the Moogai’s point of view. It wants to isolate her from the family. When it moves the baby, it is telling Chloe one thing, and presenting another thing to Sarah in a way to split them up. They are close in the beginning, but when baby Jacob is moved, even though Chloe says it wasn’t her, Sarah is logic driven, she thinks, who else could it be?

Sarah doesn’t believe anything Ruth says either. 

Someone showing up and saying, “Put snakeskin up,” makes Sarah think, “What is this superstitious nonsense?” Ruth gives her a look, “This is going to protect you.” Sarah has scientific doubt. How does that protection work? If I can’t see it, then it is not real. That unease and the way the Moogai convinces her that she is losing control of her sanity, and that she is the problem, is something that has been done to a whole heap of Sarah’s family. In the backstory, the clan know that it is the Moogai, so they can react accordingly. With Sarah being in the space she is in, no one can tell her except the one person she is not listening to. 

What scares you? What are you afraid of?

Someone hurting my family is pretty much at the top. I’m a bit paranoid about where the kids go and what they do, so in a lot of ways, I am Sarah. And spiders.

About The Author

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, San Francisco Bay Times, and MovieJawn. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2. He teaches and curates short films, and is the chair of Cinema Salon, a weekly film discussion group. His primary cinematic interests are short films, queer cinema, and films from Latin American. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and GALECA.

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