Saw an advance screening of a truly remarkable new Australian movie on Saturday: September.
Set in the Western Australian wheatbelt of 1968 (but actually filmed in Yass, near Canberra), the movie focuses on the friendship between two adolescent boys on a farm: Ed, who is the white son of a farmer, and Paddy, whose Aboriginal family is virtually “in service” to Ed’s father. These were the days in which Aboriginal farm workers were given shelter and food in exchange for their labour, but no wages. Paddy’s family lives in a shack across the field from the farmhouse.
Needless to say, the boys’ relationship is unusual in the social context of Australia of the 60s. Their friendship, strong and uncomplicated, transcends the differences that divide them – differences such as Ed attending school while Paddy mends fences on the farm with his father, overseen by Ed’s father. But then things change.
A political decision drives a wedge between the families. The Government of the day legislates that Aboriginal workers are to be paid equal wages, but Ed’s father claims his stretched finances will not allow him to comply. Indeed, he may be telling the truth…directorial didacticism and judgement are mercifully absent here.
I hate reading narrative summaries, so that’s all I’ll give you. Let’s get to the guts of what makes this movie so special.
First, the script. I can’t recall a movie that uses the spaces between dialogue so brilliantly: this is a script of profound eloquence, and that eloquence is in the unspoken. Here, the director and actors must be commended for working the script so brilliantly, with such sensitivity and compassion for the characters. It is rare that script, direction and acting comes together like this to speak so powerfully. And even rarer that that voice should be so uniquely, beautifully Australian.
This film could not have been made anywhere else in the world. The sensibility of the characters, the desiccated sweeping landscape, the understatement that is the dominant note of the film and that communicates so much – these are the qualities, essentially Australian, that imprint themselves on you and linger long after you leave the theatre.
It is astonishing that a work at once subtle and immensely powerful, delivered with a sense of structure, timing and rhythm of such maturity, should be director Peter Carstairs’ first feature film.
I could go on about the complex brilliance of the imagery operating beneath the deceptively simple surface of the movie – the fence-mending on the farm that is simultaneously a metaphor of healing and division, the stark symbolism of the Aboriginal family shack and the farmhouse, the boys’ abandoned boxing ring in the centre of a wheatfield… I could go on about the wonderful acting performance of the Aboriginal lead, Clarence John Ryan (mark him down as a name of the future), and of all the actors, for that matter. I could wax lyrical about the admirable restraint shown by director and scriptwriter in avoiding the Hollywood inevitability of a first kiss in an almost-love-scene in a Biblical wheatfield setting between Ed and the new girl in school. But I won’t.
I will just urge you to see this moving and powerful film. It will stay with you for days.
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