The same week that Warwick Thornton sat down to write the screenplay for his 2009 masterpiece Samson and Delilah, fellow Indigenous filmmaker (and Thornton's wife) Beck Cole began work on her own film script. She broke from it during the ensuing years to work, among other things, on a documentary about Thornton's film, and on the acclaimed series First Australians. But Here I Am never left her completely. Five years on, the finished film will hit Australian screens next week.
The central character is Karen (Shai Pittman), a woman in her 20s who has just been released from a two-year stint in prison in Adelaide, and is determined to make a fresh start. This includes trying to find an honest job (no easy task for an Aboriginal ex-con) and attempting to reconnect with her toddler daughter. The young girl has been in the care of Karen's mother Lois (Marcia Langton), who is far from convinced that Karen has turned (or, indeed, is even capable of turning) over a new leaf.
Producer Kath Shelper has said that Here I Am may be the first film about Aboriginal women in a contemporary urban setting. Writer-director Cole agrees that she was keen to capture the particular experience of urban Aboriginal women. 'I grew up bouncing between Alice and Adelaide,' she says, 'and have always been keen to set a film in Adelaide. I don't speak an Aboriginal language. I live in Alice, but there's so many of us that don't live out in the regions. It's important to represent that.'
In the film, Karen derives emotional support from her fellow residents at an Aboriginal women's shelter in Port Adelaide. As filmmaker Cole cast mostly non-professional actors, based upon their natural suitability for certain roles, or as characters conceived especially with them in mind. (Vanessa Worrall, for example, who plays the shelter's manager, is a psychologist who served as an unofficial consultant on the script before being written into it.) This underscores the film's raw naturalism.
'We didn't do a lot of rehearsals,' says Cole. 'We did read-throughs and talked about the script, but that was it. I was attracted to the spontaneity of the performances. The women get the humour, they get the story without me having to bang on about it, because they've all lived it. None of the women ever asked, "What's my character here for? What did she do? What's her back-story?" They get it.'
Given that Thornton served as the film's cinematographer (he and Cole are frequent collaborators), comparisons between Here I Am and Samson and Delilah are perhaps inevitable. For the most part they will be favourable. The films do share a contemplative stillness that contrasts with the at times emotional chaos and the coarse beauty of the locations on screen. In Here I Am this reinforces the sense of Karen's inner strength, and her resolve to move into a better future from a dark past.
Like Samson and Delilalh, too, Here I Am avoids being explicitly political; its themes emerge not from sermons but from finely observed character studies. That said, Cole allowed herself one didactic moment. As the women bond over a covert bottle of booze, one of them quotes statistics that reveal the vastly disproportionate numbers of Aboriginal Australians caught in a 'revolving door' prison system. 'If there's one thing I want people to know,' says Cole, 'it's that.'
If the moment borders on preachy, it doesn't last long. Soon afterwards, the women turn up the radio and join in a tuneless but passionate chorus of Archie Roach's song about domestic violence, 'Walking Into Doors' (as in, 'She's sick and tired of ...'). 'No man's ever going to lay another fucking hand on me again!' one of the women sobs-shrieks as the song fades. The song is no mere anthem, but a hymn that evokes lived experience.
The film, too, is art that reflects reality. Pauline Whyman, who portrays Skinny, one of the residents, says Here I Am resonates powerfully with the experiences of the Aboriginal women who see it. 'They approach me and say "It's so real. I felt like I was in my own community and my own home." That to me is one of the greatest compliments. To know that we're representing other Aboriginal women.'
But the film is also universal; not an 'Aboriginal film', but a film for a wide audience that features Aboriginal characters. 'The urban setting makes it more accessible than some other interpretations of a story like this,' says Cole. She says she wanted to deal with the subject 'in a way that's not slit-your-wrists, boring and depressing'. Here I Am, then, is a hopeful story, in which forgiveness and redemption are attainable goals. 'Karen really wants to turn her life around for the better,' says Cole.
Tim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Kidzone, Inside Film and The Big Issue, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. Follow Tim on Twitter