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Aboriginal community ditched by church and state


Toomelah (MA). Director: Ivan Sen. Starring: Daniel Connors, Christopher Edwards, Dean Daley-Jones. 97 minutes

Warwick Thornton's Samson and Delilah (2009) probed the euphoric and demonic realities of substance abuse. Brendan Fletcher's Mad Bastards (2011) portrayed Aboriginal men in a remote Kimberley community struggling to find healthy means of expressing anger. Alongside these two films, Ivan Sen's Toomelah forms a kind of unofficial trilogy of stories of cultural displacement and disadvantage on remote Aboriginal communities.

It is named for the northwest NSW mission town where it is set; a place to which Sen himself has a profound connection. 'It's the home of my mother, it's where she grew up, a lot of my Indigenous family comes from there,' he tells Eureka Street. 'I've always wanted to make a film there, it was just a matter of when and how.'

Substance abuse, male anger and violence, all with roots in displacement, are realities in Sen's story as they were in Thornton's and Fletcher's. But Sen focuses more pointedly on the fact of cultural extinction — emblematically, the loss of language (the characters speak exclusively with a bastardised, subtitled form of English) — and the ongoing effects of this absence within the lives of his characters.

'Cultural extinction is the major issue facing a lot of Aboriginal communities,' says Sen. 'You don't hear a lot about it from government. You hear about health, education and housing. But cultural extinction is directly related to the psyche of the people. And a lot of these communities are struggling to find a system of living.

'They haven't connected with the western style of living. The church at one point had a big influence, but the people it influenced are dying out now. They're an amazing people that have had this amazing culture for such a long time, and now just remnants of it are left. Reclaiming that culture is a major part of moving forward.'

Toomelah delves into the cultural vacuum and finds ten-year-old Daniel (Connors). His mum is a stoner, his dad is a drunk and, after the latest in a line of serious classroom misdeeds, he has been kicked out of school. Daniel is drawn to affable local drug dealer Linden (Edwards), who takes him under his wing. Soon Daniel witnesses violence when a rival dealer (Daley-Jones) returns from jail to reclaim his turf.

For Sen, the story really started to take shape when he discovered Connors. 'I wanted to give people a chance to see what it’s like for a kid growing up somewhere like Toomelah. But I wasn’t sure which way the story would go. Then I found Daniel. What stood out was his bravery and his cheekiness. He had an amazing presence, and a strong voice. I started following him, observing his life, and to integrate that into the script.’

The violence Daniel witnesses contrasts with the mute grief he observes in his recently returned aunt, who was removed from Toomelah decades previous, a member of the Stolen Generations. Both her grief and Linden's violence have roots in dispossession; a truth Sen's film evokes gently. Daniel becomes curious to understand this history, and his own culture. It is this desire that may finally keep him in school and out of trouble.

Sen insists that Toomelah is not an 'issues' film, although a range of issues naturally make up the fabric of its story, as they are part of the life of the community. 'It was always going to confront a few issues because you can't get away from them. If you follow someone for a day in Toomelah you'll find numerous issues that will intersect. I could have explored other issues that are more difficult for people to watch and be confronted with.'

Given his family connections, it is no suprise that Toomelah is close to Sen's heart. It was important, then, that his film would not be a dirge, or a piece of poverty porn. The harsher elements are balanced by humour, and by the cinematographer's attention to the haggard, almost mystical beauty of the place itself. 'For me Toomelah is beautiful,' says Sen. 'Every time I go there I feel an amazing connection with the people and the land.' 


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Warwick Thornton, Samson and Delilah, Toomelah, remote communities, Indigenous affairs



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Existing comments

Thank Tim for the compassionate treatment that the trilogy deserves. When more Australian children get this message, things can improve.

Ray O'Donoghue | 24 November 2011  

A sensitive and profoundly right piece, Tim. Thanks for it. One would like to think that current legislation to repeal the Intervention in the NT and replace it with the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Act would be guided more by its insights than by the mentality that only saw the need for heavy handed discipline.

Your review sits splendidly alongside Andrew Hamilton's piece today on the need to reach out to people as people rather than to see them simply as problems.

Another good day for Eureka Street.

Joe Castley | 24 November 2011  

The Intervention in the NT needs to be repealed - it tramples on human rights. I believe the solution lies in reconnection to language, culture and acknowledgement of the past. Thanks for this fine piece.

Pam | 24 November 2011  

Ditched by the State, certainly. But the Church never ditched the aboriginal communities. She was forcibly removed by the State which told her that she was too "paternalistic" in being the sole fiend of aborigines for nearly 200 years. Since she was forced out, all the negative indicators - rates of sickness, substance abuse, sexual abuse, unemployment, violence, have all skyrocketed.

Peter G | 24 November 2011  

As a former church person who visited Toomelah for 12+ years, I both fear & look forward to seeing Ivan Sen's latest work of art. The enduring humanity and experience of community balanced, to an extent, the extremes of ongoing dispossession & dislocation. The resilience of the people there still impresses me, now 25 years since I was a church man involved with the Toomelah people.

Bbear46 | 25 November 2011  

@Peter G: The church was the 'sole fiend of aborigines' ... I assume you meant 'friend', but, a telling slip of the tongue?? ;)

Charles Boy | 25 November 2011  

Re. church being sole friend & then ditched by state .. at Toolah. Official church (RC, Anglican etc.) was a minimal but ongoing presence. The local Toomelah people & their Aboriginal organizations were the main friends & supporters, especially the Aboriginal Legal Service.

Bbear46 | 25 November 2011  

Peter G: Toomelah was never a church mission.

As PP there 1979-83 I got involved with the Murri community; regrettably with virtually no support from parishioners. Church is not just priests, nuns. One parishioner rang to tell me that I was "nothing but a coon-loving bastard" - a title I wear with pride. The experience liberated me, I stayed on for 4 years after resigning to work with Murris - Boobera Lagoon, '87 Goondiwindi "riot", history research etc. Stll keep in touch.
Local white paternalistic, assimilationist attitudes and conduct, and those of governments, have contributed to the current situation. If we could but see what we have made of them, we might see what we have become ourselves.

Father Dick | 28 November 2011  

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