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Remote Aboriginal boy's march against miners

Satellite Boy (PG). Director: Catriona McKenzie. Starring: David Gulpilil, Cameron Wallaby, Joseph Pedley, Rohanna Angus. 90 minutes

Satellite Boy is a missed opportunity. In recent years films such as Bran Nu Dae and The Sapphires have shown the capacity of the local industry to produce highly entertaining films with mass market appeal, executed with confidence and skill, that also examine themes of Aboriginal identity and the ongoing repercussions of Indigenous dispossession. On paper Satellite Boy promises to join their ranks. The reality then is rather disappointing.

A young boy Pete (Wallaby) lives at an abandoned drive-in cinema with his grandfather Jagamarra (Gulpilil), outside a remote community in north Western Australia. When a mining company threatens to reclaim the land and demolish their home, Pete sets out on a quest to confront this corporate Goliath.

Accompanied by his friend and occasional partner in petty vandalism Kalmain (Pedley), Pete's journey takes him across harsh landscape, where heat, hunger and thirst are ever present perils. If the boys are to survive the treacherous trek, Pete must draw upon the outback wisdom and knowledge that Jagamarra has passed on to him.

This could have been a bona fide adventure story, both thrilling and illuminating, and appealing to adults and children alike. But the filmmakers have instead opted to take the boutique arthouse approach. Satellite Boy is earnest and eccentric but not wondrous or exciting. David Bridie's frequently inane score epitomises the extent to which the film seems targeted more at film students than mainstream audiences.

Not that being 'arthouse' is a problem per se, except that even in this the film falters. It lacks the infectious joy of Bran Nu Dae and The Sapphires, but neither does it contain either the lyrical beauty or the metaphysical gravitas of, say, Samson and Delilah, easily the best of the 'serious' Indigenous films of recent years.

McKenzie (who is in fact an accomplished television director) and her cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson do a fine job of harnessing the implicit existential awe of a veritable sea of heat-cracked mud and of the looming ringed-stone domes of the Bungle Bungles. The story though fails to capitalise on these atmospheric possibilities.

They are further undercut by the sight of Gulpilil wailing at the stars and muttering to a campfire to return his missing grandson; any meaning here is lost in obliqueness. The symbolically pregant image of an abandoned drive-in cinema and of a decrepit satellite dish in the middle of the desert are similarly reduced to mere oddities.

The heart of Satellite Boy is the lived tension for Aboriginal people on remote communities between becoming modern and westernised, and rediscovering more traditional, spiritual and practical ways of life.

Throughout Pete's ordeal his mother (Angus) is absent, apparently off doing a hospitality course so that she can open a restaurant. She is explicitly drawn to the material aspects of western culture; during one rare conversation with Pete she declares that if they move to Perth, they can go shopping whenever they want.

This contrasts with Jagamarra, who has shared with Pete the knowledge of living off the land, who imparts wisdom by sketching in the sand with a rough fingertip, and who dreams of abandoning the drive-in and taking Pete to live in their traditional country; a sacred concept that the boy only comes to appreciate as his journey progresses.

There are important and intriguing questions of identity here to which the self-consciously arty Satellite Boy fails to do justice.


Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Satellite Boy, Bran Nu Dae, The Sapphires, Samson and Delilah, The Kimberley, Bungle Bungles



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