Sunday, May 17, 2009

Warwick Thornton Shorts

Samson and Delilah may give the impression that Warwick Thornton’s talents have suddenly sprung from nowhere. In fact, he has been quietly honing his craft, working as a cinematographer, writer and director on many short films and documentaries for over a dozen years. Next Thursday 21 May, Cinema Nova is screening the following selection of his short films that highlight his talents across a range of diverse films.

Green Bush (26 min, 2004)
Kenny (David Page) is a DJ each night at a remote community radio station. Single-handedly, he plays music, takes requests, answers the phone and handles business in general. The portable building housing the radio station is a focus of the local community and Kenny finds himself offering cups of tea to, shelter and support to others.

Thornton has found his style in this medium-length film, largely using music and visuals to tell the story. Like Samson and Delilah, there’s not a lot of dialogue and there’s also a lot of understated, naturalistic humour. Kenny’s choice of music enables social and political themes to be subtly raised, without being didactic, much like Kelly Reichardt’s talk-back segments in Old Joy. The same could be said for Kenny’s taking requests for prison inmates.

The story, visuals and acting are all strong, and this is one of my favourites of the shorts. The story is clearly personal to Thornton – he once worked as a community DJ – and this personal nature of his work and the humanism he infuses into it are largely what I connect with. I sense that Thornton is passionate about various social issues but he never rams them down our throat. As I mentioned in my review of Samson and Delilah, he has a great instinct for cinematic story-telling.

Cast: David Page
  • Short Award Special Mention, AFI 2005
  • Special Mention, Almería International Short Film Festival 2006
  • Jury Prize Best Short Film BendFilm Festival 2005
  • Panorama Short Film Award, Berlin International Film Festival 2005
  • Best Short Film, IF Awards 2007
Clip from Green Bush

Payback (10 min, 1996)
This is Thornton’s first short film and is beautifully shot in black and white. Set in a prison, the black and white initially recalls Alkinos Tsilimidos’ Everynight, Everynight…, but the stories are completely different. Thornton’s film is much more subdued, and the choice of black and white suits the mystical element that is explored.

After years behind bars, Paddy is on the eve of his release when he is visited by the spirits of his people. He is forewarned of tribal payback and learns first-hand that there is white man’s law and there is black man’s law. Doing time for one does not release him from the other.

Short films are a great medium for a director to explore and experiment with the craft of film-making. This is quite different in style to what we see in Thornton’s more recent work yet it is an impressive and thoughtful debut. Even from the start, Thornton displays elements we see in later works, such as sparse dialogue and effective use of sound and music.

Cast: George Djilaynga, Charlie Matjiwi

Clip from Payback

Mimi (13 min, 2002)
This is the most conventional of the Thornton shorts and uses known actors. It is a comical story that satirises the commodification of indigenous art as well as introducing a character if central Australian indigenous culture. The Mimi is an ancient mischievous spirit who is said to have taught the aborigines of the region how to hunt and paint.

Catherine (Sophie Lee) purchases some pieces of indigenous art – a Mimi carving and a barramundi painting – at auction for investment purposes, but finds the statue has eaten the barramundi. To deal with the troublesome spirit, Catherine calls in a ‘real aborigine’, urbanite Jonathan (Aaron Pederson) who consequently calls in his grandfather (David Gulpilil).

This is a fine-looking film, probably the most accessible for conventional audiences, but my least favourite.

Clip from Mimi

Nana (6 min, 2007)
This film pre-empts Samson and Delilah with the appearance of Mitjili Napanangka, who plays the grandmother of Delilah in that film, and who is the actual grandmother of Marissa Gibson who plays Delilah. In Nana, Napanangka takes centre stage. It seems to be Thornton’s homage to this colourful and feisty character, who is idolised by her grand-daughter (Kiara Gibson, the younger sister of Marissa).

The child’s narration is a real joy as we see Nana being depicted in various roles as cook, artist and community protector. The humour is just right and is the perfect choice to end the Thornton retrospective.

Cast: Mitjili Napanangka Gibson, Kiara Gibson, Ted Egan Jangala, Noreen Robertson Nampijinpa

  • Crystal Bear Generation Kplus – Best Short Film, Berlin International Film Festival 2008
  • Best Short Film, IF Awards 2007

The retrospective underscores the talents of Warwick Thornton, highlighting the quietly humanistic and ultimate universality of his work, while at the same time being culturally specific. Technically, his films are very accomplished with a naturalistic beauty using solid camera work that never draws attention to itself. Thornton has a very strong way with sound and music that complements the excellent visuals. This is a one-of opportunity to see these little gems and I highly recommend them.

As an aside, while I was at ACMI this afternoon, I was discussing the shorts with an ACMI programmer. I suggested that the other works of Thornton could be worth screening at ACMI, and he said that was something that was being looked into. As can be seen from the Screen Australia website, Thornton has been involved in a lot of film-making.

The Warwick Thornton Shorts are screening at Cinema Nova on Thursday 21 May at 7pm.
Samson and Delilah is screening at the Nova, Rivoli and Palace Brighton Bay cinemas, and is currently screening at Cannes Festival in the Un certain regard section.

All clips sourced from Australian Screen who, incidentally, are currently featuring Warwick Thornton's Green Bush.

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