Screened as part of NZIFF 2002
The rural NSW landscapes in Ivan Sen’s road movie bristle with a vitality from which the young runaway protagonists seem to have been cut loose. Lena, fair-skinned and blue-eyed, is escaping her alcoholic Aboriginal mother, hoping to find the absent Irish father whose photo she has clung to since she was a kid. Her little brother is in trouble with the cops and her mother’s apathy is the last straw. Vaughn, dark-skinned and unmistakably indigenous, is running from a prison farm in a bid to visit his dying mother, not that he ever got on with her especially. They walk the road together, though never side by side, hitching rides, looking out for each other but constantly getting on each other’s nerves.
Vaughn’s anger at the white world is part of the legacy Lena wants to put behind her. Chased out of a cornfield by an irate farmer, he’s ready to riot. ‘This isn’t your fuckin’ land,’ he yells. ‘You stole it.’ As far as Lena’s concerned this is loser talk. ‘You’re not the only one with a shit life, Vaughn.’ As they draw closer to the city and the roads are more crowded, she is compelled to recognise how much she has in common with him. Both actors were drawn from backgrounds not too far removed from those depicted, and though his film is cleanly crafted around them, Sen has done nothing to tidy up their rawness. The nagging flatness of their voices counteracts the vivid cut and thrust of his filmmaking vocabulary – and some Australian commentators have suggested that such inarticulacy makes them unworthy of his skills or their attention.
Phil Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence (soon to be released in New Zealand), has had a much greater impact in Australia. Its three intrepid young heroines are scarcely more articulate, but their battling little figures serve as a welcome, iconic rejoinder to the unapologetic Howard. Not so the scowling Lena and Vaughn. Of several recent Australian films to put indigenous people on the screen Beneath Clouds stands out as the one least determined to either educate or appease a white Australian audience, which may ironically explain why, to Festival programmers at least, it seems the most striking, original and exportable. (It won prizes for the best first film and best new female performance at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.) Sen’s fidelity to contemporary indigenous experience – and his expression of conflicted identity – are fierce and eloquent. — BG