Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy

Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1990 Australia 17mins)

Source: CAC Prod Co: with the assistance of Australian Film Commission Prod: Penny MacDonald Dir, Scr: Tracey Moffatt Phot: John Whitteron Ed: Phillippa Harvey Mus: Jimmy Little

“There will be no charges
Telephone is free
It is built for service
Just for you and me
There will be no waiting
On this royal line
Telephone to Glory always answers just in time”

– Final verse from “Telephone to Glory”, as sung by Jimmy Little in Tracey Moffatt’s Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy

“Trying hard, dear, trying hard”

– The author’s mother from her nursing hostel bed

It may seem the height of culturally conditioned, white-fella insensitivity to preface Tracey Moffatt’s extraordinary account of specifically black, indigenous Australian suffering within a diegetic space of Aboriginally encoded referents with a possibly irrelevant sound-bite out of my own recent experience, dealing with what looks and feels like the gradual, apparently interminable passing of my own Anglo-Celtic mother. But, first and foremost, Moffatt’s evocative and suggestive masterwork has always impressed me as a study in living with death, all kinds of death, all kinds of dying.

Which isn’t to deny the often gripping ‘aliveness’ of the film, its alertness to the howling wind-sounds and frustrating furies, the agonies and ecstasies of existence. The angrily cracking stock-whip wielded by a middle-aged black woman (Marcia Langton) as she literally lashes out against not only having to tend to her fast-fading, aged white (step?) mother (Agnes Hardwick), but just about every damned bloody thing. The equally joyous and traumatising memory of seaside waves crash-crash-crashing against rocks where the playful squeals of young koori kids turn into confusion and upset as seaweed being happily hurled, instantly transforms into globs of thick, dark videotape, all but strangling one particular little girl, perhaps entrapping the reminiscing mother-minder in unavoidable ties of connection, ribbons of recorded and unrecorded pastness. The blissed-out, almost crazy, ever-grinning fervour of real-life Aboriginal pop singer, Jimmy Little, incanting the putative comfort and counsel of one, hegemonically imposed, monolithic Euro-God whom indigenous Australians, just like African-American slaves, can hook into, call on, anytime when they might ‘get in trouble’.

Yet, what moves me particularly in this richly layered film is the painfully engaging, empathetically repellent sight of an infirm, elderly white woman (who may, or may not, be meant to represent the station-owner’s pro-assimilationist wife from Charles Chauvel’s turbulent home-grown melodrama Jedda, some forty years on). It’s hard not to be affected by her plight, right from the opening chamber-drama shots, when we see the old woman’s uncomfortable-looking, hand-braced fingers reach in the direction of food remains on a plate. The skeletally withering form as she gets wheeled to an outside tin-shed toilet by an absolutely exasperated daughter, both touches and terrifies. And it’s not solely her own decaying physical state that’s so troubling; it’s the emotional wear-and-tear which this perhaps well-meaning and innocent woman’s very being has all-too-obviously wrought on the mind and body of her barely patient ‘daughter’ – she who laughs as she cracks that resentment-reeking whip, she who wash-boards her ‘smalls’ with a routine rancour and weariness that’s positively palpable, she who gazes gloomily at glossy travel brochures detailing places she’ll never go. The sick old girl’s only responses are to either flinch, moan and groan in her sleep, or most eloquent of all, to hum along to the tune of that most stoically embattled of church and Sunday School hymns, “Onward, Christian Soldiers”. The two of them there in that utterly God-forsaken space mumbling lyrics that could well be “With the cross of Jesus/Going on before” or similar is surely one of the most heart-wrenching moments in all Australian cinema.

Formally, Moffatt’s movie is a beautifully considered, carefully crafted ‘tour’ across various, symbolically loaded areas of space, wherein John Whitteron’s steadily exploratory camerawork forces our gaze to look at certain, otherwise quite banal, objects and activities and to studiedly contemplate them, in all their sadly arrested beauty, in all their absurd tragi-comedy. Stephen Curtis’ set design, a symphony in scale and perspective blends the saturated ambers and lavender purples of Albert Namatjira’s kitschily redolent watercolours with what, again, might, or might not, constitute a stylised rendition of the living-room interior from the 1955 Chauvel classic. And Phillippa Harvey’s sound-edited noise-scape is probably one of the best uses of ambient aural effects in any local film, so much so that the wonderfully textured wailing and weeping, the strange whistles and screams can stay with the viewing ‘auditeur’ for days afterwards.

Central to the film’s disquieting epiphanies is, of course, the orchestrating touch, the boldly extreme, creative vision of its talented, justifiably acclaimed auteur, that most enterprising visual artist, Tracey Moffatt, who, with this haunting exercise in “inter-subjective” dreaming has come up with a film that speaks powerfully and poetically to us all.