Walkabout (1970) is a haunting film, set in a fading but spectacular world – ancient Australia. Sparse in dialogue, immersed in an ancient landscape with a reptile, insect population and chocker-block full of innocence and sexual tension. A Hollywood synopsis would talk about a journey of inner growth, coming of age or that concept of the moment, ‘survival’. The survival of the white protagonists and the fate that awaits the Aborigine at the end of this journey is a forewarning of an encroachment upon Aboriginal culture and its wisdom of the ancient continent.
Years after first seeing Walkabout in my childhood home (in South Australia, where the bottom of the rocky Flinders Ranges meets the swampy top point of the Spencer Gulf), on a stinky fly-blown Sunday afternoon (such films were only ever shown when the cricket had been washed), I found myself seeing it again in Sydney’s Chauvel cinema on a freezing Sunday evening. What a surprise to realise that the film was directed and shot by an English man, Nicolas Roeg.
Where I come from, in the ’70s, national pride remained something unspoken of. What made rural Australians special was the land we lived on and its rugged beauty rather than our history or our culture. When the land flourished, we flourished. When the land showed her temper and brought droughts and floods, we were cursed like a parent punishing a child for misdeeds and yet stood in awe of her power. We always felt very small in comparison to the land. And yet we loved her. She was all that made us unique and all that 5 generations of my family knew of the world.
We also felt small, young and in the shadow of other cultures. We spoke about our inadequacies in comparison to Europe or America. And the cinema was essentially Hollywood: glamorous and familiar characters in neat, familiar situations. They seemed too exciting for Australians to compete with. I adored old Hollywood movies as a kid and grew up on English comedy. The problem was not their perspectives on the world but a lack of confidence in Australian perspectives. We were taught to look abroad for culture. At that time, I didn’t even know Australian film existed.
A sister (Jenny Agutter) of about 16 years of age and brother (Lucien John) about 5, survive the suicide of their father. Roeg never gives us the story of the father’s suicide step by step; instead, he gives us images of an organized, lush, watery Sydney while the didgeridoo music echoes through the bitumen streets and concrete towers. The father watches his children swim in the harbour side pool and the next thing we know we’re in the desert.
So the sister and brother are abandoned in the middle of the Australian desert, and walk and walk in the blinding sun, as the earth cracks around them, lizards feed and squawking crows circle above their heads. When all seems lost, the Aborigine (David Gupilil) appears at the top of the sand dune as a black dot. He bounds down the sand dune where the sister and brother had stumbled and stands smiling in front of them. He is glowing charcoal, long and lithe. He looks cool; he belongs here. The sister surveys the dead lizards hanging around his waist, covering his genitals. At first he has no curiosity for the strangers. The sister chases him, “Water, water. This is Australia. Don’t you speak English?” She looks at him as if he is the ignorant one.
So they go walkabout with the Aborigine for what must be months but, just like the characters, we are unable to gauge time. In a way the film marks the movement from conventional ‘white’ urban society to Australia’s outback by creating this feeling of timelessness (the meaning of ‘time’ in the traditional Western sense is lost), or through abstracting time and taking on an eerie, eternal feeling of time and being. The brother immediately takes the Aborigine on as a surrogate brother or father figure and learns to communicate with him and to see the desert as a giant playground. Meanwhile, the sister is trying to maintain standards and dignity, washing her clothes and covering her body.
Walkabout is still striking today but must have been remarkably bold in the climate of its time – contrasting Aboriginal and Western perspectives on an equal plane. Australian writers and filmmakers have rarely embraced how full of life the outback is.
During my childhood in the ’70s in rural South Australia when the Aborigines came into town in their old bombs for a footy match or a drink, they scared us with their lithe way of moving, their lack of words and their seemingly secretive smiles. That I had loved this strange, unknown film that nobody else bothered watching – well I’d just never mention it. And when I ventured into the rocky creek beds to play, I had imaginary Aboriginal friends; one always standing on the rocks with one leg bent, the other straight and leaning on his long stick – a silhouette amongst the scrawny mallee gums in the red sunset.
Walkabout contrasts the abundant reptile, bird, insect life with the traffic buzz of the city; the transistor radio, blasting out useless educational programs, with the rock paintings the Aborigine paints, that the sister and brother can’t make head or tails of; and the story telling of the little brother with newspaper pages flicking across the screen. It contrasts the sleazy oozing of meteorologists (working on some sort of desk on a salt lake) at a flash of flesh from their female colleague with the chivalry and innocence of the Aboriginal boy looking at the sister, trying to tell her something. There are moments when the Aborigine looks her in the eye and speaks to her softly in his language. There are no attempts to translate what he says but you get the feeling he is making some offer of love. At one time in the night they look at each other. He sits up and speaks to her and then walks away to stand upright, leaning on his stick on a rock all night.
There are such images throughout Walkabout - the Aborigine standing on a rock at sunset, his bouncing as he mimics the movement of the kangaroo until she is cornered and shakes, his cutting open of meat for cooking with sharp wacks of a stick; or a lizard eating a smaller lizard or simply panning a long rock face – that can’t be scripted. The project obviously was shot with spontaneity and decadence. Its strong simple story is interwoven with elliptical, semi-documentary still shots of life in the desert and portraits of our beautiful characters.
The Aborigine delivers the sister and brother to the edge of Western civilization – an abandoned farmhouse. He looks at the sister like a woman. He seems to think that here she will be happy – all he wants to do is make her happy. Instead, she orders him around like servant. She tells him to fetch “water” and he utters his first and only English words of the film, “water”, in reply. But he utters them with bitterness and we first notice the dark approaching shadow on the once glowing face that bounded down the sand dunes that day.
The Aborigine sees Aboriginal children making ceramic statues of ‘kangaroos’ and ‘tribal elders’ (presumedly for tourists). He is bowled over whilst hunting on foot with his traditional spears by a truck full of aggressive shooters. What follows is a remarkable series of images and sounds that emphasize the wasteful, blunt and violent destruction of the Aborigine’s life source – the wildlife. It is strikingly edited with jump cuts and surreal sounds so that we are not sure whether it is happening in the film’s real time or as a collage of memories or as a premonition of the future. The scene ends as the blood drains out of a buffalo. The Aborigine does not want to belong to this approaching world.
For me, the Aborigine’s motives are what takes me back to this film again and again. Why doesn’t he look for his people? Why does he help the strangers? Does he love the sister and why? Or does he just have a pure heart as beautiful as his innocent smile? How much does he know of the encroaching civilization? What does he say as he looks into the sister’s eyes and mumbles in his soft rolling tongue?
Without giving away the final twists of the sister and brother’s return to white civilization, Walkabout ends years later in Sydney. The sister is married and living in the same apartment where her tragic parents once resided. She slices her meat and looks out over Sydney harbour, dreaming of what could have been, of her times swimming carefree and laughing in a billabong with her Aboriginal. Then as her frail husband in a suit comes home and tells her of his promotion and salary rise we can share her emptiness and restlessness. Caged in by cement, dependent on gadgets and involved in relationships based on appearance and politeness. She doesn’t just think there must be another way; she actually has passed it up.