A dead Indigenous girl, no more than 16 years of age, is discovered in a drain underneath a highway in the aptly named Massacre Creek area. The drain is flanked by the wide, impossible expanses of outback Australia – a place where screams go unheard and violence can be wrought without any real fear of reprisal. Her throat has been cleanly slit by an unknown assailant for an unknown reason, and wild dogs have already taken to her corpse. This is how Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road opens.

The police and the coroner attend to the crime scene merely to satisfy procedural requirements. Constable Roberts (Robert Mammone) loiters around his police vehicle at the top of the highway, while the Sergeant (Tony Barry) – who presides over the Winton police department – tells Indigenous Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) that not much can be done about Mason’s murder. “You’re just gonna have to ride bareback for a while,” Swan is instructed; in other words, the Winton police do not have the resources, will or inclination to conduct a proper investigation into the girl’s horrific murder. What strikes us first as gross neglect by the police later turns out to be something far worse: a deliberate and coordinated effort – seemingly unchallenged by Winton’s bureaucracy – to snuff out and stifle inquiry into Mason’s death, and, more broadly, the social and political forces that have allowed it to happen. Swan – a former Winton resident who has returned from the city – is left to pursue leads, interrogate witnesses and suspects, and achieve some semblance of justice on his own. It is understandable that Greg Dolgopolov has described Swan as an Indigenous “superhero”.1

And it is not just Julie Mason, the girl found in the opening sequence, who has appallingly fallen victim to the webs of conspiracy, deception and self-enrichment that pervade the foundations of the town of Winton. Two other young girls are fatally affected by the nefarious machinations and “order of things” in Winton: the missing Nellie Dargon and Tarni Williams (Siobhan Binge), whose body is found discarded at a tip – a poignant representation of the worth, or lack thereof, accorded to her life.

Mystery Road was not a big box-office performer, raking in only US$280,000 during its international run.2 But it has precipitated quite the body of critical and academic work, exploring its presentation of the Australian landscape and race relations in the country; its complex use and mixture of the noir, western and crime-drama genres;3 and the conflicting identities, loyalties and commitments of its hero.4 Though these have all proven fruitful rabbit holes to descend down – worthy of sustained critical examination – there is one key element that animates the life and purpose of the work: the suffering, torment, neglect, invisibility and deaths of Indigenous women now and throughout history. Despite Mystery Road’s at times dislocated and intricate story (a signifier of its noir influences and inflections), its entire narrative structure revolves around the murders of Indigenous girls. It is only when we, through Swan, uncover who killed Mason, and under what circumstances, does Sen let the film end – on a circumspect, elegiac note.

Working through Sen’s cinematic corpus, it becomes very clear that one of his principal motivations for making films lies with exposing the dispossession and mistreatment of First Nations peoples. Goldstone (2016) (the sequel to Mystery Road), Toomelah (2011) and Beneath Clouds (2002) attest to this in spades. Yet Mystery Road’s focus is tighter, more constrained than this. It is firmly on the marginalisation of, and the disregard colonial Australia has had for, Indigenous women. In an interview with The Australian on Mystery Road, Sen expressed his belief that the murders of Indigenous women weigh on the public consciousness far less than those of other demographics and peoples, noting that “there’s not the effort put in” to investigate and solve cases of murdered Indigenous women and contrasting this with instances in which white men and women have been victims of similarly unspeakable crimes.5 To that end, he also remarked that he is “almost over anger because it’s been happening forever, especially to Indigenous women.”6

That resignation about the unjust realities for Indigenous women embedded within Australian life has not, fortunately, dampened Sen’s conviction to draw attention to this most pressing social and racial crisis through art: “The first step is to make sure [the injustice] gets recorded and documented, at least, and that the message gets out.”7 Mystery Road is not Sen’s first or only film to reckon with such material, which is often obscured, invisible or, quite frankly, treated as irrelevant to the general public. His 2004 short documentary Who Was Evelyn Orcher? vocalises the agonising story of the eponymous Indigenous woman who was taken by the Australian Government and had no contact with her family for over 30 years, until she made a dramatic appearance on national television reaching out to her long-lost relatives. Sen followed this up with an equally powerful documentary called A Sister’s Love (2007), in which he sensitively yet attentively films Rhoda Roberts as she recalls, revisits and relives the shocking disappearance and murder of her twin sister Lois. Both films are remarkably earnest and human, never shying away from the tragedies and lives of their respective subjects. Yet the films’ relevance stretches beyond the personal, resonating further into the murky and difficult depths of racial and sexual inequality that has characterised the Australian experience for so many across history.

In some sense, then, Sen’s work – not least Mystery Road – can be considered an instrument of public and cultural utility, correcting the record beyond doubt regarding Australia’s horribly chequered past and present of brutalising and then ignoring Indigenous Australian women. Rather than letting these thematic concerns devalue or compromise his art – say, by pedantically lecturing audiences – they are what enliven his insights and messages. The most powerful of those are threaded through Mystery Road: that the oppression of Indigenous Australian women must be stared down by all of us, and confronted with immediate remedial action.

• • •

Mystery Road (2013 Australia 121 minutes)

Prod Co: Bunya Productions, Mystery Road Films, Screen NSW Prod: David Jowsey Dir: Ivan Sen Scr: Ivan Sen Phot: Ivan Sen Ed: Ivan Sen Prod Des: Matthew Putland Sound: Lawrence Horne Mus: Ivan Sen

Cast: Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten, Jack Thompson, Tasma Walton, Robert Mammone, Tricia Whitton, Siobhan Binge

Endnotes:

  1. Greg Dolgopolov, “Balancing Acts: Ivan Sen’s Goldstone and Outback Noir,” Metro 190 (2016), p. 10.
  2. Mystery Road,” IMDbPro, https://pro.imdb.com/title/tt2236054?rf=cons_tt_atf&ref_=cons_tt_atf
  3. See Nicholas Bugeja, “Ivan Sen and Mabo, the Aboriginal Tracker, Genre, and Accessibility”, Film Matters 9.2 (2018), p. 40.
  4. ibid, p. 35.
  5. Ivan Sen, quoted in Sharon Verghis, “Outsider Knowledge in Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road,” The Australian, 21 September 2013, https://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/outsider-knowledge-in-ivan-sens-mystery-road/news-story/5dfa81551934668e6b9a1bd9be87c4bf
  6. ibid.
  7. ibid.