Film Thoughts: WALKABOUT (1971)

Beautiful” would be an understatement. The grace and the charm of Walkabout just fail to die even after a day of watching it. A BIG Thank You once again to Film Society of Bhubaneswar for this opportunity to experience such landmark films.

Walkabout by Nicolas Roeg is a 1971 film. Well, if you would have watched the film before knowing the year of release, I can bet, you would be now twice checking that. It’s because the production value was so top notch with excellent sound, artistic imagery and intelligent juxtapositions that you just can’t take your eyes off the Australian outback. Like me, one could easily mistake it for a much recent film that has used greater technological advancements than what was available then. But now it only goes on to show the great skills and experience of cinematographer turned filmmaker – Nicolas Roeg.

The three main protagonists in the film are – Jenny Agutter playing a teenaged girl, Luc Roeg (7 year old son of the filmmaker) playing her younger brother and David Gulpilil the aborigine Australian with a never fading smile on his face. The film’s narrative was as much liner as much it was thematically abstract. The film doesn’t answer a few conventional questions and it doesn’t have to. The entire unfolding of the film happens dream like. There is a pattern in its randomness and subtle sensuousness to humanely moments. One would fall for the empty spaces and tranquility and feel as if experiencing each character’s thoughts which in itself is a success for the film.

The film opens to the randomness of radio noise, random street sounds, and the chorus waves from a music class for a good few minutes. The sound fades into clear radio commentary from a city flat showing a family. Next the brother and sister are shown traveling through an Australian outback by their dad in a car. They come out in the middle of the desert to have a picnic of sort, when all of a sudden the father starts shooting at the boy. The elder sister sensing danger runs for cover taking the boy along. Next it shows the car is on fire and the father shoots himself. Though there were few fleeting moments showing the demands of city life earlier, however there has been no concrete depiction of what may have caused the father to go berserk, which to me was neither needed too.

With only themselves to fend for the brother-sister duo walkabout through the visually stunning outback in search of their road to civilization. The sister now with an added sense of responsibility tries to keep his brother’s hope alive of finding their way back home. The next many minutes just transforms you into those rich landscapes, makes you upset at the hardships of nature (compared with how cozy the life is when it is controlled through civilization) and tests of survival skills. All along them was a radio which had a battery that would last 400 hours (evident through one of the conversations) and the only thing that keeps them in touch with the modern world. The radio bleated Alegbra at times while talking about mankind and existence at other times.

It is only when they have almost given up in their quest for survival or material redemption (evident from their desire to again eat from real forks and wear neat clothes) an aborigine appears who is on a WALKABOUT (During the transition to young manhood, an adolescent aborigine went on a “walkabout” of six months in the outback, surviving (or not) depending on his skills at hunting, trapping and finding water in the wilderness). The aborigine becomes their only link to survival and guide to find their way out. At least this is how the two siblings would like to believe in. As for the aborigine – he just reflects Nature – pure and instinctive. He speaks in his language which is incomprehensible and the director doesn’t even bother to put them in subtitles which adds to the flavour. He was least worried about them, least concerned from where they came and what they were doing. Communication of course, was a problem. The girl being the eldest of the two, first tries to make him understand their situation and their immediate need to find water. She is flustered while saying – “Do you understand English? We need water. How can you not understand it? I cannot make it more simpler.” – just goes on to show how confined are we within our boundaries. Cut to the younger brother who simply uses signs to communicate what they needed – of course as a child he had less inhibitions and was closer to nature, was natural and it was no big deal to communicate through the obvious.

I must here make a note that – surrealism and abstraction are two very natural outcomes. The randomness around and our ability to see complex things with simpler associations are more spontaneous as a kid which eventually is lost as we grow up.

The aborigine on understanding shows a more natural way of putting a hollow stalk into the dried oasis and suck water through it. Soon it was understood that many times there would hardly be any need to communicate too. Just like the fact that these city dwellers desperately depended on him and the aborigine is only happy to have them follow him. They make many spontaneous actions – they eat food that the aborigine hunts in the wild and they play and laugh at life’s most simplest of things – reminding us once again that life is simpler when innocence is around.

The teenaged girl and the aborigine, both at their just arrived sexual awakenings exchange moments of psychological strains yet display remarkable restrain. The metaphors and symbolisms used to depict the subconscious thoughts of these characters are praiseworthy. The very few scenes of nudity of the protagonists are so easy and natural in the context of wilderness that one would fail to understand why at the time of its release many wanted this film to undergo cuts.

Though there are no suspenses or cliches involved, I would still not like to talk about how the film moves towards the end. I would rather love if people could watch the film and discover the fantasies that it unfolds. As Roger Ebert (renowned film critic) rightly noted about this film:

“What should we have been hoping for, given the conditions of the story? That the girl and her brother learn to embrace a lifestyle that is more organically rooted in nature? That the aborigine learn from them about a world of high-rises and radios? That the two teenagers make love as a sort of symbol of universality, before returning to their separate spheres?

I think the film is neutral about such goals. Like its lizards that sit unblinking in the sun, it has no agenda for them. It sees the life of civilization as arid and unrewarding, but only easy idealism allows us to believe that the aborigine is any happier, or his life more rewarding (the film makes a rather unpleasant point of the flies constantly buzzing around him).”

The tone of dialog delivery by Jenny Agutter, playing the teenaged girl, was very cold and straightforward, something that stayed with me long enough after the film ended. Probably, it is because of her character’s upbringing in the film or may be because of the incident from where their walkabout started. The usage of school choirs as a backdrop to take the film forward at important junctures is brilliant. Luc Roeg really pulled it off beautifully at such a young age. He turned out to be the wittier of the two at a number of occasions. And your heart will certainly go out to David Gulpilil – he charms his way through the film even without a single comprehensible dialog.

WALKABOUT has been termed as part of Australian new wave cinema, though many still debate if the film can be technically called Australian since the producers, actors and director were all either from US or UK. It premiered at the prestigious Festival de Cannes in 1971, winning rave reviews. Even after 36 years the film is fresh and the context is very much relevant. It captures the Australian outback in its virgin beauty and haunting dangers. It talks about the criss cross of lives in civilization and in the wilderness. Before the film closes, it is shown, probably many years later when the teen aged girl, now a woman is conversing probably with his husband on business and taxes and transactions when her mind wanders off into the wilderness of past showing all three protagonists swimming around in a pond, laughing and giggling unmindful of their naked bodies. Probably the actions were so pure and liberated from all boundaries that being in the way the creator made all of us was the most natural thing.

Quoting Roger Ebert once again –

“The film is deeply pessimistic. It suggests that we all develop specific skills and talents in response to our environment, but cannot easily function across a broader range. It is not that the girl cannot appreciate nature or that the boy cannot function outside his training. It is that all of us are the captives of environment and programming: That there is a wide range of experiment and experience that remains forever invisible to us, because it falls in a spectrum we simply cannot see.”

It is a film that anyone associated with it should be proud of, especially if you are an Actor!

Blog Image Courtesy: Internet. No intention to misuse of commercialize.


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