The Film Interview: Warwick Thornton

The Australian director talks about his acclaimed debut "Samson and Delilah".

Samson and Delilah is a story about two Aboriginal teenagers who run away from their community and end up homeless on the streets of Alice Springs. Where did the idea for the film come from?

I grew up on the streets of Alice Springs and I'd started to see coverage of the problems these sorts of kids have, so I though it would be nice to make a teenage love story and humanise these children There's a little bit of anger in there, too -- you can't make a love story about these teenagers without tackling issues like substance abuse and poverty, but at heart it's a universal story.

Does a distinct storytelling culture survive in modern Aboriginal communities? How much, if at all, did that feed into the film?

Well, even in the [traditional] Dreamtime stories there are protagonists and three-act structures. That's something universal that Hollywood doesn't own. It's come from oral history, if you trace it back you are indigenous from somewhere, indigenous storytelling is oral, we do have art that is a form of calligraphy in a sense.

Indigenous storytelling is still incredibly strong. In fact, it's become stronger and more refined as we hold on to our culture, and look after our culture. It becomes more of an activist kind of thing, preserving a lost art for your children.

In one striking scene, the films shows Delilah being turned away by café customers as she tries to sell them her own paintings. Was that a comment on the way Aboriginal culture is treated in Australia?

I've been on both sides of that cafe, I've been the latte drinker and I've been the starving homeless person. In central Australia there are a lot of indigenous problems, so people buy their art and sell it on at vast prices. It's quite a deep and dark place -- you've got these incredible works of art and the people making it are living in squalor.

Films about indigenous peoples are sometimes accused of stereotyping their subjects. Was this something you sought to avoid?

It was on my mind when making the film. I am Aboriginal and I grew up on the streets of Alice Springs, but I've also been to film school, so I was best placed to make this film.

The community I chose to film in has a kind of war-torn look about it. It's very poor. But for every war-torn community you see, there are ones with great schools, great houses. I did choose a dilapidated community when there was a utopian one 100km away, but I had to do that. I wanted to make a teenage love story but I wanted to talk about all of these issues as well.

The irony of it is that there are Samsons and Delilahs everywhere. They don't have to be these two indigenous kids in Alice Springs, they could be two kids in Soho, or Notting Hill.

What did you make of the Australian government's apology for past wrongs to Aboriginal communities in 2008?

It was quite a turning point in government but it doesn't put food on tables. The irony of the apology is that it actually made the indigenous people feel strong but it's sort of softened the reality -- to [people like] Samson and Delilah it doesn't mean shit, it doesn't make them feel any safer.

The government thinks that now everything's going to be OK, but an apology is really just the beginning.

"Samson and Delilah" is released on 2 April. Ryan Gilbey will review the film in next week's New Statesman

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis