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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In Kid Gloves, Knausgaardian style provides a route through a writer's grief

Adam Mars-Jones has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism