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.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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