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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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.