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El Hedi ben Salem,
A privileged British family consisting of a mother, a geologist father and an adolescent daughter and son, live in Sydney, Australia. Out of circumstance, the siblings, not knowing exactly where they are, get stranded in the Outback by themselves while on a picnic. They only have with them the clothes on their backs - their school uniforms - some meagre rations of nonperishable food, a battery-powered transistor radio, the son's satchel primarily containing his toys, and a small piece of cloth they used as their picnic drop-cloth. While they walk through the Outback, sometimes looking as though near death, they come across an Australian boy who is on his walkabout, a rite of passage into manhood where he spends months on end on his own living off the land. Their largest problem is not being able to verbally communicate. The boy does help them to survive, but doesn't understand their need to return to civilization, which may or may not happen based on what the Australian boy ends up ... Written by
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Landmark near masterpiece of the cultural clash between nature and civilisation
Director Nicolas Roeg's (`Don't Look Now') cinematographic skills and admiration pay especial tribute to Walkabout's powerful combination of Australia's awesome scenic diversity and the sensual Jenny Agutter, and the whole effect is embellished by John Barry's sublimely magical score. I would hasten to add that as well as being very pleasing to watch, enhanced by Roeg's voyeuristic use of the camera, Agutter provides a skilful performance as a prejudiced unworldly teenager, who is naively unaware of the sexuality she exudes whether naked or wearing her high cut school skirt. Although it was a somewhat amusing shock to recently discover that a body double was employed for Agutter in the shower scenes for `An American Werewolf in London', no such deceit was used in this film. Immediately after filming `Walkabout', Agutter reprised her BBC serialisation role of two years earlier as Bobbie for Lionel Jeffries' sumptuous version of Edith Nesbit's `The Railway Children', ensuring her immortalization as an iconographic beauty. She graduated thirty years on into the role of the mother for a Carlton TV production and is currently involved in producing a film script about the life of the author.
On a deadly picnic into the desert a father (John Meillon; `Crocodile Dundee') inexplicably snaps, shooting at his two children before torching his car and turning the gun on himself. Now the children, absurdly kitted out in their formal school uniforms, are lost and carelessly lose their provisions, except for the transistor radio with its inane babble being another illustration of how hopeless our technology is against nature. Fortuitously they stumble upon an oasis and find their only saviour in the form of an Aborigine (David Gulpilil; `Rabbit Proof Fence') on a rites-of-passage walkabout. The seven year old boy (Lucien John, the director's son) happily has a child's ability to communicate with the Aborigine despite the language barrier, something his older sister never grasps, deftly demonstrated on their first encounter when she is increasingly frustrated by the lack of comprehension of her demands for water. Roeg crosscuts stunning kaleidoscopic images of the physical landscape and its critters, with the killing of animals and the domestic butchering of joints of meat to give a stark contrast between nature and civilisation. However, given this was his first solo effort, his overworked montages can be a little irritating and confusing, and show off the cinematographer rather than the director in Roeg.
The director emphasises the unrealised sexual tension by explicitly marrying shots of both the teenagers with suggestive trees in the form of intertwined human limbs, as well as providing us with a diverting interlude involving a group of meteorologists. The deeply sad misunderstanding of the two cultures gives poignancy to the film that is its strength, especially delineated by the Aborigine's tribal courtship dance for Agutter, which only serves to terrify her and increase her distrust. Her lack of emotion for their former helpmate is staggering. When faced with a dangling corpse the girl asks trivial questions of her brother about his breakfast whilst pointlessly picking ants off the body. The tragic outcome is also indicative of the current state of Aboriginal life expectancy with a higher proportion dying through accident, assault and self-harm than any other Australian demographic group.
The failure of her parents to prepare her for the change from childhood may have contributed to the tragedy, and it is only on reflection years later, living the same life as her parents and similarly caged in an apartment block, that Agutter's character senses that maybe she missed her chance. It is interesting to note that the children are deliberately English to highlight the cultural clash between the European settlers and the original inhabitants of this ancient land, and I wonder if similarly white Australians would have had any more understanding of the indigenous customs of the Aborigine boy. `Walkabout' is a far more visual depiction of sexual awakening colliding with alien cultures than that other famous picnic that goes horribly wrong in Peter Weir's `Picnic at Hanging Rock' (which this predates by four years), with its metaphorically implied unease centred on a sacred Aboriginal site that eventually destroys the established order of a Ladies College.
`Walkabout' is as relevant today as when it was released in the era of 70's industrialisation with the Kakadu National Park once again under threat from a new uranium mine on its boundary. The Northern Territory's tribe Mirrar is currently involved in this dispute over land rights and excavations, although mining was temporarily ceased on Aboriginal land in the mid 1990's. This is a sensitive issue as Australia's economy relies on the export of uranium in the production of nuclear power, and Aborigines oppose the exploitation of the Earth's resources for profit. The company at the centre of this discord also operates the Ranger mine which is depicted along with the rock band Midnight Oil (well known for their campaigning land rights missive `Beds Are Burning') in eX de Medici's `Nothing's As Precious As A Hole In The Ground', a recent acquisition by Australia's National Portrait Gallery.
Despite last year's rush by some of Hollywood's well-known directors returning home to make Aboriginal films, including Phillip Noyce's `Rabbit Proof Fence' (released 21 February) about the Stolen Generation', and `Yolngu Boy' which did well at a film festival in Colorado, I sadly suspect very few of us in the UK are likely to see them. Apparently there has not been a commercial success for a black-themed movie since 1955's `Jedda', the first Australian feature to star Aboriginal actors. If the hope of a 70's New Wave style revival is to be realised for Australian cinema, surely it is time for the industry worldwide to wake up to the fact that a wealth of film exists outside of Hollywood, and that the viewing public may actually welcome some variety.
With the release of the director's full cut in 1998 both the DVD and the video are unusually available for the UK as well as the US from Amazon.
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