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I just finished screening "September" at the Toronto International Film Festival and I was more than impressed with this feature. The film is perfectly paced, has a meaningful plot and flawless acting. A well written screenplay builds a beautiful story about racial differences between friends, old and young, and how color and class can interfere with and shape human bonds and heart-felt relationships. This is a truly unique and beautiful Australian film with a cross-cultural theme and emotional resonance, not to mention the beautiful cinematography of a very isolated and serene part of Australia. I would definitely recommend this film and also see it again.
I've noticed that with Australian movies a good review gets a favorable
reaction from the locals, but a critical one brings the knives out.
Now, I quite liked this movie, but it's not a great one. It's a very
simple story about two 16 year old boys growing up in country WA in the
year 1968. One is white, the son of a struggling wheat farmer (on a
property ironically called "Alaska") and the other black, whose father
works on the property for nothing but food and housing. Their close
friendship and their families' relationship are disturbed by the
arrival of a girl next door and a government edict requiring farmers to
pay their aboriginal employees wages. This turned out to be a disaster
in most areas as the aboriginals were just turfed off the properties.
Although the acting is exquisite, the main roles are not characters but archetypes. There is little to make them individuals. The dialogue is very sparse, which is understandable, since they are Aussie country types, but also rather lacking in content. Very little the characters say advances or explains the story. I was reminded of Ivan Sen's "Beneath the Clouds", where the two main characters, black and white, were on the road and not talking much, but they were communicating. Here, no-one seems to listen to anyone else. There is conflict, but not much of a resolution. The inequality of black and white is a dominant theme but there is not much context. Political correctness overwhelms explanation, and there is little room for entertainment.
The film is lovingly shot, though central west NSW near Harden stood in for the WA wheat belt. I wondered what all the wheat was doing near harvest in August, but it seems Australian wheat is planted in the autumn to catch the winter rains and harvested in the spring. I also wondered about those hard-up WA wheat farmers - wheat prices in 1968 were double those of today, in real terms - but heck, this ain't history.
Almost no-one is going to see this movie (I had a free ticket), but that is not going to stop film commissions funding similar ventures. Fortunately the commissions don't have much money. The good thing about this kind of picture is that it does allow new talent to emerge. Though his skills as a scriptwriter might be questioned, Peter Carstairs has done well as a first time director and moves the story along at a good pace. His two 16 year old principals, Xavier Samuel and Clarence John Ryan were stunning. The only name actor in the cast, Sibilla Budd, was embarrassingly bad as a schoolteacher, but I think the script contributed to this. Well, guess I'll now cop abuse from the wombat nationalists, but so be it. No-one erects statues to critics.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a story about two families, one a white generational wheat
farmer and the other the aboriginal family indentured to the farm who
are not paid but are given food and lodging and nothing else. They live
40 miles from town and 2 miles from the nearest neighbour. Dialogue is
minimal as it would be in these circumstances with them being simple,
The two boys mirror their father, who mirrored theirs so we know what is the destiny of the boys as it is mapped out for them. The change is the granting of rights to the aboriginals such as a right to a salary. This has consequences to both families.
The film reflects the speed of life in the beautifully shot countryside, yes very little happens but the small bits are tiny bright gems.
I'm sorry they tried to put a little of the "coming of age" bit as it felt over-sentimentalised as these boys would have been quite worldly in things such as boxing, driving etc
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film is set in 1968, an interesting era in history.
Someone has questioned the family's financial position as wheat farmers, so here is a little context. Following on the wheat boards formed during the wars in Australia for the government to buy all wheat harvested, the wheat board guaranteed a minimum price paid to farmers, based partly on the cost of production with a certain profit margin. As the wheat belt in WA expanded, marketing arrangements were revised to reduce this subsidy and drop the guaranteed price in 1968. In 1969 the government considered there was an oversupply of wheat, which led it to bring in some quite severe production quotas (which prompted Leonard Casley of Hutt River to protest, try and claim compensation from the Queen, and eventually secede to form Australia's oldest micronation). The same year a severe drought in WA reduced the area sown by something like a third. At the same time, political pressure was mounting towards a freer, less supported market and although it wasn't really deregulated until twenty years later, the first critical changes were made in this period. It was an interesting time to be a wheat farmer and one which many farmers, particularly those advancing into new and marginal cropping areas, did not survive.
Non-Australian viewers may not be aware that it was also an interesting era in Australia's largely shameful colonial indigenous history. A national referendum in May 1967 approved amendments to the constitution to allow Aboriginal people to be counted as part of the population (and also allowed the Federal government to make laws just for Aboriginal people). Many other political events occurred during this era such as fights for land rights and equal pay (separate to the referendum). NT stockmen won equal pay in 1966. Changes to Federal departments in the early 1970s saw the end of the policies and processes that led to the Stolen Generations. It was a time of major upheaval and increasing rights for Aborigines, but not without some resistance and dissent from the white population. Particularly in the farming community, which I know from experience in the WA wheatbelt still has a strong redneck element to this day (who else would elect Wilson Tuckey for 30 years?).
It is interesting to note that women in Australia also did not get equal pay until laws were passed in 1969.
The film is quietly paced and very subtle, with atmospheric and powerful cinematography. It is almost peaceful the way the scenes pass across the screen. Two good-looking, seemingly quite young families. Two fathers, two wives, two sons. The Aboriginal family with a couple of extra mouths to feed. Each family with a dog or two. Powerful contrasts and comparisons of daily lives. I thought there were some omissions in the way the separate lives were filmed but perhaps that put more emphasis on what we did see.
I suspected the slow pace of the film would be interrupted by some terrible event, but everyone was still standing at the end, to my relief. I was happy to note that the cross-cultural tensions were based on friendships between men and men, boys and boys, not the more frequently seen cross-cultural romance.
A nice film for a lazy spring afternoon in.
It was an unusual film to see at the festival just because I wasn't
used to such a slower paced film.
I think in North America, we're so used to the plot being given to us blatantly that when a film like this comes along, it feels so foreign and so... different.
There are some moments in the film when I wanted the pace to quicken a little bit. It is like others have said a very character-driven movie.
It's not the worse movie I saw at the festival because at least it had a plot and something to say but I wouldn't say it was the best.
The director to me tries to make you fill in the gaps - like a book - rather than having everything said aloud. (There were a lot of silent moments... some of which were painfully long) Nevertheless, I still found it interesting to watch. Whether I would recommend it to someone, well, if you fancy something different from what you're used to North America (a slower-paced film) then go ahead and watch this film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
September is a multi dimensional story, on one level, its about social change, human rights, injustice and politics. The other level is the story of friendship, growing up, first love, being youthful and powerful yet seemingly powerless. It is 1968 and the main characters Ed and Paddy are a reincarnation of there fathers, where one is white and one is black, one has privilege and the other is destined to servitude. Ed is young and to spite his youthful aspirations he is already taking his place in the social structure as the privileged white man, and treats his life long friend accordingly. Paddy is black, and realizing more everyday that his life long friendship is not what it had seemed. Both boys like to box and spar in a make shift ring they build together. For Ed it is childhood fun, for Paddy it becomes an opportunity to escape the preordained life of an unpaid aboriginal laborer. There is substance to the boys friendship that in the end prevails and is symbolic of the subtle social changes of the time. What made this movie so memorable for me was the huge scope of the subject, told in the most human way.
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