Walkabout: seeking the silenced voice

Alexis Wright

Walkabout

Walkabout

Louis Nowra, Walkabout, Australian Screen Classic, Currency Press, Sydney, 2003, ISBN 0 86819 670 3

English film director Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout opened worldwide in 1971. Based on the novel of the same name by James Vance Marshall, an English writer, the film tells the story of 2 white children lost in the Australian outback. They survive only through the help of an Aboriginal boy who is on walkabout during his initiation into manhood. The film earned a unique place in cinematic history and was re-released in 1998.

In this illuminating reflection on Walkabout, a leading Australian dramatist and screenwriter Louis Nowra discusses the iconic status of the Outback in Australia and the peculiar resonance of the lost child story in the Australian psyche. He tells how the film was made and how its preoccupations fit into the oeuvre of director and cinematographer Nicolas Roeg and screenwriter Edward Bond. Nowra identifies the film’s distinctive take on a familiar story and its fable-like qualities, while also exploring its relationship to Australia and its implications for the English society of its day. He recognises the film’s relevance to the contemporary struggle to find common ground between blacks and whites.

Walkabout, says Nowra, “destroyed the cliche of the Dead Heart and made us Australians see it from a unique perspective, as something wondrous, mysterious and sensuous. It took a stranger…to reveal it to us.”

So, Roeg came and walked in the forbidding place, the Outback, sometimes still called the Dead Heart, at a time when the occasional Australian film was avoided by many Australians. There was no Australian movie industry. Roeg showed us a different image of the Outback. Nowra explains how he felt when he first saw the film in the 1970s:

“The images of the Outback were of an almost hallucinogenic intensity. Instead of the desert and bush being infused with a dull monotony, everything seemed acute, shrill and incandescent. The Outback was beautiful and haunting. It didn’t matter that some of the animals were incongruous to the location, and the countryside was at times absurdly out of sync with the actual terrain traversed. The setting sun was a richer red than I ever thought possible, the solitary quandong tree in the middle of the desert had the mysterious visual potency of a Byzantine icon, the animals had a fairytale brightness, and the Aboriginal boy’s dance seemed one of the strangest yet beautiful expressions of yearning I had ever seen. The visual splendour mocked my stereotype of the Outback. Never before had I entertained the notion that our landscape could be so romantic, so glorious both in its potent dangers and beauty.”

Reading Nowra’s balanced account of Walkabout is a journey through the film of places, of people, of the journey of the characters as well as the era of the film’s production. However, it is through time most of all that the turbulent, intertwining Aboriginal journey—glaring-into-the-distance-for-a-glimpse of reality while nurturing the land from an ancient point of view—is brought to the surface. The journey of reading Walkabout was a painful reminder of who we are as Australians today and the role played by the language of a civil tongue. David Malouf refers to this as “what we all, as English speakers, come home to.” This is also a language without urgency, which does not highlight the turbulence of Indigenous Australian reality, nor lessen the widening gap between Black and White Australia. A similar civility was once described by Primo Levi (The Drowned and the Saved, 1988) as one of the weapons of a modern state in a war against memory, deployed in propaganda, camouflaged by upbringing, instruction and popular culture in order to deny the entry of memory—or what should be remembered. In book, in film and still today, Walkabout, albeit a fable, omits some of the deep concerns and facts of memory for Indigenous Australia.

In her essay collection, Playing in the Dark (1992), Toni Morrison says the form of evasion which uses a substitute, racially-inflected language as a wilful critical blindnes—created by habit, manners and political agenda and by excising the political from the life of the mind as being ‘race free’—has proven costly to the artist and added to continuing racism between White and Black people.

First published in 1959 as The Children, Marshall’s book was republished as Walkabout in 1961. The story was modernised to suit a 1970s movie audience. As an Aboriginal writer reading this fable of English sensibilities I am still angered by the film’s portrayal of the Aboriginal character, named simply “Aboriginal boy”, who conveniently commits suicide at the end of the film because he fails to gain the affection of Mary, the white girl he saved. Because he only speaks his Aboriginal language, noone can communicate with him. He is in fact muted, silenced—but this was not a problem for the purposes of the story as he had been given a different role to play. He is the backdrop, an offering from Indigenous Australia. As Morrison said about Black oppression: “This black population was available for mediations on terror—the terror of European outcasts, their dread of failure, powerlessness, Nature without limits, natal loneliness, internal aggression, evil, sin, greed. In other words, this slave population was understood to have offered itself up for reflections on human freedom in terms other than the abstractions of human potential and the rights of man.” The male Aboriginal character in Walkabout was in fact choked—an idiosyncratic choice—hanging himself from a tree at the end of the film, after leading the girl and her brother to safety. With his silence complete, the film totally succeeds in enforcing an invisibility of the racial reality of the times, strengthening the dire consequences of a distorted history for Aboriginal people today.

Very much relevant in today’s Australia, where so much hope continues to be forsaken by the exclusion of people on racial terms, a story like Walkabout should also include a different reading where issues of race are put to the test. Walkabout was about a White man, in this case the British author, Marshall, testing White power and domination in the “black playground of his imagination”, and here in the homeland of the Aboriginal. This was an agile writer’s game in morals, ethics and visions of justice. The game was continued by the screenwriter Edward Bond 20 years later, while still denying the reality of unimaginably painful decades for Aboriginal people, just to see how Blackness will lose—and not only that—pay, because Blackness wanted the ‘unimaginable,’ the purest representation of innocence in the White world that must be protected above all else from Black hands, a White girl. In fact, those who belong to an Aboriginal world might view the film’s portrayal of this Aboriginal character’s life as being trivialised and powerless: the premise being that even a young, white schoolgirl could cause the death of this newly initiated, Aboriginal man. This reading of the story is that Aboriginal knowledge counts for nothing. The chilling thought is that because of the continued silencing of the Aboriginal voice, young Aboriginal men are committing suicide to perhaps have their voice finally recognised.

Black American author and scholar Ralph Ellison once said this stereotyping of the collective imaginative body of the ‘Black’ giant, who, lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and the scene upon which the action unfolds, was a literature more about consoling the White man, than crushing the Black man. On the other hand, Edward Said, in Orientalism (1995), examined the British needneed to have executive responsibility over the coloured races, and explained, “It was of this tradition, its glories, and difficulties, that Kipling wrote when he celebrated the ‘road’ taken by White Men in the colonies:

Now, this is the road that the White Men tread

When they go to clean a land…

Oh, well for the world when the White Men tread

Their highway side by side.”

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 23

© Alexis Wright; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2003
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