hope & survival in the back of a van

dan edwards: interview, warwick thornton, mother courage, acmi

Thornton in front of Mother Courage

Thornton in front of Mother Courage

Thornton in front of Mother Courage


Not content with having written and directed one of the greatest Australian features of recent decades—Samson and Delilah (2009)—the Alice Springs filmmaker is pushing into new artistic territory. “I wanted to create stuff where I could go off and do it myself, where I don’t need 100 crew and $3 million,” Thornton explains when asked about his push into the visual arts. “I shoot work for other people in between writing and getting my own films up, but it still wasn’t enough to vent creativity, to vent ideas. You have 10 ideas a day and five years down the track one of them might arise as a film. So it grew out of that—a frustration with having lots of wonderful ideas and not enough outlets.”

Mother Courage is Thornton’s second installation—his first foray into gallery-based 3D video work was Stranded (RT102) for the Adelaide Film Festival in 2011. That piece saw Thornton tied to a neon cross, suspended over the Western Desert. Mother Courage retains the setting, but focuses on an elderly Indigenous painter (played by real life artist Grace Rubuntja) reminiscent of Delilah’s exploited Nana in Thornton’s debut feature.

The first thing we see upon entering the darkened gallery space is a battered van, softly spotlit in the middle of the room. Red dust coats the bumper and tyres, bespeaking long drives across Australia’s centre, while paintings hang from the van’s sides. A newspaper wedged against the dirty windscreen features a headline about troubled Top End Aboriginal communities, while a red handprint on the van’s front speaks of Indigenous ownership. Then, suddenly, we perceive movement in the back of the van and realise there is an elderly woman inside, painting.

Closer inspection reveals the action is playing out on a life-sized video screen inside the van, but the clarity of the footage conveys a disconcerting impression of real presence. This is only reinforced when we walk around the back of the van to find the image’s reverse playing inside the open rear door. From here the elderly painter faces us, as she carefully applies brush strokes to her work, while a young boy (Elijah Button) sits beside her playing air guitar to the sounds of the Green Bush country music show blaring from a radio.

Thornton’s films have always spoken to each other through recurring characters and overlapping concerns, and Mother Courage continues this intertextual dialogue. “You can learn more about Mother Courage, and the reason she’s in Melbourne and not on her homelands painting, by watching Green Bush,” says Thornton, referring to his classic 2005 short about a late-night radio DJ in a remote desert community. “That film talks about the violence and the vicious cycles of community life. I can’t explain everything, but if you create those small connections with what you’ve done before or what you might be doing next, it becomes a more immersive journey.”

Thornton’s work also deliberately evokes wider connections with contemporary Indigenous politics and culture—an explosion of activism and creativity that has barely registered with many non-indigenous Australians. Green Bush, for example, prominently features Gary Foley’s speech on Indigenous rights from a Sydney stage during a Clash concert in 1982. Samson and Delilah tips a hat to Bart Willoughby and the soundtrack to Wrong Side of the Road (1981) when a homeless man sings the anthemic “We Have Survived” beneath a highway overpass. “They are key things for most Indigenous people and they’re unique. And a lot of non-indigenous people haven’t heard that song or that speech, and then it’s like, ‘Wow, Gary Foley spoke at a Clash concert?’ It’s great.”

Thornton himself was similarly led to Bertolt Brecht via the circuitous route of John Walter’s documentary Theatre of War (2008), about the staging of a production of the playwright’s classic Mother Courage and Her Children in New York. Inspired by the film, Thornton sought out the original play and was immediately struck by parallels between Mother Courage’s travails as an itinerant trader during Europe’s Thirty Years’ War and the plight of Indigenous communities in the Western Desert. “There are some amazing correlations between this lady and what’s happening in the desert at the moment with Indigenous people, having to move off their country to follow certain elements to be able to survive,” Thornton observes ruefully. “I’m using Brecht’s back story in a sense, so anybody with any knowledge of what happened to his Mother Courage can align it with this character.”

Warwick Thornton, Mother Courage (detail), 2012

Warwick Thornton, Mother Courage (detail), 2012

Warwick Thornton, Mother Courage (detail), 2012

Thornton’s Mother Courage occasionally pauses to hold up her painting to viewers, as if plying for passing trade. Other paintings are hung on the sides of her van, making the vehicle a portable one-woman commercial gallery. The installation was first unveiled at last year’s dOCUMENTA in Kassel, Germany, where the vehicle was often parked beside crowds queuing for various exhibitions, making the painter’s position vis-à-vis the international art market clear. “It’s like in Samson and Delilah—the artist gets 100 bucks, and the art is then sold on for $10,000,” says Thornton of the rampant exploitation of Indigenous painters.

As in Brecht’s Mother Courage, however, Thornton has left his character’s situation and actions open to multiple readings. “In a lot of the stuff I make, I try to not dictate a right or wrong, a yes or no. Some people will walk in there and feel really passionate and sad about this woman—she’s confined in this van, and doesn’t really do anything but paint. And the kid seems really bored. Another person will be really empowered by the idea that this woman has created a form of self determination and gotten out of this vicious cycle of some communities—this sister’s doing it for herself, you know, and she’s gone straight to the source of what she knows, which is art.”

However we respond to the character’s situation, there is a painful sadness and sense of dispossession underlying the scene evoked by Thornton. While traditional dot paintings hang on one side of the van, on the other is an almost childlike image showing giant black blocks labelled “grog” sitting atop the desert sands as numerous black stick figures fall about around them. “You’re a captive audience,” we hear DJ Kenny say over the radio to his prison listeners, and the bitterness in his voice is only slightly mollified by wry humour. Yet there is also hope in Mother Courage’s calm, persistent process of creation—a hope that resides in the ongoing resilience of a culture that has survived, despite everything.

For all his social concerns, it is Warwick Thornton’s ability to sympathetically capture the hopes, possibilities and foibles of his characters that makes his work so affecting. “You always draw upon key emotions, you know?” Thornton explains, stripping his approach down to its essence. “It all boils down to good storytelling—that’s what I’ve found.” When asked whether he intends to continue with installation work, he replies, “I love all forms, so I just flow with it. It’s about the idea. You hear an amazing, real story and you think should this be a doco, a feature, a video installation or a collection of photographs? The story will tell you how it should be made.” With another feature and television series on the way, Thornton’s flow of stories—in all different directions and different ways—shows no sign of abating.

Mother Courage, installation, writer-director Warwick Thornton, actors Grace Rubuntja, Elijah Button, commissioned by ACMI and dOCUMENTA (13); Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, Feb 5-June 23

RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 pg. 22

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

25 February 2013