Eat yourself

by Stephanie on May 25, 2009

There’s a moment in the film Samson and Delilah where Delilah, destitute and desperate, attempts to sell a painting. She timidly proffers the canvas to people eating outside at a cafe in an Alice Springs mall. Some of them ignore her; others shake their heads dismissively and go back to their conversations. A couple of days later she tries again. This time there is purple-green bruising down one side of her face and her right eye is swollen shut. The customers at the cafe stare as she lashes out, throws the painting at them and is asked to leave.

I saw Samson and Delilah in Carlton last Monday with my mother. The Nova has become a regular haunt for us—tickets are cheaper on a Monday and the daytime crowd generally consists of about three retirees and a backpacker. So imagine our surprise when we arrived for an 11am session to find the line for the box office stretching halfway down Lygon Plaza. ‘Surely they can’t all be here for the same film?’ my mother exclaimed. Low-budget Australian directorial debuts don’t usually generate that much public interest, let alone films about Aboriginal Australia. In this case, however, apparently 5-star reviews on The Movie Show and in The Age had got people talking. So we took our seats early just to be on the safe side, and sure enough, our session was full.

The film begins in a remote community in Central Australia. Until the protagonists reach Alice Springs, the only white characters to appear in the film are a carpet-bagger and the surly owner of the local general store. Such is the power, poignancy and intimacy of the film up to this point that the audience has already well and truly fallen in love with the two teenagers, as they have fallen in love with each other. So when the cafe patrons blithely ignore Delilah, beaten and abused as she is, the audience suddenly sees themselves for the first time. Perhaps watching this movie in Lygon Street surrounded by restaurant culture and overpriced coffee gave the moment unexpected weight, but at this point, the (mostly white) patrons of the Nova shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

A few years ago, I was a passenger in a car during a serious head-on collision with a motorcyclist. As a reaction to that, I became, for a while, involuntarily hyper-aware of everything that happened on the road—every slightly overshot turn or distant flash of brake lights. A similar thing happened once I started engaging with remote Australia. I became hyper-conscious of the words I used, of the assumptions and prejudices that informed every sentence I uttered or judgement I made. I spent months second-guessing myself, constantly asking whether I had the right to write this novel, whether I had the right to think I could come up with answers or even accurately identify the problems. My biggest fear was causing offense. How and when and under what circumstances could my voice possibly be appropriate in Aboriginal affairs when the more that I learnt, the more it became obvious to me how little I actually knew?

Part of the reason people avoid having anything to do with Aboriginal Australia —part of the reason I avoided the topic for so many years—is because it’s hard. For a city-going whitefella on the south coast, remote Aboriginal Australia seems like the antithesis of everything. It’s impossible to grasp the sheer size of the issues or the depth of misunderstanding until you actually start scratching below the surface. And engaging with the issues is not just about practical problems that take commitment and passion to understand and resolve; it’s difficult on a personal level, too. That flash of self-awareness that happens halfway through Samson and Delilah is a constant state for the non-Aboriginal person learning about Aboriginal Australia. And of our English terms—self discovery, epiphany, revelation, enlightenment—not one seems to capture the clumsiness and embarrassment—the profound sense of humbling that these moments force upon us.

After the film, my mother and I wandered down Lygon Street to a restaurant with lunch specials and sat at a little street table in the sun. We talked about the film and my novel and the way that scene made us feel, and we’d just been handed our food when a woman picking dirt out from under her nails with a stick approached the table and asked me for change.

I had no idea what to do. The couple at the table next to us ignored her. My mother, going deaf, hadn’t heard her. She was looking straight at me. As tough as it is being confronted with yourself on screen, there is still a line between epiphany through art and the translation of that into real life. And awareness is nothing if it doesn’t translate into action. I knew this before the woman asked me for change, and I knew it all over again when she did. But it was disconcerting to realise that I wasn’t going to help her out, not like this, and that no matter how much good I like to think I’m doing in the world, no matter how many barriers I’d like to think I’ve torn down, I was still building this wall by choice. It was (and is) a product of class, of prejudice, of cynicism, of a blame-the-victim mentality, and ultimately, of selfishness. I had no idea how I could even begin to try to fix it.

‘No, I’m sorry,’ I said. I really was sorry. I tried to smile. I tried to smile genuinely.

‘Okay, have a nice day,’ she said.

‘You too,’ I replied.

She paused, briefly. ‘Thankyou,’ she said. ‘And thankyou for your manners.’

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