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Australia 2011
Directed by
Ivan Sen
106 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars


Synopsis: Daniel (Daniel Connors) is a 10 year old Aboriginal boy living in Toomelah, a former aboriginal mission near the border of New South Wales and Queensland, south-west of Brisbane. With both his parents drunk day and night, Daniel wags school to hang out with Linden (Christopher Edwards) the local dope dealer who represents the only role model Daniel can find.

Toomelah is where director Ivan Sen’s mother grew up. Sen, who was responsible for the fine 2002 film, Beneath Clouds, which also dealt with indigenous Australians living on the fringe of mainstream Australia, depicts a community withering in a cycle of endemic abuse of every kind. Although he does offer a glimmer of hope by showing us Aboriginal elders teaching the children about their language in the local public school, overwhelmingly the film is an unsparing indictment of the legacy of white settlement on the indigenous inhabitants of Toomelah and, by extension, Australia. )Sen economically uses a school display to reference the sorry history of white treatment of Aboriginals whilst Daniel’s Great-Aunt Cindy embodies the Stolen Generation).

Sen’s agenda is well achieved by making his main protagonist a young truant with a natural bent for mischief. What we see is desperately ugly, precisely because Daniel is an innocent victim of the process of being despoiled, a child intuitively knowing that things are not right  but who is determined to be bad anyway.

“Being bad” means hanging out with Linden and his drop-kick mates who drink and smoke dope all day, play video games and live in a fantasy world in which they emulate American “gangsta’ culture. Although Linden and the real bad-man, Bruce (Dean Daley-Jones), sport traditional Anglo-Celtic names, the children of their generation are named Tyson and Tupac, drug-dealing is the only form of employment and endemic idleness is broken only by sporadic forays in their hotted-up cars to collect or sell weed. Sen deftly shows how the lives of older generation are mirrored in Daniel’s world. He not only emulates Linden’s tough talk but he goes through the motions of having a “woman” in the form of 10-year-old Tanitia (Danieka Connors) and nursing a grudge against  another boy, Tupac, just as Linden does with Bruce. The degraded pointlessnes and crudity of it all is ghastly.

Connors does amazingly well in the central role, staunchly inarticulate yet speaking volumes in both his intractability and vulnerability, but Sen has elicited marvellous results from what I take to be not only actual Toomelah residents many of whom, as we see in the end credits, are immediate and extended family members. Filming with a hand-held digital camera, Sen's documentary-like approach is perfectly-suited to his desire to show us things unvarnished by the conventions of narrative cinema, something which for me flawed 2009’s otherwise effective portrait of mission life, Samson & Delilah. There is a sense of an underlying script in terms of plotting and of Sen’s directorial oversight of the performances but there is also a hands-off, observational quality that gives the film a persuasive authenticity.

Toomelah may not be the whole story but it leaves us in no doubt about the soul-destroying reality of life for many indigenous Australians.




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