Like father, and mother, Dylan’s a film winner
By his own admission, Alice Springs filmmaker Dylan River has two key points of identity.
“One is my Aboriginal heritage and the stories I want to tell,” he says, “but then I’m also absolutely obsessed with motorbikes.”
The two threads came together at the weekend when River’s eight-minute film Coat of Arms won best short at the Capricornia awards, a biennial competition run as part of the Darwin International Film Festival.
The work plays on themes of the national symbols of emu and kangaroo, of Aboriginal history, of violence and of the outsider’s gaze, all the while imbued with a dance-like sense of movement and fantasy.
He was also nominated separately in the feature film section for his documentary Finke: There and Back, a serious examination of the largest off-road motorsport event in the southern hemisphere, a highly dangerous expedition into the Red Centre in which he has competed seven times.
Which is where things get interesting. Although Finke didn’t take out the main prize, the internationally acclaimed period western Sweet Country did.
Inspired by real events, Sweet Country tells the story of an Aboriginal farmhand who shoots a white man in self-defence and then goes on the run, trying to escape a posse bent on revenge.
It also happens to have been made by River’s old man, Warwick Thornton.
While this might seem to be a case of like father, like son, River’s mother, Penelope McDonald, is also a highly acclaimed filmmaker and the person to whom the young artist attributes much of his obsessive drive.
“I think what my Dad’s influenced me with mostly is the idea that we have these tools and we’re given these opportunities and it’s important to really say something that’s worthwhile,” River said.
“You shouldn’t make films purely for entertainment. What he’s taught me is to have something to say. It’s as simple as that.
“But my mother, she’s more hardworking than him. He’s got some sort of natural talent, but I think I get a lot more work ethic from her.”
River describes himself as “an Aboriginal Australian and very proud to be one”, but is quick to clarify that he also sees himself as “that person who can float between both worlds”.
“When I hang out with an Aboriginal family or even just community, I’m definitely seen as the whitefella; when I hang out with my white friends, I’m the Aboriginal guy. I find it a really beautiful thing to be able to walk between both worlds.”
Having broken bones pursuing his motorcycling passion, he admits it might be time to branch out. “You get older and that part of the brain that thinks about consequences starts to kick in,” he said.
“But I’ve found other things. I’ve started surfing … yes, I know I live in the desert, but I spent a lot of time in Sydney recently.”
Dylan River at Darwin’s Deckchair Cinema yesterday