SAD BUT TRUE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

WRITER-DI­REC­TOR Beck Cole’s Here I Am is si­mul­ta­ne­ously am­bi­tious and mod­est. It’s am­bi­tious in the sense that it tack­les a theme rarely broached on cin­ema screens — the dif­fi­cul­ties fac­ing many ur­ban Abo­rig­i­nal women — and mod­est in terms of a pre­sum­ably small bud­get and con­fined set­tings and lo­ca­tions. It has some im­por­tant things to say about as­pects of con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralia; un­for­tu­nately, it’s too of­ten flat­footed in the ex­plo­ration of these themes.

The cen­tral char­ac­ter is a young Abo­rig­i­nal woman, Karen (Shai Pittman), who is first seen on her last day in a women’s prison in South Aus­tralia. We’re not told why she has been serv­ing a prison term, but her life is clearly in a mess from which there’ll be no easy re­cov­ery. Her first visit on her re­lease is to a sub­ur­ban house, which we later dis­cover be­longs to her es­tranged mother, and where her small daugh­ter is liv­ing; but she doesn’t knock or at­tempt to go in; she just sits, rather for­lornly, on a swing in the front yard.

Her sec­ond stop is a pub at­tached to a cheap mo­tel. Here she al­lows her­self to be picked up by a man and we see from her face that she gains noth­ing from the ex­pe­ri­ence ex­cept, per­haps, a free bed for the night. In the morn­ing she’s still in the room when the mo­tel clean­ers ar­rive. One of them, also Abo­rig­i­nal, abruptly hits Karen and, af­ter the young woman leaves, tells the other cleaner: ‘‘ That was my daugh­ter.’’

It’s sup­posed to be a key dra­matic scene, but it’s symp­to­matic of the film’s fail­ings. It’s in­cred­i­bly con­trived and co­in­ci­den­tal, and, worse, it’s awk­wardly acted. Pittman has had one or two small roles be­fore while the role of the mother is played by well-known Abo­rig­i­nal aca­demic Mar­cia Lang­ton, and while it may have seemed like a good idea to cast them in dra­matic fic­tional roles, their in­ex­pe­ri­ence se­ri­ously af­fects the drama. Cole’s part­ner War­wick Thorn­ton used ama­teur ac­tors for his magnificent Sam­son and Delilah and it worked bril­liantly. The con­cept is much less suc­cess­ful in Here I Am. (Beck has said she chose women who hadn’t acted be­fore be­cause she wanted a ‘‘ real edge and raw­ness’’ to the per­for­mances.) Af­ter her night in the mo­tel, Karen checks to a women’s refuge in Port Ade­laide

in ad­min­is­tered by the for­mi­da­ble Big Red (Vanessa Wor­rell, a so­cial worker who, ap­par­ently, per­forms a sim­i­lar role in real life), where she meets other women: Skinny (Pauline Why­man), who be­friends the new­comer, Jody (Tanith Glynn-Maloney) and Anita (Betty Sum­ner) among them. In­ter­est­ingly, pho­to­graphs of African-Amer­i­can heroes fea­ture promi­nently on the walls of the shel­ter, in­clud­ing Martin Luther King and Barack and Michelle Obama.

The surly Karen soon makes it clear she’s not bound by so­ci­ety’s rules. She smokes, de­spite the fact the prac­tice is not al­lowed, she steals from a drunk on the street, she shoplifts. Yet de­spite this an­ti­so­cial be­hav­iour, the film is on her side and sup­ports her ob­vi­ous de­sire to pull her­self to­gether and turn her life around.

Beau­ti­fully pho­tographed by Thorn­ton in shades of grey and black, Here I Am im­proves markedly af­ter a very awk­ward start. The scene in which Karen has a ten­ta­tive, su­per­vised, re­union with her daugh­ter is beau­ti­fully han­dled, and Bruce Carter is ex­cel­lent as Jeff, a man with whom Karen forms a re­la­tion­ship, thanks to her friend Skinny. De­spite its flaws, the film has some­thing im­por­tant to say. Karen’s story is, sadly, prob­a­bly typ­i­cal of many ur­ban Abo­rig­i­nal women, and it’s a story that de­serves to be brought to our at­ten­tion. THE se­rio-comic doc­u­men­tary Cane Toads, made in 1988 by Mark Lewis, took a whim­si­cal ap­proach to a dis­turb­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lem threat­en­ing Aus­tralia’s north. The film was sur­pris­ingly funny, given its dis­turb­ing sub­ject mat­ter. Twenty-two years later Lewis re­turns with Cane Toads: The Con­quest, which isn’t as much a se­quel as a re­make and which is be­ing pre­sented in 3-D in some cin­e­mas. In the in­ter­ven­ing years the cane toad, im­ported into Queens­land in 1932 to erad­i­cate the grey­back bee­tle, which was threat­en­ing the sugar cane crop, has mul­ti­plied alarm­ingly.

From the 102 toads first brought to this coun­try (which, in­ci­den­tally, had no ef­fect on the bee­tles they were sup­posed to con­sume), there are now an es­ti­mated 1.5 bil­lion, and they’ve spread right across Queens­land and the North­ern Ter­ri­tory into north­ern NSW and (ac­cord­ing to the film) are threat­en­ing West­ern Aus­tralia. The poi­sonous crea­tures, deadly to house­hold pets and small na­tive fauna, have be­come a seem­ingly un­stop­pable men­ace.

If you can’t beat ’ em, join ’ em, seems to be the film’s mes­sage. Though some of the peo­ple Lewis in­ter­views for the film are ut­terly, even vi­o­lently, op­posed to the toad, oth­ers are more ac­cept­ing. This school of thought in­cludes larger-than-life Ken, who cre­ated a trav­el­ling toad show fea­tur­ing stuffed toads in a va­ri­ety of un­likely cos­tumes, and the good peo­ple of Sa­rina, who, with an eye on the tourist dol­lar, erected a statue of a gi­ant toad.

In his first film on this sub­ject Lewis pro­duced plenty of laughs by em­pha­sis­ing the ug­li­ness of the toads. The orig­i­nal Cane Toads was al­most a comic hor­ror movie, and scenes in which a lit­tle girl played af­fec­tion­ately with her pet toad were guar­an­teed to pro­duce shud­ders. That lit­tle girl is grown up now and is brought back to rem­i­nisce about her child­hood pet.

Lewis com­bines more-or-less doc­u­men­tary footage and talk­ing heads in­ter­views with re-en­acted ma­te­rial: a cou­ple whose beloved dog was poi­soned by a toad play out for the cam­era (rather awk­wardly) the events sur­round­ing that aw­ful event.

If you’ve seen the orig­i­nal film, this one doesn’t have a great deal new to of­fer. For first-time Cane Toad au­di­ences, though, there’s plenty to en­joy, even if the film isn’t nearly as amus­ing as its pre­de­ces­sor. It’s well shot and is snap­pily pre­sented with a bright mu­sic score by Martin Ar­miger. The bot­tom line, though, is that the toad is a men­ace, and its ad­vance through the coun­try is no laugh­ing mat­ter at all.

Shai Pittman, left, and Pauline Why­man in Here I Am

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