SAD BUT TRUE
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