Struggling to find their place: Indigenous youth, identity, and storytelling in Beneath Clouds and Samson & Delilah – Samantha Fordham

The reconciliation period in Australia in the 1990s gave rise to a number of feature films that explicitly engage with the themes of reconciliation, and in particular with issues surrounding understandings of history and Indigenous identity. The two feature films on which this article focuses, Beneath Clouds (Sen 2002) and Samson & Delilah (Thornton 2009), each centre on a pair of young Indigenous characters struggling to find their place in a world characterised by disadvantage and disconnection from mainstream society. The protagonists of the two films make a transition from adolescence to adulthood at a time in Australia that is also experiencing a state of transition—the reconciliation period. Both films are directed by Indigenous directors and feature first time actors in lead roles. In the case of the road movie Beneath Clouds, the two teenage protagonists embark upon a road trip to escape their oppressive lives and find family in Sydney. Vaughn (Damian Pitt) is recognisably Indigenous and has escaped from a youth detention centre. He embodies the stereotype of angry black youth, while Lena (Danielle Hall)—blonde haired and blue eyed—is unwilling reveal her Indigenous heritage. The two experience prejudice and bond over shared experiences of dysfunctional family environments. Along the road both learn to understand themselves, their heritage and the possibilities for the future. Samson & Delilah’s teenage protagonists also leave behind them oppressive existences, but the narrative concerns itself less with the literal journey the two embark upon and more on the symbolic journey of discovery they undertake. The protagonists Samson (Rowan McNamara) and Delilah (Marissa Gibson) exist in the monotonous world of a remote Central Australian community characterised by tedious routines and a lack of opportunity. The pair leave the community after Delilah’s grandmother dies and seek out an ultimately unsuccessful existence in Alice Springs. These two films deal with trauma, shame and identity and the desire to reconcile these issues through “escap[ing] history” in a tradition identified by Australian film scholars Felicity Collins and Therese Davis as specifically Australian (2004, 154). Collins and Davis use the term “post-Mabo” to refer to films produced in the period following the 1992 High Court Mabo ruling on Aboriginal land rights as part of Australian national cinema’s efforts to come to terms with the trauma of native title, colonial history and Indigenous dispossession. Politics and film theorist Greg McCarthy (2004, 3) also identifies a recent wave of Australian cinema that is concerned with trauma. For him, this trauma reveals itself as a spectre that haunts the audience and reverberates through society. Sen and Warwick present this trauma as ever present for the young protagonists of both films as they struggle to negotiate their own understandings of the past and what may lie ahead in the future.

Through a consideration of the ways in which journeying, music and religion manifest as important markers of identity and agency, this article analyses how the Indigenous protagonists of both films negotiate history and memory. In shaping and resolving those issues of identity and agency the characters find ways in which to relate to their milieu. Specifically, Sen and Thornton’s films enter the discursive realm of the reconciliation process and demonstrate the ways in which reconciliation in Australia is an ongoing process. In doing so, they highlight the failings of this process as faced by Indigenous youth and indicate their position as founders of a new generation that must negotiate the complexities of a world in which the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous characters are fraught with loaded meanings. However, Sen and Thornton present different visions of the ways in which their young Indigenous protagonists make sense of their identities and position in society. As the daughter of an Irishman and an Aboriginal woman, in Beneath Clouds Lena must deal with the complexities of occupying a space that is neither fully Indigenous nor fully white—she must reconcile these dual identities in order to accept herself and her family. Thornton’s Samson & Delilah, in contrast, seems to infer that any process of reconciliation must be one in which Indigenous youth are firstly reconciled with their own culture and land and become empowered to help themselves. It is in this way that we see Samson and Delilah reconciled with Delilah’s own “country” at the end of the movie, opening up possibilities for a successful life together away from the destructive existence of the city.

Collins and Davis (2004, 154) argue that one of the traits specific to youth discourses in Australian cinema “post-Mabo” is “the expression a form of teen mobility fuelled by the desire to ‘escape history’…[and that this]…is symptomatic of the specific difficulties of coming of age during this period”.  I would argue that, in fact, this can also be understood, in the case of Beneath Clouds and Samson & Delilah, as a desire to escape negative and marginalised futures. Furthermore, the characters of Beneath Clouds journey through memory and history, which serves as a way of negotiating these futures. In Samson & Delilah history is invoked in two ways; firstly, through the way in which the final scene repeats images from the opening scenes: the kangaroo, music, dot painting and the cross. This repetition of symbols from the beginning offers a way in which the past can be replayed to produce a viable and positive future. Secondly, in promoting a return to Delilah’s “country” as a way in which to find resolution and escape the tedious existence of the small community, the film brings “historical traces…to the surface…reveal[ing] the complexities and contradictions of living in the aftermath of colonialism” (Davis 2009). These historical traces can be found in the biblical names of the protagonists and through a consideration of the troubled history of land rights for Indigenous citizens in Australia. In what follows I explore how, as a result of these journeys through memory, history and ritual, the protagonists of both films come to see and understand the past and the present in new ways and this becomes fundamental to the characters’ perceptions of themselves. The act of seeing and understanding is presented as complex—the literal act of seeing is both problematic and prone to misunderstanding, with multiple meanings and interpretations available. These misunderstandings are linked to the way in which memory is enacted through the appropriation of various stories that the characters use in the production of identity. I argue that for the young Indigenous protagonists of both films, in order to achieve some sort of resolution in their quests for agency, they must understand and negotiate not only history and memory, but also the multitude of problems that face young Indigenous people in contemporary Australia.

Journeying and storytelling in the past, present and future

Sen’s Beneath Clouds is characterised, to some extent, by second-hand stories; Vaughn views the landscape through his Grandfather’s stories and Lena through her father’s Irish heritage and the postcards she has received. Lena is introduced in a small town in rural New South Wales. It is a place characterised by long dusty roads that stretch into nothingness where very little seems to happen—reflected through long, wide shots that feature only the diegetic sounds of the odd vehicle. Lena watches what she perceives as the inevitable consequences of her disadvantaged life unfolding around her; her brother is arrested for theft and her friend confesses she is pregnant. Lena is determined not to fall victim to the same fate and leaves home in order to search for her Irish father—and, importantly, to find another existence that is not characterised by crime, teen pregnancy, alcohol, and disadvantage. It is on this journey that she meets Vaughn, and what follows is a journey, mainly on foot, in which the two learn about themselves and others as they negotiate prejudice, stereotypes, memory and violence. The film follows an established tradition of road movies featuring Indigenous protagonists that includes important films such as Backroads (Noyce 1977). Like Backroads, Beneath Clouds features conventional tropes of the genre: a journey, sparked by a need for rebellion or escape, that has some sort of end objective (although this is often not fully realised, the journey itself being of most importance), and featuring stops or objects along the way which enable the characters to experience aspects of themselves and the world around them. Beneath Clouds is a road movie, but instead of viewing the world through the window of a speeding vehicle, Sen presents the land slowly as it is traversed on foot. As such the use of travelling shots that “attempt to convey a visceral sense of travelling at a hyperhuman, modernized speed” (Laderman 2002, 15) is replaced with a view that prioritises experiencing the land over moving through it. Whenever Lena and Vaughn accept a lift in car, they are viewed through confining, close shots, contrasting with the wide open top-heavy spaces that emphasise the sky as much as the land, which feature in much of the rest of the film. Indeed the title of the film demonstrates, perhaps, that while Indigenous belonging to and understanding of land is important for the youth characters, all the characters of the film occupy the same position under the vast sky, or beneath the clouds. This position functions as a unifying one—while Lena and Vaughn appear, at first, ambivalent towards each other their experiences and encounters along the road draw them together.

Indigenous studies theorist Stephen Muecke’s analysis of Backroads argues that there is another way in which representations of land can be understood. He explains that “moving images, including those framed by car windows, give us the possibility of seeing landscape as a variable rather than fixed, as in landscape paintings…[and that]…in the intervals between sites stories can emerge” (2004, 89). This reading encourages us to view the landscape as loaded with pluralistic values. Beneath Clouds demonstrates this in a number of ways. Along the journey Lena and Vaughn see a picturesque spot featuring vegetation covered cliffs with a white family in the foreground on the side of the road. Vaughn looks up to the cliffs and tells Lena a story relayed to him by his grandfather—the story tells of Indigenous people that were pushed to their deaths from the cliffs by white settlers. At this point the land symbolises not only a history of oppression and violence, but also acts as an important factor that influences Vaughn in his resistance to dominant white culture. The white family appear unaware of the violent connotations Vaughn reads into the landscape and the land takes on a new meaning—one that is complicated and ensures Vaughn’s continued resistance—for it is not history alone that drives him, it is what he sees as continued ignorance of white people towards that history. This spot is simultaneously a site of colonial violence and one of continued ignorance of white people towards that history. Lena and Vaughn move through the landscape at a slow pace for much of the film, highlighting their need to take time understanding the ways in which history has embedded the land with a problematic and troubled past, and the way it can inform the future. In this sense comparisons can be drawn to both Rabbit Proof Fence (Noyce 2002) and Yolngu Boy (Johnson 2000), films in which the young protagonists travel through the land predominately on foot, with this being an essential aspect of their experiences as Indigenous characters.

For Lena in Beneath Clouds, land functions in an entirely different way. Images of Ireland and her father are central to the way in which she attempts to construct her identity.  The symbolic presence of a large poster of Ireland above a bookshelf containing a book on Ireland and a copy of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1999) indicates Lena’s longing to belong to another far off place—far away from the confining and oppressive disadvantage of her rural community. The poster is nostalgic in style and contrasts against the dingy walls of her bedroom, with the book referring to Ireland as “this beautiful land”, and seeming somewhat out of place in rural New South Wales. The audience are encouraged to consider the post-colonial connotations offered through Sen’s placement of these texts in Lena’s bedroom—particularly as bedrooms, generally, can be seen as safe spaces in which teenagers can enact and create identities. The Tempest has a long history of being analysed in light of postcolonial theory, and when placed alongside images of, and texts about, Ireland, explicit associations to a deprived and dispossessed history prevail, with Ireland the subject of British colonisation in the seventeenth century. In addition, almost a quarter of the convicts sent to Australia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were Irish (Australian Government n.d.), this positions them as both victims of an often unfair judicial system (and already post-colonial subjects in terms of the Irish relationship to England) as well as functioning as representatives of the colonial regime in Australia with regard to their relationship to the Indigenous population. The Tempest’s plot lends itself to analysis in terms of post-colonial theory in respect of Prospero’s colonial power over Caliban. Just as Caliban disputes Prospero’s version of history, Vaughn challenges dominant white narratives. He recounts a story of a colonial past that he is unable to remember himself, but has been passed down to him by his grandfather and which he trusts to be true. This story is symbolic of Vaughn’s world-view: he sees the land as a site of violence and representative of past injustices—a way in which to view the horrors of the past and the continuing problems faced by Indigenous people in contemporary Australia. Lena also experiences this past, but only through Vaughn’s re-telling, which gives her another way in which to see the land she has previously rejected through her attachment to Ireland and its green hills. The characters of The Tempest are in a state of continual movement, and just as in the case of Lena and Vaughn, this movement reflects their need to find resolution. Lena can also literally move between identities—she can “pass” as white, with fair skin and blue eyes, but was raised by her Indigenous mother and stepfather. Lena’s focus on images as a way of constructing identity perhaps reflects her inability to relate coherently to either her Indigenous or Irish heritage; she is both of these at once, while simultaneously being neither fully. Although Vaughn appears to believe she is white, certainly at first, the older Indigenous woman with whom they share the backseat of a car, towards the end of the film, knows instantly that she has Indigenous heritage, asking Lena, “Where your people from?” indicating that as much Lena may want to escape her Indigeneity, it will always be a part of her.

Landscape functions, in both films, as an intertext. For Vaughn in Beneath Clouds the landscapes hold memories of violence and dispossession, further fuelling his anger as a young Indigenous man.  In this way, Lena also learns another way in which to the view the landscape in opposition to the way she has previously contrasted it with an idealized place of escape. For Thornton, however, land holds the possibility of renewal and rebirth: a place in which Samson and Delilah can start again. As the movie draws to a close, the pair leave their remote community in order for Delilah to help heal Samson of his substance abuse, nurse him back to health and to make penance for stealing the car and losing the respect of the elders. In their isolation Delilah is able to take care of Samson, killing a kangaroo and providing food for them both. Their isolation in the landscape allows them to understand themselves and their relationships to others in their community. Importantly, this new reality at the outstation in Delilah’s “country” is “replete with images from the first—cross, kangaroo, wheelchair, music, dot painting, hair” (Gallasch 2009), suggesting that routine is not necessarily negative and does not have to signal boredom and desperation. Indeed, ritual and routine are important aspects of many traditional cultures. So instead routine becomes a type of security, and importantly these images, these intratexts, reveal the ways in which these characters have not only struggled with their identities, but also the way in which they have chosen to reconstruct them anew in order to find meaning and hope. That is to say there is no need for a rejection of old values in favour of new as these teenagers find a space in the world, but instead an understanding of how new meanings can function alongside old to provide hope for the future.

Journeying and storytelling enable all four protagonists to engage with aspects of their identities as Indigenous citizens and in relation to non-Indigenous Australians. Through enacting and understanding the various stories available to them they negotiate the transitional space of adolescence and journey towards adulthood. In this way they are also symbolic of reconciliation in Australia as being at a time of adolescence—that is, negotiating exactly how the process might mature and become a workable, positive process for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens alike.

Indigenous youth identity, agency and power

While Lena focuses on Ireland as a means through which to escape, Vaughn looks to aspects of popular youth culture. An important motif in Beneath Clouds is the use of American hip-hop culture. In fact, in one of our first meetings with Vaughn—Sen’s incarcerated male protagonist—a poster of Tupac, murdered American rap artist is displayed on his wall. First, the pendant around Tupac’s neck is revealed in close up, followed by a shot of the whole poster showing Tupac superimposed upon an oversized cannabis leaf. Pausing first on the gun-shaped pendant, Sen emphasises violence as an aspect of this culture with which young male Indigenous characters first identify. In this context, violence becomes symbolic of strength, resistance and power. Hip-hop researcher Derek Iwamoto (2006, 145) goes so far as to claim that “many minority youth exaggerate these hyper-masculine characteristics in their public personae, in order to prove themselves and be respected by their peers”. He goes on to present this as a result of “limiting stereotypical” portrayals in the media. Iwamoto (2006, 151) claims that while Tupac certainly appropriates hyper-masculine characteristics he also demonstrates “an acute awareness of the corrupt nature” of the society that produced him and that perpetuates stereotypes of violent black masculinity. In many ways Vaughn also performs both of these roles. While perpetuating hyper-masculine behaviour in attacking the police officer towards the end of the film (and certainly his previous behaviour that led to his incarceration), he also demonstrates that his relationship with Lena has helped him to understand that there are different ways in which he can occupy his position as a young Indigenous Australian.  This is further contrasted against the other symbols visible in the poster shot; the black and white outline of the Aboriginal flag and the scrawled initials, BNP. There is an almost palimpsestic aspect to the way in which memory and violence can be traced through the symbols on Vaughn’s wall, as we imagine those that have occupied that space before him. Vaughn and the other young male characters like him seem to identify with hip-hop or rap culture as a way in which to find solidarity and a voice with which to resist disadvantage and prejudice, however, the Aboriginal flag has been partially cut out of the shot. The flag is unable to function fully next to the appropriation of Black American hip-hop culture and perhaps indicates that true agency or power cannot be obtained through simple appropriation of another historically marginalised culture. Further, the initials representing the British National Party (BNP) alongside the picture of an African-American, stereotypically posed, is not only contradictory, but also somewhat disturbing. The BNP, a British political party, are known for their associations with the British National Front and their extremist right wing political policies regarding immigration. They are, historically, a white only political party (though they have recently been forced to accept individuals from other ethnic backgrounds should they wish to join). For politically attuned audience members, this symbolism may invoke memories of Australia’s political past through policies such as the White Australia policy and, more generally, policies on assimilation. Overall, this serves to highlight misunderstandings of other symbols used in the production of representations of youth identity. Vaughn sees the way that Tupac, as a strong black man, has assumed this image for the purposes of rebellion, strength and solidarity, without also seeing the way in which Tupac, as an African-American man is stereotyped as violent, criminal and intimidating; a stereotype that the BNP may be happy to perpetuate. Later, the gun of Tupac’s pendant is transformed into a real gun in the car with Vaughn’s friends towards the end of the film. For the young Indigenous men, the gun serves as a symbol of power and rebellion in the face of the oppressive institution of the police.  However, the events that transpire as a result of the appropriation of these negative aspects of African-American hip-hop stereotypes prove catastrophic for Vaughn when he feels forced to retaliate with violence. The film suggests that while the appropriation of these violent examples of youth subculture temporarily empower the young men, it also binds them together in a shared experience of racism, oppression and disadvantage. Vaughn’s agency comes at the price, eventually, of his freedom. The young men of this scene reassert the terms of engagement, defiantly resisting the police—this plays out as a game of identity politics, a shared experience of social injustice uniting the young men (and actually Lena too), forcing an outcome that will have only negative consequences for Vaughn and the other Indigenous youths. For both Lena and Vaughn their experiences of the law and police in Australia have meant separation and prejudice—these memories make them unable to believe a positive outcome is possible. In this way the teenagers are haunted not only by a collective memory of injustice, but one that is also personal and individual.

While the images of hip-hop culture in Beneath Clouds have very little to do with music itself, in Samson & Delilah music appears as a fundamental part of the day-to-day routines of the protagonists. The repetition of music from the Ska influenced The Verandah Band[1] every morning as Samson wakes emphasises the repetitive and at times monotonous life styles of the young people in this marginalised community. Just as it is no accident that the young men of Beneath Clouds choose to look to American hip-hop culture as an escape from marginalisation, it is also symbolic that it is Ska music that features here. In the 1950s Ska music originated in Jamaica, a former Spanish and later British colony, and it was heavily influenced by rhythm and blues—created by African Americans in America’s Deep South.  It is a music born out of oppression and disadvantage that celebrates aspects of Black culture. While the older Indigenous men seem to engage with this music, Samson in his drug-induced state[2] is unable to and plays discordantly every morning before having the guitar removed from him. His desire for agency and attempts to identify with this culture are made impossible through his marginalised position in society and his reliance on petrol sniffing as a way out of the boredom and deprivation of his life. When Samson finally tries to break the cycle and join Delilah, his hopes are ruined when Delilah’s grandmother Kitty (Mitjili Napanangka Gibson) dies and Delilah is beaten in the traditional “sorry business” ritual. In his anger at the situation he attacks his brother and smashes the guitar; in many ways this can be seen as an act of clarity. Samson is unable to adapt this music for his own situation; simple appropriation of the music of another oppressed people will not answer his needs (just as is the case for the characters in Beneath Clouds) and importantly, it will not break the cycle of boredom and substance abuse that characterises his life. Of course, the music does function as a positive force for the other young men—providing their lives in the remote community with rhythm and structure. Thornton’s depiction of Samson, however, asks us to question both the positive and negative aspects of these rhythms—in providing structure and reliability for some, for others the monotony and lack of opportunity is simply too much to bear.

Delilah’s appropriation of Ana Gabriel’s music creates a space in which she can break away from the day-to-day life of the community. The first time Delilah escapes to the community owned vehicle and plays her Mexican love songs, the shot cuts to Samson—immobile in the wheelchair in the middle of the road, moving only when a vehicle drives up to him flashing its lights. Delilah does not see this, or at least we are not shown that she does, indicating not only her literal inability to see Samson, but also reflecting her inability to see his potential at this stage in the narrative. Delilah literally cannot see Samson as a potential love interest while he is under the influence of petrol fumes. When Delilah goes to the car the second time, Gabriel’s song “Talisman” slowly blocks out the music that Samson is dancing to and his rhythmic and sensual movements become part of Delilah’s romanticised view of the future she and Samson might share: at this moment he is free and natural, uninhibited by the constraints of his everyday existence. Here Thornton shows us Samson’s potential and the possibilities of a life with Delilah, allowing us to view Samson through the eyes of her character for a moment. Indeed this is a moment of foresight for Delilah’s character, the first time that she views the prospect of a future with Samson. While Delilah may not be able to understand the lyrics, Gabriel’s depiction of women as active, strong, and in control of their love lives ultimately characterises Delilah’s relationship with Samson. Of course, the music that Samson’s character is really dancing to is far less romantic, with heavy guitars replacing the lilting melody and highlighting the space and distance still between them.

Samson and Delilah, to some extent, become representative of many young people who must negotiate problems that face Indigenous youth today; their lack of voice or agency is symbolised through Samson’s speech impediment and the resulting lack of dialogue. In Beneath Clouds, Sen also symbolically represents the protagonists’ limited agency and power through sparse dialogue. Through this strategy, both Sen and Thornton draw attention to what is not said and raise questions about the different modes of communication available. Indeed, Delilah uses hand signals and both Vaughn and Lena demonstrate the power of a simple look to communicate their thoughts and emotions. Samson’s inability to find a voice or agency is further symbolised through his appropriation of the wheelchair at the start of the film. Without any other entertainment, Samson makes a younger boy give up the wheelchair he is using as a plaything—the only power that Samson has is his power over younger Indigenous boys in the community. Samson’s use of the chair, as playful as it is, invokes notions of disability and difference. However, when this is compared to Kitty in her wheelchair as Delilah faithfully takes her to the makeshift health centre and church every day, it is clear that part of Samson’s powerlessness is the result of his own making; there are some choices available to him—just as he is able to get up from the chair, he can also choose to give up petrol sniffing.  However, through the repetitious nature of life within this community, Thornton also presents us with a dilemma regarding the ability to change. This lack of agency is also played out for Delilah, with the Indigenous art created by Kitty and Delilah symbolic of a lack of agency experienced by many Indigenous people today. The artwork produced by Indigenous people and communities, when mediated through galleries such as the one in Samson & Delilah, are provided with an authenticity demonstrated through the display of Kitty’s picture in the gallery window. When Delilah tries to sell her own paintings in the gallery alongside those she helped Kitty paint, she sees the casual dismissal by the gallery owner as a rejection of her authentic identity, causing her to lose any agency she thought she possessed. She becomes self-destructive and after abuse at the hands of some white youths she eventually turns to petrol sniffing herself.

Sight and Symbolism

It is clear that any audience coming to watch Samson & Delilah will bring with them associations to the biblical tale that provided inspiration for the names of the two protagonists and title of the film. In creating this association Thornton prioritises the act of seeing as an important theme—however, it is clear that the power dynamic between the two characters has been, in some ways, realigned. Despite this, the biblical Samson’s metaphorical blindness to Delilah and later his literal blindness at the hands of the Philistines can also be traced through Thornton’s film. There are similarities between the biblical tale and Thornton’s film—Samson is described in the King James Version (Heb. 11. 34) as “out of weakenesse…made strong” and the contemporary Samson shares his Biblical namesake’s obsession with Delilah. Indeed, over the course of the narrative Thornton’s Samson, lacking in both agency and voice for much of the film, is only shown to only start to acquire strength once Delilah has committed to his recovery and taken him to her “country”. The symbolic cutting of the hair produces a layering of meanings, which reference not only the biblical tale but also traditional Indigenous “sorry business”. Delilah cuts her hair after Kitty’s death, and Samson, later in the film, alone without Delilah after she has been injured, also attempts to cut his hair as a sign of his grief, despite this being an unusual practice for men. However, in many ways the similarities between the film and the Biblical tale end there. Delilah is no trickster in Thornton’s film and, in fact, it is her character’s strength and (in)sight that enables Samson to find his own. I would argue that it is the appropriation of the story itself that is important, rather than particular similarities and/or dissimilarities. In her article “Samson” theologian Mary Joan Winn Leith (n.d.) describes the biblical story as “rooted in Danite folktales and perhaps Philistine story traditions” and resembling “tales of intertribal relations told in other areas where neighbouring groups borrow story lines from each other”. This borrowing and appropriation allows us to further understand the world in which the two protagonists exist; that is, one characterised by stories and meanings that they may not have full ownership over. However, these stories enable them to negotiate meaning and identity within a difficult world, ultimately helping them to create their own stories and narratives. Importantly, this also encourages us to see the different ways in which we can view or interpret the stories that occupy spaces in the world around us. Therese Davis (2009) describes this biblical referencing as “an ironic residue of this particular colonial history: Old Testament names such as Samson and Delilah are commonplace in Aboriginal communities in Central Australia, especially those that began as Lutheran Missions”. In this sense history and memory combine to reveal complexities in the interpretations and meanings created through the referencing of these stories over time.

Like Samson & Delilah, Beneath Clouds also engages with the relationship between Indigeneity and Christianity. While sheltering in an abandoned church during their road journey, Vaughn is seen to rip pages from a Bible to make a fire to warm them. Lena looks around and berates Vaughn for swearing in the Church. In an earlier scene, the presence of the crucifix on Lena’s wall highlights both an Indigenous and Irish (specifically Catholic) relationship to the church, although one very different from the other. For Lena, the placing of the crucifix on the wall and her respect for the church acts as a symbol of Ireland and her longing to escape her present existence. Lena mediates her understanding of her identity through that of her father and her heritage. When we see Lena in her bedroom her Indigenous mother and stepfather have been introduced, themselves functioning as stereotypes of a dysfunctional Indigenous family, demonstrating signs of both alcoholism and neglect and seeming to care little when Lena’s younger brother is arrested and taken away by the police. As Lena sits in her bedroom, after these events have transpired, she looks at the crucifix on her wall, providing a self-conscious reminder of Indigenous relationships to the Church as an institution. These are born out entirely through contact with the forces of colonisation—historically religious institutions have been centrally involved in the running of missions, which housed many of the children removed from their families as part of The Stolen Generations. It also highlights the way in which many Indigenous people have adapted Christian beliefs “as part of a complex hybrid worldview” (Davis 2009), reminding us of the simple cross placed by Delilah in her new home with Samson towards the end of Thornton’s film. This action can be seen as evocative of her relationship to her grandmother Kitty, rather than of any real relationship to the church as institution. In fact, when Delilah turns to the church in order to seek some sort of answer or help, her presence is clearly unwelcome and she realises that she will not find the answers she needs within the white religious institutions of the city. The cross is symbolic of the support and commitment within her relationship to Kitty, but also of the ritualistic nature of the daily visits to the church and the health centre, and perhaps through this there is some security after all. It is not without importance that the crosses of the makeshift church that Kitty visits and, later, of Samson and Delilah’s new home, are simple wooden examples, compared to the ornate symbolism of the crucifix in the church in Alice Springs. The loaded images of religious symbols are metonymic of a troubled history within which the Church has certainly been complicit in its support of past government policy. The image of Jesus on the crucifix also invokes a history of suffering and persecution over the centuries, as viewers watching Delilah’s rejection by the Church and later her appropriation of the cross as a symbol that infers tradition, relationships and commitment. It is significant that the crucifix itself, while symbolic of death, is also symbolic of rebirth—of new life. It is a new life that the character of Lena dreams of, just as it is that which Delilah searches for. Davis (2009) goes on to assert that the intimate scene in which we see Delilah gently wash Samson’s body in the water trough is evocative of rebirth through associations with baptism and that this is a “very unusual ending for a teen love story…their true love is represented as a mature sacred love”. This scene becomes a reflection of the fact that this is not simply a teen love story at all, with the teenagers of this story having to face the world as part of a “new generation of lost ones, lost by their own people as well as white culture” (Gallasch 2009), and that Samson is symbolic of “what Thornton calls ‘the untouchables’ – young Aboriginal addicts who are socially marginalised within both their Aboriginal communities and the wider Australian society” (Davis 2009).

In appropriating the symbols of Christianity, both Lena and Delilah engage with histories that have proven to be problematic. Lena attempts to self-consciously associate herself with the Catholic church of her father’s Irish heritage, but in doing so she is positioned in opposition to Vaughn, who states in the church, “well if there was a God, he wouldn’t give two shits about me”. Delilah’s adoption of the symbol as a way in which to invoke her Grandmother and tradition demonstrates more the importance of family than an acceptance of Christianity. The two girls find a way in which to mediate these symbols and place them within a framework that allows them to understand their identity and possibilities for the future.

Reconciling the Future

The protagonists of both films explicitly engage with aspects of identity, agency and history within narratives that not only enter into the discursive space of the reconciliation process in Australia, but that also specifically call into question how Indigenous youth might engage with these narratives. Through journeying and storytelling the characters explore both understandings of history and possibilities for the future. On their literal and metaphorical journeys central concerns around identity and agency perform as markers of the characters’ marginalised status and also offer insights into the way in which the future might be negotiated.

To return to Collins and Davis’ discussion of the post-Mabo experience of film, it is important to recognise these films as products of a period that is formally post-reconciliation in Australia, but also a period that is still concerned with the ongoing discourses of reconciliation. If we consider Reconciliation in terms of cultural studies researcher Fiona Nicoll’s (2004, 18) discussion of its ambiguity, as either reconciliation “to” or reconciliation “with”, we can identify the complexity of the ways in which these Indigenous youths relate to the world around them. Intertexts such as landscape, colonial symbols (The Tempest, references to Ireland) and images such as that of Tupac necessarily engage with this discourse through their function as factors that help to define—or exclude aspects of identity for the young indigenous characters. These identities are caught up in the complex strands that tie them to their Indigenous heritage, but also contribute to the way in which they relate to the dominant white culture and heritage of Australia. As far as the protagonists of each film are concerned, reconciliation is both a part of their cultural identity and their individual identities as they struggle to reconcile not only what it is to be a young person in contemporary Australia, but what it is to be both young and Indigenous. For Samson and Delilah, while no answer is really suggested, they have hope in each other and the opportunity to find their own way—together. For Vaughn and Lena reconciliation is a key factor that will enable them to face the future, having learnt about their past, each other and themselves. They have at least started to reconcile aspects of their heritage with the possibilities for their future—Vaughn is ready to face the consequences of his actions and Lena is perhaps more realistic about what she may or may not find in Sydney. As adolescents, the protagonists occupy a space in the world that is liminal—they are neither children nor are they fully grown. This space allows them to experience personal and cultural memory in a way that questions, disrupts and reconciles the complex strands of their lives. With both films featuring first-time actors, it is no surprise that the films offer the audience an experience of Indigenous youth that avoids an overly didactic approach in favour of simple commentary and insight regarding the lives of Indigenous young people in contemporary Australia. In Thornton’s own words: “They own these characters. Everything they do, they’ve either seen or done” (Cole 2009).


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Backroads (Phillip Noyce, 1977).

Beneath Clouds (Ivan Sen, 2002).

Making Samson & Delilah (Beck Cole, 2009).

Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002).

Samson & Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009).

The Tracker (Rolf De Heer, 2002).

Yolngu Boy. (Stephen Johnson, 2000).

[1] The Verandah Band features members of the real band The Desert Mulga Band.

[2] Samson may also be hearing impaired—many indigenous youth in rural communities suffer from deafness as a result of untreated ear infections.