By Prabhjyot K. Bal
Rating: PG (low level coarse language)
Runtime: 90 mins
Genre/Type: Art House
Sound Mix: Dolby
Original Format: 35 mm
Production Company: Anthony Buckley Productions Pty Limited
Distributor: Ronin Films
Director: Tracey Moffatt
Writing Credits: Tracey Moffatt
Producer: Anthony Buckley, Carol Hughes
Editor: Wayne Le Clos
Director of Photography: Geoff Burton ACS
Production Designer: Stephen Curtis
Art Director: Martin Brown
Soundtrack: Carl Vine
Sound Recordist: David Lee
Dimitri: Lex Marinos
Ruby Morphet: Tracey Moffatt
Spiro: Riccardo Natoli
Voula: Dina Panozzo
Maudie: Mawuyul Yanthalawuy
Older Ruby: Auriel Andrews
Rick: Jack Charles
Shelley: Diana Davidson
Young Rick aged 11: Ben Kennedy
Rick’s 1st sister age 4: Desarae Morgan
Rick’s 1st sister age 9: Daphne Byers
Rick’s 2nd sister age 5: Daphne Byers
Rick’s 2nd sister age 10: Lavina Phillips
Blonde boy age 9: Jordan Hammond
I had a lot of difficulty finding specific release dates of the production, but through various reviews on the film as well as write-ups about Moffatt’s work, I’ve gathered that beDevil was released in Australia in 1993, and has been screened in Un Certain Regard at Cannes Film Festival (1993) official selection, Jump Cut Festival in Perth, Toronto Film Festival and at the Sydney Film Festival. It has been nominated for Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) 1993 Awards' for Best Soundtrack Recording. Most recently, it was screened at Moffatt’s latest exhibition held at Curtin University of Technology in association with The UWA Perth International Arts Festival (2004), and before that at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Sydney, 17th December 2003 – 29th February 2004).
Prior to beDevil, Moffatt received high acclamations for her short films – Nice Coloured Girls (1987) and Night Cries – A Rural Tragedy (1989), as well as for her artwork and photography. The recognition she gained won her a film grant to make beDevil. It was made with the participation of The Australian Film Finance Corporation Pty Limited as part of the 1992 AFFC film fund, receiving $2.5m in funding. It is a Southern Star presentation of an Anthony Buckley Production. It is market by 21st Century Pictures Pty Ltd and is distributed in Australia and New Zealand by Ronin Films.
It does not seem that beDevil has an official website, furthermore, there seemed to be very limited reviews online. Moffatt’s previous works, Nice Coloured Girls and Night Cries received more critical reviews on the Internet than beDevil did. I found that particularly unexpected since beDevil was Moffatt’s first full-length feature film and she has already received a lot of publicity for her photography, artwork and previous short films. This, however, can be attributed to the type of Australian film it is. Being an Art Film released a decade ago, the web literature has probably gone down in numbers from the time it was released. Although the web lacked critical uptakes about beDevil, there are a lot of sites that are dedicated to Moffatt as an artist. In those web pages, beDevil receives some attention, but mainly, in terms of her filmic work as a director, I found that her previous two shorts still dominate the critic’s interest.
Apart from the lack of web literature, I have also discovered the presence of possible misinformation on the film. In a particular site, it is said that beDevil won itself a RAKA award in 1994 for scriptwriting that was credited to Kate Challis. I did not manage to find any other website that mentions about beDevil ’s awards and according to the film credits, the scriptwriter was Moffatt herself, not Challis.
Bibliography of web literature
- Internet Movie Database (http://us.imdb.com/tittle/tt0106373/). This is a very resourceful online database as it provides information on the film and biographies (when listed) of the cast and crew working on the film. Readers are also able to post reviews on the film for the public to view.
- ElectricShadows (http://www.electricshadows.com.au/film/2067154931).
- Ronin Films (http://www.roninfilms.com.au/feature/1832064?words=%22BeDevil%22). Ronin Films is also a distributor of beDevil and distributes VHS or DVD copies of the film across Australia and New Zealand.
- Carol Laseur, 1996, ‘BeDevil: Colonial Images, Aboriginal Memories’ http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/film/laseur/BeDevil.html
- http://www.frigatezine.com/bio/biobcon.html Provides notes about Tracey Moffatt.
- http://www.highbeam.com/library/search.asap?q=Tracey+Moffatt&refid=kunstnet Provides a list of pay-to-view articles, interviews and reviews from journals, books and newspapers.
- Creative Spirits: provides web-links to other Tracey Moffatt web material (http://www.creativespirits.de/resources/movies/bedevil.html).
- Philip Powers, Track listings for the soundtrack of beDevil by Carl Vine. http://www.1m1.com.au/1M1CD1020.html
Bibliography of Publications
1. Tom O’Regan, 1996, Australian National Cinema, Routledge: London and New York; pp. 326 – 330.
- Laleen Jayamanne, 1993 "'Love Me Tender, Love Me True, Never Let Me Go...’: A Sri Lankan reading of Tracey Moffatt's Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy." In Feminism and the Politics of Difference, edited by Sneja Gunew and Anna Yeatman. St. Leonard, Unwin & Allen: Sydney; pp. 73–84.
- John Wojdylo, Cinema Papers, No. 96, December 1993; pp. 46 – 47.
- Glen Masato Mimura, ‘Black Memories: Allegorising the Colonial Encounter in Tracey Moffatt’s beDevil (1993)’ in the Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Vol. 20, Iss. 2, April – June 2003; pp. 111.
- TCI, New York, Vol. 28, Iss. 3, March 1994; pp. 26 – 30.
- David Stratton, Variety, New York, Vol. 351, Iss. 2, May 10th 1993; pp. 238.
- Catherine Summerhayes, 2001, ‘Still Film: Tracey Moffatt’s Invocations and beDevil’, Photofile; pp. 42 – 47.
- Michelle Siciliano, writing for Tracey Moffatt’s exhibition at John Curtin Gallery, Curtin University of Technology (6th February – 28th March 2004), Western Australia.
Due to archival restrictions of newspapers and several other publications, I found it hard to gain access to interviews with Moffatt about beDevil.
1. Interview with Tracey Moffatt, Radio National Screen broadcast 26, November 1992.
2. Interview by John Conomos and Raffaelle Caputo with Tracey Moffatt, Cinema Papers, No. 93, May 1993; pp 27 – 32.
3. Interview with Tracey Moffatt by Scott Murray, Cinema Papers, No. 79, May 1990; pp. 19 – 22.
I first used the Internet to gather reviews, critical uptakes of the film and information on the director. The two search engines I utilised were Google Australia (http://www.google.com.au) and Alta Vista (http://www.altavista.com). For my Google searches, I managed to get generated results within Australian web pages as well as the ones that were available on the World Wide Web. From the bibliographies of the reviews and write-ups found on the Internet, I then referred to the publications the authors cited from, enabling me to locate other sources of information about the film and the director.
beDevil presents a trilogy of fantastical ghost stories in a meta-narrative, each combining the stories director Tracey Moffatt heard as a child told by her natural Aboriginal mother and her fostered white mother. Carried out in a documentary verite style, the three-way split narrative is united by the thematic presence of ghostly issues that haunts Australians.
People from Bribie Island begin to reminisce the ghost swamp that was haunted by the spirit of an American GI who drove his truck into the quick sand after a party several decades ago. Switching from past and present, Mr. Chuck presents the point-of-view from two individuals and their experiences of the swamp’s haunting in search of ‘truth’ to these tales.
Rick, an Australian Aboriginal, recounts his childhood adventure at the swamp in a seemingly psychologically volatile state. Laughing hysterically from an enclosed room, he admits that he was the mischievous boy seen during the re-enactments. Resentful over the ‘poxy’ cinema ‘OASIS’ that ‘they’ - the white people - built over his childhood ‘playground’, he is shown, as a child, to have broke into the candy store of the cinema, stolen candy, and with a knife, viciously tears the seats apart and throwing them over as he (as an adult) tells the story of how the ghost of the GI slobbered over his feet while his feet were stuck between the wooden floorboards of the cinema when he tripped and fell.
Shelley, a white Australian lady living on the island, challenges Rick’s proclaimed encounters, indirectly offering a sense of doubt in what he has to say. Rather than dealing with the details of the haunting, she centres more on a judgement of young Rick and with that, questions his character. She says as she recollects, ‘Rick would break into my shop and steal all my things… I’d always catch him’. But she ‘cared for him’. Instead of reprimanding him, she assures him that she would keep the incident away from his uncle and offers him a drink.
CHOO CHOO CHOO CHOO
‘Choo choo choo choo… you can hear it, but you can’t see it’. The invisible train that runs on the track past Ruby’s home as she would yell ‘She is back! She is Back!’. Story has it that a bedevilled train operator killed a young blind girl on that track and her soul still lingers down the railway line.
Years pass. Ruby and her family have moved out but she and her netball teammates return for a big cook-up. They begin to recollect their experience with the spirits of the train and the girl in an informal interview, as least less formal than how it was conducted in Mr. Chuck. Ruby and her family are not the only ones with the experience. It has become so much of a legend that the whole town knows about it. Interviews with a Chinese shopkeeper and a man named Mickey validate the legend with ‘truth’.
LOVIN’ THE SPIN I’M IN
In a small town in North Queensland, Torres Straits Islander Imelda is stuck in the past still mourning over the death of her son, Bebe and his lover Minnie. Many years back, Bebe and Minnie had fled their island community to get married despite the opposition they faced. A tragedy occurs. The forest is set ablaze. The couple dies leaving Imelda distraught by the calamity. But their spirits still linger in the abandoned warehouse where Imelda and another tenant lives. Everyday, Imelda lights a candle in memory of them while their spirits dance away, little do they know that the only place they called home would be demolished in time.
Dimitri and his family own the warehouse. Dimitri has big plans to develop the warehouse into a casino. When the potential developers arrive to negotiate a settlement, they are greeted by the dancing spirits and retreat knowing that although the building has been physically vacant, they cannot remove the history that really resides within.
Within this trilogy of haunting, there is an underlying issue present, which Moffatt so bravely confronts. According to O’Regan (1996), beDevil ‘incorporates difference within a national space’ as ‘Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal subjects negotiate the meaning and future of this space’ (pp. 326). Relating and identifying with events in the past, these multicultural characters tell a story that epitomizes Australia and Australianness within the meta-narrative. The fusion of Aboriginal, Islander, Italian, Chinese and White subjects are highly reflective of Australia’s multiculturalism. beDevil existentialises the cultural and social divide and through this, seeks to reconcile groups of diverse people in order to ‘help(s) foster a sense of citizenship and social identity’ (O’Regan, 1996; pp. 19). Choo Choo Choo Choo and Lovin’ the Spin I’m In can be seen as uniting the difference between race and class to foster a sense of identity. Choo Choo shows different racial groups, classes and identities being united by a singular truth – the story of the young girl who got killed by the ghost train. Lovin’ the Spin I’m In relays an ideology of racial and cultural tolerance that is conferred within the narrative as a way for the characters to affirm their identity. Spiro’s, Dimitri’s son, and Dimitri’s identity as middle class Italians are asserted through the experiences of Imelda and her traditions.
In Mr. Chuck, however, race is positioned as a social problem as Moffatt uses the Aboriginal children as the subjects of abuse. Moffatt draws an evident distinction between race and class. Young Rick is more than a childish mischief. In the OASIS cinema, the way he handles the knife is reminiscent of a vicious hunter waiting to draw blood on his prey. The manner in which he slices open the chairs seem very brutal and not one bit like a childhood prank. Although at that time, Shelley only saw it as harmless child play, the social conditioning of Rick being cared for by a lower class Aboriginal extended family is hinted as bearing partial cause for older Rick turning out the way he did – in a psychologically unstable condition, extremely hysterical in a moment and then in the next, he suddenly falls into a state of void while he was being interviewed from behind a glass panel. Shelley, fully aware that Rick and his two sisters were physically abused by their uncle, she does not tell on Rick’s anti-social behaviour, but later, regretfully admits ‘Yes, I knew what was going on… We could have helped that child. We could’ve’. Here, we can see that Moffatt, like several other Indigenous film-makers, represent issues of colonialism through the ‘white guilt’ experienced by white colonisers. Shelley identifies herself against Rick as someone who possessed more power in terms of her race, class and age, and thus, felt that she could have done something to ‘help’ Rick. It is too late when Rick is shown to be a victim of colonial superiority rather than being victimised by his own ‘kind’.
Within the three short stories in beDevil are a series of representations of Indigenous issues in Australia and these issues are seen to be brought about by colonialism, for an instance, it brings up the question of who does the land really belong to. The ghosts in each story can be read as a representation of previous conflicts that are unresolved. In Lovin’ the Spin I’m In, O’Regan describes the Islanders as becoming the ‘ghosts of the (capitalist) machine’ (pp. 330) as they are forced to leave their home. The colonising of native land is also seen in Mr. Chuck whereby a cinema is built on top of a swamp. The ghosts impart a statement of perseverance and belonging, and no matter how their colonisers try to kick them (the Indigenous people) out of their space/land their history will forever remain because they belong there.
What is interesting about beDevil is the role that the camera plays. Some reviews have classified it as a documentary because of the camera’s disposition. It plays the narrator as well as a character in the film and at times, takes on an observational cinematic approach whereby the camera and the film-maker, Moffatt, is set up as a tool to document and observe an event. When the camera’s existence is clearly visible, it plays a character that does not know all the information, for example, when the camera cranes away from Shelley in Mr. Chuck – she presses a picture at the window, but the camera continues to drift away, intentionally concealing what the picture is. In Lovin’ the Spin I’m In, the camera does not see what the other characters see especially when Dimitri goes back into the empty warehouse and never comes back out. When the would-be developers enter to look for them, they come running out in fear and when they attempt to drive away, the wheels of the car are stuck to the ground, forcing them to spin in circles. Never at any point does the camera reveal why these events happen. Perhaps it is done deliberately like when Shelley’s age is muted, but this shows that the camera has its own personality. We also see the characters interacting with the camera like in Choo Choo when older Ruby rubs the lens of the camera and the Chinese shopkeeper enthusiastically invites the audience, by addressing the camera, to ‘come and meet the camera people’.
beDevil has been widely labelled as ‘the first feature directed by and Australian Aboriginal woman’ (Summerhayes, 2001; pp. 44) although Moffatt herself refuses to let her films and herself be limited by those parameters. The film has received both negative and positive reviews from various film critiques and general film audiences.
In Laseur’s paper (1996), she states that the main criticisms of the film were that ‘that the makers of these films (beDevil and Broken Highway) could not construct a story, and in effect had little or no sense of drama’. This sentiment was echoed by a user of the Internet Movie Database (http://us.imdb.com) as baring a ‘disappointing result’ for the works of Moffatt. I strongly feel that the principal setback faced by beDevil in terms of spectatorship is that the ghost stories are not unifying enough since mainstream audiences do not posses enough knowledge about Aboriginal and multicultural Australia to actively or comfortably read the text. Moffatt, it seems, has gone over the top with the theories about gender, race, culture and identity, as relevant to Australian society and its cinema as it is, but the issue resides with the audience’s lack of knowledge of such language. From the negative feedback of beDevil, Moffatt has actively challenged the passive audience by offering an intellectualised drama.
Although beDevil did not hit the mainstream market too well, Moffatt’s cult following received much praise for her work in her first feature, and I think because it was indeed the first feature film from an Aboriginal woman, the film is popular in its own league and has become a stepping stone for other Australian Indigenous film-makers. Most critics were fascinated by how Moffatt challenged racial and cultural stereotypes and Indigenous issues, while others were awed by the production value of the film especially the set design and theatrical components. I also found that it received much acknowledgement from the international art market rather than the Australian.
About Director Tracey Moffatt
beDevil is Tracey Moffatt’s first feature film. Prior to this, Moffatt directed two other short films – Nice Coloured Girls (1987) and Night Cries – A Rural Tragedy (1989). Both shorts present notions of race, class, gender, colonialism and identity, and may seem almost autobiographical from Moffatt’s experiences from a part Australian Aboriginal, part Scottish descent, and as a child fostered into a white working class family with her Aboriginal mother visiting her from time to time. In Night Cries, that depiction is clear and may seem ‘as a recollected version of events from her own life’ (Siciliano, 2004). In beDevil, Moffatt draws influence from both her natural and fostered mothers to tell a series of three ghost stories, which in it, explores various racial, class and gendered perspectives into the tales she was told as a child, actively depicting Australia’s subversive national identity by critiquing history (reminiscent of Nice Coloured Girls) and the nation’s unified past.
Tracey Moffatt’s background in short film and photography pervades in beDevil, as although being a feature length film, the narrative is broken down into three short stories, attributing that to her grounding in short film making. Another aspect that is characteristic of Moffatt’s film-making style is the set designs and the very theatrical display of acting from her cast members. In both beDevil and Night Cries, the ‘staging’ of the scenes seem almost like one extracted from a play. In an interview by John Conomos and Raffaelle Caputo, she mentions that for beDevil, she chose her cast based on their looks rather than their acting capabilities. As a film-maker and an artist, her disposition is to stylisation rather than realism.
Although widely classified as an Indigenous film-maker, Moffatt’s films come from a very western point-of-view especially since from a very young age, she was fostered into a white family. Being a graduate from predominantly white educational institutions that disseminates western theory such as the Queensland College of Arts and the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), it can be seen that Moffatt’s theoretical bases as explored in her films are hypothesised through western theory by research more than from her own cultural experiences as she discusses Indigenous issues with Indigenous and multicultural sympathies, like in beDevil, reflecting a western mode of representation of marginalised cultures in Australia.
Looking at Moffatt’s directorial progression from Nice Coloured Girls and Night Cries, beDevil is more difficult to read because it does not have a typical narrative progression as compared to her previous works. Having said that, all three films do not follow a temporal order. This can be seen as being Moffatt’s auteurship. However, beDevil is more disjunctive in the sense that it questions narrative ‘truth’ assumptions by which it challenges the spectatorship process while her other two shorts have less of a narrative goal and at surface level, posses a more focused drive towards the issues being discussed, which makes them more easily identifiable. For example, Nice Coloured Girls presents the notion of the historical voice versus the contemporary marginalised voice as the main conflict. This is supported by the use of repeated symbolic representations like the painting on the wall. The ghosts in beDevil are the only repeated symbols that unite the three sperate narrative spaces as one and this unity is merely thematic. beDevil differs from her previous works because it attempts to address too many issues positioned in diverse spaces. The narrative disjuncture, thus, makes it difficult to identify what the main issue is and problematizes reading the text as a whole than as per three different entities.
Tracey Moffatt’s credentials include acting as she played cameo in beDevil as younger Ruby and in Night Cries as the daughter. Her acting role in her films contributes to criticisms that her works are autobiographical. In Night Cries, she plays the Aboriginal daughter to a fostered white mother, and in beDevil, her role as a mother pays tribute to her natural Aboriginal mother as the story of the ghost train was told by her and has since passed away during the production of the film.
After beDevil, Moffatt directed Heaven (1997), which was commissioned by Dia Centre for the Arts, New York, and three 10-minute experimental videos in collaboration with Gary Hillberg - Lip (1999), Artist (2000) and Love (2003). Two documentaries were made about Moffatt – Was That Really Me? (dir: Edwin Hill, 1997) and Up in the Sky (dir: Jane Cole, 1999), both present very interesting accounts into the works of Moffatt and the issues surrounding her and her experiences with post-natal depression and motherhood.
About Production Designer Stephen Curtis
With a background in theatre, Stephen Curtis was also the production designer in Night Cries, which has been described by TCI as being a ‘stylistic forerunner to beDevil’ (pp. 27). Curtis has also been the Production Designer for Twelfth Night (dir: Neil Armfield, 1987) and Breathing Under Water (dir: Susan Murphy Dermody, 1993), and Looking for Alibrandi (dir: Kate Woods, 2000).
Position in Australian Cinema and its value
beDevil lies around the fringes of Australian cinema and this is attributed to it being an Art film by an Australian Indigenous film-maker. Although widely marketed as a drama, fundamentally it does not fall into that genre of film. While there are a lot of crises happening in each stage of the narrative, the conflict is not dramatised, thus producing ‘little or no sense of drama’. As mentioned before, the type of drama Moffatt presents is an intellectualised one and with this, beDevil does not position itself very well in mainstream Australian cinema especially when it is labelled as ‘drama’ on the spine of the video cover.
‘Art cinema questions realistic motivations’ (Gillard, 2003). beDevil is a heavily stylised piece in terms of its intentional stunted acting style that is non-realist because of its symbolic meaning, its surrealistic set design as well as its disjunctive narrative structure that bears several “narrative ‘gaps’ than classical (narrative) forms” (Garry, 2003). beDevil fits very well into the Australian art film genre, as opposed to a set or cross genre with the social problem film type although their characteristics seem to overlap in several degrees, according to O’Regan’s (1996) expression of the Australian art film type:
"Australian cinema: a cinema created for the representation of modernist cultural themes (existentialism, the absurd, alienation, 'boundary situations') and modern political issues (class, gender, race) providing the doubling of aesthetics and politics" (pp. 62).
While beDevil serves as a vehicle for Australian to view themselves in relation to ‘otherness’ and for creating a binding effect across diversities and differences at hand within the nation’s social structure, its artistic visual style experiments with the traditional representations of Australianness, providing alternative ways for Australians to read cultural and political issues in film.
Although it may seem to have been poorly received on contemporary critical and market horizons, beDevil possesses more cultural value than commercial, as according to O’Regan, received the support it needed from state and institutional sponsorships. ‘(Productions) whose commercial prospects were limited, possessed significant cultural capital’ (O’Regan, 1996; pp.14). With the financial aide of the Australian Film Finance Corporation (AFFC), the value of Australian films, like beDevil, supersedes that of commerce and has shaped the way film-making is practiced in Australia. It has paved the way for Tracey Moffatt to become the first Aboriginal woman to make a feature film and that name itself has put Australian cinema on a cultural pedestal.
Australia, being a host to national and international film festivals, Australian cinema is not just “responsible for a ‘resurgence in national feeling’” (O’Regan, 1996; pp. 19), it is also responsible for discursively moulding the terrain for Australian film-makers to find their own film voice through institutional support, thus producing various types of films that reflect the history, the current and the future of the nation for the nation and the rest of the world. Hence, it can be seen that not all Australian films are commercially valuable or at least profit bears lesser importance, but what is significant is the recognition of diverse and personalised films that are culturally relevant and reflective of the underpinnings of Australian social and political landscape which defines Australian cinema – exemplary of beDevil and the works of Tracey Moffatt.
Garry Gillard, 2003, ‘Chapter 11: Art Film’, unpublished.
Tom O’Regan, 1996, Australian National Cinema, Routledge: London, New York; pp. 19, 14, 62, 326, 330.
Artist, dir Tracey Moffatt & Gary Hillberg, 2000
beDevil, dir Tracey Moffatt, 1993
Breathing Under Water, dir Susan Murphy Dermody, 1993
Heaven, dir Tracey Moffatt, 1997
Lip, dir Tracey Moffatt & Gary Hillberg, 1999
Looking for Alibrandi, dir Kate Woods, 2000
Love, dir Tracey Moffatt & Gary Hillberg, 2003
Nice Coloured Girls, dir Tracey Moffatt, 1987
Night Cries – A Rural Tragedy, dir Tracey Moffatt, 1989
Twelfth Night, dir Neil Armfield, 1987
Up In The Sky, dir Jane Cole, 1999
Was That Really Me? , dir Edwin Hill, 1997