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Dead Heart

Dead Heart (Nick Parsons, 1996) wr. Nick Parsons, prod. Bryan Brown, Helen Watts; Bryan Brown, Ernie Dingo, Angie Milliken, Gnarnayarrahe Waitaire, Aaron Pedersen; Bryan Brown as outback cop in story of clash between tribal and white man's law who investigates the death of Tony (Pedersen)

A rather complicated and even exploitative story, this is nevertheless the best fictional depiction of (black and white) life in a remote community.

Nick Parsons, publisher, son of English lecturer Philip Parsons and critic Katherine Brisbane, had, it turns out just the one feature film in him, so it's surprising how good it is. It is a bit OTT, a bit 'theatrical' - in a pejorative sense when you're talking about a film - but it nevertheless offers as good a dramatisation of black/white culture clash as any available, particularly in a remote setting.

It deserves every accolade it gets. An intelligent, mature script, sure-footed direction, superb performances and a satisfying drama, this is a film of which Australia will continue to be proud. Andrew L. Urban, Urban Cinefile.

Ultimately the film is about how colonial ambivalence and tensions at the heart of attempts at Aboriginal governance lead to the demise of old colonial strategies and the absolute authority of whites. Dave Palmer & Garry Gillard, 'Aborigines, ambivalence and Australian film', Metro, 134, 2002: 128-134. (Dave wrote that sentence.)

Excerpt from Ten Types of Australian Film:

Dead Heart is also much more than a film about imprisonment, and yet one outcome of imprisonment is the first in the chain of events which constitutes its complex story. As in Deadly (Esben Storm, 1992), it is an Aboriginal death in custody which is the first cause in such a chain. One of the major problems with which the film is concerned (and the closely-related play, both written by Nick Parsons) is the coexistence and/or collision of the Two Laws (to mention the title of a 1981 documentary by Alessandro Cavadini & Carolyn Strachan) both of which may apply in some of the more remote areas of Australia, as here in the fictional settlement of Wala Wala. One is the law of the white settlers as embodied principally in the main character, the policeman Ray Lorkin (Bryan Brown). The other is the traditional law that maintains the Dreaming, guards the sacred places, and gives its owner the right and the ability to punish those who transgress it. Several characters occupy the ambivalent space between. Billy Curlew (Lafe Charlton) is Ray’s assistant and occasional drinking partner (despite this being a dry community), who fails to keep safe the man in his white-law lockup, as a result of which he is punished with a traditional spearing.

The main character who falls between the two cultures and ethical systems is David (Ernie Dingo), in the sense that he is pivotal in the plot. He is Aboriginal but a priest in a white surplice. When another character, a Tjangala man (David Gulpilil), is imprisoned for killing Tony (Aaron Pederson), David (the priest) is instrumental in helping him get free (he brings him a rope with which Gulpilil’s character will pretend to hang himself), and Ray forces him to accompany him out into the desert to bring him back. David says he’ll “die out there”—as he’s not used to the traditional indigenous way of life—but it turns out it is he who saves Ray. When the policeman has been speared and is close to death, David jumps into the water to protect and save him, appealing to elder Poppy (Gnarnayarrhe Waitaire) to let Ray live, saying “that’s enough”.

Tony (Aaron Pedersen) also falls awkwardly between two cultures. He has been taken from his parents (that is, he is one of the “stolen generation”—something of which Ray says at one point that he approves) so he has forgotten his traditional culture—as shown when he tries, when drunk, to do an emu dance but immediately forgets how: he says he “can’t remember”. So, in the process of bringing to a climax his affair with Kate (Angie Milliken), the wife of the schoolteacher Les (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), he commits a heinous crime in taking her to the initiation cave, where, as he says, “This is where we kill boys—and make men.” He pays for this with his death, as the most spectacular failure of all the characters.

On a rather more trivial level, there are other symptoms of the difficulties of living in a complex melange of economic and ethical systems. Poppy’s Toyota, for example: although he has apparently written off the previous one by shooting it up, he puts pressure on Ray to organise a new one for him. And David provides another example of a go-between when he is put in a position where he has to write a letter on behalf of the community to have Ray removed. In another example, although, as already mentioned, Ray has a drink when he wants one, he also stops Tony running grog into the community, and shoots up his shipment. This is a tangential reference to the problems that various kinds of drug or substance abuse can sometimes cause in remote communities, although there is no more time or space, in this packed plot, for the film to deal with it any more depth.

References and Links

Gillard, Garry 2008, Ten Types of Australian Film, second edition, Murdoch University.

Palmer, Dave & Garry Gillard 2002, 'Aborigines, ambivalence and Australian film', Metro, 134: 128-134.

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