TOOMELAH. Starring Daniel Connors, Danieka Connors, Christopher Edwards, Dean Daley-Jones. Directed by Ivan Sen. 97 minutes. Rated MA 15+ (Frequent strong coarse language and drug references).

Toomelah, northwestern New South Wales, indigenous community.

Writer, director, photographer, composer Ivan Sen (Beyond Clouds) came from Toomelah.  He knows what he is talking about.  He knows what he is dramatising. This is very clear in this sometimes quietly compassionate film, a film that sometimes reveals an inherited anger.

2011 has been an impressive year for films about indigenous communities in Australia.  The documentary, The Tall Man, raises issues of police action in north Queensland.  Here I am is an urban story of prison, drugs and hope/hopelessness.  Mad Bastards showed family relationships in the west.  Murrundak was a musical reflection on Australian history from the Black Arm Band.

Toomelah tells a story while it offers something of a documentary look at the community in the town.  What makes it the more telling for the audience is that a young boy, Daniel, is the focus of the film – and life in Toomelah is seen from his perspective.  We watch Daniel sympathetically and appreciate the limitations of his young viewpoint while we can see and appreciate the wider issues that he does not.  Audiences sensitive to language will have to accept the swearing that is second nature to the people of Toomelah and to Daniel himself.

Daniel’s mother loves her son but has a drug problem.  His father is in the town but away from home, out on the road with a meth problem.  The stalwart of the family is Nana, a quiet, contemplative elderly woman who offers a final embrace to Daniel which reminds us that a need for being loved is basic to solving all other problems.

Daniel fights at school and is reprimanded (and the whole town seems to know instantly).  He stays with his friends, especially Linden, out of jail but still the main supplier of marijuana around the place.  He admires these men who welcome him, use him, of course, for deliveries and for framing a man they don’t like.  They fish, they tell stories of their totems, they drink, they sing.  And, they disappear.

School in Toomelah offers some hope.  Many of the young children like school, which also helps them appreciate the bitterness of 19th and 20th century racism and massacres of aborigines.  There is a photo chart at the school illustrating all of this as well as the strong aboriginal heritage.  Further, the children are being taught words from their own language, instilling a sense of the dreaming, of worth and of cultural inheritance.

Toomelah serves as a state of the question for the second decade of the 21st century.  And Ivan Sen is a symbol of achievement.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Transmission Films.

Out November 24, 2011.

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