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Samson and Delilah - a concerto for two persons and life

By Edmond Nixon

Ah! Respond to my tenderness!
- From the aria, ‘Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix’, in the Camille Sans Saens opera, ‘Samson and Delilah’.

Written by Warwick Thornton
Directed by Warwick Thornton

“What better way to see a film about teenagers living in an Aboriginal community than through love”, says Warwick Thornton, writer, director and cinematographer for Samson and Delilah, his first feature film. Perhaps it is Thornton’s conviction about this that allows him to approach his subject matter with particular attention to the tenderness within everyone involved.

Delilah and SamsonSpeaking on Melbourne’s JOY 94.9 FM, Thornton went on to say, “With love there are no barriers, there are no walls, it’s not black and white, it’s not male or female. Love works absolutely across the board. It’s soul rather than issues. As far as getting a film about the kids in Alice Springs out there to a wider audience, I think love is the best place to set it.” In a way this approach mirrors that of Ivan Sen’s Beneath Clouds (2002), starring Dannielle Hall and Damian Pitt. 

In Samson and Delilah the story rests in a tenderness that anchors it in freeing authenticity. There is a longing to be tender cradled deep in the two main characters, Samson (Rowan McNamara), Delilah (Marissa Gibson), Delilah’s Nana (Mitjili Gibson, Marissa’s real-life grandmother) and Gonzo (Scott Thornton, Warwick’s real-life brother), the ‘parky’ who lives under the bridge over the Todd River outside Alice Springs. What is more, the movie’s story-telling treats its audience tenderly – issues are not thrown at them. There is no moralising, no judgment, no advice or recriminations. They are treated as persons and the story waits on their response.

By impregnating this work with tenderness, Thornton arrives at a point of unity rare in movie-making, for everything in the story is secondary to this thread. Yes, there are violent moments in the story, but they too are enfolded in the overall tenderness of the work as a piece.

The viewer is thus drawn into the soul of the story – the developing love between the two teenagers. Love, the film reveals, is perseverance in tenderness even against the odds. It is not often that a story achieves such connection among its characters and between itself and the audience. Samson and Delilah does it exquisitely.

A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity
and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by
morning light, at noon and by moonlight.
- Robertson Davies (1913-1995)

In the opening scene of Samson and Delilah, as Samson slowly rises from sleep, an orange glow of Red Centre morning light pierces the darkened room of his nocturnal rest. It is there like a primordial ray of hope entering a story the tragedy of which the audience is yet to appreciate. On the verandah outside the room where Samson is awakening his brother and friends are having a jam session. As if announcing where this film is going, this new day is greeted with the hopefulness of the Charlie Pride song:

                                    “Every day is a gonna be a sunshiny day
                                     And I'll have a sunshine day every day that I live
                                     The sweet love that you give will make it shine
                                     And I'll I have a sunshiny day in my heart
                                     from now on just as long as you are mine”

In the first movement of this concerto for two persons and life Thornton invites his audience into the everyday experience of the two main characters and their clans. Photographers the world over come to realise that light is a mighty sculptor. They learn that each shot is conditioned by the light. Thornton’s work is no different in this regard, except that through his cinematography he reveals himself to be a master-sculptor.

Day comes, night comes, day comes again. You can feel the rhythm of life all around you, the changing light picking up on each and every mood of each and every day. The light also shines upon the ordinary lives of Delilah and Samson, two Warlpiri people, living in their own country not far from Alice Springs.

They are two young teenagers. The story respects their teenage ways. When Samson throws a pebble at Delilah to catch her attention, it is little different from a schoolboy throwing a piece of rolled up paper across the classroom to hit the one who takes his fancy. And when Samson throws a rock on to the iron-roofed church it makes a bang, not unlike a gunshot. It is reminiscent of a young boy throwing a ball hard against the playground shed next to the girl whose attention he desires. Samson is clumsy, but he is real. Delilah, like any teenage girl rejects the clumsiness and the immaturity of Samson’s attempts at courtship, but nevertheless remains open to his person.

Samson (Rowan McNamara)Thornton meticulously lets the details of each moment express that moment. He never intrudes. The story just continues to unfold a step at a time, all the while the regular sounds of the bush - the birds, the wind, filling the day, and the sounds of the camp - the generator, the crickets, filling the night.

The light shifts inevitably across the lives of these two young people and as it does it also shines upon their culture at a particular time in history. And then you begin to understand Thornton’s purpose. “What better way to see a film about teenagers living in an Aboriginal community than through love”. 

In some movies there is a foreground story and a background story. In Sampson and Delilah there is the love story and the culture story. But Thornton welds these two stories together so that they can never be separated. To see the love story is to see it in the arms of the culture story. Samson and Delilah begin to accompany each other right there in their own cultural surrounds and cultural time. Not in some fairy land, but in the repetitive and existential rhythms of each and every day of their lives does their story emerge.

It is an achievement not unlike that of Patrick White (1912-1990) in his novel “The Tree of Man” (1955). In a 1957 letter to Peggy Garland, White wrote about what it felt like when he and his partner, Malony Lascaris, came to live in Castle Hill (outer Sydney). He said, “I felt the life (there) was, on the surface, so dreary, ugly, monotonous, there must be a poetry hidden in it to give it a purpose, and so I set out to discover that secret core, and The Tree of Man emerged."

So as the light relentlessly moves across the landscape in Samson and Delilah, in beautifully languid shots, Thornton captures the ‘hidden poetry’ revealed in the lives of two real people, Delilah and Samson. And he does this not in spite of their culture but within it.

As the light falls upon the two main characters so it falls upon the white storekeeper. He ekes out an existence among people he seems not to fully understand. He is like an outsider in their midst representing another world, a world that calls in from time to time on the township’s long-ringing and unanswered public phone. The harsh light of noon-day reveals his patronising greeting to Nana (Mitjili Gibson) the old Aboriginal lady who is Delilah’s grandmother. (An irony, not apparent in the movie, is that elderly Mitjili Gibson speaks six languages.) The light reveals that the storekeeper is a middle-man, who for a few dollars and some food, procures Nana’s paintings for an Alice Springs gallery.

The light reveals the other women of the camp who struggle to bring some discipline to the lives of their clan groups. It reveals the monotonous lives of the men including Samson’s brother who on their verandah play their guitars and sing into the monotony of each day.

Finally, the light exposes the stresses in this small settlement. Among them are:

  • Samson’s annoyance at his brother and his jealousy of his band’s music. On the one hand their music intrudes on Samson’s world and on the other it excludes him from its embrace.
  • The older women’s grief and disappointment at Delilah when her Nana dies. 
  • The exasperation of the women when Samson and Delilah take off in the settlement’s four-wheel-drive. 
  • The tension around the store – around those who can not really afford goods. 
  • The stand-off with the police who are not trusted. 
  • The disconnect with extended clan whose phone calls are not answered. And when these stresses lead to violence, so does the light of day and the light of night expose it in all its ugliness.

Wake, and lift up thyself, my heart,
And with the angels bear thy part.
- Thomas Ken, 1637 -1711

Mark Twain once said that ‘You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.’ And one might add: ‘nor can you depend on your ears’. Samson and Delilah is a movie beyond words. The audience is well into the story before they hear a word spoken. Delilah whispers, ‘wake up’ She is calling to her grandmother who has died overnight in her sleep. ‘Wake up’, she cries again, ‘wake up’.

Delilah (Marissa Gibson)It is a poignant moment. Delilah’s loving grandmother and guardian has gone. Nana’s familiar chuckles that filled each day are now muted. Her daily contemplation before the cross of Jesus has morphed into her sharing in his glory. Nana has painted her final work.

This ‘wake up’ is addressed not just to Delilah’s Nana but to the audience and to culture in general. As noted earlier in these musings, this is not an intruding or moralising film, nor is this another gross ‘wake-up call’. No, it is a gentle beckoning to all those who can hear, to all those who can see, to all who can imagine something springing from this story of love and struggle.

As the credits rolled after my viewing this movie I overheard a nearby person asking in puzzlement ‘but what do you do?’ I took her question as genuine, coming from a feeling of inadequacy and a desire to at least do something in the face of indigenous disadvantage. But I suggest that the genius of Samson and Delilah is that it subtlety invites the viewer to listen first, hear second, and imagine third. It seems to trust then that the doing will look after itself. This movie brings the audience into the story in such a way as to make them a cast of characters within the story. Of course, that cannot happen if the imagination is out of focus.

Love is a concerto
- Lope de Vega (1562-1635)

The second movement in this concerto for two persons and life is a largo, a lament. Escaping the boredom, but more so the violence they had experienced in the settlement, Samson steels the community’s four-wheel-drive and takes Delilah to Alice Springs. They drive off into the elongated night until they run out of petrol within site of the city lights. They reach town continuing on foot as the golden light of a new day clips the ranges around them. The familiarity of their life in the bush is threatened by an environment of power and alienation. A groaning steel monster on rails clunks along separating them from the morning light, which to that moment, had shone upon their weary faces. Morning traffic buzzes around them. It is a new place and it runs to a different beat. The sounds are different. Intermittent bird-song is replaced by the relentless bumping of the traffic on the bridge above where they camp in the Todd River.

It is most true, ‘stylus virum arguit’, - our style betrays us
- Robert Burton, 1577-1640

It is sometimes said that there is no good story without a betrayal. Betrayal can launch individuals into an orbit beyond youthful naïveté, break open personal consciousness and fire the imagination. It can also lead to paranoia. Thus the events in Alice Springs become a fulcrum beneath the story of Samson and Delilah. Things can go either way – to life or paranoia. But first the betrayal must be depthed.

Samson slips deeper and deeper into his petrol sniffing. Delilah also tumbles into suffocating despair. She discovers one of her deceased grandmother’s paintings, formerly handed over to the local store-keeper for some food and a few dollars, is now handsomely displayed in a city gallery and is wearing a price tag for $22,000.00. The realisation is to her like a punch in the stomach, and it brings a further collapse in imagination.

At this moment the movie enters into a moment of suspended pathos when Delilah, returning to that same gallery with one of her own paintings is first ignored and then dismissed by the proprietor. In the way of her people, Delilah stands there, just inside the gallery door, with head bowed deeply in respect. And there she waits. In that moment the surrounding culture of indigenous Australia and occupying Australia are exposed in their nakedness. It is not a judgemental moment, but a moment of revelation. It is a moment too that unveils the intrinsic power disparity between Australians with access and those without it.

Delilah’s despair then falls into the grip of affronting anger. As she disruptively touts sales for her paintings among the unsuspecting tourists they turn their heads, see, but do not notice. “Have a nice day” is the disconnected greeting of the checkout person where Delilah seeks provisions. Here Thornton formally situates Delilah in the no-mans-land of ‘disconnect’ between the Australias of the indigenous and the non-indigenous. This is the ‘place’ where he decidedly stages the story of Samson and Delilah. Except for this ‘place’ there is no Samson and Delilah as we know them. It is not accidental to who they are, it is not accidental to who the movie’s other characters are, and it is not accidental to who the audience is. Characters and audience alike are at that moment betrayed by their style as Delilah is betrayed in ‘that place’. And following an assault on her by strangers she too reaches for the petrol. The beautiful Delilah is finally broken.

Samson in a petrol-sniffing haze of his own presumes Delilah dead when she is struck by a car. It is then we see the last vestiges of life drain from the young man’s existence. Paralleling Delilah cutting of her hair when mourning her grandmother’s death, the once energetic young Samson whom the audience can remember from an earlier scene where he potently danced in the camp lights now cuts of his own hair. He too it seems is finally broken. Slumped against the bridge pylon, head covered with an old blanket, his sobs evaporate into the abyss around him. The audience alone can hear Samson sobbing, only they can receive it, they alone may respond.

Seldom do people discern
Eloquence under a threadbare cloak.
- Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis (Juvenal) c.55 – c.138

Threaded through the heaviness of this second movement of Thornton’s concerto for two persons and life are the lighter melodies provided by Gonzo (Scot Thornton), the alcoholic Aboriginal who lives under the bridge outside The Alice. With the constant rumble of the bridge above them in the background, Gonzo goes to work to lighten the load of his two new companions. He knows their pain. He has been there. With both humour and spirit, his healthy defiance breaks into an old song originally made famous by ‘No Fixed Address’ and later on by the ‘Black Arm Band’: 

                                    “We have survived the white man’s world
                                     and the hate and the torment of it all.
                                     We have survived the white man’s world
                                     and you know you can’t change that.”

Although Thornton’s Gonzo provides release at this stage of the movie, he offers no escape. Yes, his humour lifts the lid so that the audience can breathe, but all the while his spirit is driving home a hypnotising fact – through all that has happened over these 221 years, Aborigines have ‘survived’. To some degree this is the note that brings some resolution to a largo loaded with unresolved pathos. And so Gonzo, between offering tinned spaghetti and heated noodles to his assumed charges, also brings a no-questions-asked accompaniment, a genuine acceptance. Eloquence under a threadbare coat!

The medieval Church believed that the resurrection
of Christ marked a new time for all of humanity.
- Timothy Radcliffe, OP (1945 - )

While Sampson and probably the audience believe that Delilah has died in a car accident, it turns out she hasn’t. At this point our concerto for two persons and life seamlessly moves into its third and final movement. It is slow, meditative, and threaded through with fragile strings of hope.

As those left behind not uncommonly “see” those who have passed on, Samson too recognises his Delilah coming towards him out of the light. No, Delilah had not died in the car accident. Rather, she has been nursed back to both physical and emotional health. She has returned to be for Samson what others had been for her. Her “resurrection” announces a new time for their humanity. With the help of clan they return to their country.

Gonzo (in Samson & Delilah)On the four-wheel-drive journey home to their lands the fresh orange light of morning falls intermittently across Samson’s face, and it beckons forth the last vestige of life left within him. Back at the camp the upset community is angry not just at Samson and Delilah but at the collapse of so much they have known and loved around them. Delilah, walking through this atmosphere, her consciousness now broken open to a fuller life, notes the ringing camp phone but is now able to hear it and recognise the caller’s pain crying out with each ring. Betrayal has pitched Delilah’s life into spheres of compassion rather than paranoia.

Setting out closer to her people’s lands with Samson, Delilah single-handedly begins to make a home for them there. Still with her leg in a cast from her accident she pushes the damaged Samson in his wheel chair. Mirroring a scene from earlier in the movie where the virile young Samson proudly brings a roo back to Delilah and her grandmother to eat, now it is Delilah who limps along with her kill for Samson and herself.

The audience is left wondering if Samson is permanently brain-damaged from his petrol sniffing. It also has to question what is happening in the relationship between Delilah and Samson. Is it a co-dependent relationship with little hope of going anywhere? Is it an obsession? Or is it a further unique instance of human love and tenderness.

While Thornton does not resolve all these questions he does highlight the transcendence that rises up from the ordinariness of their togetherness. Two scenes in particular hold this treasure. One is the pieta-like setting where Delilah tenderly washes the life-wearied Samson in the cattle trough near their hut. The second is Samson’s glance of insight, gratitude and love as he gazes across at Delilah from his wheel chair in the dust. The audience is left knowing that these two young people have marked a new time in their humanity, for there is resurrection in their midst. Warwick Thornton’s concerto for two persons and life ends not with a triumphant chord but with soft cadences of gentle hope.

As some have described it, the experience at this stage of the movie is that of being “wrung out”. In this film of so few words there is much said, and so much unsaid. In both cases it is almost an overload for the audience. Yet the viewer knows they have been taken into the realms of deep story-telling. Thornton, refined in the fires of cultural story-telling, enters upon the Australian screen with his debut feature, Samson and Delilah, and is revealed to be a striking story-teller indeed.

Writing for ‘In Film Australia’, Matt Ravier sees Thornton’s work here as a “muted dance of desire and despair. Looks take on immense significance, as does music and visual composition. Showing an uncanny skill (already obvious in his shorts Nana and Green Bush) for making his point visually, writer-director Warwick Thornton’s confident storytelling is unencumbered by narrative aids. His trust in the intelligence of his audience is rewarded by our full, undivided attention. Using all the means cinema puts at his disposal, he spins a riveting yarn which is all the more powerful for its refusal to tug at our heartstrings or point the finger."

Always remember imagination is more important than knowledge.
- Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Warwick Thornton at Cannes - May, 2009Tiga Bayles, previously founder of Radio Redfern and Koori Radio in Sydney and now director of 4AAA (also known as 98.9 FM), Brisbane, Australia’s largest indigenous radio station in a capital city knows the value of telling stories so they can be heard. Criticised as he has been for promoting Country and Western music (referred to by some people as red-neck music) on 4AAA, Bayles defends his position by noting the fact that he can get more Aboriginal stories into the white-fella’s world by playing Country and Western than by not. It is similar with Thornton’s movie. 

Gathering his audience around him and almost hypnotically telling them the tender love-story of Samson and Delilah, Thornton is able to expose to all Australians the insidious situation that arises in our land whenever indigenous issues are neither understood nor taken seriously. His movie in that regard is political. But it is political in the original sense of the world – it is of the people. The genius of his work is that the audience rises at the end knowing Samson and Delilah’s story is also their story. The separation of the two stories in the Australian psyche can no longer be argued for. This Cannes-winning film doesn’t so much set out a new agenda. It actually suggests a new way of discovering agendas in the first place, a way that is ‘about soul rather than issues.’

At Cannes on May 24, 2009, Warwick Thornton received the Camera D’or for Samson and Delilah. The event occasioned the following remarks from him: “Cinema, in a sense saved my life, but the interesting thing is where I am today, I've only just begun. I've got so many more stories to tell, so many more (that I believe) are beautiful stories. They're things that I desperately need to show the world.”

In his first full feature Thornton has already told one beautiful story, a soulful story in which stark love ushers Samson and Delilah into their final scenes. During those scenes the audience is left in the poignant truth of the Charlie Pride ballad, ‘All I have to offer you is me’ (1969), sung here by Ted Hawkins.

Another artist, Camille Sans Saens (1835-1921), in another “Samson and Delilah” (1877) unveils a foundational tenderness also found in Thornton’s movie. From Sans Saens’ opera, Elina Garanca sings ‘Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix’ (Baden Baden, 2007): ‘My heart opens to your voice’.