Toomelah is a film about place more than people, a kind of socio-geographical biography. The town where director Ivan Sen spent much of his childhood is the focus of a near-mockumentary in which an ensemble of Toomelah ‘types’ express a complex portrait of boredom, aspiration and a deep desire to generate personal history. This film well describes the occurrence of government ‘agenda items’ such as alcohol and drug use, health, housing and education, then lays out the truth about how the locals, whose interests are at stake, view the situation. As in history, their values and concerns are not always the same. Toomelah strikes to the heart of the idea of community, a feeling of ‘home’, and in particular the importance of having good role models, wise elders and learnt tribal lineage.
Toomelah itself is a remote Aboriginal community in far North New South Wales. It’s insular, rife with substance abuse problems and still haunted by the ghosts of abuse and cultural fracture from the town’s days as a mission. The history of the mission has disrupted the passing down of traditional stories and knowledge of history is blurred. Despite modest leaps in education and health, a gang and drug culture has flourished amongst the community. This place is the home of ten-year-old schoolboy Daniel (Daniel Conners), a cocky, foul-mouthed youngster searching for some tangible future in what is a bubble, a mini-ecosystem of a town. Unengaged, then suspended at school and uninspired by his father, a washed up, fume-addled boxer, Daniel goes in search of male leadership. This admirable quest for mentorship unfortunately steers Daniel toward Linden (Christopher Edwards), a well-to-do pusher with a short fuse and only a casual grasp on tribal history.
Ivan Sen’s picture is a unique and truly captivating portrait of his hometown Toomelah. The film was shot and script written on location. Only one actor, Dean Daley-Jones, was brought in from outside. The rest of the roles were cast as Sen ventured about the town, reconnecting with and meeting the townsfolk. Certain scenes take almost ver batim actual events he beheld. The perspective Sen sheds on Toomelah is a conflicted one, there is obviously a deep nostalgia and sense of place in the old mission town, and the community has keenly striven to piece together its own history.
Now with Toomelah, an evocative account is given of the current state of cultural identity, humour, life and wealth there. Each carefully crafted character represents a different aspect of that fragmented culture: Linden the gangster, Bruce (Dean Daley-Jones) the ex-con, Aunty Cindy the newly returned mission girl who was removed to the city as a child, Tanicia (Danieka Connors) the nymph-like child love interest of Daniel and Daniel’s own Nan, his silent stalwart who observes her grandson’s heartbreak. Most of these actors had never left Toomelah until the film was released and Cannes needed attending. One can only imagine what it would be like for Daniel Connors to reach ten in Toomelah, play a part about life there, and then travel the world, applauded for portraying something like his life, in his town.
Shot in hand-held, low budget and with almost entirely pre-existing sets and props, Toomelah is a no-frills feature. Its script is like this also. Dialogue is used sparingly, and a great deal of what is communicated is non-verbal; the characters all seem to know each other so well that they can infer what they need to without asking too many questions. The scattered violence of the film is likewise expressed bluntly, with no hint of shame, apology or added layer of moral warning. There is notion of the idea that children need shielding from it, either, indeed kids smoking cigarettes or brawling are shown as amusements to the adults. In one highly charged scene Daniel’s parents, one high on weed and one on meth, force the boy to declare who he’d rather live with, unwittingly forcing him to make a decision, at age ten, which of dope or meth is the eviller demon. Like the drug use and the traditional superstitions, the violence is just there and doesn’t need to be further explained. It’s a veritable exercise in ‘here it is, make of it what you will’.
Toomelah’s being about so remote a place makes clear the impact that projects such as missions and government initiatives can have on insular towns. With little in-and-out (the nearest map dot, Boggabilla, is 15kms away) traffic, any major intervention has a sweeping effect on the populous that is inherited by consecutive generations who grow up learning about the stolen generation or massacres of indigenous warriors as their history, perhaps even seeing injustice as part of their hereditary lot.
And yet, there is a kind of affection to Sen’s writing of Toomelah that uses humour, in particular a huge amount of crass language and precocious exchanges between the kids, belying a great peace and togetherness brought about by the film-making process itself. Perhaps this is more a side effect of Sen’s own adoration for his hometown, than complacency with the conflicts in the story. I am reminded in Toomelah of last year’s Winter’s Bone, another film about a young protagonist caught in a culture of family drug use and violence that forced children to grow up fast. In that film, too, there was a sense that even though a place may be troubled, the fact that that place was your home overrode any desire to leave, seek a better lot elsewhere, or foreswear its shortcomings. By no means does Toomelah come across as advocacy or poverty tourism, rather being a study of the cycles and shifts that take place in such an environment.
The performances in Toomelah are extraordinary, no doubt in part because the actors make use of real local characters. In particular, first-time actors Daniel Connors and Christopher Edwards strike a chilling harmony as Linden adopts a paternal and instructive tone with the all-ears youngster, despite it being about how to cut buds or roll spliffs. Bit parts and extras are given to young kids from the town who tail all of the major action, as though the town were its own entertaining movie (which indeed it was during filming).
One kneejerk response to Toomelah might be that it would have benefitted from a slightly bigger budget or a higher level of production. But it seems to me that the whole point of this film was to preserve as close a sense of the town as possible, to the point where it almost felt like the film wasn’t fiction. A huge camera on a dolly, aerial pans across helicopter-ruffled cotton crops or even indoor lighting, in a town with no whisper of anything like a film industry, would have been utterly incongruous. This is a feature in which the off-camera impact of a big budget blockbuster on the community would have utterly upended the integrity of the film. Having said this, there was certainly room for a tighter edit, and in many scenes I felt that the subtitles were unnecessary, for Australian audiences certainly. I’m sure that like the handheld camerawork, after a few minutes viewers could have tuned in.
Like any film about one particular place, Toomelah has its in-jokes and cultural nuances that may be indecipherable to outside audiences. The rhythm of speech there, the pace of life, the options for what to do and where to go, are so unrecognisable in city life, in Australia or elsewhere. Yet in elucidating the way the town works, Toomelah helps us to briefly insert ourselves into one of the old run-down mission cottages, eating hot chips with Daniel before school, and thinking about what we would do with ourselves and who we’d befriend if we lived there. Toomelah induced a standing ovation at its Cannes showing, and Sen is certainly a part of widening school of Aboriginal filmmakers who are documenting and being inspired by Indigenous stories and histories.
After Toomelah was over, I did feel I better understood life in that place. However, I mightn’t ever go there. Perhaps that isn’t important? I now know Toomelah exists; I have a feel for its ethos, its people, its ghosts and its wit, just like I might if I saw a film set in Toronto, Shang Hai, or read about a fictional place, like Lilliput, in a book. Sen has put his town on the world stage, given it a literary indefinity that may well succeed him into posterity. Those hadn’t known about the place might now never forget it. What a gift to give to your community.