The Darkside

December 7, 2013
Warwick Thorton's 'The Darkside' 2013
Warwick Thorton's 'The Darkside' 2013

Warwick Thornton’s The Darkside is one of those rare films that defies categorisation. It is being called a “documentary” for want of a better word, but it’s also a drama and a horror movie at one remove. A succession of wellknown actors tell us stories about ghosts and supernatural occurrences. These stories are word-for-word renditions of the accounts given by people Thornton interviewed, complete with repetitions and ticks of speech.

It’s a strange experience hearing these ‘authentic’ yarns being delivered by actors such as Deborah Mailman and Aaron Pederson, let alone non-Aborginals such as Bryan Brown and Claudia Karvan. Just to complicate matters even further we are treated to cameos by figures such as Ben Quilty, who paints a picture while Sharon Cole delivers her story about a mysterious little girl spotted by a highway.

Thornton is a believer in the supernatural who claims to have personally experienced the presence of ghosts. He and producer, Kath Shelton, found their inteviewees by placing advertisements in the press and on the internet, asking “aunties, uncles, brothers and sisters” to get in touch with their tales of some “weird experience”.

The ad was pitched specifically to an Aboriginal constituency: “We are looking for firsthand ghost stories that are poignant to our struggles and relevant to indigenous issues – the blacker the better!”

This cheerfully militant challenge, pitched somewhere between the Black Panthers and the Twilight Zone, is not echoed by the finished product. The same might be said about Thornton’s other principle for selection: “the scarier the better.” Three out of twelve segments have non-indigenous narrators, and only a handful are about malevolent presences. Having listened to 150 stories from 120 people, Thornton realised that most experiences of the supernatural were not frightening at all. The adolescent idea of a ‘scary’ film metamorphosed into something more complex and mature.

Most story-tellers found their communications with the darkside to be comforting or reassuring. Several stories concern relatives who have passed away but continue to watch over the living. One narrator finds herself consoling the distressed spirit of a brother who committed suicide. In Jack Charles’s story a small act of appeasement is made to the dead.

There are three genuinely sinister stories, one by a woman who felt she was being asphixiated by an evil spirit while sleeping. Another is a brilliant piece of characterisation by Aaron Pederson, who tells us about a visitation by some unknown entity that could have stepped out of a Hammer horror movie. The bleakest of all is Deborah Mailman’s tale about a family that finds an old ouijah board and becomes irrevocably cursed. Any of these stories would lend themselves to dramatisation, but the bare re-telling encourages us to imagine our own scenarios.

Ironically the consciousness of Aboriginal dispossession seems most acute in the acounts of two non-indigenous interviewees. Bryan Brown tells us about a fishing trip to a remote area where he catches a fleeting vision of an Aboriginal girl and a settlement. Sacha Horler goes one better, being offered a view of life before the white man, by a tribe of obliging ghosts.

The final non-indigenous narrator, Claudia Karvan, is approached by a spectral Aboriginal elder while she is doing meditation, and given a unique view of traditional life. Thornton treats this episode in almost psychedelic fashion, with Karvan disco-ing her way through this New Age experience.

The working assumption behind this fim is that indigenous people enjoy a special closeness to the spirit world. Based partly on his own experiences Thornton would have us believe that Aboriginal communities recognise permeable boundaries between life and death, between what is natural and supernatural. The first impulse is not skepticism but a simple acceptance that the dead remain present in our lives. It may be the legacy of a belief system that linked every aspect of the natural world to the actions of ancestor figures in the Dreamtime. It may be due to a closeness with the environment; a heightened sensitivity to small disturbances in the fabric of everyday life.

Thornton’s research confirmed that among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, there are individuals who are unusually receptive to parnormal contacts. Almost half the story-tellers listed in the production notes have had multiple experiences. Are they natural mediums or do they simply have vivid imaginations? There is no attempt to analyse or debunk any of these tales. We are free to accept or reject each speaker.

One segment that stands out from the rest is Romaine Moreton’s story of working in the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra, which was the former site of the Australian Institute of Anatomy. Although she was following a different line of research, Moreton became obsessed with the thought of Aboriginal men and women being dissected and displayed as specimens. Her ‘weird experiences’ were confined to dreams, but were just as potent as any ghostly manifestations. We can feel the painful nature of these reflections, with no lingering queries about the reliability of the narrator. The appeal is not to our credulity but to a sense of human empathy.

The Darkside is an experimental film and uneven in quality. It’s a surprising follow-up to the realism of Thornton’s acclaimed debut feature, Samson and Delilah (2008), but one can only appreciate an emerging director who is prepared to thwart an audience’s expectations rather than build on an earlier success. Thornton is not playing safe, even if it seems he is still learning his craft as a filmmaker. He now has enough raw material for a whole series of horror movies, but it’s possible that his instincts will take him in a contrary direction.

The Darkside
Australia, rated PG
94 mins
Directed by Warwick Thornton; starring Deborah Mailman, Aaron Pedersen, Bryan Brown, Claudia Karvan, Leah Purcell, Sasha Horler, Jack Charles, Shari Sebbens

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 7 December, 2013.