"This Land is Mine/ This Land is Me" (1):
Reconciling Harmonies in
One Night the Moon
by Fiona Probyn and Catherine Simpson
Inspired by Michael Riley's documentary, Black Tracker (1997) about his grandfather (Alex Riley) (3), One Night the Moon incorporates historic, lyrical and symbolic elements in a very effective way. Set on an outback property in 1932 and filmed on Andyamathanha land (Flinders Ranges), the narrative focuses on a couple's anguish when their only daughter, enchanted by the magical light of the full moon, follows it and goes missing. The settler/father (Paul Kelly) hastily organises a search party but refuses to allow an indigenous police officer and tracker, Albert (Kelton Pell), on his property to direct the search for his lost daughter Emily (Memphis Kelly). The settler's refusal to allow the black tracker on what he sees as my land has tragic consequences as the white settlers and police are unable to locate Emily. One month later, the mother (Kaarin Fairfax), without her husband's knowledge, eventually goes to Albert to ask him to help find the child. He tracks the child to the place where she died and takes her home, placing her wasted body in the arms of her incredulous father. Faced with this loss and with the knowledge that it was his racist fear of the black tracker which prevented the early rescue of Emily, the father commits suicide.
Given this subject material, One Night the Moon can be situated within contemporary debates about issues of land and belonging, the trope of the lost child, and settler/indigenous relations. Perhaps the most important emphasis in the film concerns the settler's fear of the black tracker. The settler's racist rejection of the black tracker is underscored by a fear that the black tracker's knowledge of the land casts doubt over the settler's rightful ownership of it. It is this depiction of the unsettlement of the settler, a condition described by Gelder and Jacobs as a productive feature of the postcolonial landscape (Gelder and Jacobs, xvi), which makes One Night the Moon a pertinent text to analyse.
One Night the Moon shows that landscape in the Australian cinematic sphere is still a contested site, still the grounds on which notions of national identity are played out. The film's sense of visual melancholy is achieved through the process of bleach-bypassing in postproduction which drains the images of pink tones and gives the landscape a rugged and brooding presence. (4) After the child goes missing, time-lapse photography depicts the clouds rapidly rolling in and nestling on the horizon above the rocky outcrops. This reinforces the harsh weather which, after the passing of every day, further threatens the child's survival and the difficulties of the environment in which she is lost. Ross Gibson notes that in contemporary Australian films the landscape is often a "duplicitous object" and "oddly doubled". (Gibson, x) This is not only because of the historic inadequacy of settler knowledge in a 'new country', but also the ambivalence experienced by the settler in occupying lands which were once well known by indigenous owners. A similar point is made in a recent study of Australian ecological thought by Martin Mulligan and Stuart Hill where they point out that: noticing that the indigenous people were so obviously at home in this foreign land must have made the settlers feel uncomfortable from the start. (Mulligan and Hill, 5) This separation of belonging as Terry Goldie (Goldie, 12) has described settler displacement, induces a state of envy. Envy of indigenous belonging produces the kinds of violent denial and expulsion from the land that we see depicted in One Night the Moon. In particular, it is the figure of the black tracker, as a haunting figure of colonial history (in the settler's mind), and as a challenging figure of 'true belonging' who looms over the settler's derangement.
Key amongst the unsettling forces within Australian (settler) culture is what Tom Griffiths has described as the psychological legacy of the frontier that which leaves white Australia haunted by colonial violence and dispossession. One Night the Moon depicts the development of this psychological legacy in the character of the settler. His early statement to the police, no blacks on my land, highlights the means by which settler possession (my land) is predicated on exclusion (no blacks). This sentence represents both a statement (a desire) to exclude Albert and also a (rein)statement of an exclusion of indigenous people throughout colonial history. This is important for a number of reasons. The settler's desire to exclude Albert evokes the history of colonial dispossession of Aboriginal communities from their land to the settler, Albert is simply one of the blacks and therefore metonymic of Aboriginal colonial history at large. The 'legacy' of this colonial history of violent exclusion then returns to the settler in the form of the permanent loss of Emily. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that the statement no blacks on my land is made at the expense of his (and his daughter's) own future.
Albert's involvement with the rescue comes through his relationship with the local police force. At one point, his sense of belonging and possession is registered by one of the white police officers who, in response to the settler's refusal, interjects with: Excuse me sir, this is Albert's country, he knows this land. Despite this appeal, the black tracker's expertise is refused. Perhaps the police officer's appeal serves to confirm exactly what it is that unsettles the settler in the first place: Albert is denied access precisely because it is 'his country'. This scene in the film brilliantly depicts the multi-levelled nature of settler anxiety. The whites here (police and settlers) simultaneously know and refuse this knowledge of Albert's relationship to the land. Such knowledge (of Albert's relationship to the land) is an uneasy admission of prior ownership.
Paul Carter notes in A Road to Botany Bay that while it was the Aborigines' spatial command of the country which presented the greatest threat to white interests (Carter, 335-336) this 'spatial command' was also commandeered by white interests in order to facilitate colonisation. One Night the Moon does not draw explicit attention to issues of black tracker complicity. (5) Instead, the film emphasises the fact that Riley's tracking skills (regardless of how they might have been used) demonstrate his belonging. While early settlers and explorers were often impressed by what they perceived as the 'instinct' (6) or excellent eyesight (7) of guides and trackers, Aboriginal people were 'reading' the country rather than merely looking at it; 'reading' here suggesting a cultural practice rather than an innate or magical skill. As Paul Carter notes, it wasn't the Aborigines keen-sightedness, which made tracking possible, it was that thousands of years of occupation of land meant that the Aborigines knew what they were looking for. (Carter, 337) Indeed this knowledge constitutes a particular form of land ownership where reading becomes a form of being in and belonging to the land. The authors of Reading the Country (Benterrak, Muecke and Roe) describe it in these terms:
The settler's view of the land (that seeing and working is owning) constitutes a peculiar settler perspective on landscape which has been articulated by many Australian writers including Judith Wright. Wright has argued that the very concept of landscape within a Eurocentric tradition is comparable to a painter's perspective where the land is framed as an object external to the self. (Wright, 32) This concept of landscape is at odds with alternative ways of viewing the land which are not based on an opposition or separation between land and self. The debate that we see in the film between Albert and the settler is partly a debate over these different views of land ownership. (8) This debate is registered in two ways. Firstly, but not primarily, through cinematographic technique; at the beginning of the search the camera moves swiftly around the settler as he walks off in his straight line towards the hills an important movement which disrupts the frozen lens-like perspective which marks his view of landscape-as-object. Secondly, it is depicted in song; during the performance of This Land is Mine, two incommensurable views of being-in-the-land are brought into parallel by a passionate self-belief and Pell and Kelly's harmony of they won't take it away/They won't take it away from me. These two lines sung in harmony by the settler and the black tracker hold very different meanings for both men. This song is indicative of the way in which the music utilises reconciling harmonies; as musical structures, harmonies contain, display and elaborate on (tonal) difference itself, lending themselves well to evoking dramatic and narrative discordance.
At a compositional level, the relationship to land is also imagined through a fusion of culturally different music styles. The Celtic/Cretan sounds of the minor chords played alongside the settler's imaginings (especially in the beginning of Night Shadows and Hunger) invoke the settler's derangement, his loss of place and disorientation. The didgeridoo playing alongside and echoing at the end of This Land is Mine suggests the enduring rhythms of indigenous knowledge that the settler's imaginings try to repress. This is again brought to us in the form of the next piece in the soundtrack Black and White written and performed by Kev Carmody. As the settler searches for his child he looks up at the rock ridges above him and his face bears the expression of utter hopelessness and failure, brought face to face with a ridge that he cannot climb. His look suggests a feeling of being overwhelmed by the enormity and apparent refusal of the landscape around him and the threat it poses of ever finding his daughter. At this point, the plaintive strings echo the land's apparent refusal to take part in the colonist's conquering dream. His eventual suicide, presumably on the land (he is last seen walking out the front door with a rifle), is symbolic of the settler's inability to survive on the land without collaboration. But his death also signifies the death of the European (masculine) Self and its bodily incorporation into the land itself both a Loss and a recognition of the land's pre-eminence.
What do you know?/ What can you see?
Importantly, the white woman's position on the veranda also signals the cultural position that she is ascribed in the film a position which white women are often ascribed in postcolonial texts, that of cultural mediator. One Night the Moon makes full use of this equivocal position of the settler woman. Firstly, she is seen in one of the opening scenes drawing her daughter away from friendship with the daughter of the black tracker thereby signalling a role that settler women played in colonial society in the enforcement of racial segregation. But it is the maternal role that she occupies which leads her to seek out the help of the black tracker to locate her daughter after the failure of her husband's search. The duet which she sings with the black tracker starts with the lyrics: "Every day I'm with the child/she walks on my dreams/Everywhere I call she's there/and the spaces in-between/ Unfinished business". The title of the song, Unfinished business, represents the unfinished business of locating her daughter's body, the unfinished business of apologies over the exclusion of the black tracker from the search and the 'unfinished business' which the Reconciliation movement continues to draw attention to. The maternal figure becomes of increasing importance and potency in the film, as it is she who collaborates with the black tracker to find her daughter's body and it is his wife (played by Ruby Hunter) who sings the funeral song at the lost child's funeral. The absence of the black tracker's own daughter at the funeral is notable for its invocation of the loss of the stolen generations, the other side of the story of 'the lost child' trope.
No one's lost who finds the Moon (9)
Australian cultural texts are replete with tales of white explorers and children going missing or being swallowed up by an alien landscape. In The Country of Lost Children: An Australian Anxiety, Peter Pierce argues that throughout Australian cultural texts (art, literature, film) the theme of the lost child recurs primarily because it draws on the settler separation anxiety; 'lost' from the mother country (Britain), deserted, stranded by her in this foreign, threatening, dry, arid, unwelcoming, hostile land. A particularly poignant scene in John Heyer's classic documentary, Back of Beyond (1954), shows two children lost in a desert-landscape going around in circles unable to find their way back home. In Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout (1970), a teenager and her young brother go missing in the bush after their father commits suicide and leaves them out 'in the middle of nowhere'. In his reading of Picnic at Hanging Rock, which clearly develops the theme of the lost child in the bush, Pierce writes:
The loss of another white girl in One Night the Moon can be situated as a contemporary post-colonial variant of the lost white child trope; the loss of innocence, unsettling the settler, the 'hostility' of the land and the arrogance of white attempts to 'own' it through pastoral care and a surveyor's view to the 'fence line'. But the film takes these familiar stories a few steps further by locating that loss as part of the settler's refusal to collaborate, to allow co-existence and indigenous knowledge into the frame. In One Night the Moon this results in the inability of the settler to thrive in the land as he loses a daughter and his own life. While settler anxiety is conveyed through the father, the collaboration between the settler woman and black tracker to find the body of the dead girl signals the discordant harmonies of reconciliation; unfinished business/you and me. (10)
� Fiona Probyn and Catherine Simpson, February 2002
This is a refereed article.
Benterrak Krim, Muecke Stephen and Paddy Roe, Reading the Country, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1984
Carter Paul, The Road to Botany Bay: An Essay in Spatial History. London: Faber, 1987
Dermody Susan and Elizabeth Jacka, The Screening of Australia: Anatomy of a National Cinema, Currency Press, Sydney, 1988
Gelder Ken and Jane M. Jacobs, Uncanny Australia, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1998
Gibson Ross, Postcolonialism and the Narrative Contruction of Australia, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1992
Goldie Terry, Fear and Temptation: The Image of the Indigene in Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Literature. McGill Queen's University Press, Kingston, 1989
Griffiths Tom, A Haunted Country in Tom Griffiths (ed.) Land and Identity, (Proceedings of the 1997 ASAL conference), ASAL, 1998
Mulligan, Martin and Stuart Hill, Ecological Pioneers: A Social History of Australian Ecological Thought and Action, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001
Peter Pierce, The Country of Lost Children: An Australian Anxiety Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999
Wright Judith, Landscape and Dreaming in R. Graubard (ed.) Australia: The Daedulus Symposium, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1985
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