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Issue #1529      30 November 2011


Toomelah is the latest in a growing number of films made by Aboriginal directors about Aboriginal people and their world. These films about Aboriginal people telling their own stories only started in earnest in the early 1990s with films Blackfellas, Freedomride and Beyond the Dreamtime which dealt with issues such as the Stolen Generations, over-representation of Aboriginal people in the justice system, Aboriginal art and its meaning and civil rights.

Before these films there were movies made by white directors about Aboriginal issues as seen through white eyes and some of these were sympathetic to culture, struggle and voice of the Aboriginal people crying to be heard. These movies include, Walkabout, Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and The Fringe Dwellers made in the 1970s and 1980s and range more recently to Crocodile Dundee, Baz Lurmann’s Australia and Brendan Fletcher’s Mad Bastards.

The latter movie had a similar theme to that of Toomelah in that its principle protagonist was a young Aboriginal boy experiencing the restlessness and turmoil of discovering who he is, where he belongs and who it is that really loves and cares about him. The father figure is also played in both movies by the tall and solid Noongar actor from Perth, Dean Daley-Jones.

In Toomelah, director Ivan Sen who previously made Beneath Clouds (2002) goes back to his roots in the north eastern New South Wales Aboriginal community of the same name which sits on the MacInytre River that forms the border with Queensland (all the vehicles in the movie have Queensland licence plates). The river forms a picturesque backdrop to several scenes in the movie as it reflects on the Aboriginal past of this community which was formed when a mission was built there to absorb the Gamilaroi and Bigambal Aboriginal people as the pastoralists gradually occupied all the land – a story played out over many parts of Australia.

The movie starts with Daniel – a sensitive troubled 10-year-old boy – who comes from a home where his mother is smoking marijuana and the absentee father, a former boxer of some notoriety, has since been captured by the haze and stupor of alcohol. There is only a loving yet sad and almost inert nan who cares about the son but lacks the will and energy to act. With little to compel him to stay at school he drifts off to a more exciting world of a wannabe gangster Linden and his entourage who has taken to plying drugs to those who can pay for the brief escape from the frequent tedium and monotony of a rural Aboriginal community.

However, the idyllic set-up of the “plastic gangster” Linden is upset by the return of the menacing Bruce (a difficult role played well by Dean Daley-Jones), an Aboriginal man who was inside for home invasion and rape. While the young Daniel has recently been able to increase his stature by taking on a local young Tupac (a poignant yet sad reference to some Aboriginal people’s affinity to the glamorous yet ultimately doomed African-American rapper) in a boxing match set up by Linden, Daniel’s world becomes increasingly fragile as Linden’s fortunes take a turn for the worse.

The movie’s tense and moving climax provides a message to black and white audiences alike as to the directions that Aboriginal people can take and how non-Aboriginal people can work together with them to move forward as a people and have a more rewarding destiny.

The preview was also attended by the director Ivan Sen, and actor Dean Daley-Jones. Sen spoke about the movie’s reception by the Toomelah community – which had not only provided the backdrop for the movie but also all of the actors except Daley-Jones.

A special screening was set up on the community’s sports oval and people drove their cars onto the oval –“making it part drive-in theatre and part football grand final”, and watched in rapture and awe the larger than life representations of themselves as their lives burst onto the screen causing them to laugh almost from beginning to end.

Toomelah since its release has also been to the Cannes Film Festival for 2011, where it was selected for Un Certain Regard and received a standing ovation in the presence of its young star Daniel Connors and director Ivan Sen.

Sen also advised at the screening that the flight to France by Daniel was his first and that income from the movie that is due to the young star will be held in trust until he turns 18.

Ironically the movie which has a large child cast has a MA 15+ rating for its frequent course language and drug references, some of the language which comes from the children themselves. The movie also shows elders teaching the children the “other” language, that of their Indigenous mother tongue.

The movie commenced screening nationally on November 24.  

Next article – Michael Morpurgo writes his own happy ending

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