Last night we went to a screening of this classic 1970 film at the BFI, followed by a Q&A session (which we hadn’t been expecting) with the film’s director Nicolas Roeg and two of its stars: Jenny Agutter and Lucien John, who play the innocent English girl and boy. It’s a wonderful film about the encounter between two English (definitely not Aussie) children, she on the transition to adulthood, and an aborigine boy on walkabout. It is a clash of cultures, but one suffused with the innocence of its characters; there was bonding, but there could be no reconciliation outside the innocence of childhood. It is beautifully filmed in the Northern Territories (with a bit of Sydney), featuring many places that are now on the tourist trail (then undeveloped), and which we have visited.
The BFI supplied some wonderful programme notes written in 1971 by Gavin Millar. To quote the closing words:
If the film suddenly slumps into setting social problems and answering them, then we must ask other questions too. What innocence is lost? Is survival of the fittest an agreeable social plan? How else to control disease, promote hygiene, comfort; the arts or culture as distinct from survival? The questions don’t belong to the best parts of Walkabout and neither do the answers. The savage is no noble, the sophisticate not corrupt. Trying to prove it, one way or another, in the face of the camera’s evidence, would be a betrayal of the film’s real vision.
The magic of the film (together with its plot) evaporates if you try to think about it too hard. Which doesn’t stop people trying; one of the questioners wanted to know the main character’s “back story”. But the message of the film (in spite of its clumsier moments) is very simple but quite delicate.
Like so much of human experience. In today’s Morning Service on Radio 4 (which I listen to while in the shower) the religious visions featured, in particular with the gospel story of the Transfiguration of Christ, but also the appearance of St Michael that is supposed to have dispersed an angry mob, and saved the convent where the service was held. The power of these, too, disappears if you think about them too hard. So much of our understanding of this mysterious world is so fragile.