Before Its Too Late Beneath Clouds

Beneath Clouds is also underscored by a strong desire to escape history. But unlike other coming-of-age films discussed in this chapter, it is not set in urban Australia. Rather, the film's story takes place on the back roads of rural New South Wales, somewhere between Moree and Sydney. The director, Ivan Sen, is currently the Australian film industry's wunderkind: a multi-talented graduate of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School who writes, directs and composes film scores. The quality of his work was recognised at the 2002 AFI awards, where he pipped Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence)

ci for the award of Best Achievement in Directing for Beneath Clouds. To date, all Sen's Australian films are set in rural Australia and feature young black protagonists. All reports indicate, however, that the director 'bristles' when N his films are labelled 'Aboriginal'.25 This is not because Sen has a problem identifying as an Indigenous Australian. Rather, as with many contempo- T rary Aboriginal artists, including filmmaker Tracey Moffatt, Sen fears the » problems that may arise when his work is pigeonholed this way. These n problems include Australian audiences' historical lack of interest in stories a about Aboriginal people and their culture, the assumption that because his ® films feature Aboriginal characters they will be worthy, 'message'-type films, e and, most problematically, perhaps, that Sen 'speaks' as a representative of all Aboriginal people.

Beneath Clouds is none of the above. This may be a generational thing. His films are about young people and address a younger, globalised audience of Australians that Marcia Langton argues have grown up with a different set of images of Aboriginality from previous generations. As Langton sees it, this younger generation of Australians is empowered by their access to a global world, 'at once cosmopolitan and networked'.26 As such, they are, she writes, able to relate to the Aboriginal world in a less troubled way than their parents and they are almost oblivious to Australia's blinding colonial legacy ofwhite supremacy and race hatred. Their images of the Aboriginal world are not the images of monochromatic misery that their parents see, but a heady mix of politics, sport and culture.27

They are a generation of younger viewers many of whom see Aboriginal art as the most significant marker of Australian modernity. They welcomed the strong Aboriginal presence in the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2000 Olympics, cheered Cathy Freeman in her historic Olympic win, were loyal viewers of the Bush Mechanics (ABC-TV) series and The Mary G. Show (SBS TV), and so on. But this viewing experience does not, as Langton argues, necessarily make younger Australians more tolerant of forms of Aboriginal disadvantage. They are, she thinks, 'less niggardly than their parents' generation... true advocates of the "fair go", because their sense of fairness tells them that everyone should take responsibility for their own fate to the extent that they can'.28 Beneath Clouds takes a similar line on questions of individual responsibility. Unlike most narrative films about Aboriginal people, this is not straightforward social realism. Rather, it is a highly stylised film in the art-house tradition that explores complex and difficult questions about Aboriginal diversity and difference.

g Beneath Clouds tells the story of Lena, a young, fair-skinned Aboriginal js girl who leaves her home in what appears to be a small, deprived rural " town in search of her long-gone Irish father. Throughout, Lena's Aborig-inality is ambiguous. She is perceived by most people she meets on her

< journey as white. In a study of assimilation experience that combines critic ical and subjective perspectives, Ian Anderson explains how in the postwar u assimilationist era, children of mixed descent, like Lena, were categorised as

< 'mixed blood', 'urban', 'non-traditional' or 'hybrid' Aborigines.29 Moreover,

< the 'hybrid' Aborigine was 'constructed as ambiguous', perceived therefore £ as belonging to neither race.30 This perceived lack of racial background in

< turn led to a construction of the 'hybrid' Aborigine as 'belonging nowhere' and, most significantly, 'having no history'.31 Although this story is set in the present, Lena bears the history of this imposed construction of the 'hybrid Aborigine' on Aboriginal people of mixed descent as an internalised shame. She wears her in-betweenness on/in her skin, on her perpetually unsmiling face. Unlike Josie in Looking for Alibrandi who is searching for her identity, Lena's story is one of a retreat from Aboriginality, or more specifically, an attempt to escape from an imposed shamed subjectivity that leaves her in a state that Anderson describes as grieving for a lost history, 'a grieving over a tremendous loss which is in itself then denied as being yours'.32 In this state, Lena sets out to find a history that can include her.

Lena's desire to escape her in-betweenness is expressed as a deep ambivalence towards forms of contemporary Aboriginal and rural experience examined in documentaries such as Cunnamulla (Dennis O'Rourke, 2001). Her decision to leave home in search of her Irish father follows two events in her life: news of her young girlfriend's pregnancy to a local boy and her brother's arrest by the police for petty theft. It is her mother's reaction to her brother's arrest, however, that is the real catalyst for her flight. In a fairly wooden, social realist moment, we are introduced to Lena's mother and stepfather as stereotypical alcoholics: uncaring and abusive. The mother's lack of concern about her young son's arrest casts her as the abandoning mother. In her lack of regard for her child's future the mother is made to bear the full weight of the social problems that destabilise many Aboriginal communities: alcoholism, domestic abuse, child neglect. Lena leaves her home and her mother in the belief that reunification with her Anglo-Celtic father will provide her with the sense of belonging and pride that she longs for.

Along the way, Lena crosses paths with Vaughn, who is also Aboriginal. Vaughn is on the run, having just escaped from a juvenile detention centre. Like Lena, he is searching for a lost parent, in this case his dying mother. But Vaughn is deeply ambivalent in his feelings for his mother. He resents that she hasn't been to visit him in years, yet he still desperately wants to return home before she dies. However, unlike Lena who actively retreats S from her Aboriginality, Vaughn is very much determined by his Aborigi- p nality, and proudly so. Being a dark-skinned Aborigine, Vaughn's identity z is constructed in and through a different set of historical racialising images, a in particular the stereotype of the angry young black delinquent. In scene T after scene, Lena is either warmly welcomed or at worst politely ignored by » European Australians, while Vaughn is at best regarded with suspicion and z in the worst cases verbally and physically attacked. Only one episode - a a lift from a quietly spoken grazier - offers Vaughn any respite from racial ® prejudice. e

But this is not just a story about race and identity. It is also about experience of place and historical memory. As a road movie, Beneath Clouds is structurally and stylistically very different from Head On, which, as we argued earlier, mimics the speed ofchanges in urban experience oftime and space. Here, a sparse visual style combined with minimalist performances by the two leading first-time actors serves to express a certain melancholy in contemporary youth experience: a state of boredom that easily gives way to depression and despair. This is achieved through the film's structural opposition of mobility and stasis. Long exterior sequences of Lena and Vaughn on foot on the back roads of country New South Wales with cars speeding past them at 120 kilometres an hour are juxtaposed with claustrophobic interior scenes in the various cars that stop to pick them up along the way. In this way, Beneath Clouds is a new take on the car icon in Australian cinema. In her analysis of 1970s and 1980s Australian cinema, Meaghan Morris argues that that the car offers 'a utopian space to escape or "reconstitute" sexual and family relations': 'In a country with huge distances and isolated centres of sparse population, cars promise a rabid freedom, a manic subjectivity. They offer danger and safety, violence and protection, sociability and privacy, liberation and confinement, power and imprisonment, mobility and stasis.'33 But as the film shows, for Indigenous Australians these oppositions apply in different ways. In this sense, Beneath Clouds has lot in common with Backroads (Phillip Noyce, 1977).

Backroads was directed by Noyce in collaboration with Aboriginal activist Gary Foley. It was made on a low budget at the height of the Aboriginal Land Rights movement. Although it had an extremely limited theatrical release it has gone on to be recognised as one of the most interesting films of its time.34 It tells the story of a dead-end journey on the back roads of New South Wales by Gary (a young rural Aborigine) and Jack (a red-necked Anglo bloke) in a stolen beat-up car. Along the way, a French tourist, one of Gary's male relatives, and Anna, a directionless young woman, join them. Stephen Muecke rightly argues that the significance of the film lies not in g the journey itself - they never do make it to Sydney - but in what he calls js 'intervals between events', which allow for 'the release of new possibilities'.35 " These intervals are, Muecke suggests, moments of exchange: 'In the interim vals the characters gain and lose identities, transferring and transforming

< cultural understandings.'36 Invoking Bachelard's phenomenology of space, 2 Muecke suggests that a poetic logic of interval in this film allows for a new u perception of landscape that takes us beyond the old imperial view of land « 'as something to be possessed and built on towards understanding it as the

< cultural transformation of country. Moving images, including those framed £ by car windows, give us the possibility of seeing landscape as variable rather

< than fixed, as in landscape paintings. In the intervals between sites stories

can emerge.37

In this regard, Beneath Clouds backtracks across the route taken in Back-roads, both literally and in its poetic of space. Both films begin on the back roads and highways of western New South Wales. As with the non-Aboriginal characters in Backroads, Lena begins her journey with a fixed idea ofthe relationship between identity, landscape and history. She desperately wants to belong to her father's homeland, Ireland, fetishising images of misty rolling hills she carries with her in a photo album. Vaughn opens her eyes to the beauty of her/their own country. And more than this, he teaches her how to read the landscape as 'country', in the Aboriginal sense of this term, that is, in terms of sacred and cultural knowledge. Here, however, exchange of knowledge, exchanges of ways of knowing, is not cross-cultural, as it is in Backroads. Rather it is an intra-cultural exchange staged as cross-cultural: a series of exchanges and plays in/with identities between Lena, posing as white, and Vaughn, who thinks Lena is white (or does he?). As moments of what Laleen Jayamanne calls 'cross-cultural mimesis', the intervals in Beneath Clouds allow for even more possibilities of transforming identity positions than Backroads.38

The most significant of these intervals occurs on a roadside on the outskirts of Vaughn's home town. As they turn a corner the two teenagers are confronted by a looming ridge in the mountain ranges of this area. 'Pretty, hey', says Vaughn. Lena nods. 'My pop', Vaughn continues, 'used to tell me about that place. The farmers chased all the blackfellas up there a long time ago. They just shot them and pushed them off.' The film cuts to a wide-shot of a European-looking family pulled over to one side of the road, oblivious to the ridge towering above them, their heads buried in a road map. Vaughn continues: 'Now, no one gives a shit. Suppose they've got their own shit to worry about.' Lena's gaze is fixed on the ridge, recognising, as if for the first time, the history embedded in the land. As she stares up, Vaughn's thoughts unexpectedly turn to his mother in a strange non sequitur: 'No wonder she ci left me. She must have known how I was going to turn out - fuckin' criminal for a son.' Lena turns her gaze away from the ridge towards him. But there are no words of comfort, simply an admission of her own. 'My dad left me, N you know. Mum blames me. Says he wanted his life and all that.' Vaughn responds with puzzlement. 'Never knew any whitefella before. Not like you, T anyway. »

This moment of shared histories of violence and abandonment, colonial a and other, is interrupted by the screech of a car. In the front seat is a group of a young Aboriginal men, Vaughn's 'cuzes', as he refers to them. Lena reluctantly ® accepts a lift, squeezing into the back seat between Vaughn and an older e Aboriginal woman. The car circles around the bend to the other side of the ridge, which now fills the frame of the car window. The two women raise their lowered eyes to watch this moving, slowly de-forming image only to then lower them again, as if in remembrance of the dead. The cuzes in the front seat are playing at being 'Black Gangstas', one toying with a seriously large gun. In the back seat, Lena feels the old woman's gaze upon her and turns to face her: 'Where are your people from, girl?' she asks. Shamed by the woman's recognition of her Aboriginality, Lena turns towards Vaughn to gauge his reaction. He turns away, looking confused. Perhaps he is feeling betrayed. Or he may be disappointed that Lena is not a 'whitefella' and therefore not the first and only white person to befriend him. But the 'truth' of Lena's identity is not of primary concern here. Rather, what is of the utmost importance is her answer. For Lena to continue to hide her Aboriginality, that is, to play with the possibility of not being Aboriginal, at this point would be not only to deny the history she has learned to recognise in the land but also to take responsibility for a history that is not her own. That is, to take responsibility for, or at the very least be implicated in, a history of violence against Aboriginal people, including the injuries of shame that have produced her feelings of being without history, belonging nowhere.

As a coming-of-age film, Beneath Clouds might have ended, as many do, with 'a return home'. But this is not an option for either Vaughn or Lena. Escaping from a violent conflict with police that occurs after the interval described above, the two teenagers race to Vaughn's mother's house. It is, however, too late. The only sign of Vaughn's mother is a pool of blood on her bed, and an abandoned oxygen mask. Lena reaches out to comfort Vaughn. But he forcefully rejects her advance. With the sounds of police sirens approaching closer, Lena quickly assesses her choices. She can stay behind and repeat her mother's history, watching Vaughn be hunted down by police, as with Gary in Backroads or Jimmie in The Chant ofJimmie Blacksmith (Fred Schepisi, 1978), 'going down' herself, perhaps. Alternatively, she can leap onto a train headed for Sydney. Lena chooses the latter, refusing to g submit to a certain macho suicidal tendency that historically characterises js stories of Aboriginal resistance. Her decision to leave Vaughn is thus unpre-" dictable and uncompromising in its anti-heroic stance. 'Harsh', as a teenager might say. But Lena is determined in her decision to move forward no matter < how uncertain her future may be, to escape a history of violence, colonial S and other.

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  • mary
    How are they different Lena and Vaughn in beneath clouds?
    9 years ago

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