Made just three years after the 1967 referendum recognizing Aboriginals as Australian citizens, Walkabout is an immensely progressive film, challenging contemporaneous white Australian attitudes in its complex treatment of the character on its eponymous journey.
Nicolas Roeg — who carries over some of the cinematographic beauty we witness in Lawrence of Arabia, for which he served as second unit director — incorporates the clichéd, Anglo-centric trope of innocent white children getting lost in the desert, but skillfully upends it in his treatment of the earnest, and erotic relationship between one of the two Caucasians, an adolescent girl, and the similarly-aged Aboriginal teenager they eventually meet.
While some may criticize the boy as having been reduced to a ham-fisted symbol for all of Aboriginality, the film’s sympathetic treatment of him as a likable, pubescent figure (after all, how many films, to this day, explore with sympathy the sexual awakening of a black male?) is more than enough to offset the reductiveness necessary to broadcast its noble political implications. Even the mating dance that the boy initiates toward the film’s end, while initially confronting, slowly becomes a tragic demonstration of his naiveté with regard to race relations.
Such a scene crystallizes the film very much about the coming-of-age process too. Shot with an elating tendency toward formal experimentation in its use of freeze-frames, oneiric images of the landscape, and an intensely sexual evocation of a forked tree unparalleled in cinema, Walkabout trembles with Proustian questions about time, memory, and youth: all conveyed in a manner that fully capitalizes on the medium’s unique potency.
Yet most quietly, Walkabout acts as a fascinating interrogation of “the essence” of Australia, traversing, over the course of its run-time, metropolitan Sydney toward the tail-end of the White Australia policy, and the Outback: a place inhabited by the earth’s oldest enduring cultures, first explored by white Australians on the back of camels, and today colonized by the proliferation of industrialism. I, myself, am an international student from Sydney, and so the film’s opening sequence is an immensely rewarding experience of spatial familiarity akin to what I imagine residents of Los Angeles and New York City take for granted with the dirth of films shot in their respective locales. But more than this, to contrast this sequence with the later images of interior Australia — a part of the nation to this day demarcated as an exotic abyss — evidences that among the film’s key interests is an interrogation of “Australian-ness.” How does Australia signal its national identity? Has the pristine imagery of sun-soaked, habor-facing Sydney, the first British colony on the continent, displaced an equally fascinating and much more ancient series of cultures once ubiquitous throughout the nation?
As a film of beguiling enigma, crafted with poetic tendency toward haunting expressionism, Walkabout stands to this day as a resonant political statement about the troubled past between White Australia and Aboriginal Australia, yet not without extending the possibility of reconciliation in its extraordinary, ultimate scene of the three children swimming in the lake. But more than its immediate political implications, the film is also a deeply intriguing vehicle of philosophical inquiry, probing at continuously-profound adolescent mysteries, namely the loss of innocence and the power of retrospect.
Walkabout will be shown at Cornell Cinema this evening at 7:00 pm.
Lorenzo Benitez is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.