Dir: Rolf de Heer. Australia. 2002. 98mins
The flood of Australian features with Aboriginal themes financed, coincidentally, two years ago are now finding their way to cinema screens. Philip Noyce's eagerly awaited Rabbit-Proof Fence has chosen to expose Australia's dirty laundry with its portrait of a 1930s government attempting to assimilate "half caste" children into white society. Meanwhile Australian Rules has courted controversy by upsetting the local community through the similarities between an on-screen death of an Aboriginal youth and real life. Rolf de Heer's The Tracker, which also deals in history and black deaths, will not attract mainstream audiences either locally or abroad - de Heer's work rarely does. But those passionate about cinema will love the humour and irony of the script, the sheer magnificence of the setting and the personal stand taken against screen violence in a film that carries lots of violence. Existing admirers of his work worldwide will be similarly thrilled.
In essence The Tracker is a study of power and stereotypes. Set in the 1920s, it follows three white mounted police officers and a black tracker (David Gulpilil's first lead role despite his iconic status within the Australian film industry) through inhospitable country as they try to catch another black man accused of murdering a white woman. The quest, however, is a sham because the tracker, undeterred by spending most of the time in chains, is usually the one in control - although not so much that he can prevent the unjustified slaying of black families along the way.
The feature opens with a landscape presented as a semi-abstact expressionistic canvas, before it starts to shimmer and then transform into a heat haze hanging over the real terrain. Paintings by artist Peter Coad are principally inserted throughout the film as a pre-cursor to the worst acts of violence, perfectly timed for the occasions when the audience collectively winces at the sheer brutality. These are the scenes in which innocent Aboriginal people are massacred - and the canvases pull no punches in showing this. Meanwhile the soundtrack keeps running, with shrieks of agony and mayhem playing to powerful effect on the imagination.
In less able hands such film-making techniques would annoy through their artifice. Under the control of de Heer, however, they jolt the audience out of the horror and underline the truth: that white people in authority committed terrible and pointless atrocities against innocent people across Australia and it is about time we damn well acknowledged it.
Yet despite this grimness the film also has its lighter moments. The tracker's bold playfulness and intelligent wit gives the film a surprising amount of humour: he rides off into the sunset as the victor in the end, making the story feel like a parody of a big old-fashioned Western; at other times the feature has the "and-then-there-were-two feel" of a whodunit as members of the hunting party are killed off. And despite the straightforward nature of the story and purposefully one-dimensional characters - each is introduced by their nature rather than their name - de Heer has also managed to create a surprising level of intimacy through the relationships.
Filmed with a skeleton crew in South Australia's rugged Gammon Ranges, cinematographer Ian Jones renders the vivid colours and clarity of the landscapes with utter magnificence. One not-to-be-missed image is the massive sun rising behind the body of the trooper who lead the expedition through most of the film, now strung up in a tree for his indiscriminate cruelty to both indigenous Australians and his own colonial kind.
Prod co: Vertigo Productions
Int'l sales: Intra Films
Exec prods: Domenico Procacci, Bryce Menzies
Prods: Rolf de Heer, Julie Ryan
Scr: Rolf de Heer
Ed: Tania Nehme
Cinematography: Ian Jones
Music: Graham Tardif
Cast: David Gulpilil, Gary Sweet, Damon Gameau, Grant Page