Walkabout (1971) Directed by Nicolas Roeg

As the years pass the cinema of Nicolas Roeg feels increasingly like the work of an alien descended to earth who opened a new dialogue for film, a dialogue that few dared take up or explore. His movies as director Performance (1970),  Don't Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), Bad Timing (1980) and Insignificance (1985) all remain essential and valid examples of timeless and challenging contemporary film. If it's possible, Walkabout, his second feature could be the strangest of them all. This was a film that was on TV a lot when I was growing up. I must have first seen Walkabout when I was around 12. This would have been many people's first view of the Australian outback and certainly their first experience of the indigenous aboriginal population. Walkabout, to a young pre-teen like myself felt like a 'dirty' public information film mixed with an episode of nature watch.

Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg endure the Australian outback
What makes Walkabout still resonate is the trust Roeg places in his audience to stay with the picture. There is very little dialogue to hang onto with the story of a father who drives his children into the Australian outback, tries to shoot them, then sets his car on fire and blows his own brains out. The brother and sister then make their way with very little provisions across the wild, barren earth of the outback. Agutter plays the 16-year-old schoolgirl who hopefully guides her younger brother (played by Roeg's 7yr old son Luc) back to civilization. In the wilderness they meet an aboriginal boy on 'walkabout' who helps the siblings survive their surroundings. Roeg intercuts much wildlife with urban life, showing the juxtaposition and the extreme change in the siblings surroundings. But this is also a film about sexual awakening. Agutter's girl and the aboriginal boy (a magical performance from David Gulpilil) have both reached a time in their lives where awareness of their own bodies and other's sexuality becomes an ongoing preoccupation. Agutter is perfect as the schoolgirl who loses her inhibitions.

The siblings find a saviour in the aboriginal boy on 'walkabout'
Walkabout still works because it is inherently original and in its execution Roeg affords himself and his characters a natural honesty. Roeg never forgets his cinematic instincts either, as Walkabout looks great (Roeg shot it) and sounds great (John Barry's elegant score reminds us we are watching fictional cinema). The time where experimental cinema can infiltrate the mainstream has pretty much gone. Roeg's film reminds us of the power of the image and where everything in film doesn't need an explanation or to be spelled out. It's been many years since I last watched this, but the movie is memorable and stays with you. Walkabout revels in its simplicity but also conjures up extreme depths from its depiction of isolation and vulnerability. If you've never seen it you need to rectify that.

It was one of those really rare and satisfying moments as a wife when I found the Walkabout DVD in a store, realized that it was directed by Roeg and that Nick would NEED to have it. Finding something meaningful for Nick in the department of books, music and movies is difficult, because he knows everything, has everything – or if he doesn't, he comes up with a line on why it's not necessary/why it's actually bad. When these things are a passion for the both of us, you can imagine my happiness this time around. My eternal frustration is that Nick never reads the books I recommend. I genuinely would like to share the reading experience, but it is hard when our reading paths are so separate. But hey, at least we have the 'shared movie experience' and these reports here on this blog. What follows are my thoughts on the Walkabout:

Jenny Agutter in Walkabout
As a child I read a book describing the walkabout tradition in some harlequin novel way. I cannot remember the author or the name of the book. I just remember that the book was loved by my dear reading friend and that I have actually been aware of the Australian aboriginal culture ever since on some level. That's the good thing about always reading a lot. I seem to remember that in this reading the discovery of sexuality was a big theme. Roeg's Walkabout certainly grabbles in the same murky area. The film is simultaneously tame and sometimes offensive – features of its time. Yet, mostly it is a beautiful discovery; violent, sexual, instinctual. It juxtaposes strange passages of 'civilised' knowledge-based action with children, women, and the native Australian. Even animals are present. This juxtaposition may be almost too obvious by now, but it is also forever fascinating.
The strength of the film is that it does not judge. The narrative is cruel, but the camera follows events keeping its distance, using landscape as well as microscopic view in the storytelling.

I can see how this movie would have left an impression on me had I seen it as a child or a young person. I could feel the nostalgia Nick was experiencing while watching. For me it was harder to fall into the story and forget about the technical aspect of how this film was acted. I was thinking about how it must have been difficult to get the child actors to act – but maybe they weren't – it looks like they simply did stuff and someone filmed. Watching the story unfold, I was mostly uncomfortable about the way the aboriginal culture was represented through the young male character (who was on his walkabout). Killing him off was a quick way of pointing towards all the clich├ęs (the old traditions having to die and be replaced by imported white European style) and racism and I cannot help but feel that Roeg's movie simply repeated stereotypes. Here's a link to an article I came upon by searching for 'representations of aboriginal culture in Walkabout'. While I had my thoughts and hesitations, I would still strongly recommend this movie. It is extreme and surprising even today. There is still plenty of rebellion in having children as main characters of an adult film.


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