In Warwick Thornton’s film Samson and Delilah, the two main characters rarely speak. While their communication consists mostly of signs and actions, the music and the noises speak up in the clearest ways about two clashed worlds. In this loaded atmosphere, two young aboriginal adolescents search for a possible future somewhere between their own traditional culture and the pace of modern Australian society.
In their sometimes almost ‘intolerable’ quietness – both do not say a word to each other during the whole film – Samson and Delilah make it possible to keep the viewer undistracted from hearing the sounds of their environment just as they hear it themselves. The film uses music and sound to underline the immense gap between Samson and Delilah’s world and the world they come to know as they leave their settlement. The settlement is a nameless place where a few hut-like houses, some car corpses and a public payphone shape the sandy soils of the Australian ‘no-man’s land’ on the outside of Alice Springs. Samson and Delilah live there together with their remaining family members; Delilah’s grandmother, Samson’s brother, some youngsters, a few middleaged women and men. Aboriginals in desolated aboriginal country, moving in the constant rhythm of stagnation.
Rhythms of everyday life
The film opens to a morning scene. Samson had just woken up and gives in to his addiction. Charlie Pride’s Sunshiny Day is playing while the young adolescent sniffs his petrol. An expected peaceful scene that Thornton loaded with a twist of cynism. Outside, Samson’s brother and his band play the same tune for hours in front of the house. Life in the small settlement is marked by the band’s repetitive sounds that can be heard sometimes from daylight till darkness. Either there is no music, or there are the band’s repetitive tunes. Their music expresses precisely what happens in this village: time appears to stand still.
Sometimes Samson tries to avoid hearing the boys play by hiding his head under the pillow. His only escape from stagnation is the radio. The Aboriginal Radio station’s rock music reaches the settlement, accompanied by the sympathetic tone of an English speaking presenter. It is Samson’s only link to modern civilization. He likes to play rock music himself and tries to get a hold of the only guitar in the settlement, his brother prevents him from doing so.
Delilah and her grandmother Nana make traditional paintings, which they sell to a man in exchange for money for food supplies. Delilah’s and Nana’s work is another product of repetition. For hours, they sit quietly on the floor, placing one colorful dot after the other on a piece of cloth. Nana is humming songs in Aboriginal language, a reminder of her culture and times now gone. Traditional aboriginal music is mainly vocal. Often, men and women have their separate songs, which they perform only in a specific context. The songs usually tell the life story of an ancestor.2
These traditional tunes are in contrast with the commercial music of contemporary Australia and its mixed society. From 1800 onwards, indigenous and Western music were rather uncompatible, according to the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Indigenous songs were gradually overwhelmed by Western music. In the film, listening to Western music appears as a way of longing for another way of life.
Delilah, for example, flees from all company into one of the broken cars around the settlement. Gazing into the darkness, she listens to a cassette with songs by Ana Gabriel. The contained atmosphere of the car is the only place in which Delilah expresses her feelings. Quietly, tears are running down her cheekbones.
The only time Delilah sings herself, it happens out of tradition: to mourn her beloved grandmother. The sequence allows an understanding of the knowledge transmitted from one generation to the next, even in the absence of the original context and after the disappearance of the Aboriginals initial ways of life. In fact, specific songs are included in mortuary ceremonies.
Through the ‘adventure’ of Samson and Delilah, Thornton shows an aspect of the lives of Aboriginals over the long years after colonization. The young people of today have grown with both the traditions of the aboriginal minority and with elements of mainstream mass culture. Samson and Delilah reflect the massive difficulties in handling the fact that they sometimes belong neither entirely to the first, nor at all to the second.
Samson has laid eyes on Delilah and regularly tries to catch her attention. His energy is not appreciated by the rest of the settlement. His differing ideas of music do not suit the band. His sounds are these of action, rebellion and simple enjoyment. When Samson gets a hold of the electric guitar one night and plays his rock music, his brother simply comes back and turns off the speakers. Samson’s behavior is seen as a danger to the community. But each time Samson inflicts something on the settlement, it is by the means of sound – he plays loud, angry music or he slams the doors and the walls with a wooden stick, alarming the neighbors. The first time Samson is really angry, he smashes the band’s whole equipment and hits his brother with a log. The guitar grinds in terrible agony through the speakers, a sound loaded with violence.
Interferences usually come from the noises of machines of the outside world: the radio inside Samson’s room; the cars, such as the ambulance that reaches the settlement and is sent away immediately; the wheelchair, which only slows down Samson instead of making him faster when he uses it. The public telephone, which no one ever picks up. Delilah notices its ringing a few times while she walks by, but it would never cross her mind to pick it up. Who could ever call out for them? They live apart from society, and society exists apart from them.
Music is Samson and Delilah’s only voice into the world. It is the way in which they express their feelings and dreams. It is when they leave in search of another life that the music stops.
The absence of music
Life becomes very hard for Samson and Delilah after they leave the settlement for Alice Springs. Outsiders in every way, they lack money, food, a place to stay and people to turn to. They end up under a bridge in the company of a homeless man. Since their arrival in Alice Springs, the sounds they hear are those of real city life: constant, repetitive and loud noises of cars and dull noises of the bridge they sleep under. The music, which used to reach them through the radio, is completely absent once they actually reach the location where it comes from. The situation seems reversed: while the more commercial music from society reached Samson and Delilah at the settlement, it is at the core of society where Aboriginal music influences can be found.
Didgeridoo music can be heard at the terrace of the bar where Delilah tries to sell her painting out of despair. She also comes across an art gallery which sells her grandmother’s paintings for high sums of money. Thornton clearly makes a point here: Aboriginal influences have become an indisputable part of Australian mass culture, while the Aboriginal people themselves have been completely left out. In fact, the people at the terrace of the bar, consuming music and art of or referring to Aboriginal culture and tradition, are afraid by Delilah’s appearance and try to make her leave.
A homeless man under the bridge is the only person to consider Samson and Delilah. He shares his food with them and sings songs from Aboriginal rock music, a subtle reminder of the culture which both Samson and Delilah belong to. The miserable singing of the man is the only distraction from the car noises of the city. Once he and his singing are gone, the two are completely left alone and close to death. It is only when Delilah has found a way out of the city that the music comes back in form of the radio and its rock music Samson used to love. Delilah smiles for the first time.
Back at the settlement, she starts picking up the phone when she hears it ringing. It could actually be someone in despair calling from the outside, just like she did. Samson and Delilah go on with their monotonous lives in an abandoned place. There haven’t really been any changes, have there? Samson holds on tight to his radio, tighter than ever.
1. An extract taken from the song Lightblindness by Troy Cassar-Daley, the film’s ending song. It was originally recorded by David Gray for his album White Ladder.
2. Adrienne L. Koeppler, J.W. Love, The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Vol. 9, Australia and the Pacific Islands, 1998, p.410.