With recent reports that life for the residents of Toomelah has reached crisis point, Ivan Sen’s feature about the troubled Aboriginal community hits home even harder.
"It was a total nail-biter for me," writer/ director Ivan Sen says about screening his film, Toomelah, to the residents of the titular community on a huge inflatable screen in the centre of the local football field. "I felt so anxious about it, but it ended up an amazing experience because they laughed all the way through it. When someone would appear who they knew, they were cheering, beeping their horns, and kicking the footballs around. People were in their cars watching, as well as in the grandstands. It had a real festival atmosphere, and I spent the night walking around, through the darkness, trying to gauge people's reactions and it all seemed positive."
It was truly a different movie-going experience for Sen who was accustomed to watching his film with audiences who found his take on the troubled former Aboriginal mission, just shy of the Queensland border, eye-opening, troubling and heartbreaking. "A lot of the negative things that other audiences pick up on don't register with the locals because that's part of their everyday life," Sen explains. "It's not really negative to them. It's just their life, and if it was that negative, then they'd really have a pretty terrible life, but generally people are quite happy and humorous out there. They try to get on with life and have a positive attitude."
Sen similarly points out that despite the recent press reports that things in Toomelah have reached crisis point - with an alleged increase in poverty, poor health, rundown infrastructure, alcohol and drug abuse, and connected violence - it's often people throwing their projections onto the community. "I was in Toomelah only yesterday and it just seemed the same to me," Sen offers. "There were government meetings recently, but they're just the same old problems really. You know what the media's like - one paper grabs a couple of quotes and builds a story around them, and then all of a sudden other people are piggybacking off that, and you'll find there will be nothing true written. There was a quote going on about people relocating, but that story wasn't substantiated in any way. I think it was just a big beat-up."
Regardless of whether the situation has been blown out of proportion by the press, there's no denying that it's a troubled community, something clearly revealed in Sen's film, which weaves issues of The Stolen Generation, substance abuse, and the erasure of Aboriginal culture into its narrative about a gutsy young boy whose future seems uncertain. For decades, it's been a largely forgotten community, which seems to be placed continually in the ‘too hard basket' by politicians and policy-makers. "The land discussion has to be put on the map and I think everything will follow that," Sen says about moving forward. "There's just such a sense of dislocation; there's no kind of connection to where these people come from. There needs to be a reconnection with the land and some kind of acknowledgement."
Further troubling Sen is the fact that in spending time in Toomelah and Moree (working on his next film), the filmmaker saw a number of businessmen scoping out the area. "I was trying to work out what's going on and I did some research, and started to see there are deals going on," Sen says. "Countries from The Middle East and American businessmen in Korea are buying the land up under some complicated company set-up. That's really starting to piss me off. There's just so much land out there that's very productive. It feels like these people are buying stolen goods. It feels like the biggest wrong."
Despite the questions his film raises over the future of the residents of Toomelah, especially the young people, Sen remains optimistic, particularly of young actor and local, Daniel Connors, who played the feisty lead role in the director's feature. "He's still subject to the pressures that surround him," Sen says, "and has to deal with that on a daily basis, but he's an amazingly talented boy and I'm in the process of getting him an agent. I just auditioned him for my next film and I also auditioned his little brother who's an amazing talent as well. I'm really doing what I can to help him continue a career in acting, and I think he's got a pretty bright future."
Toomelah is available on DVD May 24.
Photo credit: Sen, courtesy of Getty Images/Michael Buckner.