Saw Peter Weir’s “The Last Wave” over the weekend on NITV

1977 seems such a long time ago. And I couldn’t help asking whether – brilliantly done as it is even if Richard Chamberlain is so forgettable – The Last Wave really is a lot of tosh. Did it rather show Indigenous Australians as white hippy mystics wanted them to be? After all, this was a time when shamans of any kind were so cool. Is it really deeply spiritual, or does it have the bunkum level of, say, Marlo Morgan? How do Aboriginal Australians in 2013 feel about the content of this movie? All that nonsense about South American connections, with what just might now look like abuse of Aboriginal stories and symbols – or a considerable stretching of their real context and significance – in the interests of a kind of von Daniken hodgepodge, albeit a good enough thriller. Granted, the Aboriginal actors in the movie, especially David Gulpilil and Nanjiwarra Amagula, did a great job. But what did they really think of what they were doing? What might they think now?

Apparently the movie opened in the US around two years after being made. There is an interesting interview from that time. It is on Peter Weir’s site.

What does it mean to be a tribal aborigine in Australia today?

The problems are with the youth. We’ve got the sophisticated technology and so forth – the transistors, music, the draw of the cities. So the problem for tribal people is how to bring their young people back into their culture, how to get them to be interested in initiation ceremonies, how to stop them drifting to the cities. It’s a case of how long they can continue to be a tribal people in a sophisticated Western country.

How did you find Nanjiwarra Amagula, who plays Charlie, and who is actually the leader of the aboriginal tribe?

He’s actually a clan leader. He’d never made a film, nor will he make one again. Not because of my experience, but because he saw this as a one-time thing. He would do it for certain reasons. To get him I had to go to, in Sydney, the Aboriginal Cultural Foundation director, a man called Lance Bennett, who subsequently became a friend. He was highly suspicious of a feature filmmaker delving into tribal cultural matters. It’s all very well to photograph a tribal man with spears against Ayres Rock, but another to delve into the system of perception, which I wanted to. So he screened me, he read my draft screenplay, and finally he passed me and he said, "OK. I’ll help you." He said, "There’s only one man who can play your Charlie, one man who has enough wisdom, enough breadth, enough understanding, not just to come into the city but to make a feature film. It’s obviously a sophisticated Western process." He said, "I’ll tell him about this on the radio-telephone on his island in the Gulf of Carpentaria – Groote Island. He may or may not see you." He did see me and we sat all day at Fanny Bay in Darwin, where he was rehearsing some dancers.

Rehearsing dancers – what does he do?

As a tribal elder he’s a magistrate; he sits with a visiting European magistrate to try petty crime, which is what they cope with there – theft, drunkenness, etc. He speaks the language with the accused and he advises the European magistrate on sentencing. He officiates at tribal ceremonies, which are considerable. For instance, during filming he had to hurry home at one point to bury a child who couldn’t be buried until he was present. He’s a member of the Northern Lands Council, which is coping with the uranium question. He’s a very important, busy man. So a film is something that could have appeared frivolous.

Our meeting, then. You know, they had no concept of acting. They don’t have acting. It’s the real thing. I sat with him on the beach and my first instinct was to tell him all about it. And I started to, and stopped because I could sense that it was the wrong thing to do and that he only wanted to do it has way. So we sat all day without saying a word. At the end of the day he said, "Can I bring my wife with me to make this film?" So he’d made this decision throughout that day in his own way, but it certainly wasn’t this idiotic language that we use. He sensed that it was right to do and that I was right to do it, I think. We then met that evening with Lance Bennett, who remained the go-between and who could speak his language. We discussed the concepts of the film and he asked me to place certain points within the film…

How did you decide on the subject matter?

It just arose. A series of connecting things, moments, that conversation with Gulpilil that I couldn’t understand. Something that happened before that. I’d had a premonition. I’d never had anything like that in my life. I don’t consider myself psychic. I was on holiday in Tunisia; I’d come down from London. I’d always loved Roman or Greek ruins – not the way they used to be, I just liked the way they’d fallen down; but I kind of liked classical structure. We were driving to Duga, this inland city in Tunisia, Roman city, looks like Pompeii, and we stopped the car to exercise a little and everyone was picking up bits of marble by the roadside in the fields. The driver hit the horn and we were heading back to the car and I had this feeling which lasted some seconds, that I was going to find something. I was picking up bits of stone and I saw on a stone these three parallel lines and I picked that stone up. In fact it was a hand, a fist, and the lines were between fingers. It resisted a little bit, then burst up through the ploughed field and there was this head, the head of a child, broken off at the neck and at the wrist. It had been holding something on its head, or a sword or something. The nose was gone, the lips and so on, but I can’t tell you what that was like. I smuggled it out and took it home and had it dated and put it on my desk. I wondered about the head; why did I know I was going to find it? Subsequently I told people about it, and they’d say, "Oh, that happens to you – it’s you." And I thought, What if a lawyer had found it – that’s more interesting. And at some stage from that I thought, What if a lawyer dreamt of some evidence, what if he found some evidence through a premonition? Someone trained to think precisely on one hand; on the other, the facts, dreaming, dream some evidence. I told Gulpilil about this and we discussed things and gradually the forces began to come together. I did a lot of reading during that period – Casteneda and the Old Testament, strangely different influences. Thor Heyerdahl’s theories, Velikovsky – and somehow these clues began to form a pattern. There was a new way to look at tribal people.

Is there really an ancient aboriginal cave under the city? Is that a real location in Sydney?

No, my location was up the coast about 15 miles. But there are rivers under Sydney; there are things buried under Sydney.

Are the aboriginal legends in the film authentic?

Everything passed through the hands of the tribal aborigines we used. The Sydney people are dead – white contact destroyed them. Around the city they’ve left signs and symbols, some paintings, carvings in national parks; they’re now protected. Nobody knows what they mean unless there’s obvious hunting in the picture. We took the Groote Island people to look at them. And Nanji just said "Poor fellows." So therefore, we created a fictional situation. The only thing was, Nanji insisted that there are still the Sydney people there, but they’re spirits and their spirits exist at sacred sites and protect sacred sites, so if there’s a sacred site under Sydney he said, "This is true, your script is true. The spirits will be there, therefore I cannot be human." That was one change because in my story Charlie was human, initially. He pointed out that that was impossible. But he could be a spirit that took on human form; this is quite possible…

Carlos Casteneda indeed.

I still wonder about whether this really is a an exploitation flick at heart that could confuse as much as enlighten when it comes to real Aboriginal beliefs. It is so 70s.

But it is still one of David Stratton’s favourite movies.  He sees it as a movie about climate change. Which it is, though like most such movies hardly a reliable indicator of what climate change actually means. There are some great sequences though – I agree with him there. Take that one where the buses and pedestrians in Sydney are suddenly totally under water. Great cinema. Bad science. And I still niggle that the film is bad Aboriginal culture, despite the presence of Gulpilil and company. In fact the more I think about it the more I see it as a 70s whiteman artefact replete with the buzz memes of that time. The truly Aboriginal movie had not yet arrived. Think maybe Ten Canoes.

Maybe most will disagree with me. But it is what I thought after seeing it again on Saturday.

See also reviews on the IMDB, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat on Spirituality and Practice, and Roger Westcombe who finds it “a masterwork of cinema that grows in depth and resonance with each successive viewing.”

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