the deceptive darkness of the wide open outback, the moon hangs high in the sky
like a beacon, luring a young girl from her bedroom and into a world she knows
little about. Startled out of her slumber, her mother wakes in fright, rushing
to her daughters room to find her gone. Come morning, the police have arrived
with a search party who intend to scour the land for any sign of the missing
girl, but their Indigenous police officer is denied the chance to help track
the girls’ path. The girls father has claimed this land as his own, and through
a profound act of racism, he rejects any help from the black tracker. The all
white search party forge a path through the wide plains, all the while the
Indigenous tracker laments that they’re heading in the wrong direction. Days
turn into nights, and nights turn into weeks. The girl is nowhere to be found.
Exhausted and desperate, and yet all too late, the mother turns to the tracker
for his assistance. The two find the girl, her life consumed by time and
disorientation. Upon hearing this news, her father walks off into the night,
distraught, blaming himself for not finding his daughter, and through the power
of a shotgun, claims his life. The tracker and his family mourn the mothers’ loss,
her left alone and desolate on this unforgiving land, with only the memory of
her dead family to keep her company.
This is Rachel Perkins outback opera, One Night the Moon.
Inspired by the life of Alexander Riley, as told in the documentary Black Tracker (directed by his grandson, Michael Riley), this is the story of a tracker who worked with the Dubbo police in the early 1900s, helping them find criminals and missing people. Unlike the documentary, Perkins opts to focus predominantly on a family of white farmers, as portrayed by real life family, Paul Kelly, Kaarin Fairfax, and their daughter, Memphis Kelly. The ever reliable Kelton Pell delivers one of his first film performances as the tracker.
in at a brisk 57 minutes, One Night the
Moon is deceptively slight. This is a narrative we’ve seen told countless
times over and over, especially in the Western format: A family loses a child
and due to their racist roots, they distrust the Indigenous peoples guidance
and help, and in turn, the family suffers a great deal when their child is
found dead. But, what sets One Night the
Moon apart from similar narratives is the use of music to help weave this
narrative. With songs written by Paul Kelly and a score by Kev Carmody and
Mairead Hannan, the music by itself is quite beautiful to listen to. When
paired with the immersive cinematography of Kim Batterham, the two work in
harmony. Batterham’s camera captures the darkness of the narrative with the
grand deep blue night skies, managing to perfectly portray the enchanting
quality of the moon itself.
The ‘lost child’ narrative has been one that has long been fostered within Australian cinema – Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout are notable entries in this subgenre. The constant that links these films together is how alluring the openness of the outback can be, operating like a silent siren, beckoning these (often white) children into their grips and delivering a cruel injustice unto them. Death, trauma, or a grand enduring mystery, envelops these characters, with their misunderstanding of this harsh landscape being the key to their downfall. While Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout mainly focus on the children themselves, One Night the Moon opts to engage in the fallibility of the father.
director and co-writer, Rachel Perkins appears to recognise how slight the
narrative may appear, and leans on the most pertinent theme of the film: the
distinction between a connection to country versus the ownership of land. This
is most powerful presented in the song ‘This Land is Mine’, which comes early
in the film, setting the tone of ‘us and them’. Paul Kelly’s farmer Jim Ryan makes
haste onto his land in search of his daughter with his troupe of white men by
his side. He powerfully declares as a statement against Kelton Pell’s tracker
that ‘this land is mine’. He paid a deed, he has established his home, he is
the owner of this soil and what exists on it. He’s exhausted, toiling on a land
that openly rejects any kind of cultivation, outwardly dispelling any chance of
crops or farm life to foster and prosper.
be damned if anyone, especially an Indigenous bloke, is going to take what is
his away from him.
reminder to himself and as a declaration to his country, Kelton Pell’s Albert
Yang sings as he walks off the property alone. This is the most powerful moment
of One Night the Moon, and if there
is an enduring element from this film, it is this song and the image of Pell
walking proudly across his country, singing about his spiritual connection with
the land. He sings, ‘This land is me’, and proudly sings about how he is one
with the rocks, the water, the animals, the trees. The land is his home, and he
is the land. No clearer is the connection to country made than in the lines,
‘this land owns me, from generations past to infinity, we’re all but woman and
man’ and later, in a rebuttal to Jim Ryan, Albert sings, ‘this land is me… they
won’t take it away from me’.
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