I went to see the film Samson & Delilah a few weekends ago. It’s a film that has received really good reviews, which always makes for slightly complicated viewing for me in that it raises expectations.
I wasn’t blown away by it at the time, but the film has really stayed with me, and it has made me think about the world around me in a slightly different way, which to me is the mark of a great film.
Samson & Delilah offers a window into the world of two Aboriginal teenagers living on a small reservation-type settlement in the middle of the Australian desert.
The film itself is unusual in that there is very little dialogue; the two main characters remaining virtually silent through most of the film.
It’s remarkable that first-time writer/director Warwick Thornton had the bravery to write a film which is so sparse in its use of language.
Thornton is himself an Aboriginal of the settlements, and he was basically illiterate when he decided to write the script of Samson & Delilah. I imagine that there could be a temptation to overwrite the story so that he felt more secure it would be understood in a particular way, but by leaving a lot of the film in silence, there is more space for the viewer to make their own interpretation of events, a space where the viewer has to participate, and Thornton creates a film that’s more challenging because of that. There’s no rhetoric or commentary to agree or disagree with. There are no easy answers.
In the film, Warwick’s brother, Scott, plays the old transient Gonzo. In an interview with Thompson on National Radio, he discusses how he wrote the role specifically for his brother, who has lived rough and been under the influence of alcohol for most of his life. After three rehabs and nine months, Scott was finally ready for the role. But after filming finished, he went bush and back to the bottle.
Through various events, Samson and Delilah end up living rough under a bridge in Alice Springs. One particularly heartbreaking scene which struck close to my heart was when Delilah walks through the streets of Alice while people sip their lattes at the café, turning their heads and avoiding eye-contact with the homeless girl.
I thought of this yesterday when walking home from work. As I walked my usual route down Victoria St, I noticed that the homeless people who are usually scattered around the sidewalk were not there. But when I got down to Queen St, I saw the homeless man who is often on Victoria St, an extremely large man with a bushy grey bread. I want to say that he wears sunglasses, but I don’t know if I’ve willfully imagined that because I don’t look at his eyes.
I never know quite what to do or how to respond to the homeless in Auckland. I think part of me feels that we have a benefit system in NZ, so there’s not actually any need for people to live on the streets. So it can become easy to think that they’re there by something resembling choice.
But then I imagine the benefit system in Australia is similar to the one here, and so while there was no need for Samson and Delilah to end up on the streets, that’s just the way it worked out, and I don’t think you could say it’s their fault, or their ‘choice’. And if the character of Gonzo is meant to represent the life Samson is headed for, and in turn there’s little difference between Gonzo and the homeless man on Queen St, then that does make me feel differently about his ‘choice’ to live on the streets.
I don’t like the idea of giving money to people living on the streets, because I imagine a lot of people are living that life because of various addictions, and there’s no way to tell what that money will be spent on, so I lean towards the idea of giving food, and yet I can’t imagine the big man is lacking food. He’s been living on the streets for at least a year as far as I can remember and has not gotten visibly smaller.
I remember my cousin, who is a schoolteacher, telling me how a teenager at the Wellington train station begging for money approached her. But instead of simply giving him some loose change or ignoring him, she asked him why he wasn’t at school and talked to him and gave him contact details of people who could hopefully help him get out of that situation.
I guess maybe the best I could offer is conversation or even a smile, a look, a hello, rather than looking away, as I always seem to find myself doing now. Maybe I’ll be too gutless to start a conversation, but at least if I offer a smile, I’ll be offering something.