What I adore, are great cathartic Australian films that excite, challenge and haunt me. I’m a total sucker for beautiful cinematography and poignant moments. I will happily watch and re-watch anything that conjures up a nostalgic memory or brings me to tears. Rachel Perkins’ One Night the Moon (2001) is a great cathartic Australian film that I adore. Its combination of ethereal music and evocative imagery inspires an aesthetic awe, alongside its simple narrative that tackles the crux of Australia’s discomfort with our colonial contact history.
There are three particularly moving moments in this film that continue to profoundly affect me. The first is a set of sound-image vignettes that juxtapose the grief and mourning of a mother and father as they deal with the loss of their only daughter, Emily. In the first vignette, the father (Paul Kelly) searches desperately for some sign of his missing daughter. Disoriented by the immensity of the rocky landscape, he stumbles, collapses and cries uncontrollably on the hillside. Filmed with a shaky hand and set to a musical crescendo that clangs violently along to the camera’s spasmodic movements, this moment perfectly captures a father’s physical anguish and complete helplessness. Counterpoised in the other, is Emily’s mother, Rose (Kaarin Fairfax). She is filmed stranded at the desolate homestead where she sits on the veranda in her rocking chair, haunted by Emily’s ghostly figure and the echo of lilting female voices. Again, these stylistic elements prompt a strong emotional response as Rose’s pain and fragility is beautifully captured in the framing of this scene. The underlying feeling in these two vignettes is completely incompatible and yet ultimately the same. While one parent’s pain manifests as uncontrollable desperation and the other as subdued melancholia, the distress and vulnerability of each parent, as they are torn apart by their grief, is evident in both. This juxtaposition is particularly tragic in that it captures how much they have both lost, not only their daughter but also their love for one another.
The second moment is when Rose and Albert (Kelton Pell), the Aboriginal tracker, walk back together towards the homestead carrying Emily’s corpse. In an instant, Emily’s father enthusiastically emerges from the house. He runs out and jumps over the fence before pausing suddenly to assess the situation. The shot cuts to a close-up of Albert and Rose’s cheerless faces as Albert willingly hands Emily over to her stubborn father. He looks down at his daughter’s dead body lying in his arms before the shot cuts back to another close-up of the tears streaming down his face. This shot-reverse-shot sequence captures the depth and sadness of these characters; and also their failure to move beyond cultural differences and embrace Albert’s knowledge of the landscape before they are forced to do so by tragedy. In this moment, Perkins shows us that by confronting tragedy together and recognising past injustices, a process of reconciliation and cultural maturation can take place. In this regard, I feel that this film invites a white Australian audience to identify with the weight of such a loss, the loss of a child, and make some move toward remembering and acknowledging the plight of the Stolen Generations. For this very reason, it is an exceptionally moving scene. You can’t help but recognise the duality of meaning this sequence has for its audience.
The third moment, and my favourite, is Ruby Hunter’s closing song, sung right at the end of the film as a public eulogy for Emily and her father. Ruby’s voice is the first thing to be heard, resonating long before visuals are introduced. Her deep guttural voice rings out across the dry landscape, overlaying close-ups of the father and daughter’s coffins as they are lowered into the ground and Rose’s tear stained face. Here, the Aboriginal woman’s song of mourning transcends cultural barriers as it mourns the loss of a white-Anglo girl and her stubborn father. It is the sound of reconciliation, as this Indigenous woman embraces the settler woman and expresses and shares her grief through song. For a white-Australian atheist, this moment appears to me as one deeply soulful and spiritual.
I adore One Night the Moon because it sensitively and tactfully confronts the often ignored or ill-articulated issues that have divided Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians over the years. It encourages us to see Australia as a country that is imbued with multiple experiences and shared meanings. This film is great, in that it is not only cathartically comforting but also challenging. It refuses to be prescriptive and instead affirms, expresses and engages with the complexity of what it means to be Australian.
AFI Awards notes: One Night the Moon won the 2001 AFI Award for Best Achievement in Cinematography in a Non-Feature Film (Kim Batterham) and the Open Craft Award for Non-Feature Film (Mairead Hannan, Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly) for original score.
To see more clips from the film and read the excellent curator’s notes by Romaine Moreton, visit the NFSA’s australianscreen website here.