Nicolas Roeg’s famous 1971 film Walkabout narrates the story of two English siblings, a boy and a teenage girl, who struggle to survive at the mercy of the Australian Outback. The children accompany their father into the desert with the promise of having a picnic. In an inexplicable frenzy, their father sets their car on fire and begins shooting at them. Without success in hurting the children, he takes the last bullet and kills himself. The abruptness of their father’s death marks their sudden estrangement from civilization and the beginning of a journey unforeseen. Along the way, they encounter a teenage Aborigine who joins them and becomes their guide.
The title of the film, “walkabout,” refers to an Aborigine ritual in which young males make the transition from boyhood to manhood by going on a solitary journey where they must fend for themselves. Walkabout, however, does not tell the story of the young Aborigine’s trek, but that of the first experience the English protagonists have in the land of the Aborigines. This narrative, however, is violent and irresponsible. The film doubly subjugates the Aborigines to the voice and eyes of their colonizer; first, by granting authorial expression to an English director, and then, by positioning English characters as the protagonists in an Aboriginal narrative. The story of the Australian indigenous people is delineated by the colonizer, which does not serve as a magnifying medium, but rather a silencing tool.
The young Aborigine is portrayed as a half-magical individual naturally embedded in the scenery of the Outback. With the exception of a short sequence showing a handful of Aborigines working in an establishment managed by Caucasian people, there are no other indigenous characters introduced to the audience. As described in Garry Simmons’ article, “VCE Film as Text,” the Aborigine represents “the ‘noble savage’ emerging mystically from the landscape—as organically linked to the landscape he inhabits….” His lack of community and consequent dearth of land further illustrate how indigenous people have been desocialized and dehistoricized in order to fit into the narrative the colonizer has constructed for them.
Roeg’s statement that the film is “a simple story about life and being alive, not covered with sophistry but addressing the most basic human themes: birth, death, and mutability” conveys the film’s explicit intention of finding a common ground for Anglo and Aboriginal cultures. Yet, the film goes beyond pointing out similarities. It instead portrays the Aboriginal culture as another version of Anglo culture. This can be observed in the film’s use of juxtaposition of images of the Aborigines’ experiences and those of the English children. During the young Aborigine’s hunting scene he manages to secure a kangaroo. This scene is followed by a sequence of alternating shots of the young man beating the kangaroo and a Caucasian butcher aggressively cutting some meat. Images such as these depict how the film ignores intrinsic cultural and historical differences, equating the Aborigine with the Anglo culture.
Ironically, the film appears to argue for an underlying commonality while portraying Anglo culture as superior to Aborigine. The notion of the incessant “black courtship of white,” for instance, appears during the mating dance the young Aborigine performs for the girl. She rejects him as the former is unable to understand the significance of his dance, and is overwhelmed by feelings of confusion, discomfort, and, to an extent, fear. The characters’ failure to communicate effectively mirrors the tragic story of the dominant culture’s inability, potentially even unwillingness, to comprehend the oppressed culture’s needs or desires.
Just as the Aborigine’s mating dance is rejected by the girl, Aboriginal culture is also rejected by Anglo culture, and just as the Aborigine meets his death, Aboriginal culture meets the end of any lines of communication. The film highlights the imbalanced narrative between the Aborigines’ voices and the message assumed and conveyed by Anglo culture on their behalf. This gap can only be bridged through a dialogue that, as observed in Walkabout, is still to take place.