April 7 at Doc Films: “Walkabout”

In Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 film Walkabout, showing at Doc Films at the University of Chicago on April 7, a white teenaged girl and her younger brother are stranded in the Australian desert and must make their way back to civilization, meeting an Aborigine boy who helps them on their way. But that’s not nearly what the film is about.

Instead, the key to the film lies within its title. A “walkabout,” the title card at the beginning of the film explains, is “when an Aborigine man-child reaches sixteen, and he is sent out into the land. For months he must live on it. Sleep on it. Eat of its fruit and flesh. Stay alive. Even if it means killing his fellow creatures.” Beyond this literal definition, an important aspect of the walkabout ritual is its spirituality, as the Aborigines are meant to commune with their ancestors and nature itself during their time out.

To call the events of the film a walkabout, then, imparts onto the journey this sense of communion. The Aborigine boy is himself on a true walkabout when he enters the film, but the girl and boy, not coming from the Aboriginal culture, do not have those intentions explicitly in mind. However, as the film progresses, they gain a new appreciation for the previously alien natural world, with the boy befriending the Aborigine boy and even successfully communicating with him. Once the girl returns to society at the end of the film, she only looks sorrowful and dreams of returning to the idyllic time of her walkabout.

With such a narrative of civilization meets nature it would be quite easy to make Walkabout a criticism of civilization destroying nature, or demonizing the Aborigines in comparison to modernized society, but Roeg masterfully pursues neither route. Comparisons are made between civilized society and the Aboriginal culture, but they are never in favor of one or the other. Rather, all comparisons are in service to a central point: the human experience is universal across even vastly different surroundings.

This point is most powerfully emphasized by the many instances of intellectual montage Roeg implements throughout the film. As the Aborigine boy hunts and lives, shots consisting of similar actions in civilization are juxtaposed, drawing parallels between the humans. The most notable of this is a scene where the Aborigine boy clubs the head of a kangaroo, intercut with shots of a butcher cleaving meat. No matter where people come from, they all require the basic necessity of food (meat) to survive, and the actions to obtain it are remarkably similar.

Although Walkabout features absolutely gorgeous shots of the Australian desert, including surreally vivid orange sunsets, the overall tone of the film is predominantly one of melancholy. Shown with Roeg’s expert sound mixing of endless radio static and chatter, civilization is proven to be a busy and suffocating space. Almost no one is happy there, least of all the children’s father, who goes mad near the beginning of the film, first shooting at his own children and then self-immolating with his car.

Roeg does not stop there, extending this negative view beyond civilization into the natural world. Incorporating sound montage, Roeg continues the radio chatter over both sweeping shots of the desert landscape and close-ups of the wildlife, emphasizing the discomfort found even in “peaceful” nature. When the Aborigine boy appears, he is not any happier for having lived outside civilization, instead rarely smiling and constantly under attack from uncomfortable flies.

Despite the girl shown dreaming of returning to the desert at the end of Walkabout, the boy’s story lacks this closure. A poem lamenting a “land of lost content” is read by male voice at the very end, perhaps meaning to be the boy’s thoughts, but it remains a rare unanswered question in a film that raises few questions but answers a lot the human experience.

For more information about Doc Films, visit docfilms.uchicago.edu.