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Ivan Sen’s ‘Mystery Road’: searching for answers and the possibility of salvation.

by on January 25, 2014

Ivan Sen’s ‘Mystery Road’: searching for answers and the possibility of salvation.

Ivan Sen’s latest movie (Mystery Road, 2013)  offers a grim account of the debilitating effects of drugs on a country town, mostly for local Murris, and for relations between both the black and white residents ‘in on the game’.

Set in western Queensland, Sen’s film is a suspense murder mystery.  Like Sen’s earlier work (Beneath Clouds, Toomelah), Mystery Road (2013) examines the complex intra-community social and economic relations alongside the more familiar sites of power: the police.

It is the ‘inside’ story, made possible in the most part by Sen’s own identity and community affiliation, and his talents of precise observation and story telling, which bring these themes into powerful focus.

While Toomelah and Beneath Clouds felt close to ‘real life’, Mystery Road is different. There is more dialogue and movement in this film, the characters are more developed and the cast is actors of the professional, trained and paid variety.  It is a film that appears to be heavily invested in the relationship between Sen and lead character Detective Jay Swan, played by Aaron Pederson, for whom Sen wrote the role, and who is also credited as associate producer.

The film explores some critical tensions that will be familiar to many Aboriginal people.  As I interpret the film, these are drawn from the production and distribution of illegal and quasi-illegal drugs.  The new economy of drugs, and the attendant mind-screwing consequences for users which come to shape social relations, is the dominant idea that Sen is exploring.  Mystery Road might also offer a hypothesis for the otherwise unsolved disappearances of young Aboriginal girls: when a large sum of money was put up for any information about truckies soliciting young girls, none was forthcoming.  Sen’s film perhaps offers an account for these very mysterious circumstances, for the disappearances and the silence.

Shearing sheds, the once great engine rooms of the colonial economy, now in various states of disintegration as mechanisation, land degradation, years of drought and wider structural economic change have tolled, in Sen’s account become sites for cooking up mind-bending, time-warping drugs.  Not drugs of the psychedelic, peace and love variety, but the kind of drugs which result in babies being dangled over stoves, shoved in ovens.  The drugs that makes people psychotic. The shearing shed drug labs and psychotic episodes are viewed either from afar or in the aftermath of upended, abandoned houses and vanished families.  All this chaos takes place before the watchful, muted faces of the now minority poor whites from their fortified homes.

We view events through an elongated gaze, but (at the same time) ironically with a level of intimacy that allows us to (we) understand the emotional and familial involvement of lead character Detective Swan working to piece together the details and events of the murder mystery.  Mystery Road’s events unfold under the attentive eyes of vested interests in the police drug squad investigation team and the local Murris who are directly and indirectly involved as distributors and users.  It is unclear who is involved, who are innocent bystanders, who has long since abandoned any will to interrupt the cycle of dependency and dysfunction.  The users are also young Aboriginal girls, whose drug debts see them inducted into the working world of truck stops, highways and motels bearing the eponymous neon legend, ‘Dusk till Dawn’.

There were several themes that emerged but without resolution and some of the characters, especially the coppers, were a caricature.  A deliberate crafting of characters perhaps, but they did seem ‘boss-hog’ style, Keystone even, or at the least more cowboy than coppa.  The flourish of Aussie masculinity in the coppers and cockies is probably not too far from reality, but still came across as too thickly applied.  But the dialogue was refreshingly free of the usual hammed up ‘strewths’ and other white Australianisms.

Mystery Road is a grim story that occupies the creative space between ‘real life’ and dramatization.  The film is grounded in a reality of sorts, but it also draws on other ‘less real’ themes to ramp up the audience’s/viewers’ sense of surveillance, fear, threat of violence, and the perplexing chaos hovering just outside one’s field of comprehension that I would suggest is part of the everyday Aboriginal life story.

Sen is a terrific filmmaker.  Much of what I appreciate in his work is his exploration of surveillance, and the shaping of intra community business by outside forces.  In Toomelah these themes are developed in relation to the transfer of prison culture to the community.  In this we see the ‘inside’ of prison culture – familiar to many Aboriginal men (and women) – transported to the ‘outside’, and transposed into the everyday social interactions and economic exchange and trade ‘intra’ to the Aboriginal community.   The difference with ‘Mystery Road’ is that Sen is searching for answers.  At first glance, the mystery is the murder of a young woman.  But the mystery, and perhaps a little grand to suggest – of the perplexing circumstances of stubborn indifference and enduring, even worsening inequality for many Kooris and Murris – widens to be revealed less as an institutional phenomenon and more individual actions, deceit and fantasy, and salvation, of sorts.

As the opening gig at the 2013 Sydney Film Festival, Mystery Road would have made challenging viewing for many, and will hopefully see Sen’s work move beyond art house and university level studies to wider audience appreciation.

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