Little Fish: 'Flame trees will blind the weary driver'
With his heroin supply dried up, Lionel goes into severe withdrawal and begs Tracy (Cate Blanchett) to buy him some heroin. She is appalled, but she does it, buying heroin on the street for the first time since she gave it up four years earlier. She is about to use some of the drug herself when she stumbles on a children’s choir, singing an old Cold Chisel song, in a school hall. The sight of these children stops her in her tracks. Summary by Paul Byrnes.
One of the most powerful sequences in the film, and one of the most memorable. We don’t know for sure that she was looking for a place to shoot up, but that’s definitely inferred by Tracy’s urgent desire to find somewhere private, now that she has bought heroin for the first time in years. The fact that she is stopped by the sound of a children’s choir is a superbly original device. Earlier in the film we have seen Tracy reluctantly attend a school reunion for her class of ’89 – and on the way in, after she has passed through metal detectors, she looks at a memorial board with the pictures of 10 people who have died already since leaving high school.
Little Fish synopsis
Tracy Heart (Cate Blanchett) has been off heroin for four years, when old boyfriend Jonny Nguyen (Dustin Nguyen) comes back to Sydney. Tracy is 32, living with her mum Janelle (Noni Hazelhurst) and working in a video shop in Cabramatta. Her brother Ray (Martin Henderson) sells amphetamines. The only man she has ever loved like a father, ex-rugby league star Lionel Dawson (Hugo Weaving), is hopelessly heroin-addicted. When big-time dealer Brad ‘The Jockey’ Thompson (Sam Neill) decides to retire, the decision has an impact on all their lives.
Little Fish curator's notes
Little Fish arrived, in late 2005, at just the right time, after a couple of lean years in which Australian cinema seemed to have run out of ideas. Rowan Woods and Jacqueline Perske showed what was wrong – the film was intensely moving, dramatic and fresh, but that came out of years of research, including more than 100 hours of video-taped interviews with people just like Tracey Heart and Lionel Dawson. The film was about real people’s lives, in fact, places like Cabramatta, a notorious centre of the heroin trade in western Sydney. Very few Australian filmmakers are interested in the suburbs, as a source for dramatic stories, especially the poorer suburbs that have been transformed by mass migration since the Second World War, but Little Fish shows what we’ve been missing.
Woods grew up with strong links in Sydney’s Asian migrant communities, because both his parents taught English to migrants in the 1960s and ‘70s. In Little Fish he shows Cabramatta as a vibrant community, where heroin is only part of the story. The film is very clear-eyed about the damage the drug is doing, and the grubby politics of the trade, but it’s about much more than heroin. It’s about the choices you make in life, and the consequences. The climax of the film is an amazing scene in which Cate Blanchett convinces a man with a gun that he has a choice about what to do – and that the wrong choice will ruin his life. There’s never really been a scene like it in another Australian film, because guns once drawn tend to get used. It’s a very powerful subtle message, especially for young viewers used to violent resolutions to complex problems.
Notes by Paul Byrnes
This clip from the award-winning film Little Fish shows an ex-drug addict, Tracy (Cate Blanchett), at night on a street corner in Cabramatta, Sydney, waiting to buy heroin. After phoning a number she is given a car pulls up, she gets in and buys the drug from two dealers. Back on the street Tracy asks a passer-by if there is a toilet in the local hall. She follows her directions into the building where young schoolchildren, the Sacred Heart Cabramatta School Choir, are rehearsing a Cold Chisel song called 'Flame Trees’. Tracy is deeply affected by the performance.
Educational value points
- As an ex-drug addict, Tracy would be familiar with the codes and conventions of making drug transactions, yet her obvious discomfort about purchasing heroin again, albeit for someone else, is evident in her body language and the close-ups of her face, which seem to reflect her temptation and heighten the tension of the scene.
- The themes of family and friendship are important in Little Fish and are reflected in this clip. Tracy, surrounded by mothers and young children, is deeply affected by the children singing, and the scene perhaps suggests the depths to which Tracy has sunk since her own childhood, when as the lyrics of the song suggest 'nothing stopped us on the field in our day’.
- Audio is an important component of this clip. The truncated version of ‘Flame Trees’, sung by the children’s choir and the trigger for Tracy’s emotional response, is contrasted with the street scene in which the sounds of the city – trains, cars, people shouting and rain – echo around her. To this soundscape has been added a barely perceptible soundtrack of atonal, drone-like music that combines with and emphasises the harsh undercurrent of urban noise.
- The cost of feeding a heroin addiction draws many users into other criminal activities, including significant and violent crimes as well as petty break-ins. In 2001 the then New South Wales Premier, Robert 'Bob’ Carr announced a four-year $18.8 million anti-drug and drug-related crime strategy in Cabramatta, a suburb of Sydney. Known as a centre of the heroin trade, Cabramatta was the ideal setting for Little Fish, a story about an ex-drug addict and drug-associated crime.
- Cinematographer Danny Ruhlman developed special camera techniques for Little Fish. Bright flashing and scattered lights evoke the light sensitivity of a drug addict. Similarly, the jerky, hand-held camera style and fragmented street sounds suggest disoriented and uncertain perceptions. Other techniques Ruhlman reported using included off-balance shots as well as a documentary style to help convey a sense of realism.
- Cabramatta is a vibrant but socioeconomically disadvantaged south-western suburb of Sydney, in one of Australia’s most culturally diverse areas. It is one of the largest town centres in Fairfield City where, at the time of writing, more than half of the residents were born overseas. Most come from Asian countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia and China, but previous waves of migration have included people from Italy and Yugoslavia. The cosmopolitan nature of the area is hinted at in the faces of the choir.
- Heroin use has serious health implications. Heroin is never pure but is mixed or 'cut’ with various other substances before it reaches the street. There are health risks associated with injecting this mix of chemicals. There are also dangers in injecting due to the unknown strength of the drug in any given batch. A further risk arises for ex-users like Tracy if they go back on the drug and inject the same quantity after a period of abstinence when their body has lost its drug tolerance.
- Director Rowan Woods’s work is characterised by a sense of immediacy, by tension between characters and by an authenticity of characterisation, seen in the way Tracy holds her cigarette like a syringe in this clip. Woods’s first film The Boys (1998) won four AFI awards and Little Fish won five. Both films deal with the gritty realities of violence and crime and stress the daily grind of suburban life for people on low incomes.
- Cate Blanchett’s fine acting skills are demonstrated in this scene from Little Fish, for which she won an AFI Award for Best Lead Actress. Blanchett, a graduate of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), has starred in many films, including Elizabeth (1998), Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003) and Babel (2006) and, with her husband Andrew Upton, will commence the artistic co-directorship of the Sydney Theatre Company in 2008.
- Scriptwriter Jacqueline Perske was nominated for an AFI Award for the screenplay of Little Fish, which benefited from inclusion in the inaugural, and now acclaimed, Aurora script program (NSW Film and Television Office). Perske interviewed people similar to those portrayed in this clip to ensure authenticity in characterisation. She won AFI awards in 2005 and 2006 for the television drama series Love My Way.
Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia
A train rushes past Tracy. It is night time as she walks through the outer city streets. She stops and waits on a street corner.
Dealer Tracy, what the fuck you been doing?
Tracy It’s not for me.
Dealer So how much do you want?
Tracy Three g’s.
Dealer Yeah, I can do it. You call this number in ten minutes.
It is raining. A car pulls up and Tracy enters.
Drug car driver Got the correct money?
Tracy Yeah. You right?
Drug car driver Alright.
Tracy gets out of the car and waits on the footpath. A woman and her son walk past with an umbrella.
Tracy Excuse me, is there a toilet in there?
Woman Yeah, in that door.
Tracy enters the door. We hear a children’s choir singing the Cold Chisel song ‘Flame Trees’.
... and there’s nothing else could set fire to this town
There’s no change, there’s no pace
Everything within its place
Just makes it harder to believe that she won’t be around
Tracy looks towards the ladies toilets, but is transfixed by the children singing in the choir.
And I’m wondering if he’ll go or if he’ll stay
Do you remember, nothing stopped us on the field
In our day
Oh the flame trees will blind the weary driver
And there’s nothing else could set fire to this town
There’s no change, there’s no pace
Everything within its place …
Tracy is outside, smoking a cigarette.