Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy: Washing feet
A pair of frail, gnarled feet. The Aboriginal daughter (Marcia Langton) on her hands and knees, gently washes her white mother’s arthritic feet. The Aboriginal woman begins to remember another time, when as a family they would visit the beach.
Summary by Romaine Moreton.
The freedom of childhood is a very distant thing, and this scene sees that freedom now replaced with the responsibility to a dependent elderly mother. There is a sense that while washing her mother’s feet, the daughter is also aware of her own mortality, of growing old, and the prospect perhaps of having no daughter of her own to care for her.
Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy synopsis
A short experimental film shot totally in a studio, it is about the relationship between an Aboriginal daughter and her white mother. The daughter, now the sole carer of her dying mother, dreams of far away places.
Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy curator's notes
A short film written and directed by Tracey Moffatt, Night Cries is promoted as a possible sequel to Chauvel’s feature film Jedda. What would have happened had Jedda survived, and became the primary carer of her white mother? Moffatt, one of Australia’s most famous visual artists whose work is internationally acclaimed, continues her use of constructed environments, with no outdoor scenes filmed in this work. Shot entirely indoors, the design work of Steven Curtis in Night Cries can also be seen in Moffatt’s feature film BeDevil. The beautiful use of rich colours, reflections and sounds open up the indoor environment of the set, and suggests the grand expanse of physical landscapes.
Moffatt’s use of famous Aboriginal singer Jimmy Little, who sings 'Royal Telephone’ in Night Cries, evokes the presence of Christianity, and its role in the assimilation of Aboriginal peoples. The haunting textures of the painted landscape can then perhaps be reflective of a gradual change in how Aboriginal people relate to the land as a consequence of assimilation. The haunted look in the eyes of the Aboriginal daughter (Marcia Langton), is loaded with a sense of what could have been. The final scene of Night Cries is reminiscent of a scene from Jedda, when the newborn infant is laid on the table next to the white mistress of the house, and both begin to cry. This scene in Night Cries revisits the pain and anguish of Jedda, as the now grown Aboriginal daughter lies in a foetal position next to her white mother, and once again cries. Assimilation, then, can be understood as a pain experienced by both the Aboriginal daughter, as well as the white mother.
Tracey Moffatt is an artist who continues to challenge the social construction of Aboriginality and how it is nationally and internationally viewed.
Notes by Romaine Moreton.
This clip opens with a close-up of an Aboriginal woman’s hands gently bathing the gnarled feet of her elderly Anglo-Australian mother. A flashback shows the mother as a young woman playing with her daughter by a stormy ocean, then leaving her in the care of two boys. The girl’s obvious distress appears to go unnoticed by her mother, who is watching the sea. The clip cuts between images of the frightened girl, the mother, and Indigenous singer Jimmy Little, as the disturbing soundtrack builds in intensity.
Educational value points
- This clip from Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy suggests the complexity and interdependence of the mother–daughter relationship. The mother has reared the child, yet the child remembers and resents lapses in that care, even as she herself becomes the carer. Powerful themes of love, duty, fear of abandonment and tenderness all combine to give the clip an exquisite poignancy.
- Filmmaker Tracey Moffatt resists conventions of traditional 'white’ storytelling in her film work, but still succeeds in engaging the viewer in this non-linear narrative. Through the use of flashback, without relying on dialogue or voice-over, she prompts a feeling of sympathy for the distressed daughter and hints at potential scenarios of loss. This experimental and challenging style is evocative and also provides for a subjective interpretation.
- These scenes illustrate why Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy is associated with the experimental cinema genre. The genre is difficult to define, but common features include the rejection of realism in favour of highly stylised and artificially lit environments, and the deliberate negation of naturalism through the use of studio sets. The repetition of footage and the juxtaposition of contrasting images and sound effects are used to dramatise the emotional content of the clip.
- The Christian imagery in the clip may point to the effect of the Christian missions on the lives of Indigenous peoples. Such imagery includes the allusion to Christ washing the feet of his disciples (as the daughter bathes the feet of her mother, they hum 'Onward Christian Soldiers’) and the silent footage of Jimmy Little, who was well known for his Christian gospel songs.
- Jimmy Little (1937–2012) was a popular Indigenous musician whose career has spanned more than six decades. In 1999 the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) board inducted him into the ARIA Australian Music Hall of Fame, and in 2004 he was included by public vote on the list of 100 Living National Treasures. Little enjoys a large following among both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
- Filmmaker Tracey Moffatt (1960–) is one of Australia’s most successful and internationally acclaimed artists. She studied visual communications at the Queensland College of Art, graduating in 1982, and since her first solo exhibition of paintings in Sydney in 1989 she has exhibited extensively around the world. In the 1980s and early 1990s she worked as a director on documentaries and music videos for television, and gained critical acclaim for her film work.
- The traumatic events depicted in this clip illustrate Moffatt’s ability as a director of visual narratives. Her work is highly stylised and her chosen subject matter addresses issues of Indigenous heritage, as well as exploring race, gender, sexuality and identity. Moffatt has said that Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy is about 'loving and hating your mother’.
- This clip shows how Moffatt, who is considered primarily an artist rather than a filmmaker, uses moving images to tell stories and exploits a wide range of styles drawn as much from 'old’ movies and B-grade television serials as from arthouse cinema and art photography. The saturated colour and false backdrops for the seaside scenes are examples of the techniques she exploits to create emotional responses in her audience.
- Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy is one of the best known of Tracey Moffatt’s works. It has screened internationally and it won several awards in 1990, including the Special Jury Award at the Tampere Short Film Festival, Best Short Film at the Montreal Women’s Film Festival, and Best Australian Short Film at the Melbourne Film Festival. It was nominated for Best Short Film, Golden Palm Award, at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival.
Education notes provided by The Learning Foundation and Education Services Australia.
This clip opens with a close-up of an Aboriginal woman’s hands gently bathing the gnarled feet of her elderly Anglo-Australian mother. The woman and her mother both hum. A flashback shows the mother as a young woman playing with her daughter by a stormy ocean, then leaving her in the care of two boys. At first the girl has fun playing with the boys but then they wrap her in salvaged tape and she begins to cry. The girl’s obvious distress appears to go unnoticed by her mother, who is watching the sea. The clip cuts between images of the frightened girl, the mother, and Indigenous singer Jimmy Little, as the disturbing soundtrack builds in intensity.