Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy

(Tracey Moffatt, Australia, 1990)


Tracey Moffatt's career in photography, film and video is powered by two major drives, both of them very theatrical in nature: a drive towards melodrama at one extreme, and towards comedy at the other.

The short film Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy, Moffatt's masterpiece to date, gives full vent to the melodramatic side of that speculative equation.

The project's sources are manifold: its images and sounds emerge as from a volcano, where deep down stir the historical realities of Aboriginal dispossession, Hollywood's grand "woman's melodramas" with mothers and daughters slugging it out, Moffatt's memories of her own relation to the white family she grew up with, and a unique, bizarre Australian cinema classic, Charles Chauvel's Vidor-style Aboriginal melodrama Jedda (1955).

The style of Night Cries is high-artificialist – a virtually wordless two-hander played within and against a starkly unreal studio set, punctuated by flashbacks and inserts that combine pictorial, graphic and gestural elements in a similarly liberated way.

Night Cries is a passionate film whose vivid representations have an almost abstract force: cultures, generations, colours and sound-blocks smash against each other and sometimes intermingle in unexpectedly tender ways; the entire drama is immediate and palpable, perfectly comprehensible on an emotional and deep-structural level. Yet it is also a completely modernist film, the furthest Moffatt has gone towards pure avant-gardism, a fragmented and elliptical scenography no less mysterious or compelling than that of her haunting photo-series Something More.

One watches and hears country singer Jimmy Little perform his ditty about "telephoning to Jesus", while his body and voice are lacerated by Moffatt and drawn into a swirling montage of terror, humiliation, despair and death.

MORE Moffatt: Bedevil, Nice Coloured Girls

MORE Australian indigenous films: Black Chicks Talking, Whispering In Our Hearts, Beneath Clouds, The Tracker, Ten Canoes, Rabbit-Proof Fence

© Adrian Martin October 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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