Following her work on number of successful short films, including Wirriya: Small Boy and Plains Empty, Beck Cole wrote and directed the highly acclaimed documentary series The First Australians, chronicling the history of Indigenous Australia since European contact in 1788. Her work on the ‘making of’ documentary of Warwick Thornton’s Cannes award winning Samson and Delilah continues this exploration, and it is this topical subject that serves as the impetus for Cole’s debut feature film as a writer and director, already screening to acclaim at the Bigpond Adelaide Film Festival and Message Sticks Film Festival.
After being released from prison, Karen (Shai Pittman, Fuse) is desperate to get her life back on track, although she doesn’t know where to turn. Shunned by her fierce mother Lois (Marcia Langton, Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy), she takes refuge in the shelter for women. She slowly begins to connect with the people around her, letting them in beneath her tough exterior, and embarks on a journey to reconnect with her estranged daughter.
Adelaide has been unfairly painted as an alternatively dreary or dangerous city, if the last few years of Australian films are to be believed. Lurking in the outer suburbs and its surrounds are incestuous siblings (Beautiful Kate), possessed trucks (Road Train) and serial killers (Snowtown). Here I Am immediately evokes a different side of the City of Churches. Set and shot in Port Adelaide, a place once dubbed by T. Horton James as ‘Port Misery’, Cole seems to be unconsciously responding to his harsh analysis that “nothing in any other part of the world can surpass it in every thing that is wretched and inconvenient”. While this is very much a story about women, and in particular Aboriginal women, few films of late have so immediately evoked a sense of place as this one. As Karen initially begins her attempts to reconnect with the community, we find out what an unforgiving place a city can be, but also where pockets of light can be found. Photographed in a cold light by Samson and Delilah director Thorton, here serving as Cole’s cinematographer (and spouse, of course), Port Adelaide is a stark and often unforgiving landscape.
Here I Am can, in many ways, serve as a companion piece to the similarly-themed Mad Bastards, sharing both a narrative about reconnecting to family and a largely non-professional group of local cast-members. The crucial difference is, of course, the emphasis on women in a city (as opposed to the male-centric story set in Western Australia’s Kimberly region). Here I Am may be one of the first films to use Port Adelaide’s contemporary urban scenery to tell a story about Aboriginal women. Shai Pittman is a real find in a lead role unlike many other is contemporary Australian cinema. Simultaneously fragile and shatterproof, it is through her journey that we see a few faint glimmers of hope for her, and by extension all other women similarly fated. In the crucial role of Lois, campaigner Marcia Langton comes out of (theatrical) retirement to bring her unyielding persona to this sometimes terrifying character, determined to push her own daughter away with one hand and raise her granddaughter alone. The supporting cast are not always the strongest performers, occasionally failing to fully flesh out the intricacies of their character’s emotions. Yet there is truth in their depiction, as demonstrated by real-life psychologist Vanessa Worrall as Big Red, a counsellor in her own right in the film. It’s this authenticity that makes Cole’s debut such a striking story.
Here I Am is released on June 2, 2011 in Australia by Transmission Films.