“I’m so glad I got to see Walkabout, it has stayed with me and I have thought about it many times since Sunday. Amazing that the lead actor was able to be there for it too, it gave it a personal feeling that we were also sharing her experience of watching her younger self.”
- Kate Rowles, Filmmaker
When Rich Pickings and the Institute of Psychoanalysis screened WALKABOUT at The Science Museum’s Dana Centre, we were pleased to welcome lead actress Jenny Agutter and psychoanalyst David Morgan to introduce the film, as well as a written introduction from Director Nicholas Roeg. Here are Nicholas Roeg and David Morgan’s insights into the film.
An introduction from Nicholas Roeg
I’m so happy that you’ve chosen Walkabout for your end of programme film. It is a film I am particularly close to emotionally as it was really more a reflection of my own family’s ‘life journey’ – especially as the young boy, ‘Lucien John’, is in fact Lucien John Roeg, my son. His mother and two of my other sons as well all helped in the making of the story and the film, from picking fruit to making camp every night.
The journeys the three characters are taking, together and separately, are also stages of life we all take, though less obviously, as they are usually disguised by living in society surrounded by many others jointly living through a similar development.
In the movie, three stages are seen…The ‘Boy’ beginning to learn the social mores and morals of behaviour… the ‘Girl’ at the moment of physical and emotional development that a girl goes through into womanhood and the ‘Aboriginal Boy’, in the very essence of mental and physical change to manhood on his ‘Walkabout’. I suppose the equivalent today of a gap year, a time of ‘life learning’ in an independent way, starting with the primal needs for existence… food, water and shelter, followed by sex and procreation to continue the existence of human beings.
I think the three of them; the’Boy’, the ‘Girl/Woman’ and the ‘Young Man’ are quite wonderful; they are natural and true. Possibly because, in many ways it was true.
I found a quote a little while ago that I had attached to my script when we were shooting the movie. Now, all these years later, it somehow still seems a link to a truth about the movie… ‘There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.’
- Nicolas Roeg, 2011
Walkabout: trauma, death and survival in alien landscapes
Directed by Nicolas Roeg, with an excellent script by the English playwright Edward Bond, author of the brilliant The Sea, The Sea!, Walkabout looks at various forms of trauma experienced by an unnamed English girl and her younger brother who are abandoned in the Australian outback after the suicide of their father. At the beginning of the film the father is presented in an urban jungle setting which appears cold, inhuman and alien representing what Rob Lapsey described as ‘the isolatory urban malaise that is as inescapable as it is devastating’. (Cinema, The Impossible and a Psychoanalysis to Come, Robert Lapsey – Screen, Spring 2009)
It is reminiscent of many 20th century films that see the modern family as a claustrophobic trap and the urban world as cruel, such as Pasolini’s Theorem, where the modern family is saved from its bougeois preoccupations by a passing tramp.
It becomes clear in Walkabout that the protagonists all struggle with massive conflict. The father has suffered a depressive psychotic episode due to loss or work issues. He decides to go and kill himself and leave a world that has become unendurable to him and like many of these cases decides to end not only his own life but also any evidence of life he has created by killing his own children. A transgenerational trauma is about to be committed.
His attempt to murder the children fails, and they escape into the inhospitable outback. The father sets his car on fire and then shoots himself, witnessed by the girl who protects her younger brother from the sight of this trauma. The children are abandoned in an environment that is alien from their own and a reflection of the one that seems to have driven their father to suicide. The children are therefore ill-equipped psychologically, disorientated and unable to cope. Without water and food they are clearly going to die. Their helplessness in such an alien world is very powerfully evoked. Rescue does arrive, however, in the form of an Aborigine on Walkabout.
This scene reminds me of patients I have seen, exposed too early and traumatically to abuse, death and loss, who can be helped enormously by someone to assist them in finding their way around this foreign and frightening world. But as often happens in the nature of trauma, it is relentlessly re-enacted, rather than relieved. In this cycle, the erstwhile rescuer becomes part of the original trauma. This reminds me of a patient that I saw whose parents had died when she was very young, yet seemed able to transcend the tragedy of her life by getting into live relationships with successive new partners. However something seemed to kill these relationships off, leaving her alone and isolated. This reenactment of her loss protected her from a relationship that lasted and by lasting would force her to mourn her loss and bear the pain that she had hidden from her mind in the interest of survival. The constant re-experiencing of loss, maintained the trauma in her present, because the relationships like her parents were short-lived and did not confront her with anything new. Without help she was possibly doomed to renact these early experiences over and over again, as people often do who have experienced trauma. This is what Freud termed repetition compulsion.
The Aboriginal boy, the erstwhile saviour, is a young sixteen year old. He has been sent into the outback on Walkabout, where he must live for an extensive period from his own skills and survival methods handed down by his predecessors. Thus an Aborigine who has been banished to experience a Rite de Passage from his society, and two children severed from theirs, now undergo a journey of mutual initiation together. All are facing alien experiences. A basic form of communication is established between the Aborigine and the brother, and he helps them find food, water and hope after their tragedy. They are able not only to survive but begin to even appreciate aspects of their new life: they play together, enjoy each other and are creative. But this interlude is swiftly overtaken by a reenactment of the first tragedy.
The Aborigine becomes attracted to the girl. He starts a beautiful courtship ritual and dance, the most tender scene in the film, but these gentle signs of love couched in native dance only alarm the girl and he is rebuffed. He is so unable to cope with the rejection, he takes his own life. This is the second trauma and suicide brought about by one person’s exposure to an alien experience that, despite their skills in the outback, they are not equipped to cope with. There is therefore a reenactment of the father’s suicide, another experience of a failure to manage life, death and sexuality. The children, having lost yet another potential container for their anxieties about death, renew their attempts to return home and stumble upon a disused mine, destitute and alone. Finally, an adult does seem to intervene reluctantly at the end of this sequence.
The last part of the film is a reminder of the film’s opening. We are back in an urban world. Once more we see an office worker like the father returning from his insitutionalised world, while his wife is cooking them an evening meal. It is a reminder of the father’s world; the flat is familiar, but the wife is the girl grown up and this office worker – a facsimile of her father – is her husband. As the husband tells her excitedly about his promotion and pay-rise, the wife seems preoccupied. She has a flashback phantasy, an après-coup, in which she, her brother and the Aboriginal enjoy their sensual swimming together in Arcadia. The trauma has been airbrushed in her memory and is now used to escape from reality to an Eden-like dream. One recognizes this as a way of managing the trauma of the two suicides and struggle for survival, a reworking of history by repressing the pain and remembering only the pleasurable aspects. As we can see, this impacts upon her current life in that she lives in the same world her father killed himself over, and uses a phantasy from a traumatized time in her life as an idealized defence. She is still trapped both in her urban world and the idealization of her childhood experience.
The film finishes with a recitation of a poem XL from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, which laments the impossibility of returning to ‘the land of lost content’. It is about lost childhood innocence.
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
We are like these two children, on our own personal Walkabouts. We make many attempts to try to make our homes in inhospitable situations and manage life’s traumautic experienes from birth or even before birth. As Robert Lapsey says “It is a story of trying to find a form of independence from a world in which the subject experiences it as in conflict with their true selves but on which it is also dependent. It is a narrative of all our battles to survive worlds that can be at odds with what we feel our true selves to be.” So the father is unable to bear the pressures of urban life and escapes to the outback where there is no life for him at all. This is a common, often futile dream to find a new identity by changing the landscape we live in – escaping to Arcadia to avoid the urban malaise. Society provides antibiotics but the pastoral or primitive natural world can be idealised. Hence there is an equivalence between his move into a wholly alien environment and his suicide: both are attempted escapes from an internal or external world which he feels is destroying him but on which he depends.
His daughter’s exile in the outback, during which she is subjected to the relentless elements and search for food and water, are a repetition of her father’s starvation of life which he must have experienced in his restricted world. She is rescued from her alien world only to be confronted by that of the other’s frightening sexual desire. The aborigine’s sexuality is at odds with her own as yet nascent and unconscious sexuality. She repeats, in a way, her own father’s avoidant behaviour. She rejects what she perceives as the Aborigine’s openness to her sexuality and she is repelled by the apparent primal aspects of him. In this version of Beauty and the Beast the beast is killed off, so there is no reconciliation between the two sides – Beauty and the Beast, Jekyll and Hyde. The father kills himself to escape the stultifying society on which he felt overly and suffocatingly dependent and unable to contact the more primal elements of self buried under the concrete, whilst his daughter kills the boy, the primal or natural being on whom her survival has come to depend. As Robert Lapsey again says: “In rejecting the person who saved her from the annihilating natural order, she becomes the murderous social order and killer rather than the suicide.”
This also has ecological symbolism if we consider the traumatic affect of climate change, caused by Western industrialization, on Australian nature and flooding in Brisbane. “The conflict between the Aborigine who comes too close to an alien culture is signified by the ridiculous school uniforms which could not be less suited to the environmental conditions. Unable to make the girl his own, unable to find a place for himself in her social world, he, like her father, commits suicide. Exposed by the newly forged social bond to an other against whom he is defenceless, he is destroyed when he tries to overcome the distance between them. Like the father, he ends as a corpse.” Lapsey states that finally there is the girl’s second attempt to make a home for herself like us in our urban existence. Although apparently back where she belongs she has not, of course, ‘returned’. There was no home to return to: she was always already on Walkabout. Recoiling, she takes refuge in a fantasized natural/social order free of conflicts and tensions. In seeking this impossible communion, this abolition of distances in a ‘land of lost content’, she once again annihilates the other in her relationship. During her ordeal the girl longs desperately to leave the outback but, once restored to the city, wishes to return there.
After her trauma, and in response to a void in her existence (which may not of course be about where she lives – Adelaide ain’t that bad – but be a response to trauma projected onto her world, like my aforementioned patient who could not bear a relationship to work because it would remind her of what she had lost) she takes refuge in an idealized fantasy. Her ‘memory’ of the the pastoral episode in which she, her brother and the Aborigine swam together is reconstruction of reality, ‘a blue remembered hill’. It never really happened as she swam alone – captured on film, as many shots of the girl are, in a voyueristic fashion. As Lapsley says ‘The ‘land of lost content’ is a mirage, an imaginary solution to the impasses of the real.
In Walkabout the human conflict is represented in a pessimistic way that is relentlessly tragic. We are continually cut off from our true nature as a way of coping with life’s tragedies. These include the knowledge of our finiteness which many children, unlike the players in this brilliant film, are spared from if lucky enough to have stable adult care or help as in psychoanalysis. As Lapsley says ‘feeling trapped, the patient enters analysis in the hope of liberation. In the ensuing treatment the analyst does not produce a final interpretation – this does not exist – but seeks by his intervention to free the analysand from his imprisoning self-image’ And I would say to come more alive.
- David Morgan, 2011
David Morgan is a Psychoanalyst, Consultant Psychotherapist in the NHS and Director of Urban- Mind.com. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org