Satellite Boy (Movie review)

It’s disappointing to say the least that the new Australian film, Satellite Boy, is in very limited distribution. It was released 10 days ago, and in my city, with 6 cinema complexes, it is screening in only one. Why? It’s rather an indictment of Australian audiences that such a film is not receiving wider distribution.

Off the soapbox, now, and onto the film. Satellite Boy tells the story of Pete (Cameron Wallaby), who’s around 11 years old and who lives in an abandoned, derelict drive-in cinema on the edge of town with his grandfather, Old Jagamarra (David Gulpilil). His mother has left, but Pete is expecting her back to carry out their plan of turning the cinema into a restaurant. Meanwhile, Old Jagamarra and Pete learn that the land is to be taken over by a mining company, so Pete sets off, on bike, with his friend Kalmain (Joseph Pedley), to change the mining company’s mind. Shortly into what is supposed to be a 2-day ride, they end up on foot, walking through some pretty forbidding country. Pete confidently says to Kalmain:

If you walk country, country will look after you.

East Kimberley landscape

Between Wyndham and Kununurra

Of course, it’s not that simple. The Australian outback is a harsh place, and while indigenous Australians have traditionally lived in it, we know that Pete has not yet learnt enough to survive.  “I’m sick of your stories” he mutters at the beginning of the film as his grandfather tries to pass on knowledge. However, as indigenous director Catriona Mackenzie has said in interviews, Satellite Boy is not a realistic film.

This is an important point because, from a realism point of view, the film has holes. Firstly, for those who like accuracy in fiction, the story’s geography is out of whack. You don’t for example, travel to Kununurra from Wyndham via Purnululu (the Bungle Bungles) National Park. But then the destination is never named, so the geography only fails if you know the region. Not naming places helps McKenzie, who also wrote the script, give the film a mythic or fabular tone – and enables her to focus on country rather than place. The other “hole” is that the film does not confront, with any depth, the conflict between old and new, or the likely ramifications of Pete’s choice. Despite some hints of cultural conflict and dysfunction, particularly in Kalmain’s family, it’s not a gritty film, like, say, Samson and Delilah (my review).

Purnululu (The Bungle Bungles)

Walking in Purnululu (aka The Bungle Bungles)

And so, of course, Pete and Kalmain do make it through, albeit with some scary moments, particularly for Kalmain who doesn’t quite have Pete’s faith or knowledge (or the guiding spirit of a grandfather). Most of the film concerns their journey, which buys into both the picaresque tradition, and the “lost child” motif I’ve written about before. As the boys start to lose their way, moving deeper and deeper into forbidding landscape without food or water, the camera cuts between Pete trying to put into practice his grandfather’s lessons and Old Jagamarra, worrying, and willing them on.

At its heart, the film is a coming-of-age story, indigenous-style. It is about a young man learning about country and having to decide what it means for him. Catriona McKenzie said that

the notion of country from an Aboriginal perspective is that it supports your spirit. It sustains you on a spiritual level, as well as a physical one if you have that understanding. That’s what I was going for.

And is, I think, what she achieved.

I loved David Bridie’s music. It’s evocative and engaging, sometimes playfully toe-tapping as when the boys set off on their journey, other times moodily spiritual as when Old Jagamarra appeals to the sky spirits/ancestors to bring the boys home. That the sky and the Milky Way are important to indigenous Australians’ belief system is made clear in the film’s opening when Old Jagamara sings “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in language. This significance is reinforced when, a little later, the camera looks up from Pete’s bed to show us the ceiling decorated with star stickers – and again when, during their journey, the boys sleep in a satellite dish cradled between land and sky.

It’s a beautiful film, though also a slow one, which may be one reason why distribution is limited. Mr Gums felt the landscape photography was self-indulgent at times but, given the theme, I felt it was (mostly, anyhow) justified. The performances from the three main characters are excellent – Gulpilil is luminous, and newcomers Wallaby and Pedley are convincing.

The film was shown last year at Toronto International Film Festival. I wonder what that audience made of it. For me, it adds another perspective to the indigenous films that we are starting to see – not as tough as Samson and Delilah, not as joyful as Bran Nue Dae, but nonetheless thoughtful and relevant.

Satellite Boy
Dir: Catriona McKenzie
Prod: Satellite Films, 2012

23 thoughts on “Satellite Boy (Movie review)

  1. Oh! TIFF!!! Mum, I might be there for it this year! I wonder how many celebrities I’ll spot? I mean, movies I’ll see… 😉

    I’m finding that, more and more and more, I’m becoming attuned to the music in films, far more so than I was as a kid (musicals notwithstanding). If any of this dude’s pieces are available on youtube, I think you should send me the link 🙂

    P.S. You were hardly even on the soapbox that time! More soap! More box!

    • That’s good … Re the music I mean … For me it’s usually a very significant part of the movie. Very interesting in The Great Gatsby. You can find the soundtrack and hear snippets on iTunes.

  2. Thank you for a nice well-rounded review. I’m curious to know; is the filmmaker indigenous? Or is she a ‘white person’ romanticising the indigenous narrative? It sounds a little like a western version, but I haven’t seen the film

    • Yes, she is indigenous I believe. She also directed two of the stories in the Redfern Now tv series. It is romanticised in a way … in fact I had the word “romantic” in my draft version of this review … but she would say I think that that was her aim, not in the negative sense we often apply to the word but in the sense of being about feelings and values rather than about drama and conflict. There is some drama and conflict but these are not the focus of the film. The focus is country, and the grandfather-grandson relationship.

  3. I’d love to see this and must write down the name and do some delving. What was the Redfern Now series about? I used to walk through on the way to uni decades ago and wonder how the area is faring now.

  4. This sounds like a film that I would really like and I will put it on my list.

    In the USA it is mostly the same story with lesser known but high quality movies, they play in a few theaters but do not see wide distribution. I am actually grateful that these movies are played even in these limited venues.

    • Oh yes, I know what you mean Brian. I’ve lived in the US and it was hard getting to see smaller movies, and I know my good friend in SoCal often wants to see films I mention in our correspondence but she has to travel quite a distance to see them and so, of course, often doesn’t manage it given her other responsibilities even though she loves going to the movies. This one would probably have some resonance with Native American culture …

  5. It’s on THE LIST, thanks.
    I saw Mental the other day and really laughed a lot until the film lost its darkness and became all smoochy and damn sentimental.

  6. WG,

    Here, get back on the soapbox and join me… for that’s exactly what I’ve been saying esp. on my current post. The irony is, you have to go to big cities to see small films, or go to FF’s, which are usually held in big cities. This is the kind of films that will only be shown in FF’s, or if they find a distributor, be screened at ‘selective cities’, which doesn’t include mine, a hamlet of mere 1 million. I’m planning to go to TIFF this Sept., so, hopefully I can have my fill of ‘small’ films. 😉

    • Yes, you’re right, Arti. My city – Australia’s capital – is quite small, a bit under 350,000 I think, but we do get a pretty good coverage of smaller films, even if in only one cinema! One day I’d like to go back to the SFF or MIFF though.

  7. I so want to see this movie! But I’ve been away from Australia a long time and I don’t think it will be getting distribution in South America where I am currently travelling any time soon.

    I’m really glad to read your review to get a minimal vicarious experience, at least.

  8. Sounds like a lovely film, too bad it has such limited distribution. Why does is it seem like that’s what happens to most of the good ones?

    • Oh yes, Stefanie. I guess because it’s not adventure with lots of special effects … I suppose … or full of favourite celebrity actors (many of who are good actors – I’m not saying they’re not … but they do have pull).

  9. Well, after seeing this film last night the Mary Street crowd is with Mr Gums. A very disappointing film which just didn’t ring true at all. Surviving in the desert for a couple of days without food or water and then happening on a wide rushing river? Sorry, no. A ten year old saying to the Mum he has been yearning for that no, he wanted her to take him back to town so that he could go back to Grandpa instead? Once again, it didn’t work for us. Sorry, a rotten tomato from us …

    • Ah, you realists you! I don’t think it’s the best indigenous movie I’ve seen – and I agree that in realistic terms it doesn’t all hang together. But I don’t think she intended it to be a realistic film. The landscape sequence of the journey doesn’t fit the real landscape up there – that’s possible a clue that we are not meant to see it that way.

      But clearly, people are wanting to see it in more realistic terms and I suppose that means she hasn’t conveyed it well enough. Grandma and Grandpa Gums said Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes! Even though they realised it wasn’t “believable” realistically speaking. Talk to them!

      Thanks for commenting, Tasmanian Gums …

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