Berlin Film Review: ‘The Darkside’

Warwick Thornton's collection of spiritually themed vignettes is alternately unsettling, poignant and slyly funny.

With:
Lynette Narkle, Merwez Whaleboat, Sacha Horler, Jack Charles, Deborah Mailman, Bryan Brown, Claudia Karvan, Aaron Pederson, Shari Sebbens.

Actors recount authentic stories of crossover between this world and the indigenous spirit realm in the unique and atmospheric docudrama hybrid “The Darkside.” The latest work from multihyphenate filmmaker Warwick Thornton (“Samson and Delilah”), this collection of short vignettes is an alternately unsettling, poignant and slyly funny calling card for a larger online/broadcast project that gathers such stories from the Aboriginal population. Result will be an across-the-board festival favorite and could walk into the light of specialty genre distribution.

It helps going in to know that the indigenous culture not only cherishes a rich oral storytelling tradition, but also believes in a world beyond this one, where spirits of the departed can grow restlessly malicious if their pictures are shown and return to wreak havoc. (Due to the dissemination of photographs and films of Aboriginals over the past 40 years or so, warnings like the one here now appear in the front of such films and TV shows: “Aboriginals and Torres Straits islanders are advised that there are images of the dead and deceased in this motion picture.”)

Thornton advertised for true ghost stories in indigenous papers, receiving more than 150 tales from Aboriginals and whites alike. Selecting ones that spoke to him, he cast and filmed the monologues for an online project called theotherside.com and decided to release 13 of them in feature form (it’s an ongoing project, with future assemblages to air as a series on Australian public broadcaster ABC).

Each segment is named after the person who submitted it: “Delise,” “Sharon,” “Graham,” “Naomi,” etc. Filmed mostly in static medium shots, the tellers of these tales sit largely motionless as they recount stories the dead — usually family members — who return with varying degrees of terror, distress and even absurdity. Thornton himself is the offscreen interlocutor, conversing with his subjects and offering the occasional encouragement (“yeah, yeah” being a favorite). The cumulative effect is seductive and evocative: radio with pictures. And beautiful pictures they are, with filming on various Sydney locations benefitting from d.p. Thornton’s crisp digital colors and keen eye for composition (he also photographed “The Sapphires”).

Berlin Film Review: 'The Darkside'

Reviewed on DVD, Nov. 1, 2013, Sydney. (In Berlin Film Festival — Forum; 2013 Adelaide Film Festival.) Running time: 91 MIN.

Production: (Australia) A Transmission Films release of a Screen Australia, Australian Broadcasting Corp., Adelaide Film Festival, Scarlett Pictures presentation of a Scarlett Pictures production. (International sales: Artscope/Memento Films, Paris). Produced by Kath Shelper.

Crew: Directed by Warwick Thornton. Camera (color, widescreen), Thornton; editor, Roland Gallois; production designer, Annie Beachamp; art director, Bethany Ryan; costume designer, Beauchamp; sound, David Tranter, Mark Cornish, Mark Manolis; sound designer, Liam Egan; casting, Anousha Zarkesh.

With: Lynette Narkle, Merwez Whaleboat, Sacha Horler, Jack Charles, Deborah Mailman, Bryan Brown, Claudia Karvan, Aaron Pederson, Shari Sebbens.

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