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Black River (1993)

Here's a funny thing. Clocking at just under an hour, with a through-composed opera score and a lot of symbolic and / or surrealist action, it's hard to know whether to classify this as a feature film, an extended high art music video or a weird experiment in multi-media mutation. In a storm-lashed corner of the Australian backwoods, a Judge (John Pringle), on a fact-finding mission to investigate racial tension, is stranded by terrible weather and has to put up, with his shrilly soprano assistant, in a small-town jail. Also on hand are a drunken bigot, spending a night in the cells for disturbing the police, a pragmatic copper, who just wants peace and quiet and everybody happy, and Miriam (Maroochy Barambah), an embittered aboriginal with a sad history and an incredible voice.

We get a scattering of enigmatic flashbacks, especially when Miriam is recounting (in song) the dirty deal her entire family has got from white men through the years. Just now she's upset because her son, jailed after being beaten up by the bigot, has either hanged himself or been murdered in a cell. As Miriam's singing gets more ominous and everyone else shows signs of being pretty frightened, the movie takes a left turn into horror territory with the appearance of the ghosts of centuries' worth of murdered aboriginals. In a conventional film, the apparitions might teach the whites a lesson by ripping their gust out, but here we just get mud-covered naked women doing a superimposed interpretational dance.

With a dramatic but somewhat grating score by Andrew Schultz (it all sounds like singspiel without proper arias) and a thin book by Julianne Schultz, this has obviously been conceived as an opera on film. It looks terrific: with the crescendo of stormy weather and panicking characters orchestrated wonderfully through effective lighting and rain effects. If it's just a curiosity, it's mainly down to the fairly impenetrable story elements and the competent but hardly outstanding musical accompaniment. Directed by Kevin Lucas.

First Published In: Empire (issue unknown)

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