Urban Native Mag
October 24, 2013
Mystery Road (2013) is an incredible work from Australia directed by Ivan Sen. It was the opening night film at this year’s imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival. I was also privileged to see it at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Sen infuses his Indigenous flavour into this crime film that takes the viewer on a slow burn that explodes in the end with a classic western style shoot out.
Ivan Sen was the writer, director, cinematographer and editor. That’s not the end of his credits, Sen also adds music to the list. It reminds me of Canada’s own Métis filmmaker Shane Belcourt. Keeping his hand on all of the buttons Sen was able to create a piece that walks the line of a straight up genre film but also navigates around issues that translate universally for the Indigenous experience.
Aboriginal women are found murdered as an Indigenous detective played by Aaron Pedersen investigates. Pedersen’s character Jay Swan left his community to pursue policing and has since returned for this big case. Racism runs rampant throughout the film as Swan has to find the balance between solving murders, doing his job as a police officer and living inside of a community dealing with many issues.
One of the reasons this film fascinates me so much is how the writer/director Ivan Sen handles the outright racism experienced by the main character, Detective Jay Swan. Swan is an Aboriginal man with a brown face. The local police captain, Swan’s boss, does not seem too concerned that an Aboriginal woman has been found brutally murdered. A local rancher is more concerned that thieves, “with their little ‘black’ hands” have been stealing everything on his ranch. A security guard at the grocery store watches Swan with a close eye so he doesn’t steal anything. The rancher’s son threatens to shoot Swan with the same ease that he shoots kangaroos.
The other interesting theme of the film is the communities’ relationship with Swan. Swan left for a long time to get sober and to become a detective. Now he has to deal with community members in his search for the truth of what happened to the murdered women. Many of the people won’t even speak to him because he is now ‘working for the other side’ – the police department and they no longer trust him. I have experienced this myself because I too went away for school and a career, and while I still maintain connections with my home community but I know that I will always be seen as both outsider and insider. Swan understands how to best negotiate getting information from people in the Aboriginal community while maintain a responsibility to them.
The dialogue on racism and the treatment of Aboriginal people has been a core theme in art, film, music, literature and theatre since colonization. It will continue to be so until attitudes change and people are treated equally. Ivan Sen has created a beautiful film that attempts to continue this dialogue in a more open way. I look forward to seeing future works from this brilliant filmmaker.