Madeleine Blackwell is a writer and director who has worked for decades in theatre and film in Australia and internationally. Father, her first short, screened at the Tehran International Film Festival and the Women on Women Film Festival in Sydney, and the 2003 feature So Close to Home, for which she penned the script, won a Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco Film Festival. Blackwell grew up in Adelaide and trained at NIDA. She spent five years making Damage, which premiered at the Adelaide Film Festival and will show later this month at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres. The film features two non-actors – Ali Al Jenabi, an Iraqi asylum seeker, and Blackwell’s mother, Imelda Bourke, a respected jazz singer – as a driver of a borrowed taxi and his passenger, who navigate a city in an increasingly brutal world.
Blackwell chose to speak about The Rape of the Sabine Women, a 2007 video-musical by the artist Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation. The opulent work, which references the myth of Romulus’s founding of Rome and was shot in Berlin, Athens and Hydra, reacquainted Blackwell with art as allegory and the enduring power of ideas.
Tell me, what brought you to The Rape of the Sabine Women?
I happened to be in Melbourne passing through and saw it whenever it was showing at ACMI. I was on my own both times. I went one day and went back the next day and saw it again. I would have gone a third day had it been on. I saw it almost accidentally. No one told me about it. It was the most extraordinary piece of visual art I had ever seen.
Any education at all in social theory, psychoanalytic theory, postmodern theory would make you realise that you are looking at a deconstruction of gender relations. It’s an incredibly beautiful work of art that crosses historical time. I just understood it.
I understood the world that I was brought up in during the 1950s and ’60s. I understood the inherent patriarchy within the Western canon of architecture. Architecture is something that I have always been really drawn to. Classical statues. The ancient amphitheatre where the fifth section [of Sussman’s work] was shot. From our contemporary vision, The Rape of the Sabine Women looks back and enacts certain human relationships in front of these ancient reference points. [When I saw it], my experiences made sense.
It sounds like it made you see patriarchal structures more clearly.
Absolutely. The assumption that men know everything and that they are the meaning-makers and you are the crumbs that they squabble over. So, it’s also about beauty and materialism and women as the appendage of men. And going back to The Rape of the Sabine Women, historically, the invading army needed women to breed with – so they just went into the nearby villages and they took the women that they wanted and that was it. Eve Sussman enabled us to feel connected to our history as a gendered person – not only in my lifetime but going back through antiquity.
The Rape of the Sabine Women is also built around photographic moments: beautiful 1960s women lounging around a pool or portrayed mid-battle, bodies writhing in agony. Damage is interested in Esther, an older white woman with a specific understanding of her country, and Ali, an Iraqi asylum seeker who can’t understand why she’s alone. Did Sussman’s work inspire you visually?
The Rape of the Sabine Women eschews narrative coherence, yet it is full of ideas. I am an ideas person and have huge ideas but don’t like realism. Realism tells us nothing but itself. I knew I needed to make a very cheap film compared to The Rape of the Sabine Women.
I didn’t have an art department, I didn’t have a production manager, I didn’t have a first AD [assistant director]. But I knew that inside a car, I could create a world.
Those two faces are expressive, they revealed things to me in a very blunt way. There is a depth to both of them. I wanted to create a world outside the car that sometimes breaks into this narrative of two human beings. They are not connected to that world, but that world determines their narrative. Esther says, “What’s that?”, and Ali says, “It is a camera.” She is not of the technological age and she is not a refugee, so she hasn’t been watched that way.
I also used the WikiLeaks footage “Collateral Murder”, in which journalists are murdered by American soldiers as if they are playing video games. They take no responsibility at all and they are just shooting to kill. I wanted to extend the outside so there is an everyday narrative to the film but also parts that are metanarratives, such as a rocket launch. The way those things come in show that we are not in control of the world.
There’s this sense of external forces acting on these bodies, the same way that the fate of the women in Sussman’s work is shaped by imperial structures.
They are reduced to bearing the children. I don’t find bearing children at all to be a dishonourable thing, but those men want the children. The women’s place in that is to serve those men. These are Greek tragedies. There’s this vast lens of history and classicism. But in Damage, I also wanted to look at what is going on in the world today. The only thing that we can really do is connect with each other and see what we have in common.
There’s this moment where Ali says to Esther, “You came to my country and you made a hell.” They have nothing in common in terms of their lives. That is a grand statement but, after that, she gets back into the car. The past is inside Ali’s body. He conjures his own children. He sees them. He is still possessed by the person he was when he was a father – he turns into a father again before our eyes. It is extraordinary for someone who has never acted before.
I don’t like characters to just be a psychological entity. These two characters are Beckettian. We are now entering a surveillance world that can annihilate countries with impunity and inside this car are these two Beckettian clowns that find a way to connect. It was the hardest challenge for me.
The Rape of the Sabine Women made me ask how we can break down this terrible habit we have with associating with characters, making them believable. I hate believability. They are a collection of ideas. I really want to communicate. And Damage is not so popular at all with highly educated film industry people. But a lot of members of my extended family found it really helped them to start thinking about things. I am a community artist – I am interested in communicating with art, not with the art world but with people outside it. We all need art, we need meaning.
When I wrote the script for Damage, I was working with some older women who had been working with refugees. I had a dream, woke up in the middle of the night and the dialogue was there, everything was there. I got out of bed frantically and wrote and wrote and wrote. How do you work that out? It is incredible. That’s what I love about The Rape of the Sabine Women. We are not just modern. We have these ancient people inside of us. We might have a sense of modernity, but we still have impulses and a subconscious that are unknowable.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 3, 2024 as "Madeleine Blackwell".
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