Far From Cloud Nine

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Silence can be eloquent. there's a scene in the new Australian film Beneath Clouds, for instance, where nothing much happens, no words are spoken, but everything is communicated. A pair of Aboriginal teenage runaways accept a lift from a gentleman farmer outside a country pub. Over the purr of his Mercedes-Benz, the characters take each other in. For prison escapee Vaughn (Damian Pitt), the farmer is the enemy, the taker of his people's land, the bringer of a disease that is killing his mother. For blond, blue-eyed Lena (Dannielle Hall), he is a savior, a reminder of the Irish father she pines and searches for. Brimming with compassion, the farmer (Arthur Dignam) realizes that a few quiet kilometers is all he can offer. Anger, hope and empathy are exchanged in a glance, differences are accepted, the journey ends.

As with Lena and Vaughn, action speaks louder than words for Beneath Clouds' writer-director, Ivan Sen. Of mixed Aboriginal and German-Hungarian parentage, Sen, 30, likes to quote the listing in his New England, New South Wales, high school yearbook: "Ivan saw all, heard all, said little." Visually lyrical and emotionally honest, Beneath Clouds speaks volumes. At the Berlin International Film Festival in February, where the movie took out awards for Best First Feature and Best Young Actress (Hall), judges lavished praise on "an outstanding work that utilizes all cinematic elements with great discipline and artistry to touch our souls." (The film opens this week's "Message Sticks" indigenous film program at the Sydney Opera House, before traveling to New Zealand in July.)

At first glance, Beneath Clouds seems almost too artful. Establishing Lena's small-town life, ruled by alcoholism and wheat silos, there are the fast-motion images of clouds, crane shots and angsty music one would expect from a star Australian Film Television & Radio School graduate. And when Lena takes to the road with Vaughn, whom she meets at a petrol station on his way to Sydney, there is a sense not so much of inevitability as of predictability: another two lost souls in search of home.

And then gradually-for Lena and Vaughn walk very slowly-something miraculous occurs. The director gets under their skin. Through huge closeups, the audience begins to experience the world through their young eyes. Know the feeling of walking into a pub and being judged by the color of your skin? Beneath Clouds puts you right into the firing line. Know what it's like to have your identity riven in two, with one foot in the white world and the other dragging behind in a black one? Beneath Clouds puts you inside Lena's head.

Photography graduate Sen has a poet's eye but also, as a fan of American directors like Oliver Stone and Michael Mann, an instinctual feel for violence. In Beneath Clouds it has the habit of creeping up on you. And when it arrives-at the end of a fist or a policeman's truncheon-it's over in a blink. Such a looming threat hardens these teenage faces like the sun, shapes and explains them, which the pitch-perfect performances of Hall and Pitt shade with sweet naturalism.

When the film's ending comes, as quickly and unexpectedly as the violence, the effect is both beautifully unforced and emotionally jolting. Farewelling Lena and Vaughn on a dusky railway platform is indescribably sad but also hopeful, as their journeys have only begun.

Unlike Phillip Noyce's recent Aboriginal road movie Rabbit-Proof Fence, Beneath Clouds has no Hollywood ending. What it says about race relations is more hard-nosed and less apologetic. You won't see posters of its picturesque protagonists on city bus shelters. Instead, its achievements should reach beyond the box office, offering a more complex view of Aboriginal Australia. Sen likes to give a university analogy: "If you call Rabbit-Proof Fence Indigenous Perspectives I," he says, "Beneath Clouds is more an elective [subject]."

For the quietly purposeful Sen, the film is a culmination of his prize-winning student shorts, one of which (1997's Tears) featured the characters of Lena and Vaughn on their road to somewhere. So will his next film offer Indigenous Perspectives II? Sen's talent is too adventurous for that. He describes his current script in development as an "fbi-ufo-Mexican-border-small-town kind of thing. It will be a thriller on the outside," he says, "but on the inside it will be about people trying to find their place in the world, looking for love and their sense of purpose in life."

Unlike the constantly searching Lena and Vaughn, the director seems to have found his. In vying for a place at aftrs in 1994, Sen wrote on his application form: "I just want to make people feel things they don't usually in their normal day-to-day lives-that's my objective." So far, so good. With Beneath Clouds, the feeling is visceral and true: what you see is what you get.