Within the earth’s archive: ‘Mystery Road’

By Laleen Jayamanne
Detective Jay Swan offers new possibilities for Australian screen culture

Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan and Jada Alberts as Fran Davis in season two of Mystery Road

Director Ivan Sen was just 19 years old when the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its final report in 1991. It highlighted the significant over-representation of Indigenous people in custody and recommended the employment of more Indigenous police officers. Importantly, it also added that particular attention should be paid to the recruitment of Indigenous women officers. Sen responded imaginatively to this profound historical moment by creating Aboriginal detective Jay Swan, who strides into Australian cinema history in the two films Mystery Road (2013) and Goldstone (2016), and has most recently been seen on screens in two seasons of a TV series also called Mystery Road. Actor Aaron Pedersen collaborated with Sen to produce this black detective whose genealogy is hybrid. Pedersen, while sitting alongside Sen, once said:

I’ve modelled [Swan] half on Ivan and half on me, I’m more the conversation and you’re all the silences, Ivan. His silences are incredible, empowering. I feel like I’m working with an elder.

This daring hybrid character also suggests a resemblance to John Wayne. Pedersen, as Detective Swan, recalls Wayne’s physicality – not only in his silhouette with (straw) cowboy hat, boots, and leather belt and gun holster slung across his hips, but also in his weight, stance and walk, his taciturnity. Swan’s squint-eyed gaze is attuned to observing the wide Australian landscape. He has an eye for detail essential for detection, and a mind that can grasp the big picture.

Swan is not, though, the kind of American Western hero who is a law unto himself. He is a professional, a detective working within the criminal justice system, which is guided by “white law”. The creation of both Jay Swan and, later, constable Fran Davis, the Indigenous cop who appears in the second season of the TV series, is a radical move within the history of Australian cinema. An anachronistic aspect of Indigenous customary law has a spectral presence throughout the Mystery Road project, and both Swan and Davis tread the thin blue line between the two laws with skill. Jay Swan is becoming an iconic Indigenous Australian cinematic persona, a counterpoint to David Gulpilil’s many roles as a tracker and tribal elder. Sen has said that he views his police detective as a modern rewriting of the colonial tracker. The persona Gulpilil embodies in his roles is rather more spiritual, with a light footprint, while Pedersen’s is more sexually charged, introspective but not narcissistic – suggesting, as one critic put it, “great strength and great sorrow”.

Together, they offer two powerful, complex images of Indigenous masculinity, agency and magnetism on film. Only two others come to mind: Robert Tudawali as Marbuck, in Charles Chauvel’s 1955 film Jedda, and Jimmy Little’s performance in Tracey Moffatt’s Night Cries, from 1990. Am I allowed then to think of John Wayne in this context? Sen again:

I really consciously wanted to allow an audience to have these [genre] elements but to not have that forced [Hollywood] manipulation. Having that space, and very little music, and a bit of time to really walk in the shoes of the character – something we don’t really get to do a lot of in genre territory.

Here, Sen is talking about the importance of rhythm in his films, how it modulates what we can see, feel and think. Sensitivity to rhythm suggests unforeseen lateral connections.

Gulpilil and Pedersen appear together in vital sequences in Goldstone. Local Aboriginal elder Jimmy (played by Gulpilil) is walking on the road wearing jeans and a bright red buttoned-up shirt and hat. When Swan sees him and gives him a ride in his jeep, something like a process of initiation takes place. A bird hits the windscreen and Jimmy talks, with a sense of wonder, of how birds find water even in the desert, and they discuss how Swan’s father was taken away from his family and grew up in an institution. And, as they talk, time moves into a generational past and it expands into another dimension entirely when Jimmy takes Swan to a sacred site. He chants while rowing Swan on a paperbark canoe through a magnificent gorge, and then shows him the hand imprints and small white figures painted on the rock face. No words are spoken, but Jimmy becomes a profound mediator, transmitting knowledge across generations by subtly awakening an emotional connection to a tradition based on a vast immemorial time. I am reminded immediately of what transpired at VGIK, the Russian film school, where students experienced a certain Soviet film pedagogy as an intergenerational “transmission of the secret”. This took the form of an invitation, given by the great director Mikhail Romm to his students (including Andrei Tarkovsky), to “traverse through one’s darkness” so as to find a way of “speaking” through film within the repressive Soviet State, which routinely censored filmmakers and sometimes even imprisoned them for years.

The fortuitous meeting with Jimmy on the road happens at a critical moment for both characters. Jimmy has, in protest, silently walked out of an important meeting between the Indigenous land council and the mining company (both corrupt), in which they were seeking to ratify a shady deal. Swan, meanwhile, is at his most vulnerable: he is broken by the emotional toll of his job as well as the related breakup of his family. The exchange between the two characters can also be read as a transmission of knowledge from a great actor (and dancer), to a younger one who offers new possibilities for Australian cinema. The grandfather of Australian cinema, Gulpilil has shaped the national film industry, particularly through his first screen appearance as a vibrant young boy undergoing his initiation in the desert, in Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 film Walkabout, in which he rescues two lost white children.

The lost child is a recurrent motif in the white Australian cultural imagination, dating from the early 19th century. According to Peter Pierce in his book The Country of Lost Children: An Australian Anxiety, tales of lost children provided a way of expressing the anxieties and traumas of a white settler community living in a land that was seen as foreign and hostile. This narrative motif galvanised the public – and it continues to do so. In stark contrast, the impulse that drives Detective Swan in Mystery Road is a sense of outrage that even the police are indifferent to solving the case of a missing Aboriginal girl. “Missing”, in this context, is an impersonal legal category, while the motif of the lost (white) child is saturated with an existential pathos and sense of drama that reaches back to European fairytales.

In each of the Mystery Road films and in the TV series, there are searches for missing youngsters. In the 2013 film, for example, Swan is investigating the death of Julie Mason, an Aboriginal girl whose mutilated body is found under a culvert of a highway truck route. Even basic police procedures are not followed when the crime scene is found. But Swan contains the anger coiling within him and goes about quietly investigating the case. Sen, whose own family has experienced similar loss, says it is not uncommon in the outback for cops to show no interest in investigating the disappearance of black girls. He says that if a white girl went missing, or had died such a violent death, the response from the white media and the police force would be different. So the Mystery Road project gathers together a formidable group of Indigenous directors alongside Sen (Rachel Perkins directs season one, and Wayne Blair and Warwick Thornton direct season two), as well as actors, technical crew and collaborative non-Indigenous folk, who mount a collective “investigation” into a manifold Australian reality folded within the earth’s archive.

In the television series, each season presents a female cop alongside Pederson’s Jay Swan: Judy Davis portrays hard-boiled senior sergeant Emma James, a white cop, in the first season, and in season two Jada Alberts plays the show’s first Indigenous female cop, Fran Davis. A rookie, Davis is mentored (in a fashion) by Swan, but this process evolves only obliquely. In season two of the TV series, Swan investigates a murder linked to a major international drug trade with possible police involvement in the fictional town of Gideon, near Broome. Davis, while performing her daily duties, also searches for two missing Aboriginal children, both cold cases. While her investigative skills are sharp, her emotional reserves are drained upon hearing conflicting accounts of the missing girl’s troubled life in the community. The indifference, this time, is not only coming from the white police, which comes as a shock to Davis. An interaction between the local bartender (who is both Indigenous and gay) and the older white police sergeant offers surprises, meanwhile a European female archaeologist’s finds are used to stage a debate (perhaps a little too schematically), about archaeology’s intellectual responsibility to Indigenous communities, and the colonial and postcolonial practices of the discipline. The abrasiveness and emotional intensity of the archaeologist’s argument with the local pastor starkly presents what an ethics of care and generosity might look like between a man of God and a progressive intellectual. And a stirring performance of Amazing Grace by Ursula Yovich as Pansy is certainly a high point of the series.

The importance of traditional law is often underlined in the Mystery Road project, but it is also debated and challenged, particularly in the way that polygamy and customary corporal punishment are approached in the show’s second season. When customary law and the justice system clash, Davis’s authoritative response is, “It’s not our culture, that’s murder!” These dramatically staged debates help me understand the complex, historically evolving relationship between Aboriginal customary law (based on intricate structures of kinship, tradition and culture) and the Australian legal system. Davis, as an enforcer of the latter with a lived understanding of the former offers a form of reason that is able to differentiate between, on one hand, an apparently immutable traditional customary law that is invoked to justify arbitrary violence, and, on the other hand, the logic of the law that she lives by and enforces in order to protect what she calls “our culture”. That all of this and much more has been broached within the genre of a TV police procedural – albeit one that’s a spin-off from two more expansive films – augurs well for Australian screen culture.

It doesn’t appear to be coincidental that Cornel Ozies’s documentary Our Law, about Indigenous policing in the outback, is appearing just now on our screens. It is a timely release, both in the context of the Mystery Road project, and in the wider political context of the continuing call to address police violence towards Aboriginal people, alongside the global Black Lives Matter movement. The principles and ethos of Indigenous policing documented in Our Law are among those presented dramatically and thrillingly through the roles of Swan and Davis. The dialogue in season two, as with the language captured in Our Law, has an idiomatic edge, with a sense of rhythm, bite and wit that is new to my ears. My favourite piece of dialogue is Swan’s throwaway line when a suspect aims an insult below the belt: “Are you trying to hurt my feelings?” Whether documentary or fiction, this body of work dealing with Indigenous policing serves to revive and create anew the idea of political cinema that was so vibrant and inventive in the 1960s. Within this film tradition – which goes back to the Soviet experiments of the 1920s and which links to social and political movements – aesthetic inventiveness is an integral part of its politics.

Throughout the Mystery Road project, an aerial view is presented intermittently, suggesting a visual link to certain Aboriginal painting styles. I want to suggest a way of thinking about the nature of these unique aerial shots, which are filmed using a drone. One might observe the difference between these shots and the familiar terrestrial modes of envisioning space. One might ask how the aerial shots determine our mode of perceiving them. Does it relax our eyes and so the brain, enabling us to scan the image and then take it in as a whole? How does it play with the recognition proper to perceiving space within the rules of linear perspective? In one shot, for example, I saw a grid-like pattern with little brown shapes clustered together, which, when viewed at ground level, turned out to be paddocks containing cattle, tightly packed together prior to slaughter.

But beyond anthropocentric identification, these aerial shots – especially those of nature – offer a cosmos-centric vision without clear subject–object relations. The human scale is decentred in favour of a more ample, deeper vision of the earth and its existence before the human age. Music is used sparsely in Goldstone, and instead we hear natural sounds and silence. The cosmos-centric shot, its aesthetic, is something of a collective mode of perceiving that is unique to this project, but it is varied by each new director. It is, in a sense, akin to Spike Lee’s signature shots where he mounts actors on a moving dolly, making them float towards the viewer even while they talk to each other or address the camera directly. This kind of framing refreshes the senses and offers a capacity to think, slightly detaching the viewer from the usual rhythms of a police procedural. Indigenous ways of observing and inhabiting the earth permeate the Mystery Road project, which imbues the camera itself with unique powers.

The exhilarating finale of Mystery Road’s second season takes place on a magnificent clifftop. It’s close to dusk and the light is soft, and Davis is looking out to the ocean. For the first time, we see her in civilian clothes – a checked coloured shirt and jeans – and she has let down her hair. Swan walks up to her, gives her a cowboy hat just like his own, and inquires after her. She then puts on the hat, to which he responds, “Now you are a real cop”. As Swan departs, turning around to look at her one last time, she adjusts the hat just so, while a joyous, relaxed smile breaks out on her face – and on Swan’s too, for what feels like the first time in the whole series. There is a sense of a very light transference of energies – what I think of as a mentor acknowledging and celebrating the rite of passage of a rookie, his mate. Davis’s small body is reframed in a powerful close-up silhouette, her profile now changed by the angled hat, and when the camera pulls out and away it leaves her standing at the edge of a mighty red cliff overlooking the wide Indian Ocean.

Laleen Jayamanne

Laleen Jayamanne taught cinema studies at the University of Sydney between 1990 and 2014. She wrote “A Sri Lankan reading of Tracey Moffatt’s Night Cries” in 1991 and has written on Ryan Coogler’s blockbuster Black Panther.

Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan and Jada Alberts as Fran Davis in season two of Mystery Road

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