“Aboriginal and Torre Strait Islander viewers should exercise caution when watching this film as it may contain images and voices of deceased persons.”
If Tracks is not he first film ever made to contain a “trigger warning” alerting Australian aboriginals to a dramatic recreation of people who might have already died, it’s the first one I’ve ever seen. The “deceased person,” the father of the explorer Robin Davidson, who appears to her periodically through her one-women trek across the Australian desert, is not portrayed as an obviously malevolent ghost. But he is. The more the heroine of Tracks tests herself against the pitiless heat, distances, and isolation, the more the memory of her mother and father puts her life at risk.
When Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska), a 27-year-old woman from an educated, middle-class family, moves to Alice Springs, a frontier town in the Northern Territory, she has a plan. Sick of the malaise of her “class, generation, and sex,” she intends to train three wild camels to carry her gear and her belongings, then simply walk to the Indian Ocean. Why? “Why not?” she answers.
Needless to say, training three wild camels, is a daunting proposition. Camel wrangling isn’t something they teach in girl’s schools, even in Australia. Davidson, however, is a particularly determined young woman. She couldn’t care less about physical comfort, money, possessions, or conforming to society’s expectations. She apprentices herself to two ranch owners, doing free menial labor in exchange for the three camels. The first ranch owner, a surly German immigrant, cheats her out of her wages. The second, an Afghan immigrant, is an honorable man. He not only gives her the camel he promised her. He teaches an important lesson that will later save her life. Davidson, unlike Chris McCandless from Sean Penn’s film Into the Wild, is well-prepared when she begins her journey into the wilderness. But she still needs money.
Eventually, on the strength of her letters, National Geographic agrees to stake her to $4000, quite a bit of money in 1977 for an unknown young woman with a plan most people considered suicidal. But it’s not that simple. Davidson may have got the $4000 dollars based on her literary ability, but it comes with a catch, a photographer named Rick Smolan, Adam Driver from the TV show Girls. Smolan is a likable enough guy, but he’s also a talkative sort, not really compatible with prickly loner like Davidson. Davidson hates being photographed. What’s more, Smolan falls in love with Davidson, so his gaze is not only invasive and objectifying, it’s sexual, invasive, and objectifying. While it’s true Davidson does like Smolan enough to sleep with him — he does drive 1000 miles out of his way to make sure she has enough water to finish her trip alive after all — she doesn’t want him “framing” her trip with his camera.
Photography, an art form that was born during the industrial revolution, has also, paradoxically, been associated with the wilderness. Some of the greatest photographs ever taken, Ansel Adams’ portraits of Denali and Yosemite, Galen Rowell’s photos of Tibet, were taken by men who considered themselves outdoorsmen first, photographers second. What’s more Davidson, and Mia Wasikowska — who’s the daughter of a Polish photojournalist — are well aware of the contradictions. Half the reason for Davidson’s cranky personality, as least as played in the film, comes from her awareness that as badly as she wants to get away from civilization, she knows she can’t. As Smolan says, it’s the eternal problem for explorers. In order to get out into the wilderness, you need money. In order to get money, you need connections.
What’s more, in order to enjoy Tracks, a fairly slow moving film, you need to enjoy looking at two things, Mia Wasikowska and camels, neither of whom is native to Australia. As Davidson explains, there would be no wild camels in Australia had it not been for the British Empire, which imported them into Australia before it’s system of railroads had been built. That they thrived in the Australian desert when they were no longer needed, became, is part of the paradox. The camels are the best possible way for Davidson to escape civilization. But the only reason they live in Australia is civilization.
Davidson, in effect, becomes, through her trek, a native Australian, a white aborigine. But she’s also a colonizer. Wasikowska, a dead ringer for Davidson. In spite of her decidedly non-Anglo-Saxon name, she looks stereotypically English. Dressed in white, or in flannels, with her sun-bleached hair and pale, then sunburned skin, she summons up the image of the British Raj in India. The movie goer becomes Rich Smolan, the photographer who annoys the hell out of her. Don’t photograph me. Stop looking at me. Don’t objectify me. But how can you not? Convince yourself she’s not beautiful? Walk out of the movie? Start a Twitter hash tag calling for the cancellation of the white girl “appropriating aboriginal culture.” Obviously not. The act of watching a film means to objectify.
Into the Wild’s Chris McCandless made no attempt to prepare for his journey, to train himself to survive in the wilderness. He saw going to Alaska as living out a dream he read about in Tolstoy and Thoreau. And he died, alone. The last image we have of McCandless is a selfie. There was no Rich Smolan to bring him water or take his photograph. The only way to leave society completely is to die.
Tracks, a far more progressive and anti-racist film than Into the Wild, is redeemed from being yet another ode to English pluck and grit by the way Davidson survives. She may resent Smolan’s pretense and consider herself a loner who hates people, but she genuinely respects the aboriginals. Indeed, Davidson flees to the wilderness to escape her, bad, white parents. She survives because of good, non-white surrogate parents. Davidson’s mother hanged herself when she was a little girl. She’s haunted by the memories. Davidson’s father, for reasons its difficult to guess at, had her dog euthanized after her mother’s death. As Davidson goes deeper and deeper into the desert, becoming, in effect, more aboriginal than English, she also becomes more vulnerable to the images of her dead parents, those very images the “trigger warning” at the beginning of the film warned Aboriginal Australians about. Her most faithful companion in the desert is her dog, Diggity. When Diggity finds a can of Strychnine hundreds of miles away from where a can of Strychnine should be, and dies, Davidson loses her mind. Diggity’s death triggers the memories of her parents she came into the desert to escape. She walks around without her clothes. A huge snake coils itself around her neck when she’s asleep. The journey starts to become a nightmare. Nevertheless, the lessons she learned from the Afghan camel herder, and an aboriginal elder who briefly serves as her guide through a forbidden sacred landscape, help her survive. “If you see a charging bull, camel, just shoot him,” the camel herder tells her, “don’t hesitate.” The aboriginal elder warns her not to butcher a dead kangaroo. It’s forbidden to women, a sexist reason, certainly, but one that saves her life at the end of the film when she attempts to eat the rotting, and surely poisonous, carcass of a long dead kangaroo. She’s internalized the elder’s warning so well she pulls back at the last moment.
By the end of the film, Davidson has exorcised her demons. She can admit she’s glad to see Smolan. She needs people. She needs society. She reaches the Indian Ocean. Thálatta! Thálatta! Θάλαττα! Θάλαττα! The sea! The sea! She dives into the water, a joyous expression on her face. Chris McCandess would die in the Alaskan wildness, his only monuments an abandoned bus, a selfie, and a book written by someone else. Davidson would go onto write her own book, to tell her own story.