Sydney Festival review: The Tracker

25 January 2011

A Night at the Quad, part of the Sydney Festival 2011.
A Night at the Quad, part of the Sydney Festival 2011.

If this night was anything to go by, the Sydney Festival's series A Night at the Quad has been a resounding success.

The audience was undeniably disappointed to hear of Archie Roach's cancellation to perform before the film The Tracker citing personal reasons. But this disappointment was mitigated by a brief appearance instead by the legendary Jimmy Little, who stood in at short notice.

This might have been compensation enough, had it not been for another stand-in in the form of the less well-known Aboriginal singer, Emma Donovan, who stirred hearts with her cover version of Midnight Oil's seminal 1986 track The Dead Heart.

This song's poignant lyrics concerning the dispossession of Australia's Aboriginal people - "White man came took everything" - struck a chord of irony as the words and melody permeated the atmosphere amid the sandstone walls of the Quadrangle, the University of Sydney's definitive piece of architecture, and triumph of colonialism.

As the crowd spread itself across the manicured lawns - on land traditionally owned by the Cadigal people of the Eora Nation - the looming Clock Tower stood majestic against the darkening sky. Shadows played on the yellow stones as the sun shed its final rays.

Brooding storm clouds overhead fortuitously held back their drops, making the orange plastic ponchos handed out by Sydney Festival staff redundant.

Following on thematically from Emma Donovan, when the screen in front of the Great Hall lit up with Rolf de Heer's award-winning film The Tracker, it also came laden with excoriating critique about Australia's white supremacist history.

It stars David Gulpilil as an Aboriginal tracker and Gary Sweet as a cruel and destructive policeman. As part of the spectacle of the night Sweet's character ends up swinging by the neck from a tree, chiaroscuro and backlit by a gigantic full moon filling the entire screen.

In interview before the film Rolf de Heer explained how the great Archie Roach's music and vocals gave his film the gravitas and mood it needed and we again feel our hearts heavy with disappointment that he could not be here.

Ostensibly an exploration of the relationship between music and film, the juxtaposition of film, music and venue has also lent itself well to interpretation and makes the most of a wonderful collaboration between the University and the Sydney Festival, showing at once both the great university tradition of intellectual freedom, and also the power of the arts to make potent statements of political intent.

Visit our special Sydney Festival 2011 website

Media enquiries: Jacqueline Chowns, 9036 5404, 0434 605 018,