14 July 2014

TRACKS: The Book and the Film

Last September I had the pleasure of seeing, at the Toronto International Film Festival, the feature-length movie "Tracks" based on the book of the same name by Robyn Davidson.[1] Just having viewed the film for a second time, I appreciated the cinematography even more, if possible. Mia Wasikowska does a great job portraying Robyn Davidson, the determined woman on a true-story mad adventure across 1,700 miles of lonely, difficult terrain.

A few years ago, a chance reference to the book Tracks made me itch with impatience for my very own copy to arrive. A crazy woman walking across the vast Australian outback desert? With camels as companions? Certainly captured my imagination. Even then, in 1977, the antipodean continent was beginning to experience the explosion of feral camels that thrive in the desert.

What Davidson did was learn how to train some feral camels as pack animals. The camels carried essential supplies that had to be supplemented by wild plants and game. The preparation took two years of enormous physical work. Accepting a come-lately offer from National Geographic caused her much ambivalence: she needed money for provisions but hated the notion of public exposure. She didn't want to share her personal journey while it was happening.

Obviously Davidson lived to tell the tale the superbly written tale. I was not prepared for the exceptional writing skill; the humour; the fits of self-examination; the immediacies of survival that transport the reader right into the grit and sweat of her days. Her four camels quickly became individual personalities.

Her first thoughts after agreeing to allow photography at certain points:
Suddenly it seemed as if this trip belonged to everybody except me. Never mind, I said. When you leave Alice Springs [to begin] it will all be over. No more loved ones to care about, no more ties, no more duties, no more people needing you to be one thing or another, no more conundrums, no more politics, just you and the desert, baby. And so I pushed it all down into the dim recesses of my mind, there to fester and grow like botulism. (105)

The journey itself took nine months from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. Along the way her communion became near-perfect with her animal companions, the Aborigines, and the astonishingly diverse landscape. This is not to say she didn't go mad and panic at times. Or get lost. Or lose her gun. Or lose the camels, the worst fear of all in empty country. Threats to her animals from predators meant she had to use the gun. Their care and feeding was paramount through sand, rain, mud, rocks, canyons, wadis, insects, snakes, and above all a scorching sun. Avoiding the occasional curious passerby was easier than fending off the penultimate publicity she so did not want.
 What was the journey really about? The few excerpts here hint at the internal journey Davidson freely expresses and ultimately felt was successful. Her dog and her camels sustained any need for companionship as she shed the stresses of modern life. Any reader with the slightest sensitivity is drawn into her awakening existential freedom.

On eventually allowing "social custom" to fall away:
On the one hand, I didn't want to be anywhere but in this desert and on my own; on the other, I was running very low on food, my last meal before I got there being dog-biscuits liberally laced with custard powder, sugar, milk and water. And I was nervous about seeing people again. By now I was utterly deprogrammed. I walked along naked usually, clothes being not only putrid but unnecessary. My skin had been baked a deep terra-cotta brown and was the constituency of harness leather. The sun no longer penetrated it. (211-212)

On achieving her goal:
I had discovered capabilities and strengths I would not have imagined possible in those distant dream-like days before the trip. ... That to be free one needs constant and unrelenting vigilance over one's weaknesses. A vigilance which requires a moral energy most of us are incapable of manufacturing. We relax back into the moulds of habit. They are secure, they bind us and keep us contained at the expense of freedom. ... To be free is to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble. It is not safe. I had learnt to use my fears as stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks, and best of all I had learnt to laugh. (222)

Reference to the abysmal plight of the Aborigines was inevitable; Davidson was crossing a great deal of reservation land. Encounters with their settlements and one particular elder who voluntarily accompanied her for several days mid-trip provide some of the most vivid moments. As she struggled with the Pitjanjara language, there is more about Aboriginal linkage to their always shrinking Land and the energies left on earth by their dream-heroes. All the more poignant her: "The Aborigines do not have much time. They are dying."

Tracks is one crazy, chilling, joyful, hair-raising, inspiring story, completely full of life, courage, despair, and love.

Stacking up a movie against the book it was based on is probably a fool's exercise. But we do it anyway, don't we? Both portray the story of a personal challenge, an extreme way to "find" oneself.

The film "Tracks" is gorgeous Australian landscape at its best, and Wasikowska fits the part perfectly. It gives more time and space to the NatGeo photographer than he warrants in the book. I would not have chosen the nerdy Adam Driver to play the part, but no-one asked me. Was John Cusack not available?! The "bit" parts are done by wonderful Oz character actors.

What's lacking, of course, is Davidson's rich prose and memorable insights, although her approval of the production was sought and given. We seem to get little idea of her motivation, with a couple of somewhat confusing scenes of family and friends seeing her off. Those vivid moments in the rich depth of her association with Charlie, the Aboriginal, get scant attention.

Wasikowska, co-star Driver, and director John Curran made a brief appearance on stage before the screening at the Film Festival. None of the camels showed up.

Davidson at the 2013 Adelaide Film Festival
photo: 1233 ABC Newcastle, New South Wales
Robyn Davidson is a prolific writer of further travel adventures around the globe. Her thoughts on the movie are given here. 

[1] Robyn Davidson, Tracks (1980; reprint, USA: First Vintage Books, 1995).

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman. All rights reserved.

No comments: