Strolling through BBC i-player late one night I encountered Warwick Thornton’s series of short films Beach: Isolation in Paradise. Compelling viewing, I struggled to place this lyrical homage to the bare beauty of the Australian west coast. As a piece of television, it sits somewhere between storytelling, escapism, survival, cookery. As a meditation on life, it refrains David Henry Thoreau’s equally genre bending ‘Walden’. There is a hut, there is water, there is nature in all its beauty, and there is the illusion of one man living off the land. But while Thoreau leads his reader to believe that he solely abides in the hut by Walden Pond through four seasons, at the end of each episode of ‘Beach’, we see Thornton departing in his fabulously antique Toyota jeep BJ – presumably to spend the night somewhere more comfortable.
During the writing of Walden, Thoreau famously spent many nights in the comfortable homes of friends and family in the nearby town of Concord, no doubt discussing ideas on how to live, with Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although there is no admission of this in the book, even when we know it to be the case, we are still willing to buy into the illusion of Thoreau’s solitary existence on Walden Pond. Equally, in Warwick Thornton’s ‘man and nature’ narrative, we never see the cameraman or the sound recordist, both of whom contribute so much to the beauty of these films. Neither do we want to acknowledge them in the moment – rather we want to believe that this Aboriginal film-maker is alone with ocean, sky, beach, wind, birds, fish. In effect the viewer stands behind the camera, looking through its view-finder at the subject, and we want to linger there a while, if only through the glass of our digital screen.
Within years of the publication of Thoreau’s evocative back to nature fantasy, Walden Pond had become a destination for pilgrims from the industrial cities of Massachusetts, bringing their quest for meaning to the place he described. As Warwick Thornton’s films gather momentum, stirring the souls of viewers across the globe, there is little doubt that would-be pilgrims are already planning their journeys to this remote corner of Australia. After being locked down in our cities, or ever-more crowded countryside, the timing of these isolation-paradise movies is impeccable. But what hooks us into these escapist dreams, these illusions, is no different today than it was in the 19th century. Like pilgrimage itself, it taps into an eternal impulse within us all. Thoreau’s own words explain it best. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life . . . and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Victoria Preston is the author of ‘We are Pilgrims’