19 May 2022

A meditation on love, land and the power of connection

Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter joined the Australian Art Orchestra on stage in concert. Picture: Bonsai Films

By Tim Kroenert 

8 March 2022

Wash My Soul in the River’s Flow (G) 

This is a difficult film to categorise. Structurally, its core is a famous 2004 concert, where Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter – husband and wife, and both legends of the Australian music scene – joined the Australian Art Orchestra on stage for a musical odyssey through their back catalogue. But it isn’t precisely a concert film. Nor is it strictly a documentary, although it is cut frequently with archival interviews with Roach and Hunter. 

More accurately, the film is a meditation on love, land and the power of connection. Hunter and Roach, both members of the stolen generations, were bonded in life and art through shared traumas, mutual inspiration and awe, a mix that was far more potent than simple romantic attachment. The stories of their pasts, and of their relationship, are told both in the songs and in the interviews. But even this doesn’t quite sum the film up. 

There is something more elemental, literally, that makes this a transcendent piece of cinema, that demands viewing on a big cinema screen. Throughout it cuts to arresting, ethereal images of the Murray River, at rest and at play on vast Australian landscapes. The river of the film’s title, a spiritual and cultural touchstone for Hunter and Roach, stands in wordless vigil over the proceedings. 

Thus director Philippa Bateman’s repurposing of the 2004 concert film makes something new and distinctive from something old. Appropriately, in this it achieves something similar to the concert itself, in which the arrangements by AAO’s Paul Grabowsky transformed Hunter and Roach’s songs. It is a testament and a tribute to the strength of the songwriting that they stand up to such sometimes radical reinterpretation. 

Take Hunter’s “Daisy Chains, String Games and Knuckle Bones”. The song views scenes of childhood through the lens of traumatic separation from family and country. Grabowsky’s arrangement wheels into an atemporal flurry, wildly underlining the song’s innate sense of displacement. Roach’s Stolen Generations anthem “Took the Children Away”, meanwhile, becomes an imperial march, oddly upbeat in contrast with its dire theme. 

Roach himself is credited as a producer on Wash My Soul in the River’s Flow, and you get the feeling this is a deeply personal project for him. Hunter died in 2010, and he too has experienced chronic ill health in recent years. In the film he recalls that Hunter remembered everything, and could even remember her time as a pelican in a past life. Mortality is an unspoken preoccupation, then, along with a certainty that physical death is not an ending. 

★★★★★

In cinemas from 10 March 2022. 

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