The Ghosts and Ghostliness of Tracey Moffatt's "BeDevil"

The Cinema Rediscovered festival presented a beguiling Australian film that tells Aboriginal narratives from an Aboriginal perspective.
Jessica McGoff

Jessica McGoff was a participant on this year's Film Critics Day workshop at the Cinema Rediscovered film festival in Bristol and Clevedon in the U.K., a celebration of the finest new digital restorations, contemporary classics and film print rarities from across the globe. Further examples of the writing from the workshop, as well as information about the program, can be found on the Cinema Rediscovered Blog.


Tracey Moffatt’s BeDevil (1993) is a beguiling work. Its 1993 release marked several firsts: it was Moffatt’s, a video artist and photographer by trade; her first (and only) feature film; and the first feature film to be directed by an Aboriginal woman. Despite opening in the Un Certain Regard strand of that year’s Cannes Film Festival, the film has fallen into relative obscurity since. It is rarely talked about in the canon of Australian cinema, which is both striking and frustrating, especially given the spate of films depicting Aboriginal stories that followed, that, as Jesse Thomson points out, “Often fall guilty of installing white Australians as storytellers and audience alike.”1

Moffatt’s focus on telling Aboriginal narratives from an Aboriginal perspective immediately counters the hegemonic representation of identities on screen that generally excludes Aboriginal, especially female, voices. However, BeDevil’s disruptive status goes beyond representation: its radical sensibilities are embedded in the film’s form itself. Moffatt has expressed a resistance to post-colonial readings of her work, perhaps understandable in terms of how these readings often obscure formal analysis. BeDevil is open to a reading that takes into account both form and politics, and form as politics. Through reading the notion of haunting as essential to the film’s composition, we can read both the film’s ghostly sensibilities and the presence of ghosts within the film as disruptors to the temporality of colonialism.

BeDevil presents a triptych of ghost stories: a swamp haunted by an American G.I., train-tracks haunted by the ghost of a little blind girl, and a tragic young couple who haunt the building where they died. The first story already introduces the perfect metaphor for Moffatt’s haunting-as-form. The film opens with a swamp, the camera roams around the dirty water and fallen trees menacingly, the soundtrack reminiscent of '90s slasher films: all deep synths and dark strings. This segment is primarily focalized through the character of Rick, an Aboriginal man we meet both as a child and, again, as an adult recounting his story. We learn of the American G.I. who drove his tank directly into the quicksand, and whose spirit now remains there. In Rick’s childhood, he encounters a group of men who begin work in the swamp, constructing a wooden building directly on top of the mangrove. The men build a cinema.

Literally and figuratively cementing over a haunted or troubled landscape is not only a recognizable horror trope (think of all those haunted houses built on ancient burial grounds, The Amityville Horror, 1979, for one), but also introduces a sustained focus on cinema and its mechanisms. The young Rick trespasses in the cinema, where he falls through the floor and is confronted by the ghost, who catches his legs in the water. The use of generic conventions of horror within the specific location of the cinema is pertinent—horror primarily relies on a dynamic of seeing and not seeing, and film as a medium is one based on looking. Moffatt uses horror convention to conceal what we can see, whilst simultaneously revealing it through horror-based images. The young Rick and his two sisters’ home life is troubled, but Moffatt obscures their abusive uncle by reducing him to a shadow with an inhuman bark, appearing as if a monstrous supernatural threat. We see no abuse, just the surreal image of a drainpipe running red.

The film’s narrative structure is imbued with a ghostly sense of intangibility. The film is informed by the tradition of oral storytelling, with characters often recounting their stories directly to camera. In fact, each segment is based on the “ghost stories” told to Moffatt as a child by members of her family.2 In the second segment, characters relay what they know about the local folklore of a phantom freight train.

Moffatt’s cinéma vérité style suggests an element of documentary, however a more dynamic relationship with the camera is soon established. The camera’s subjects frequently interact directly, often beckoning the camera closer, or shooing it away. Moffatt even radically undermines her faux-documentary style, calling into question the agency of the storytellers themselves. In Rick’s story, we hear from an older white woman who knew Rick as a child. As she is discussing life on the island, the camera begins to pull away. She notices and panics, attempting to follow the camera through her home. We cut to an aerial shot, the camera appearing to fly from her house, and we can see her frantically rush to her door, holding up a picture that is indistinct as she grows smaller and smaller. The camera’s departure against its subjects’ accord vividly disputes their autonomy to influence the narrative. The film is much less concrete, ghostly in its intangible and unyielding structure.

The temporality of ghosts radically clashes with the temporality of colonialism, and further disrupts its spatial stability. Ghosts suggest a return, often of something repressed or unsettled. The colonialist narrative relies on a strictly linear construction of time, in order to proclaim its myth of progress and development. In BeDevil, ghosts are tied to specific locations, and by returning to each, they puncture it as a colonialist space, rupturing its linear temporality.

If colonialism attempted to pave over the native narrative (like a cinema over a swamp), then BeDevil acts as a disruptor. Moffatt deftly uses film form, interweaving a sense of ghostliness into the film’s aesthetic and narrative fabric. The film’s form is inexorable from its politics in this way—suggesting alternate temporalities to hegemonic colonialist structures. Moffatt’s film is a like a disruptive ghost in itself, haunted and haunting with radical potentials.

1. Jesse Thomson, “Less Than (Five) Zero: BeDevil (dir. Tracey Moffatt, 1993)” 4:3, 2014.

2. Moffatt in John Conomos and Raffaele Caputo, “BeDevil: Tracey Moffatt.” Cinema Papers, vol. 93, 1993.

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