Communicative English class about Australia and desert survival based around clips from Nick Roeg’s Walkabout
A film I have returned to a number of times in my teaching is Nick Roeg’s Walkabout. Although unashamedly art-house, my students – both adults and teens – have responded well to it, the emphasis on the visual and non-verbal making it rich in potential for description and speculation. It also seems a fitting to post an article about the maverick British director as he died at the end of last year, leaving behind a small but beguilingly strange back catalogue, most of which dates from the 1970s.
Walkabout‘s value resides in its ability to evoke, through mostly visual means, a wide range of issues – as Roger Ebert thoughtfully sets out in his review – from the fragility of civilisation and the emptiness of materialism to the destructive power of failing to communicate human desire. It is a troubling, thought-provoking work, surely the equal of Roeg’s much better-known pyschological thriller Don’t Look Now (1973).
Clips from the film work well as a platform from which to explore a number of ideas, from uniforms & uniformity to notions of Australian geography, society and history. Roeg was unabashedly experimental in his use of editing – evident from his breakthrough work Performance (1970), co-directed with Donald Cammell – which seemed to purposefully subvert narrative time. It is also evident in the first two clips from the beginning of the film which set the scene for the protagonists’ eponymous walkabout, their abandonment in the Australian wilderness by their suicidal father.
Warm-up – brainstorm
Generally the warm-up that works best in relation to Walkabout is a brainstorm about Australia. Rather than soliciting a list of words, I ask the students to discuss what the country means to them. The question might be “when you think of Australia, what comes into your mind?”. More often than not, the range of responses includes the country’s inhospitable “outback”, unusual wildlife, cosmopolitan modern cities and Aboriginal people. The more than you can elicit around these themes, the better.
Tell the students they are going to watch the opening scenes of a (strange!) film about Australia. First of all I stop the clip on the text that introduces the film. Allow students to read it and explain in groups what they think it means and what they think will happen in the film:
In Australia, when an Aborigine man-child reaches sixteen, he is sent out into the land. For months he must live from it. Sleep on it. Eat of its fruit and flesh. Stay alive. Even if it means killing his fellow creatures. The Aborigines call it the WALKABOUT. This is the story of a “WALKABOUT”.
Once the students have discussed their ideas and shared them with the group, you can play the rest of the clip. As the sequence is quite dense, I try to orientate their observatons with different prompts. You could even put them into groups with a theme each to focus on. For example:
- People and uniforms
- Sound and image
- Contrasts and oppositions
- Nature and landscape
After watching the clip let students share their observations in small groups/pairs before soliciting examples from the whole class, noting down useful vocab for everyone to see.
For the second clip, I also provide question prompts to orientate their observations (see below). As the scene is quite distressing, I normally stop it at around 5’25”, which is long enough already, and get them to predict what happens next. More attentive students will have picked up the fact that the car is running out of fuel and that – given the improbably inhospitable place chosen for the picnic, and the father’s discomforting morosity – this is not a trip they are expected to return from alive.
- The lifestyle of the family
- The family relationships/roles
- The father’s job
- Where do they go and why?
- What do you think happens next? Why?
The final clip I have chosen is to help the students imagine the situation faced by the children in the film, the extreme geography and climate of Australia’s desert interior. Assuming you did not show them the full clip above, you might want them to speculate on what happened to their father. For this scene I would once again ask some simple gist questions, for example:
- What do you think has happened to the children?
- What are they doing now?
- Describe the environment they are in
- What do you think happens next?
- What would you do in the situation?
Creative/productive tasks for students
As a follow up, you could do one or more of the following:
- If not done so already, the students could complete the story themselves in groups by preparing and presenting an imaginary synopsis.
- Have students draw and present a map of the children’s journey, imagining the geographical features encountered on the way.
- Have students imagine a parallel Walkabout scenario somewhere else in the world.
- Groups of students work on a desert survival dilemma, whereby they have to chose which items they take with them in order to endure the conditions shown in the clip. There are variations of this exercise online, which you could use or adapt to the scenario shown in the film.
- Have students research, prepare and present a true-life story of people that have gone missing in the outback.
- Have students research and prepare a Walkabout-themed guided tour of the Australian desert, and design the publicity to go with it.
- Have students write an imaginary letter or message that the children might leave in the hope of being rescued.
- Imagine the children find help and prepare a role-play of the resulting dialogue.
Possible language issues
- Prepositions of movement (across, over, through, into, onto etc.)
- Cardinal points (north, south, east, west etc.)
- Conditional sentences (if I were in that situation, I would …)
- (As always) modals for deduction in the past of present (The father might have abandoned them, the children might have run away etc.)
- Sequencing words for explaining a narrative (first, then, next, before, after etc.)