THE MOOGAI (Sydney FF 2024) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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Sarah (Shari Sebbens) is a successful lawyer, an Aboriginal Australian who lives with her husband Fergus (Meyne Wyatt), daughter, and newborn baby. Despite resisting the superstitions of her birth mother Ruth (Tessa Rose) with whom she has a complex, at times difficult relationship, Sarah’s increasing feeling that something is trying to steal her baby escalates. She is forced to accept the reality that – despite her level-headedness – a nightmarish folkloric figure called the “moogai” is the culprit, and that Ruth may know more than Sarah had previously given her credit for. Woven into this journey, Sarah and Fergus also face the brutal reality that as comfortable as they may be in their urban, middle-class life, racism in Australia is as relentless as any monster.

Despite a resoundingly lacklustre response at Sundance earlier this year where it had its world premiere, Jon Bell’s The Moogai does some impressive heavy lifting that simply may not have registered to non-Australian audiences. Although the history of Aboriginal Australian horror filmmaking goes back at least to Tracey Moffat’s BeDevil (1993), outside of Ivan Sen and Warwick Thornton for the international festival crowd at least there simply wouldn’t be an enormous amount of familiarity with Indigenous filmmaking in Australia.

Because of this, I feel a kind of fierce protectiveness of writer-director Jon Bell, simply because the job he had here was so mammoth. One of the things I liked the most immediately about The Moogai was its refusal to spoon feed its Australian viewers the contextual history of this film that haunts the nation more broadly. This, of course, is the story of the Stolen Generations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who were forcibly removed by Australian governments both state and federal between 1910 and 1970. The horrific, inhumane legacy of this policy is a stain on the nation, and can still be felt very much today.

I admire greatly how The Moogai doesn’t step around the Stolen Generations and refuses to mollycoddle white Australian audiences by placing the reality of the Stolen Generations front and foremost, literally restaging the abduction of Aboriginal children from their families, leaving the latter powerless and destroyed. But for a number of colleagues at Sundance who I spoke to about the film, this simply left them confused.

From this perspective, The Moogai has the difficult job of trying to speak intelligently to Australian audiences about the nation’s troubled history, while also having the film make sense to non-Australians – a difficult thing for anyone, and perhaps especially for a debut feature filmmaker. But unlike the toothless It Lives Inside last year that clunkily cut-and-pasted Hindu folklore onto a standard American horror film template, The Moogai is more ambitious in its attempt to experiment with form and tone, and it is at its most successful when it comes to maintaining the integrity of its focus on Aboriginal subjectivity.

But the challenge for The Moogai and It Lives Inside is ultimately effectively the same: how do you tell a story specific to a certain culture and yet make it universal? The balancing act is hard, and while The Moogai doesn’t completely succeed in doing it, I admire greatly the fact that it had such an enormously ambitious vision in the first place.

I’m glad it didn’t dumb things down. I’m glad it understood that horror is the perfect vehicle to have difficult conversations about things we find hard to talk about. And most of all, even though it’s not totally watertight maybe, I’m glad it was made. Not everyone has understood exactly why this is such a brave, confident movie, but everyone needs to know that – despite this – Jon Bell is exactly the kind of filmmaker Australia is lucky to have right now, and desperately needs.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).