For anyone who’s had the pleasure to visit Death Valley, California, you will know we’re dealing with a pretty desolate and inhospitable location in which to settle – but the chances are you never went near Darwin. An old mining settlement, Darwin lies at the end of a road, beyond a sign clarifying ‘no services ahead’, and boasting a population of just 35. Little more than a ghost town, whose echoes of the past reverberate through a community of wonderfully eccentric inhabitants, Nick Brandestini’s fascinating documentary, Darwin, introduces a taste of societal wilderness to the big screen.
With only 35 inhabitants, Brandestini is able to introduce us to almost everyone, including those who have laid beneath the ground for 150 years in the town’s overpopulated grave yard, a stark reminder that while people are checking out, no one is checking in. Life in Darwin is simple, but not sparse despite what you may think for the Mojave Desert. Without the stresses of government, church and jobs, life just goes on; in this age of austerity, unemployment and hatred of the government, Darwin almost makes you reconsider whether we’re focusing on the wrong woes… Darwin has real worries – impending extinction with the distinct lack of children, the neighbouring MI5 weapon testing area and the less than convenient location of their only water tank on the aforementioned MI5 land.
But it’s the people who make this documentary so memorable, and touching. Anywhere else we’d see a merry band of misfits but here, they are the curious eccentrics who keep the town alive – even with their dubious affiliations with Charles Manson. Monty has been in Darwin since 1950, when it was still clinging on to its reputation as a thriving mining town until the mine was closed in the ’70s. He is the purveyor of the town’s brutal history of drunken, drug-fuelled debauchery and decision-making gun crime, but he is also living proof of the effect this life can have. Down the (one) street, Ryal is a transman, living with his partner Penny and his parents, as they prepare for their move back to the big city after the judgement-free life of Darwin allowed him to transition in relative peace.
Susan, postmistress and happy holder of the only job in Darwin knows everyone, living in the hub of the town, essentially connecting people with the outside world. Her openness speaking about her troubled life, particularly that of her drug addict son, mirrors the openness of this society as a whole. Yes, it may have been people in the town who gave her son his first taste of what inevitably led to his downfall, but any shame is overshadowed by acceptance and the belief that why should you keep the truth a secret? Having said that, keeping secrets in a community of 35 is probably quite the challenge.
Brandestini’s candid interviews are an eye opening look behind these secrets, peeling back the truth that was never really hidden, just distanced from our understanding by a desert. The disjointed transitions between cuts, pasting interviews together in any other documentary would be seen as a criticism but in Darwin it reminds us that this documentary is not stylised, it is a cinematic scrapbook of a community whose history has lain in dusty boxes of photographs, unseen by anyone except those how live in Darwin. Tours are available – enquire at the post office.
Darwin will be screened at the 55th BFI London Film Festival (in partnership with American Express) as part of the World Cinema strand, on Thursday 13, Friday 14 and Sunday 16 October.
For times and venues, visit the BFI website.