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The Sound of One Hand Clapping (1997)


In a remote Tasmanian worker’s camp in the winter of 1954, Slovenian immigrant Maria Buloh (Melita Jurisic) abandons husband Bojan (Kristof Kaczmarek) and their three-year-old daughter Sonja (Arabella Wain). Sent to live with family friends for many years, eight-year-old Sonja (Rosie Flanagan) is reunited with Bojan when he quits his job with the Hydro-Electric Commission. Following some happier times at their house in Hobart, Bojan sinks into an alcoholic depression. At the age of 16, Sonja (Kerry Fox) is beaten by Bojan and leaves home. Twenty years pass before Sonja, now pregnant, returns to Hobart. A difficult reunion with Bojan sparks painful memories of the past and uncovers long-hidden family secrets.

Curator’s notes

One of very few features made in Tasmania – Manganinnie (1980), The Tale of Ruby Rose (1988), Van Diemen’s Land (2009) and The Hunter (2011) are others in this small club – The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a thoughtful examination of love, guilt and fractured family relationships in the migrant boom that brought more than two million Europeans to Australia in the 20 years following the Second World War.

An author and historian whose writings have done much to help protect Tasmania’s wilderness, Richard Flanagan conceived the story as a screenplay before turning it into prose. Published in 1997 to popular and critical acclaim (it won the prestigious Victorian Premier’s Prize for Best Novel), the book was divided into 86 snapshots of Sonja Buloh and her Slovenian-born father, Bojan. Adopting a similarly non-linear approach to the film, Flanagan and editors Tania Nehme and John Scott interweave scenes of Sonja at the ages of 3, 8, 16 and 36. The device works well, creating mystery around the fate of Sonja’s mother while slowly shedding light on traumatic wartime experiences affecting Bojan’s relationships with his family and the world at large.

Some heartwarming moments during eight-year-old Sonja’s reunion with Bojan notwithstanding (see clip two), this is an intense and at times violent examination of two terribly damaged lives. Its central theme is motherhood in its many forms. Separated from his mother country, Bojan is unable to embrace opportunities in the new land and sinks into rootless despair. Young Sonja is abandoned by her mother (see clip one) and hears awful stories about her mother when Bojan pays a succession of local families to look after her. Soon to be a mother, adult Sonja resolves to confront Bojan with truths and questions she dared not speak as a child.

Greatly assisted by cinematographer Martin McGrath’s starkly beautiful landscapes and Cezary Skubiszewski’s haunting East European-flavoured score, The Sound of One Hand Clapping belongs to a small collection of Australian films – the excellent Silver City (1984) is another – to starkly illustrate cultural and emotional shock experienced by many migrants in the ‘lucky country’. ‘Populate or perish’ was government policy of the day, but as we look at Bojan’s slide into drunken bitterness it is clear his dreams of happiness perished long before leaving Slovenia. Polish-born actor Kristof Kaczmarek is very good in the difficult role and is well supported by Kerry Fox, though it is something of a stretch to accept the 30-year-old actress as 16-year-old Sonja.

An unusual film to have been produced by Artist Services (best known for small screen comedy hits Fast Forward (1989–92) and Full Frontal (1993–97), and the adored TV dramedy series SeaChange (1998–2000), Flanagan’s film was selected for competition at the 1998 Berlin Film Festival and performed respectably at the Australian box office as an art-house item when it was released on 23 April 1998. At the 1998 AFI Awards, it received a nomination for Best Costume Design (Aphrodite Kondos). Richard Flanagan has since written several highly successful novels (such as Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish, 2001; and Wanting, 2008) and returned to cinema in 2008 as one of four credited screenwriters of Australia (2008).

For the record, the film takes its title from the Zen Buddhist koan (riddle) posed by Japanese master Hakuin Zenji in 1752. ‘Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?’