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THE MOOGAI Review: Indigenous Horror Triumphs!


A bloodied woman walks down a bath holding a baby in white cloth.
Photo Courtesy of Sundance

By Dolores Quintana


Indigenous people struggle to be treated as human beings worldwide. Aboriginal writer-director Jon Bell brought his newest film, THE MOOGAI, to the Sundance Film Festival in January. It expands on the short film of the same name that won the Midnight Shorts Grand Jury Award at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.


This film is described, in the synopsis, as Sarah and Fergus, a hopeful young Aboriginal couple, give birth to their second baby. But what should be a joyous time of their lives becomes sinister when Sarah starts seeing a malevolent spirit she is convinced is trying to take her baby. Fergus, who can’t see it but desperately wants to believe her, grows increasingly worried as she becomes more unbalanced. Is the child-stealing spirit real, or is she, in fact, the biggest threat to the safety of their family? 


One of the film's greatest strengths is the fierce lead performance of Shari Sebbens, who starred in the original short film, along with Meyne Wyatt, who also does fantastic work. The cast is excellent, but Tessa Rose and Clarence Ryan, as Sarah’s mother, Ruth, and Ryan as a hilarious Ray Boy, along with the actors who play the children, Precious Ann, Aisha Alma May, Mary Torrens Bell, and Akaylan Jon Lloyd, give involving and heartfelt performances. Toby Leonard Moore and Bella Heathcote do good work in their roles as bystanders who do not understand Aboriginal people's problems. 


The film addresses several issues, starting with how Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were stolen from their families and parents by the Australian government and given to white families to raise, known as The Stolen Generations, between 1910 and 1970. The forcible transfer of children from their own culture to another is the fifth punishable act of genocide. You steal a people’s children and destroy their culture by indoctrinating them into a foreign culture. 


It might be something that other reviewers miss, but the complications of a child who is separated from their culture and naturally clings to the mother that they were gifted to or their belief that they were abandoned, thus rejecting their own mother, is a complex narrative. The blame is not put on Sarah because she is the helpless victim of the government’s evil actions, and her mother is not to blame either. There was nothing that she, as an Aboriginal woman, could do to reclaim Sarah. 


It is a similar problem that was also used in Madame Web. It also went unnoticed except to mock it. Children, who don’t know any better because they were infants at the time, don’t understand that their parents didn’t abandon them by choice, either through death or state-enforced kidnapping. Being rejected or abandoned by a parent is incredibly traumatizing for a child and for the adult they become, and it is an even more complex problem for kids who find out, belatedly, that their parent did not leave them behind by choice. 


Jon Bell wisely doesn’t spend time explaining this to the audience; he presents the situation and gives them enough information to decode the message. Sean Ryan's cinematography in brilliantly illuminated daytime scenes and shadow-haunted scenes at night does a lot to create the atmosphere that envelops the films. The casting by Nikki Barrett and Natalie Wall is so well done. 


Sarah has a strong sense of self and a large amount of anger. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly and is intelligent and capable. The story shows how women are treated when they fear danger around them. It also shows how women of color, especially Indigenous women’s fears, are not taken seriously and how our fears are treated as mental illness, no matter how well-founded they may be. Shari Sebbins is a force of nature in the role, and her performance shows the difficulty that women of color face in business and life when they are anything but meek. 


One difference in THE MOOGAI is that Sarah's husband tries to support her and understand what seems irrational to everyone else. He is also not intimidated by Sarah’s intelligence and strength. The film also seems to question how postpartum depression is not taken seriously. How so often women’s pain is considered wrong and shamed. Women’s fears of harm coming to their children are natural and should not be mocked or trivialized. 


Mothers are so closely bound to infants by the process of birth that it makes sense that a woman’s protective instincts would be in overdrive, especially considering the production of hormones before and after birth. However, women are not given that kind of consideration as human beings, which is part of the horror that is evoked in the film. A lot of men are not going to feel that the way a woman would.


Add all of that to the generational trauma that was inflicted on the Aboriginal people, a natural distrust of the government, and betrayal from white people that Sarah trusts with the slow coming to enlightenment about her true origins and coming out of the brainwashing she was subjected to as a child. It is a film that brought this reviewer to tears, too. 


Moogai is the Bundjalung word for "ghost," so THE MOOGAI is about the ghosts of the past, a reckoning with that past, and the pain it caused generations of Aboriginal people. It is an emotionally captivating and culturally relevant horror film with powerhouse performances from Shari Sebbin and Tessa Rose. It is a beguiling, electrifying portrait of Aboriginal pain and resilience, with more than one frightful specter menacing an Indigenous family. 


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