“I feel like something bad is going to happen to me. I feel like something bad has happened. It hasn’t reached me yet, but it’s on its way…”
Director: Joel Anderson
Starring: Rosie Traynor, David Pledger, Martin Sharpe, Talia Zucker, Steve Jodrell, Tania Lentini, Chloe Armstrong, Carole Patullo, James Lawson, Joel Anderson
Screenplay: Joel Anderson
Synopsis: Following the death of their sixteen-year-old daughter, and what happens afterwards, the Palmer family agrees to participate in the making of a documentary… Just before Christmas in 2005, the Palmers – father Russell (David Pledger), mother June (Rosie Traynor), son Mathew (Martin Sharpe), and daughter Alice (Talia Zucker) – have a picnic near Lake Norval, a dam to the north of their home town of Ararat, Victoria. Towards the end of the day, Matthew and Alice go swimming. When Matthew leaves the water, he assumes that Alice is following him, but she does not… By nightfall, a distraught June Palmer has alerted emergency services. A search of the area, including a dive-search of the dam, begins; the Palmers are sent home to wait for news. It comes three days later… Russell and June are called to the scene: it is the former who takes on the responsibility of identifying the pale, distorted body; June decides that she does not want this image to be her last memory of her daughter. Following the legal and medical formalities, the body is released and family and friends gather for Alice’s funeral. And ten days after that, the Palmers begin hearing strange noises in their house… June becomes afflicted by recurring nightmares involving Alice. Finally, unable to sleep at all, she begins walking through the night… Russell, meanwhile, retreats into his work in order to restore some semblance of normality to his life; but this lasts only until, late one night, he has a terrifying encounter… Matthew’s way of coping with his sister’s death is to take up photography, which has always been his hobby, in a more serious way. One of his projects involves the taking of sequential images of his family’s backyard and the surrounding countryside—until one day, one of his photographs captures something else…
Comments: My fear, as I sit down to review Lake Mungo, is that I’m going to end up overselling it. There’s nothing worse than raising expectations to a point where disappointment naturally follows.
Still—even allowing for the fact that this is the sort of thing that invariably gets under my skin, this is the most effective horror movie I’ve seen in quite some time.
Readers need to be aware, however, that this is the kind of film that cannot be discussed without ruining some of its surprises. So if you haven’t seen it, but think it might appeal to you, I strongly recommend that you watch it before reading this review. Actually I strongly recommend that you watch it anyway…
At first glance, it would be easy to lump Lake Mungo in with the rush of low-budget, found-footage horror movies that followed in the wake of the success of Paranormal Activity; but while it shares certain techniques with the previous year’s surprise blockbuster, this low-key Australian horror movie uses them to very different purpose. This is a film whose simplicity is deceptive, and in more ways than one.
However, this “simple” film is not at all how writer-director Joel Anderson first conceived it: in first draft, Lake Mungo was much bigger and more ambitious—to the point that it was too expensive to make. Unable to raise the necessary financing, Anderson finally accepted the enforced limitations and reworked his ideas into a more streamlined and cost-effective format—and semi-accidentally created a tiny gem.
The word I keep coming back to with respect to Lake Mungo is unsettling. As a horror movie, some viewers may find it unsatisfactory. There is no violence here, no bloodshed, no big set-pieces; though a few moments are genuinely chilling. Most of it consists of people talking into the camera. Yet this is a film that lingers in the memory. It is hard to stop thinking about it—and the more you do, the more disturbing it becomes.
The emotional impact of Lake Mungo is finally all the greater because at first there doesn’t seem to be anything here that we haven’t seen before. The story is presented as a “mockumentary”, consisting of interviews with the Palmer family, their friends and others, in the wake of the drowning death of sixteen-year-old Alice—and of subsequent events. The new material is intercut with a variety of visual material: home movies, photographs, TV clips, camera-phone videos and – though this is by no means a “found-footage film” – a literal piece of found footage.
Furthermore, the film isn’t shy about acknowledging its influences: one in particular. It is certainly no coincidence that the family here is called Palmer; nor that, like her television forebear, Alice may be considered the central character in spite of being dead before the film begins: existing for us as a composite vision created out of the memories of her family and friends, and of those photographs and videos; a vision that we slowly realise may be entirely inaccurate. And there may be other points of resemblance…
And though, as I said at the outset, this film is no mere Paranormal Activity copyist, there are definite points of comparison between the two including a stationary overnight camera and what it captures.
But it is what Lake Mungo does with this seeming familiarity that catches us off-guard. A split vision develops over the course of this film: an increasing gap between the implied audience for the documentary, and the actual audience of the film.
Viewers of the documentary, of course, already know Alice’s story, or one form of it: at one point, Russell Palmer speaks wearily of, “Stories, and books, and women’s magazines”, and we can just imagine the twisted versions of the tale that have escaped into the world at large. The documentary, therefore, works from a base of assumed knowledge—knowledge that the viewer of the film does not necessarily have. Provokingly, there are moments when the documentary provides an answer to something obvious, while at the same time an elephant in the living-room goes completely unacknowledged. We are left to join the dots for ourselves—and at some points to realise that we haven’t been given enough dots to work with.
While this is (deliberately) frustrating, it is also a part of why the film is hard to stop thinking about. The desire to tease out its mysteries is irresistible. And the more pieces we manage to put together, the more upsetting the emerging picture becomes.
There is another critical way in which Joel Anderson plays with his documentary format. He makes use of the viewer’s expectation of being told the true story – just the facts, ma’am, a setting of the record straight – only to then repeatedly pull the rug out from under that viewer, in a series of “Wait; what?” moments that call into question everything you thought you knew and leave you scrambling to catch up.
But there is more to Lake Mungo than its mysteries and its game-playing—and even its scares—and it is here that we find its true resonance. Ultimately this is a film about loss, and grief, and how people cope—or don’t. It is about the silences and secrets that can exist even between people who love each other; about the difficulties of communication; and about regret. Viewed from this perspective, some of the implications of Lake Mungo, particularly those of its final scenes, are heartbreaking.
We are used to seeing small-town America in horror movies, but for some viewers, country Australia may be something new and unfamiliar. It is important to realise that not only was Lake Mungo shot on location in Victoria and New South Wales, but all of its settings are real places: their very ordinariness adding to the disconcerting nature of the story being told.
Ararat, where the Palmers live, is a mid-sized country town some 200 km west of Melbourne, founded during the Victorian gold-rush of the mid-19th century; Norval Dam, where the tragedy occurs, is a popular picnic area about 10 km to the north-west of the town.
While these locations may have been chosen simply for their appropriateness and availability, there is a secondary reason that will almost certainly be lost on non-Australian viewers (and quite likely some locals too). The whole area is one with a history of paranormal events, chiefly associated with the abandoned Aradale Lunatic Asylum that sits just to the east of Ararat. The point is not made in-film, but this is somewhere that a story like this might be expected to emerge—and be believed.
(If you’re in Victoria, you can book a tour.)
Lake Mungo itself, meanwhile, is in the southern part of New South Wales. It is a dry lake at the centre of Mungo National Park, an area of eerie rock formations and wavering dunes, and a place of vital historic and geological importance. (Ditto.)
The opening credits of Lake Mungo play over a series of “spirit photographs” from the 19th century. Over these images speak voices we won’t be able to place for a while, in snatches of dialogue that will recur as part of the documentary interviews.
The film proper begins with a shot of the Palmer family as it now is – father Russell, mother June, teenage son Mathew – standing in front of their house.
This is followed by a title card stating the nature of the film – or rather, documentary – that follows.
It should perhaps be mentioned that there is never any indication offered of who is making this documentary, or why: whether the Palmers themselves decided to go on record, or whether they are co-operating with a film-maker who somehow earned their trust.
(In any event, that’s the voice of Joel Anderson as the off-camera interviewer.)
The title card fades to a recording of June Palmer’s emergency call, her voice shaking with fear and distress as she reports her daughter missing. The date is 21st December 2005.
And this in turn gives way to a news broadcast that makes the Palmer family and their tragedy public property for the first time. In a small town, the tragedy is big news.
It is a recurrent strength of Australian film-making that our broadcast networks are always willing to co-operate with the respect to the production of TV news clips, either comedically as so often, or dead seriously as here. It is most commonly our government broadcaster, the ABC, that helps out; but here we have the involvement from the commercial WIN network, which provides coverage in regional Victoria, as is appropriate.
A brief TV interview with the local police sergeant, intercut with footage of police divers getting ready to search the dam, is overlaid by the Palmers recalling how an ordinary family outing became a nightmare. Home-movie footage, shot predominantly by Mathew, comes and goes.
Subsequently, though various visual imagery continues to support its narrative, Lake Mungo will settle down into a series of interviews with the people involved in this story. The low budget perhaps makes itself felt here. Some of the acting in the minor roles is a bit rough, though this does not hurt here as it might in a different type of film: this is a documentary, after all, and people will react differently in front of the cameras.
On the other hand, though deliberately casting lesser-known actors in pursuit of verisimilitude, Joel Anderson hit pay-dirt with David Pledger and Rosie Traynor, who carry the weight of the film as Russell and June—and all the more so in that most of the interview dialogue here was ad-libbed from an outline.
After Russell recounts how the family was sent home to wait for news, Lake Mungo begins to open up, with other interviewees offering their own takes on these events. In a recurring touch, most of them are never introduced other than by name: watchers of the documentary presumably know who they are; watchers of the film have to figure it out for themselves.
We learn that the Palmers were joined that night by their friends, Georgie and Leith Ritter (Georgie is later revealed as a work colleague of June’s), and by Garrett and Iris Long, June’s parents. We also hear from Kim Whittle, Alice’s best friend, and Kim’s brother Jason, Alice’s boyfriend.
We are then given a reminder that a time as recent as 2005 might as well be a different world: we learn that, during the family outing, Alice left her phone at home…
Ominously, the next piece of footage offered is a police video of the search-and-rescue divers shot at the dam on the night of the 24th December. We see a body being lifted from the water on a stretcher; later, we are given a close look at it—pale and distorted after three days in the water.
Russell and June are notified and called to the scene. It is Russell who makes the identification, while June stays in the car—perhaps a mistake, Russell comments, as she does not get the grim closure of seeing the body.
And in the wake of this we get our first tiny intimation of something wrong even beyond the unfolding tragedy: on their way home, the Palmers’ car stalls and they are only able to operate it in reverse.
The next block of news footage reports on Alice’s funeral early in the New Year; and this is the first point, I think, where the documentary and the film part company. It is hard not to curl your lip as the WIN reporter offers up the usual cliché-fest, referring to Alice as, “A young woman taken too soon”, and adding that she would be remembered as, “A happy, fun-loving girl with a zest for life…always putting others first.” These moments bookend Kim Whittle’s tribute to Alice as, “A great person; very popular. Clever. Lovely.”
Kim Whittle—whose voice we now know it is playing over the opening credits, offering the observation that, “Alice kept secrets. She kept the fact that she kept secrets a secret.”
There is a cut back to Georgie Ritter, as she recalls how bad things were at the time for the Palmers; adding, “It’s hard to believe how much worse they were going to get…”
“Ten days after Allie’s funeral,” says Russell’s voice, as the camera prowls around the shadows of the Palmers’ home, “stuff began to happen around the house.”
There are noises in the night—outside the windows, in the roof, from Alice’s old room. The Palmers’ initial response is prosaically sensible: they call a pest controller and re-hang the door to the bedroom; but the noises persist.
June here picks up the narrative, telling of her recurrent nightmares—one in particular, of Alice standing at the foot of her parents’ bed, dripping wet, silently staring. Finally, unable to sleep at all, June began walking the night instead—and, as she reveals with startling casualness, sometimes entering other people’s houses and spending time there: “I just wanted to be inside someone else’s life for a while.”
Here we have the first of numerous instances of the documentary’s habit of not following up in its interviews. Earlier, for example, Russell is questioned over his perfectly understandable choice to leave the porch light of the house burning overnight in the wake of Alice’s disappearance – I mean, duh – but here, June’s bizarre behaviour is allowed to go unchallenged.
(And there is a deeper irony about June’s night-time incursions, though we may not recognise this until very much later in the film.)
The focus then shifts back to Russell’s attempt to deal with his grief by burying himself in his work—an option, he admits, that he was glad to have, to the point of feeling guilty about it.
But Russell’s efforts to restore some normality in his life come to an abrupt conclusion. He tells of returning home late one night and hearing a noise in Alice’s bedroom. There was nothing there, but he found himself drawn to stay a while, just to sit in his daughter’s space.
And then Alice came in…
She was, he recalls, apparently unaware of his presence at first, until he moved, made a slight sound—and then she turned, and saw him—and came at him in a fury—
June describes how she and Mathew found Russell slumped over the kitchen table, sobbing uncontrollably.
The focus then switches to Mathew: Georgie Ritter explains how worried they all were about him; how close he had been to his sister, and how withdrawn he had become since her death. All natural enough, if sad—except for the accompanying story of Mathew visiting his doctor with strange and unexplained bruising on his body…
Mathew, meanwhile, has been finding his own coping mechanisms: taking up film and photography, already a hobby, more seriously, and starting a band with his best friend.
At the same time, echoing the remarks of Russell’s business partner, Fred Rosskamp, that once he returned to work it was “business as usual” with no discussion of the tragedy, here Mathew’s mate, Steve Wilkie, admits “We never really talked about it.” Such silences are all too common in this country, and so is the damage they can cause.
It is via Mathew’s immersion in photography that the story takes its next turn. We hear from the local professional who has been training him, and then we see some of his projects. One in particular involves a series of photographs, the same frame taken over and over for several years prior to these events, showing the backyard of the family house and the countryside beyond; capturing the shifting light and the changing seasons—and finally, something else.
In one such photograph, in the shadows against the back fence, a human figure is indistinctly visible…
The next interviewee is a man called Bob Smeet, who tells of his own photographs taken at Norval Dam on the 3rd April 2006. In examining his pictures a couple of days later, he too found an indistinct figure in the background…
We must remind ourselves again that this is 2005 / 2006, and that many of the images we are dealing with here are the result of film and not digital photography. So what we have here is a Blow-Up situation: losing detail from striving for detail.
In any event, we learn that June’s reaction was the opposite of what we might expect: she became convinced that, somehow, Alice was still alive; that Russell, in the horror of the moment, and expecting to see his dead daughter, had misidentified the body. So strong is her conviction that Russell himself begins to have doubts—leading to an exhumation and a DNA test—and definitive proof that Alice is dead.
Still—those photographs remained, and Mathew, as he now explains, continued to hear noises; so in the end he set up a stationary camera in the hallway. And in footage captured on the 13th June 2006, two days after Alice is buried for the second time, a shadowy figure is seen crossing a doorway… Other such glimpses are caught in the kitchen, and in Alice’s bedroom.
Now—we have heard of Russell’s and Mathew’s separate efforts to deal with their grief by immersing themselves in their work or their hobby. We have heard no such thing of June, whose grief has manifested in nocturnal wandering and the invasion of other people’s homes; and in the wake of this series of events, perhaps it is not altogether surprising that we next hear of her consulting a psychic.
Ray Kemeny – real name Zsolt Kemeny, but changed to the more local-friendly moniker; he refers to himself wryly as, “Australia’s wog-psychic of choice” – is a popular radio host who takes calls on air, and also does private consultations.
As with so much in Lake Mungo, the viewer is given no guidance here—whether we are to take Kemeny as genuine or as a con-artist; or perhaps, just as a professional performer. The one radio call we listen in on is sufficiently generic to work either way. Kemeny explains on camera that he considers his main task to be offering the comfort of the possibility of something beyond death.
He goes on to describe how he films and records his private consultations—partly to have a record for himself and his client, and partly as a form of insurance.
We are then privy to June’s consultation on the 15th June – two days after Mathew’s night-footage – in which Kemeny leads her on an imaginary exploration of her own house—entering by the front door, moving through it as she wishes. June’s steps lead her immediately to Alice’s room. Alice is there, quiet and sad…
June is so taken with Kemeny that she invites him to dinner. Russell likes him—but he is nevertheless resistant to his subsequent suggestion of a séance, until persuaded by Mathew. Nothing happens during the sitting, but Mathew’s camera is still rolling; and once again it captures a pale figure in the shadows…
After this, Kemeny helps Mathew to set up three permanent time-lapse cameras in the house, two along the hallways and one in Alice’s bedroom.
Meanwhile, garbled gossip begins to spread—mostly, we gather, interpreting Kemeny as responsible for the images of Alice, and probably extorting money from the Palmers. The viewer, conversely, has good reason to believe that Kemeny not only had nothing to do with the footage but was genuinely taken aback by something beyond even his professional ken. He justifies his deepening relationship with the Palmers as a mixture of genuine concern and professional curiosity.
One of the things that any viewer of Lake Mungo must do is pay attention to the dates, which skitter back and forth between April and July 2006, and to keep track of the shifting information across these months.
We are still absorbing the images captured during June and July when Russell mentions “the Withers video”, footage caught on the 3rd April—that is, the same day as the so-called “Smeet photograph”.
Russell’s comment here alerts us to the fact that the Palmers’ story has by now become public property: we are left to deduce that Bob Smeet sold his photograph to the tabloids, and that’s how the story reached the public at large. It is not until the end of July that Cathy and Doug Withers realise that they were at Norval Dam, fooling around with their video camera, on the same day: presumably the growing publicity brings this point home to them, and prompts them to examine their own footage much more carefully. Upon doing so, they realise that they have captured a shot of Bob Smeet himself, looking past them towards the water—and, on another angle, footage of someone moving through the trees at the back of the dam.
Note, however, that the Withers are using digital video, not film. They are therefore able to zoom in with a greater clarity than has been the case with any of the preceding images—and are therefore able to see that the figure at the dam isn’t Alice.
It’s Mathew, wearing her jacket.
This is the first of Lake Mungo’s “Wait; what?” moments: no explanation is offered for Mathew’s actions – why he was there, why he was wearing his sister’s jacket – though perhaps we can work that out for ourselves. Far more startling is the realisation that, all through the public exposure of the Smeet photograph and the breaking story of Alice’s “haunting”, he kept silent.
Yet it may be that the chief purpose of this revelation is to throw the viewer off-balance before a far more staggering blow is delivered. In the wake of this, we learn, Mathew was questioned by his father about anything else he may have been involved in—
—prompting a confession that all the mysterious images we have seen to this point – his photograph and the film frames apparently showing a ghostly Alice – were faked.
There have been instances before this of the documentary not following through, but nothing to compare with the way in which this outrageous admission is handled. Mathew walks us matter-of-factly through a technical explanation of how the fakery was achieved: the compositing of two photos, the use of a reflected video image playing on a TV.
(To step back a moment— This was pretty damn daring on the part of Joel Anderson, effectively revealing to us how his many of his effects were achieved. And yet Lake Mungo still works brilliantly. It’s like a magician explaining a trick and then fooling you anyway because his sleight-of-hand is so good.)
Mathew’s explanation for his actions is that his mother was still clinging to a hope that Alice wasn’t dead, and that he meant by these means to force the definitive identification of the body. He admits, finally, that his actions made things worse for his mother rather than better, but insists that wasn’t his intention.
But—this just isn’t true, or not entirely true; not if we pay attention to the dates. Yes, in the first instance, Mathew’s backyard photo post-dates the Bob Smeet photo, which presumably started these events in motion; but the first film image wasn’t “captured” until the 13th June—two days after Alice was reburied.
Yet this is not questioned, nor is there any probing of how Russell and June reacted to Mathew’s revelation—having by that time been convinced, along with Ray Kemeny, that something “inexplicable” was going on in the house. Instead we get both of them answering in a slightly misdirected way, not addressing their own feelings at the time. June expresses understandable scepticism about Mathew’s motives, while Russell painfully recalls the public reaction and their own stumbling efforts to protect themselves, their son, and their daughter’s memory. He, not June, speaks of her “devastation”, of “the end of hope”.
From the very outset of Lake Mungo we are made aware of a contentious relationship between mother and daughter; although there is nothing overt to suggest that it was more than just the usual teenage upheavals. Rather, both Georgie Ritter and Fred Rosskamp suggest that the root of the issue was how alike the two of them were. However, June’s portion of the story is shot through with regret and a sense of failure: her fear that Alice didn’t know how much she was loved; that in withholding something of herself in her interactions with her daughter, she prompted a similar guardedness in Alice.
Regret, indeed, finally becomes guilt: among those lines of dialogue that play over the opening credits is a painfully sad statement from June:
“It’s hard for some people to understand. You have to feel like you’re to blame, otherwise there’s nothing to hold onto.”
Meanwhile, the viewer is left to clutch their head and wonder whether anything said so far about this “haunting” was the truth. Is this, then, not a ghost story at all, but rather one about the deceptions of technology? – of the power of the visual image its ability to manipulate memory and create or alter belief?
Perhaps; yet behind all these stories of trickery intended or accidental, there remains Russell’s account of his middle-of-the-night confrontation with his dead daughter; his very angry dead daughter. Of course we can write that off as a dream, or an hallucination brought on by grief, or guilt; and have learned besides to be wary of what this documentary allows to pass. However, the fact remains that nothing in-film has so far challenged his assertion, and it never will.
We do not see for ourselves anything of the public backlash that must have come with the exposure of the “hoax”, but the next thing we hear of is Mathew going on the road with Ray Kemeny, the latter visiting various other country towns in order to do consultations. We might infer that Mathew had made Ararat, if not his own home, too hot to hold him. During this trip, watching Kemeny’s interactions with his clients, Mathew is forced confront how much he misses Alice, and that he, too, is longing for contact with someone gone from him forever.
We learn now that those time-lapse cameras were left running, in spite of everything, though they ran out of film in about a day and a half after Mathew’s departure…meaning that he couldn’t have had anything to do with the image of Alice found in the new footage.
However distrustful the viewer might be by now, this discovery prompts June – particularly in light of her doubts about Mathew’s “confession” – to review all of the camera footage, right from the beginning. And it is while she is examining the faked hallway imagery, which Mathew earlier explained to us, that she sees something else:
The Palmers’ next-door neighbour, Brett Toohey, hunkered down in Alice’s bedroom in the middle of the night, six months after her death.
This is another of Lake Mungo’s rug-pulling moments. It transpires that since Alice’s death, Toohey had been secretly searching for something within the Palmers’ house—and immediately, our thoughts fly back to those original “noises in the house”, those first subtle signs that – apparently – something untoward was happening.
So it was, but not what the Palmers thought.
Alerted that there was something to find, June subsequently discovered Alice’s hidey-hole within the unused fireplace in her bedroom. One of the items in the unearthed lock-box is a video tape—revealing a sexual liaison involving Alice and the Palmers’ neighbours, Brett and Marisa Toohey, people they thought of as friends, and for whom Alice had been baby-sitting since she was thirteen. How long this had been going on, we do not know.
And it is here that Kim Whittle makes her observation about Alice keeping secrets…
The Palmers reaction is anger mixed with a profound grief over the realisation of how isolated Alice must have been by her secret; too guilty, too humiliated, to reach out for help. We infer that she eventually helped herself as far as she could by securing and hiding the tape; separating herself from the Tooheys by a threat of exposure.
At some point, we learn, the Tooheys gave up the hunt and moved away—and a police search has so far failed to locate them.
We have barely had time to grasp the full implications of this situation before we are struck by another revelation of almost, in its way, equal magnitude.
Looking through her daughter’s diary, June discovers that, before her death, Alice had been consulting Ray Kemeny; that, consequently, he knew all about her and her family before June went anywhere near him; and that he never said a word about it.
To the Palmers, this silence is a monstrous betrayal of their trust: immediately, they sever all contact. Kemeny, however, is unrepentant: he explains that Alice was his client and he owed her confidentiality, the same confidentiality that June later expected from him. It is nevertheless very hard to believe that his knowledge of Alice did not influence his sessions with June.
But perhaps the real bone of contention – as Kemeny points out himself, interestingly – is that he failed to foresee Alice’s death…
Whatever the viewer makes of this – and here again, the film declines to take a stance – it is through Alice’s meetings with Ray Kemeny, recorded as her mother’s would later be, that we learn of the events leading up to the tragedy.
We discover, too, that it is her own voice we hear over the opening credits, speaking during one of these interviews:
“I feel like something bad is going to happen to me. I feel like something bad has happened. It hasn’t reached me yet, but it’s on its way…”
From the diary, a weeping June learns that Alice was driven to consult Ray Kemeny by a series of terrible dreams. One of them she described on paper—and it dovetails exactly with June’s own nightmare of more than six months later, in which she saw Alice at the foot of her bed, soaking wet, unable to communicate; while in Alice’s dream, she is overcome by a terrible sadness, the realisation that there is nothing her parents can do to help her…
The next diary entry we see records Alice’s school camping-trip to Lake Mungo. June now explains that Alice said no more afterwards than that she’d had a good time; only she came home without her mobile phone – bought only a month before, June cannot help adding dryly – her watch, and her favourite bracelet.
As I highlighted earlier, this is 2005—so it’s the first generation of camera-phone footage we’re dealing with here. We are privy to some scenes filmed by Kim Whittle and another friend, Kate Hepnell, during the camp, which are belatedly brought to June’s attention: fragmented night-time images of young people having a good time, mostly; filming each other, of course; but including a shot of Alice looking, in her mother’s opinion, “forlorn”…as if something distressing had happened.
And there is one other shot of Alice in the distance, separated from the group: very blurry, very hard to make out; though after some study, June realises what she is looking at:
“She was burying something…”
We then follow the Palmers to Lake Mungo; it is by now February of 2007. From the cues in the video they have, they think, located the place in question; though they leave it until night to go on their digging expedition, to avoid being seen by any tourists or other visitors.
Sure enough, they find a plastic bag containing Alice’s missing items: her “most precious things”, as Russell puts it. June later interprets Alice’s actions as, “Symbolic; it was a ritual.”
The plastic wrap has preserved the phone, and the Palmers are able to charge its battery—and to see for themselves what Alice filmed that night: what she saw in the darkness…
It’s fascinating, reading through the various reactions to Lake Mungo, how many people seem to feel that the Tooheys were somehow responsible for Alice’s death: possibly they are led astray by Russell’s angry declaration that they were “complicit”. The reverse is surely true: that with that tape in Alice’s possession, something happening to her was the last thing they would have wanted.
It is much harder to know what we may have been intended to conclude with respect to Mathew—or whether it is over-reading to conclude anything, in spite of the way that Alice is the focus of so much of her brother’s photography and video, and the suggestive juxtapositioning of some of the material, for example, the emphasis upon the siblings’ closeness with the incident of Mathew’s strange bruising.
We might also wonder whether Alice’s death might not have been a self-fulfilling prophecy; that is, a suicide.
No hint of any kind is ever offered as to why Alice should have drowned—no reference to her ability as a swimmer, her health, the conditions at the dam on the day of her death. She just died. And perhaps she chose to die. Or perhaps it was, after all, just an accident.
Of course such things do happen—but nevertheless, it is events like these at which the human psyche rebels, revealing its profound need for reasons, its tendency to find patterns where none exist, to turn fragments into a narrative…like I’m doing right now. This is where conspiracy theories are born—and, perhaps, a belief in ghosts…
Caught up in the bewildering in-rushing of information concerning the last months of Alice’s life, we almost lose sight of the fact that we have been presented with evidence of a genuine haunting. The events at Lake Mungo – first Alice’s, then her family’s – bring us full circle, back to the story we thought we were being told in the first place. There is a new sense of acceptance amongst the Palmers, no matter how disturbing their various discoveries.
Much earlier, Georgie Ritter spoke of the “bad feeling” inside the Palmer house, as events begin to unfold. Here, upon the family’s return from Lake Mungo, June finds the opposite: that the house now feels “calm”.
June, indeed, is able to reconcile all that has happened: her belief is that Alice came back to ensure that her secrets came to light, and to end the silence between herself and her family, no matter how hurtful the truths exposed. And this having been achieved, Alice can now rest
Normality – something approaching it, anyway – is then possible. The Palmers even patch things up with Ray Kemeny, at his request. Each of them, as Russell puts it, “Makes their own peace.”
Nevertheless there is a note of deep regret here, the last stirring of the guilt that always comes with “life going on”. Russell notes that, in the end, it was really a case of Alice helping her family, not the other way around; and that finally, they were each able to make the choice to move on. He comments with some unease upon Alice’s “withdrawal”, yet there is relief too in what he says.
The moving on is literally true: the documentary ends with scenes of the Palmers packing up their Ararat house prior to moving away and putting it all behind them. June in particular is uncomfortable with the implications of the family’s decision, which prompts her to a final consultation with Kemeny. He leads her once again through the exercise of exploring the house, from which June emerges with an upsetting though cleansing sense that Alice has gone.
The cameras then follow the Palmers as they prepare for their departure. We see again that same shot of the three of them from the beginning of the documentary, which we realise now is the final image taken of them with their house. We watch them drive away—out of Ararat; out of this film.
Over its final stages, there another division in Lake Mungo: not the documentary / film split of which we are conscious from the beginning, but effectively into two different documentaries, with the Palmers “moving on” running in parallel with quite a different narrative: one which, in its very understatedness, is shattering. The film’s seeming resolution of its story leaves the viewer off-guard, and vulnerable to its final blow.
The cameras keep moving after the departure of the Palmers—and show us that this closing image of the family – Russell, June and Mathew – is not quite the same as the one we saw at the beginning, after all; and they continue to move as the end credits roll—finally leaving the viewer far better informed than the Palmers ever are about the true nature of their tragedy, and aware, as they are not, that a second and very different tragedy is in the making.