It’s neither a documentary about the famous naturalist or the city in northern Australia, Darwin is instead a film about a small former mining town in California’s Death Valley with a population of 35. Once a thriving town built around the silver and later lead mining industries, a series of industrial disputes, fires and water shortages have seen a population of thousands dwindle to just less than three dozen.
Darwin is a town of simple means – there‘s no entertainment, no jobs and no children. It’s a town where the inhabitants value their solitude – a sign on the outskirts boldly states “no services”, erected solely to dissuade visitors.
Through the use of candid interviews director Nick Brandestini explores the town’s local history and how its population came to reside in such isolation. There’s no shortage of inspiration, as the people of Darwin are an eccentric bunch – just a few of the inhabitants include a naturist boogie-woogie man (whose marvellous musicianship is one of the film’s highlights); a cynical postmistress who “doesn’t understand bigotry” and reveals a troubling past involving her son and husband; an ex-con who has learned to accept his fifth wife’s transgendered daughter and an old codger who looks like a cross between Colonel Sanders and Hulk Hogan’s dad.
With such a diverse and eclectic mix of people, Darwin could quite easily have descended into simple “point and sneer” cinema – a “look at the weirdoes” feature in which harmless oddballs are given little time. Thankfully in the hands of Brandestini, what emerges is a probing, sensitive and personal documentary about a unique town that has far more depth than it might initially be assumed. As each member of Darwin’s community relates their personal story, a common theme of acceptance emerges – part of Darwin’s attraction seems to be its policy of non-judgment.
Given that their isolated community is located right next to a top secret military base and they regularly find discarded explosive ordnance littered about the countryside, it’s not a huge surprise to learn that what unites them all is a belief in the coming apocalypse.
The way the varied populace deals with this belief is especially interesting: some have stockpiled arsenals of weaponry that would make Sarah Connor blink; others are content to let Armageddon unfold. But even if the end of the world doesn’t arrive literally, Darwin is undergoing a sort of death of its own – the last remaining young people, transsexual Ryal and his partner Penny, are leaving, meaning that soon all that will be left behind will be a significantly elderly population.
That sounds like a bleak outlook but Darwin is actually curiously uplifting – it’s an affectionate and never patronising portrayal of a unique town, whose population exudes a surprising amount of compassion, understanding and humanity. It’s a real shame that Darwin’s demise seems inevitable. As Shirley Steele puts it, “Like the Bible says, protect the children and the children will be the future – but we ain’t got no children out here.”