It's a haunting image, yet strangely serene. We watch as a young girl, pale-skinned and dark-haired, dressed in a white nightdress and boots, runs across a stark landscape chasing the light of the moon. Seen from a distance, she is an almost ghostly figure. Accompanied by wistful music, a strangely gentle and welcoming harmony, the child is drawn towards the moon. One Night the Moon (2001) is well known for its use of music and songs, but this scene stands out in particular, as it evokes the familiar theme in Australian film of the lost white child.

Rachel Perkins, an Arrernte and Kalkadoon woman, is the founder of production company Blackfella Films and one of Australia's most celebrated filmmakers.1 One Night the Moon is her second feature film (following Radiance (1998)), and first musical (her second musical work is the perhaps more widely recognised Bran Nue Dae (2009)). Set in 1932, One Night the Moon is based on true events: when Rose (Kaarin Fairfax) checks on her daughter Emily one night to find her gone, a massive search is organised. But, when the police bring in Aboriginal tracker Albert (Kelton Pell), Rose's husband Jim (Paul Kelly) refuses his help, stating, "No blacks on my land." Originally the script centred on the story of the tracker but Perkins shifted the focus towards the mother and the loss of her child.

The use of music and song in One Night the Moon differs from and challenges the conventions of the traditional musical format. There is relatively little spoken dialogue; the narrative unfolds through the music (written by Mairead Hannan, Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody) as well as giving voice to the inner thoughts and emotions of the characters. This is exemplified in scenes such as "This Land is Mine," where Jim and Albert sing a duet of sorts. Jim sings of owning the land, whilst Albert counters with "This Land is Me." Another example would be through the song "What Do You Know," in which Rose sings and asks Albert this very question, and he responds in song from a different location. The music is a constant presence, inextricably woven through the film. Discussing the use of the songs in an interview with Kathryn Millard, Perkins states that even though the music is not meant to be expositional, it somehow finds the in-between space of expressing both "exposition" and "inner world." She states, "They're not dialogue and they're not song but somewhere in between."2

In a moment in the film that occurs just prior to the scene in which Emily (Memphis Kelly) disappears into the night, she is safely in bed, lovingly being sung a lullaby by her mother and father:

One night the moon came sailing by Called all the dreamers to come for a ride.

Stars and crescent moons decorate the walls of Emily's bedroom and she is bathed in the warm glow of candlelight. As her parents bid her goodnight, her bedroom is the picture of safety. That feeling of safety doesn't leave, as one might expect, when Emily climbs out her window and follows the light of the moon. The harmony we hear is soothing and inviting, as if the moon itself was using the song to draw Emily away, out of her bed and towards the light. The moment takes on a dreamlike quality. It may be exactly that – a dream. The film cuts from Emily making her way across the landscape to Rose waking from a fitful sleep. She checks her daughter's room, as if sensing something isn't right, and finds her gone. The trance-like mood is broken and a new sense of urgency and threat takes over as her parents desperately search for their daughter. Rose's dream is later confirmed by Albert, who tells her: "Emily followed the moon. Kids follow light."

As stated above, the disappearance of the lost child (more specifically, the lost girl) is a familiar theme in Australian cinema, Other Australian films, such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) and Dot and the Kangaroo (Yoram Gross, 1977), also feature the disappearance of white girls. However, in those films the moment of disappearance is filled with a sense of foreboding or danger. The three girls in Picnic at Hanging Rock – Miranda, Irma, and Marion – are teenagers at a boarding school, and older than Emily. Like Emily, they too seem to be "spirited away" by some other-worldly force. We never find out what causes them to become so entranced and the moment they vanish is filled with terror (experienced by the viewer through the character of Edith, who runs away screaming). Dot more closely resembles Emily. Around the same age, she becomes lost when chasing a hopping mouse through the bush, tripping and falling into a gully and losing her way home. We experience this disappearance from Dot's perspective, and it is disorienting. The bush takes on a menacing aspect (being a children's film, the menace is somewhat relieved when Dot encounters Kangaroo, who helps her find her way home). In One Night the Moon Perkins offers a unique treatment of the story of the lost child, in that Emily's moment of disappearance is not menacing – it is the aftermath that becomes tragic. Perkins' film thus emphasises the perspective of the mother and the tracker.

The music we hear during Emily's disappearance returns again and again; the familiar theme plays as Rose remembers moments with her daughter, playing together or teaching her to knead dough. If the music of this film is intended to express the inner thoughts and emotions of its characters, then this music is a literal reflection of the pure and unconditional love Rose feels for her daughter. But, the same musical theme is repeated as Albert sits alone at night, having just sung about his connection to the land, his ability to track. The sung line, "Beyond the known, we're not alone" speaks to his understanding of the land, in extreme contrast to that of Jim's. The music is associated with Jim only once, and briefly. The loss of Emily has caused Jim to withdraw from his wife as he obsessively tries to find Emily on his own; after shouting at Rose that he'll find her, he attempts to reach out and gently touch her, as Rose weeps in bed. It is the only time we hear Emily's theme associated with Jim, and still the focus is mostly on Rose. It is also the last time in the film that Jim reaches out to Rose, to offer her any sort of comfort. The more this musical motif recurs, the more it becomes tinged with sadness.

The sequence of Emily's disappearance is filtered through Rose's perspective – a dream that, thanks to Albert, she learns is a reality. Fiona Probyn writes of the connection shared between Rose and Albert, that their joining forces to find Emily "signals the discordant harmonies of reconciliation" – in particular, she explores their connection through the duet "Unfinished Business."3 But, Perkins highlights their connection in other ways too. One of the lines in that song, sung by Rose, is "Every day I'm with the child, she walks on my dreams." Rose and Albert, the settler wife and the tracker, meet in that in-between space, the dreamscape of Emily's disappearance. They become joined by the light and song of the moon, to be heard one last time as they follow the path Emily took.