I like Warwick Thornton’s vision. It is an uncomfortable one for a non-Indigenous person like myself but his film should be obligatory viewing for all of us.
Sweet Country is based on the true story of sound recordist David Tranter’s great uncle but it could be the story of Australia’s past and of today. Working on two levels, we see what happens when Aboriginal stockman Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) kills station owner and loathsome white fella Harry March (Ewen Leslie). The film’s unflinching depiction of racism, made all the more toxic by patriarchy, shows us what it means to be rendered powerless.
Set in 1929 in the McDonnell Ranges, though feeling like a frontier western of a century earlier, the story centres on Sam who, with his young wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber), works for morally upright and dogmatically Christian station owner Fred Smith (Sam Neil). When newcomer March calls to pay his respects, it is clear that he is a damaged and violent man. It doesn’t take much for his anger, embedded in racism and entitlement, to be directed toward Sam and Lizzie, with devastating consequences.
Occurring within the lifetime of my parents, it is sobering to think how recent the prevalence of this deep and overt racism is. It makes me think of the map of the sites of colonial massacres of Australian Indigenous peoples, drawn only from newspaper reports, letters, diaries and court records. Research has found that massacres “usually take place in response to the Aboriginal killing of a white person, usually a male who had abducted and sexually abused an Aboriginal woman.” And of course, however powerless Aboriginal people are, the women are always worse off.
I was conscious throughout that the women in the story had little voice. Lizzie and Sam’s niece (uncredited but played by Shanika Cole) exchange a few words and Lizzie speaks a handful of sentences to Sam. Hotel owner Nell (Anni Finsterer) is almost completely silent in her scenes and at times we see several Aboriginal women standing watching in the background. It seemed at odds with what I expect from Thornton, leading me to believe that there is a sub-text here, that all of the characters represent aspects of Australian society.
Fred is the church, well meaning but able only to comfort and not protect. Trooper Fletcher (Bryan Brown) is the law, full of the vices that he deplores and himself damaged by colonial conflict. Station owner Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright) is the everyman, complicit in the oppression that comes with privilege but appalled when he realises its consequences. Sam survives by keeping his head down but he too is caught in the patriarchal confines of his culture. Young Philomac (played by Trevon and Tremayne Doolan) is the next generation, trying to understand the life he has been born in to and decide whether he has a better chance of survival if he is complicit with white fellas. The Aboriginal women have no agency in this world and only the white woman gets to say no.
Thornton seems to be saying that it is patriarchy as well as colonialism that has, and continues, to oppress Indigenous people. There is not much hope in the story, even with Philomac’s last gesture.
Thornton has a cinematic technique where he will cut, in a quiet moment of an interaction, to a few seconds of a memory of one of the characters. There will be no sound and we are momentarily disconcerted, unable to discern whether it is memory or something yet to happen. They are often moments of strong emotions – stockmen fighting, a child sheltering bloodied under a water tank, laughter over a campfire. They are the moments that make up a life, not just elements of a narrative that we can watch from the safety of our cinema seats. It is the universal nature of these – fear, joy, survival – that connects us.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.