Sweet Country, by Indigenous Australian filmmaker Warwick Thornton, is a movie with brutality at its heart. Set in 1929, it tells the story of Sam, an Aboriginal stockman, forced to kill in self-defense a violent white landowner. Much lauded for its celebration of the classic Western, a genre befitting to tell the harrowing tale of colonialism, Sweet Country is more important for its strong but slow, well-paced narrative reflections on colonial violence. This, coupled with the aesthetic merits of the movie, saw it awarded the prestigious Special Jury Prize at last year’s Venice International Film Festival.
The burnt ochre-red landscape of Australia’s Northern Territory (where Thornton’s much celebrated Samson and Delilah [Cannes 2009 best film] was also shot), is the perfect setting for Sweet Country’s elegiac evocation of a time when Aboriginal Australians were seen as little more than objects for intervention. Even while the opening credits of the movie roll, violence is present. Loud, angry voices and stark, darkened imagery preempt a story where Aboriginal Australians feature as the hunted.
The screenplay, by David Tranter and Steven McGregor is inspired by a real-life case involving the killing of a white settler by a local Aboriginal man. In settler-colonial Australia, Aboriginal Australians were often denied any rights, often resulting in their widespread massacres; a message implicit in Sweet Country’s haunting narrative.
The film opens at the home of Fred Smith (Sam Neill) a would be Christian preacher lacking a church. Fred is a gentle soul endowed with the belief that all men are equal. He prays and dines with his Aboriginal employees, Sam (Hamilton Morris), his wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) and their young niece. This stands in sharp contrast to how other white characters treat Aboriginal people. As Fred, shelters from the scorching desert heat on his shadowy porch, with Sam and Lizzie in the background, Harry Marsh (Ewen Leslie), a newly arrived landowner, visits to introduce himself and ask about Fred’s ‘blackstock.’ Harry, a returned WWI veteran, appears quickly to be of unsavoury character – speaking in a way that reflects his boundless egotism and violence. The new landowner asks Fred if he can have a ‘loan’ of his help for some work on his new home. Fred reluctantly agrees to this, beginning the harrowing downfall of Sam and Lizzie.
Meanwhile, further down the road, we meet Fred’s neighbour Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright), a man who jealously guards his crop of watermelons while being particularly harsh on a young Aboriginal boy (who we later learn is indeed, his son), Philomac (played alternately by twins Trevon and Tremayne Doolan) and his stockman Archie (Gibson John).
In between long lingering shots of the harsh yet beautiful Australian bush interspliced with unsettling non-linear bursts of experience in the form of flashbacks and flashforwards; the brutality of frontier Australia is made apparent. Harry’s sense of ownership and superiority over Sam and Lizzie is evoked with force when Harry violently rapes Lizzie. The fact that this happens in complete darkness with only the muffled sounds of this violent event does not attenuate the symbolic weight of the film’s central message. We hear a drunken Harry say, with reference to Sam’s young niece, ‘I wanted the other one, but you’ll do.’ Lizzie is threatened to remain silent and Harry orders them all to return to Fred.
Layer after layer of colonial violence is peeled back as the film’s narrative unfolds. When Fred goes away for a few days, he leaves Sam and Lizzie in charge of the homestead. Later, when Harry Marsh comes in search of Mick Kennedy’s young Aboriginal boy, Philomac, who escaped after being chained up, gun shots are exchanged, and Harry is shot dead. There is little Sam can do except go on the run. An Aboriginal man who kills a white man will receive no mercy.
The film allows some pockets in which to breathe. Widescreen images of the scenic, dusty outback and rocky ranges – coupled with close up shots of billowing native grasses – allow viewers to momentarily escape the violence of the Australian colonial project. As we follow Sam and Lizzie on their escape, viewers are confronted with the collision of cultures and world orders. As they are pursued – by local policeman, Fletcher (Bryan Brown) – Sam and Lizzie have a number of encounters with more remote Aboriginal tribes. These encounters serve to underline the alienation of Aboriginal groups living on missions away from their languages and cultural practices. This is best encapsulated by the poignant but pedagogical scene wherein Archie reprimands Philomac for his ongoing thieving from whitefellas. By telling Philomac that ‘whitefella things are trouble’ and that if he continued he would end up just like them -lost, without culture, lore or dreaming – Archie points to the significant losses endured by Indigenous Australians. Theft of land, language, culture and persons (in particular, the removal of Aboriginal children known as the Stolen Generations) are pointed to in this key exchange.
Sweet Country is part of an ongoing ethical movement of breaking the silences inflicted on Aboriginal Australians. It does so with a poetic, philosophical and mindful elegance interfolded with some spectacular acting, particularly from some Aboriginal newcomers. It is 2018, but Sweet Country reminds us that the story of Indigenous Australians must be continually told and retold. This important telling is, at the very least, worth the cinema trip.
Sweet Country is out in Ireland March 9