Compelling, contemplative story about the absurd criminality of colonialism

Teodosia Dobriyanova on Warwick Thornton’s ‘Sweet Country’ (2017)

AFTER HIS BREAKTHROUGH DEBUT FILM, Samson and Delilah (2009), which won the Best First Film award at Cannes, Australian director Warwick Thornton returns with Sweet Country — a telling neo-western about ethnic conflicts and racism in 1920’s Australia. Constructed by local biographical stories, Sweet Country deals with Australia’s not-so-distant past when, as Thornton states, “We indigenous Australians weren’t technically slaves, but we worked for free, worked for rations, under the authority imposed by a law called the Native Affairs Act.”

Thornton’s period piece is set in 1929, in a small fictional town somewhere in Outback Alice Springs, Australia. The story follows Sam and Lizzie Kelly (the name Kelly seems no accident, as proven in a cinephilic scene that showcases a screening of The Kelly Gang (1906)), played by Hamilton Morris and Natassia Gorey-Furber. Sam and Lizzie are a middle-aged aboriginal couple who work for a local Christian preacher. He soon sends them to help Harry (Ewen Leslie), a traumatised WWI veteran who has recently moved to a nearby outpost that he’s trying to renovate. Harry is a troubled figure, a mentally unstable white supremacist, convinced that the indigenous are unworthy of human rights. His unprovoked hatred leads to a series of violent crimes against his minority workers, eventually culminating in his death — an accidental act of self-defence.

Consequently, the film embarks on a journey across the Australian desert, as the the local Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) chases down Harry’s ‘murderer.’ This chase through the desert marks the first time that the notion of law appears in Sweet Country, triggered by the death of a white man, while previously lacking critically during the multiple crimes against the aboriginals.

As men wander through the ever-changing landscapes of the Alice Springs’ desert, encountering the poisonous wildlife, deathly draught, and hostile aboriginal tribes, nature dwarves people and their West-imported laws to a ridicule. As human drama enfolds, nature remains calm, rarely eventful, completely indifferent to life and death. Men might have ‘civilised’ small areas of this wild country-continent, yet even in our contemporary reality, Australian cities remain oases in the midsts of untamed nature.

This contrast between humans and nature only enforces the feeling of colonialism’s horrible absurdism, of the colonialists’ attempts to impose their laws and customs onto different indigenous Australians. We see a reaffirmation of this in a trial scene, when the judge fails in his attempts to force his witnesses to answer his questions: “You must answer, you must answer me”, he keeps repeating insistently, but to no avail. This “must” that he keeps insisting on is an imperative completely alien to the indigenous, and so are the laws of his people. Ultimately, the film concludes, in a colonial society, law is nothing but a mirage.

Thornton succeeds in telling the compelling story of his ancestors in a unique genre-defying visual style. With the slow, observational pace of his film, and complete lack of non-diegetic soundtrack, the Australian director departs from the conventions of the Western and immerses us into an environment of immediate realism. Simultaneously too fast-paced for a piece of Slow Cinema, Sweet Country occasionally breaks away from linearity, with the presence of flashbacks and flash-forwards that provide deeper insights into the characters’ psyches. Albeit the aesthetics of Sweet Country can be traced back to the influences of John Ford and Sergio Leone, Thornton translates their cinematic heritage onto the language of his own country. The way the desert landscapes are portrayed might remind us of Ford’s depiction of Monument Valley, yet Thornton’s nature, just as the history it has witnessed, remains unmistakably Australian.

In a postcolonial country such as Australia, where the rights of the indigenous people only began to be recognised in the second half of 20th century, the existence of Sweet Country is more than compulsory, and the presence of directors such as Warwick Thornton more than needed. The past cannot be changed, but it is our collective responsibility to ensure that the future will be different.

Release: March 9, 2018

Teodosia Dobriyanova

By Teodosia Dobriyanova

Teodosia Dobriyanova is a writer, programmer, and documentary filmmaker based in London. She graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King’s College London (BA) and Ethnographic and Documentary Film (MA) from University College London. She has written for Dirty Movies, Filmotomy, and New East Cinema.