GFF18 #16: Sweet Country (Australia 2017)

Sam (Hamilton Morris) knows the desert . . .

I did see this film in Glasgow, but as it was released officially in the UK on March 9th, I decided to wait to see what kind of reception it got on its opening weekend. That has proved to be an interesting experience. Sweet Country was screened at Cineworld on Renfrew Street on a large screen which benefited this magnificent film – if you get the opportunity, see it on the largest screen you can. Unfortunately, you will struggle to find a local multiplex showing the film over the next few weeks. Despite the good job Thunderbird Releasing has done in promoting the film it is mainly showing at arthouse cinemas in major cities (and we don’t have screenings in Bradford – just two shows in Leeds). Check for your nearest screening here:

Sweet Country is that rare but increasingly important beast – an Indigenous film from Australia. It is presented in a form that is instantly accessible to audiences outside Australia as a ‘Western’ set in the Northern Territory during the late 1920s. The narrative is based on a true story and it explores the racism of Australia’s colonial past (and as such comments on the racial tensions of the present and possible future of Australia). Writer-director-cinematographer Warwick Thornton came to prominence on the international stage with short films and then with Samson and Delilah (Australia 2009) which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. I was knocked sideways when I saw that film on DVD a few years later. Samson and Delilah uses local non-professional actors for its teenage lead characters and was shot on location in the Alice Springs area. Before I saw that film I had come across Warwick Thornton’s camerawork in a more mainstream Indigenous film The Sapphires (Australia 2012) by Thornton’s mate Wayne Blair. This hugely enjoyable (and moving) film about an Aboriginal girl group performing for US Armed Forces in Vietnam in the 1960s deserved a much bigger audience than it found in the UK.

Fred (Sam Neill) takes Sam’s niece Lucy to town – to keep her out of harm’s way

The narrative of Sweet Country is in one sense quite simple, but Warwick Thornton’s treatment, in terms of sound and image and narrative structure, turns into a rich and complex film that will repay many re-viewings. (The film eschews non-diegetic music and relies on the natural sounds of the environment.) The basic premise is that the establishment of cattle stations in the Alice Springs area has produced an unbalanced and dangerous local community with white men outnumbering white women and the local Indigenous people forced to work almost as indentured labour on their own land. In 1929 an embittered war veteran Harry March takes over a ranch and seeks to ‘borrow’ some Indigenous workers for a couple of days. Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a local rancher who sees himself as a religious man reluctantly agrees to ask his worker Sam to go to the March place along with his wife and niece for a few days. Sam is wary of March and when the drunken white man comes after the Indigenous family with a gun, Sam kills him in self-defence. Having killed a white man, Sam and Lizzie must go on the run in the bush. A posse led by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) sets out to track them. The outcome of the search and its aftermath is shocking. I’ve purposefully left out a lot of detail and not allowed any real spoilers but these are the main sections of the narrative. Thornton uses both flashbacks and flashforwards in presenting his narrative.

Lizzie finds water . . .

Helped by his local knowledge, Thornton’s presentation of landscapes including rocky outcrops, ravines, scrub and desert is stunning. The brief outline above refers to familiar elements from American Westerns. Australian development in the Northern territory was slower and only the presence of a travelling film show featuring The Ned Kelly Story (1906) signifies the twentieth century. The Western comparison is, I feel, a two-edged sword for Warwick Thornton who has promoted his film using the ‘Western’ tag. It makes the story more familiar and more accessible to audiences outside Australia (and perhaps to contemporary Australian audiences), but it also risks critics and reviewers treating the film as simply an ‘exotic’ form of a familiar genre rather than a historical Indigenous film exploring the racism and oppression of colonial exploitation. I fear that this has happened to a certain extent in some of the UK critical writing on the film. Some of the better coverage of the film comes in Sight and Sound, April 2018 with ‘Red Earth’, an essay by Trevor Johnston plus a review by Jason Anderson. Also in the same issue is a Tony Rayns DVD Review of the film Goldstone by Ivan Sen. As Rayns notes: ” . . . it’s blackfella directors like Ivan Sen and Warwick Thornton who are making the running in current Oz cinema”. I would endorse that view. Ivan Sen’s new film is another ‘frontier Western’ (in Queensland) following on from his previous film Mystery Road (2013) featuring an Indigenous police officer Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen). None of the reviewers I read this weekend mentioned The Tracker (Australia 2002), the film made by the partnership of director Rolf de Heer and veteran Indigenous actor David Gulpilil. The pair made two more films, Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie’s Country (2013) about Indigenous characters across history. The films by Thornton, Sen and those in which Gulpilil had considerable creative input sit alongside films like Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) – which though directed by a white Australian has Indigenous children at its centre and a memoir by an Indigenous woman as its source material (and is therefore another historical film based on a true story). Together these films present a significant Indigenous Australian cinema. (I should also note that Little White Lies is a UK publication that has a committed review of the film and references ‘10 essential Indigenous Australian films‘.)

Dergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) is responsible for finding Sam

Although Sweet Country and The Tracker are not the same narrative they do share several significant features. Both are set in the 1920s and both involve a posse attempting to apprehend an Indigenous man accused of murder of a white person. In both cases the posse includes a white man who is fanatical and openly racist, another who is experienced but not so ‘hot-blooded’ and a younger police officer who is more constrained by rules and ethics. Equally both groups of Europeans are outwitted by the Indigenous fugitive who knows how to live off the land and navigate the terrain. Important too is the fact that the chase moves across land occupied by other Indigenous groups – Aboriginal Australians are not one amorphous mass simply recognisable as ‘Other’ by white society. Instead they are different groups of people with different languages and different cultures. The significant difference in The Tracker is that an Indigenous man is ’employed’ as a tracker to lead the posse to the fugitive with all the moral dilemmas that entails (and he’s played by the film’s lead actor David Gulpilil). In Sweet Country there is also an Indigenous tracker, Archie, another stockman. But Archie is a relatively minor character in the narrative. Another minor character is a mixed race boy Philomac whose status is not clearly defined. However, Philomac is involved in the major incident at the beginning of the film and his ‘in between’ position carries meaning. The whole final section of Sweet Country is loaded with meanings. It poses a number of questions including whether the establishment of a church or the intervention of the justice system will have an impact on the racism expressed in the white community. British audiences should feel implicated in these questions because although Australia became an independent nation in 1901, the influence of British colonialism was still being felt in the 1920s. Researching this post I discovered that between 1927 and 1931, when the events in the narrative were meant to take place, the Northern Territory was in a kind of limbo while new arrangements for its governance were being discussed. I’m not sure if this is significant. Wayne Thornton expresses some of these concerns in the Press Notes.

Sweet Country is a western. A period western set in Central Australia. It has all the elements of the genre – the frontier, confiscation of land, subordination and conquest of a people and epic sweeping landscapes.

The world of Sweet Country has been newly established by the British Crown through the forceful taking of Indigenous lands. Yet these are lands which had and still possess a deep and complex web of ancient Indigenous laws, customs and life.

Sweet Country is set on a frontier outpost in 1929, where different cultural worlds collide, in an epic and beautiful desert landscape. It is a place where Indigenous, and non-Indigenous people push against each other like tectonic plates. It is a clash of cultures, ideologies and spirits that still continues today from when the colonisers first arrived in Australia.

My aim has been to use the accessibility of the western genre for audiences to enter the story and be drawn into this world and so experience the issues faced by an occupied people. (Warwick Thornton)

I think that reference to ‘an occupied people’ is very telling. Sweet Country should make non-Indigenous audiences think differently about how they have previously viewed Australian films.


Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan), the mixed race boy at the centre of the initial incident

I’m looking forward to seeing the film again at some point and I’m sure I’ll see things I missed the first time round. I’m encouraged by the Australian box office which after seven weeks has held up very well taking nearly US$1.4 million so far. The UK first weekend (plus previews) is £29,000 from 26 sites (the equivalent of US$40,200). The film opens in the US on Friday 16 March. Part of its box office appeal lies in the presence of Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, two audience favourites in Australia. The Indigenous characters Sam and Lizzie are played by Hamilton Morris and Natassia Gorey-Furber. Morris has one previous credit but Gorey-Furber was making a first appearance. The film was written by Steven McGregor and David Trainter. McGregor is an experienced hand having written and/or directed several TV dramas and films. David Trainter is an Indigenous sound recordist who worked on Samson and Delilah. It was from his grandfather’s knowledge of the historical incidents that the story was developed.

The Australian trailer: (WARNING it shows more of the story than set out above):

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