Tagged: historical film

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: http://showtimes.sweetcountryfilm.co.uk

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‘.)

Sergeant 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 the 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):

Iron Lord (Yaroslav. Tysyachu let nazad, Russia 2010)

Yaroslav (Aleksandr Ivashkevich) leads his men into another small settlement in Iron Lord.

This is the second recent pick-up of a Russian historical biopic by the UK distributor Revolver for a DVD release, following Admiral which we reviewed a few weeks ago. Both films were released in Russia by 20th Century Fox. As with Admiral, the film appears to be an ideology-driven film celebrating one of the first leaders to unite the principalities that would eventually become Russia. In some respects therefore the premise for the film recalls that of Zhang Yimou’s Hero about the king who first united China – though the actual narrative is quite different.

Historical outline

1010, the steppes of western Asia/Eastern Europe. The central character is Yaroslav (hence the Russian title of the film) son of Vladimir, ruler of what was in the early eleventh century, Rus’ or Kievan Rus’, with its capital in Kiev. Yaroslav is given the task of ruling the furthest territory controlled by his father, the wild lands of the North East around Rostov. Kievan Rus figures in Russian history as a ‘medieval polity’ that saw a concentration of power amongst the ‘Eastern Slavs’ before the invasion of their lands by the Mongols in 1230. Kiev is the capital of present-day Ukraine and Rostov is a city in modern Russia some 200 km North-East of Moscow. Rostov is a key city in Russian history and this film celebrates the founding of the city of Yaroslavl, now the major city of the region, 1,000 years ago.

Yaroslav has to find ways of gaining the trust of the local tribes (so that they will pay ‘tribute’) and fighting off marauding bandits who take prisoners to sell as slaves after being taken down the Volga River. Yaroslav has a central plan to build a fortress in the new territories. The local tribes are pagan but Yaroslav is a Christian and the fortress will also represent the solidity of Christianity. This narrative focuses specifically on a tribal group who worship a Bear god (veles) – a symbol of later Russia? The control of the area is further complicated by the actions of the Varangian (Viking) mercenaries who act as Yaroslav’s personal guards.

A Russian poster featuring one of the romance interests, Svetlana Chuikina as Raida

Genre

In Hollywood terms, this might be a ‘sword and archery’ type of film or a medieval epic – the time period is similar to that of Robin Hood and the Crusades. The presentation of Yaroslav is not unlike that of the Russell Crowe character in Gladiator, especially with the (rather confusing) references to his family. However, the strategies adopted by Yaroslav are also similar to those of a ‘liberal’ commander of the US Cavalry attempting to establish order in ‘Indian Country’, i.e. an imperial mission. Intellect’s Directory of World Cinema: Russia (ed Birgit Beumers, 2011) suggests that the ‘historical film’ has always been a major genre in Russian Cinema in both Soviet and pre- and post-Soviet periods. A second key genre is the action film which the Directory terms the ‘Red Western’ – an allusion to the way in which popular Russian films have borrowed aspects of Hollywood genres extensively since the 1920s. Iron Lord can be seen as an attempt to use these two genre repertoires as the basis for a conventional biopic about an important historical Russian figure.

Commentary

A handsomely mounted film in CinemaScope, this would make a visual spectacle of the plains and forests on a big cinema screen. The visual quality is diminished on a TV screen. There is certainly plenty of action with up to four sets of combatants at different times fighting with swords, arrows, a variety of ingenious booby traps and even a bear or two – but these are all relatively small-scale skirmishes. I was most interested in the historical references and the construction of Yaroslav as an almost saint-like figure. There is a smidgeon of romance and one or two comic characters for light relief but on the whole the film is a relatively straightforward. The performances are fine and the combat scenes are well-handled. The weakness for me is in the script which I found confusing. Without recourse to Wikipedia and other sources I would have struggled to understand who the characters were and why they were acting in the ways they did – I’m still not sure that I fully understood the narrative. (The subtitles are OK but some Russian intertitles are not translated.)

Re-branding the film Iron Lord strikes me as misleading. Yaroslav is almost the opposite – he is ‘wise’ not brutal in this narrative and he spends much of the time in captivity or negotiation. Of course, few people outside Russia will know who Yaroslav was so the Russian title probably wouldn’t work either. The film was released in Russia on 550 prints and also has had a release in Ukraine and Germany. It lasted only one week in the Russian Top Ten so presumably audiences are too engaged with Hollywood product to lap up this kind of patriotic film. Revolver announce that the film is “from the same studio that brought you Black Death“. I’m not sure what this means – I couldn’t find any link between the two films. On the other hand, there has been a recent cycle of UK/Nordic/German films of this type (the most recent being Ironclad, 2011).

I couldn’t find much about any of the cast and crew. Most seem either to have come from TV or to be new to the industry according to IMDb. What I did find, however, was that a Soviet era version of the story was adapted as a 156 mins film in 1983. I’d like to see that for comparison. I wonder what happened to all those popular genre films made by Soviet era studios?

DVD Release

Revolver release the DVD on August 1 via the usual retailers. There is a website at http://ironlord.co.uk complete with a clip from the film. Or see it on YouTube at:

Admiral (Russia 2008)

Admiral Kolchak receives tribute from White Russian forces and proclaims himself ‘Supreme Ruler’

Picked up by Metrodome for a UK DVD release, Admiral is an interesting example of the new Russian popular cinema that is now emerging in one of the fastest growing cinema markets in the world. This month Screen International has a feature in which analysts predict that the Russian box office will grow to as many as 300 million admissions by 2015 (from 165 million in 2010). If this happens it will see Russia as the fourth biggest market behind India, US and China. However, most of this growth is due to Hollywood blockbusters and local films still struggle to compete. Admiral has been the second most successful Russian film of recent years (taking $33.7 million in Russia) and it involves some of the same cast and crew as the other two most popular films The Irony of Fate 2 and Day Watch. The other important institutional factor to note is that the film is actually a 2 hour cut from a 10 hour TV mini-series. That’s an extreme form of compression by anyone’s standards.

Outline (spoilers – but this is a biopic!)

The Admiral of the title is Aleksandr Kolchak (1874-1920), an important historical figure in Russian history. Kolchak was first a polar explorer and then a hero of both the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-5 and the First World War naval engagements between the Imperial Navies of Russia and Germany in 1916. It is with these engagements that the film’s narrative begins. During celebrations of a naval victory, Kolchak meets and falls in love with the beautiful young wife of his friend and deputy – much to the dismay of both his friend and his own wife. Following the Tsar’s abdication, Kolchak managed to retain his authority (largely through being sent to America to help the US Navy). He is able to return to the Russian Far East where he seizes control of the White Forces in the Civil War against the newly formed Red Army. Throughout this period his new love Anna attempts to be with him while his wife and son are in exile in Paris. The film narrative is book-ended by a scene set in the Mosfilm Studios during Sergei Bondarchuk’s production of War and Peace in 1964. Anna, who survived the Civil War but was then imprisoned, is now able to appear in public – but is a role in a ‘patriotic film’, even as an extra, appropriate?

Commentary

An expensive production ($20 million according to Wikipedia) Admiral certainly looks the part – although it suffers like most modern ‘spectacular films’ from the problems of CGI battle scenes. Visually, it works best as a costume drama. The major problem is clearly the compression of the narrative which inevitably means that the story leaps about through time and space. I confess that apart from the two leads, I found it difficult to track certain characters through the narrative. Partly this was because of the strange experience of watching naval officers transmuted into army officers. If you don’t know the history of the Russian Civil War, I recommend at least an outline scan of events before watching the film. (The film does not purport to be an exact historical reconstruction.) It’s difficult to work out the extent to which the balance between the war combat/military planning narrative and the romance has been affected by the compression. I suspect that purchasers of the DVD expecting an epic combat film will be disappointed by the way in which the romance comes to the fore. The romance fails for me because Elizaveta Boyarskaya who plays Anna is certainly beautiful but appears to have little else in her performance that represents the passion the character feels for Kolchak. Konstantin Habensky who plays the Admiral is perhaps the most popular contemporary Russian actor and is believable as the central character, although he looks a little young. The obvious films that audiences in the West will use for comparison are Dr Zhivago (1965) and War and Peace (King Vidor 1956). Ms Boyarskaya doesn’t stand much chance up against Julie Christie or Audrey Hepburn.

For me the most interesting aspect of the film is its ideological work. It’s always an odd experience watching a film in which you find yourself being asked to follow the exploits of the enemy when your own side is not being shown. Not that this is impossible since I’ve never really had a problem with supporting Sergeant Steiner and his men in Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron even if they are part of the Wehrmacht fighting the Red Army. But that’s because they are professional soldiers simply trying to survive and ignore the Nazi officer who they distrust. In the case of Admiral, however, we are asked to support a man who became what some commentators have termed a proto-fascist dictator as ‘Supreme Chief of Russian Forces’. His own ideology seems to be church and ‘homeland’, expressed in patrician and aristocratic terms. The film makes no attempt to humanise the Bolsheviks and they are represented as little more than thugs in most cases – apart from some of the guards in the final sequence. I did quite like the ways in which the guards struggled to find different ways to address the Admiral in the new language of the revolution. ‘Mr Kolchak’ was the last one I think (according to the subtitles).

It’s a shame that the film doesn’t give us the whole story as Kolchak’s early life is intriguing. A character with more shades to his personal character might be more interesting. As it is this seems like a crude attempt to valorise a Putin-like figure. Channel One was a major funder of the film and I think this TV channel is still majority owned by the Russian state. Possibly the TV mini-series has more nuances and contradictions but if you want a corrective to this view of the Civil War I recommend Miklós Jancsó‘s The Red and the White (Hungary 1968). One last point – the image at the head of this post shows the British and American flags. There is, I think, little knowledge in the UK of the part played by Churchill in particular in sending British forces and encouraging other allies to support the Whites in 1918-9 and to try to strangle the Russian Soviets at birth.

A Russian trailer (with English subs):