SWEET COUNTRY [2017]

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In what could be labelled as an Outback Western, Warwick Thornton’s second foray into directing after making a splash with Samson and Delilah in 2009- another film revolving around Aboriginal struggles- is again a searing and confronting film that may prove shocking to those who aren’t aware of the sordid history between settlers and the native peoples of Australia; oppression that continues to this day. The the sad reality is that this film will probably resonate overseas more than it will in Australia, where our disgusting history is buried in the sand and rarely addressed. Case in point: This film had a shooting schedule of 22 days.

This film is based in the late 1920’s- not that long ago, and it isn’t just incredibly visceral, it is realistic according to historical accounts. One can’t blame Warwick for wanting to make a strong, piercing film about his people.

The story is simple. Sam Kelly (an incredible first-time performance by Hamilton Morris) works for a religious man, Fred, who considers everyone equal in the eyes of the Lord. Sam is not his ‘black stock’ he asserts when asked the question. He lets Sam help a new face in town, new lawman Harry March, who needs some work done. This new face in town has no qualms in beating his young ‘stock’ when he finds him stealing melons. After Sam completes the work, March promptly tells him to fuck off.

The young boy who worked for March runs away soon after Sam leaves, prompting March to believe that Sam was involved. In an excellent, tense scene, March yells at Sam from outside Fred’s house, where Sam and his wife are huddled, convinced the young Philomac is in there. He fires several shots into the house, prompting Sam to pick up Fred’s gun and blow March off the porch. Quickly realising what this means, as there were witnesses, Sam and his wife are quick to flee as the white authorities are bitter and determined to follow the killer and his wife so they can see them both hang. But Sam knows the bush much better than the search party, which includes Fred who is worried about the safety of Sam and and an as always excellent Bryan Brown as the sergeant in charge.

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Many elements of the film stand out, such as the immediately challenging flash-forward scene at start of film, where we see a saucepan boiling, and without any movement of the camera, all we can hear are violent arguments and pleas from Aboriginal people for whatever is happening to stop. Later, we see what happened during that moment, and the inclusion of the opening scene not only amplifies the effect of the later scene, but it is also it is a perfect way to open a film with a bang. Most of these flash-back/forward moments are handled extremely well- there is no confusion as the sound of the current scene continues over the quick cuts to the past or future, and most offer further understanding of the characters.

What also must be mentioned is the cinematography. This is Thorton’s background; he has worked on several films behind the camera, and here, much like Samson and Delilah, he is the director and cinematographer, a combination that should be more common among film-making if a director truly wants his vision realised. This decision proves to be the right one, as the pictures captured are stunning, surely aided by the fact that it was shot in the Northern Territory, in an area where Warwick grew up. Paired with the near-perfect camerawork, there is a complete lack of a soundtrack, allowing the sounds of the Outback to serve as the score. Whether it is a bird, flies, crickets, the wind, this decision gives the film an atmosphere that is uniquely Australian.

Many shots are jaw-dropping as we see just how expansive and beautiful yet brutal the Outback can be. It is shot in a way that mostly focuses on the beauty of the outback, contrasting the ugly acts that we see on-screen. Yet we also see some of the rough areas of the Outback that align with the brutal story, especially a scene where one of the search party is desperate for water after getting lost in endless salt flats.

Another more subtle theme of the film is what were (and often still are) referred to as ‘half-casts’ – a child who has one white parent and one black. Elders try to stop a young boy of this parentage from stealing- young Philomac from earlier, as this is the ‘white mans way’. Other acts that have been brought to Australia among the white settlers are discouraged too, and it is hard not to take this as commentary on the continuing attempts by Australian authorities to ‘assimilate’ the native population; that is, to force them to live like us. The final scene nails this point home.

Despite the story being told, the narrative does a good job of avoiding total bias- not easy in a film of this nature. Not every white person is painted as insanely racist, in fact we see quick flash-backs of two of the worst characters, one revealing severe shellshock from World War I. It doesn’t excuse his actions at all but these quick scenes humanise them as we hate them just a little less.

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It must be said though that most white people do act like most white men did during this period, and a film about the disgusting history of Australia is near impossible not to have bias. Importantly there are significant roles played by Aboriginals that cause one to think twice about their relationship, or their agreement, with the whitefellas. The word is never used, but label or no label, it was slavery.

An important film that every Australian should see- unfortunately most won’t as the racism down under is rampant.

A full sixer, perhaps the best Australian film ever made.

6/6