By PIP McMANUS
In the opening frames of Sweet Country a pot of water bubbles fiercely and boils over on a camp fire while abusive scuffling is heard nearby. This close focus image, both beautiful and disturbing, clearly presages the tone of Alice Springs film maker Warwick Thornton’s latest big screen work.
The pre-release viewing in Alice Springs was attended by an excited crowd of Indigenous and non Indigenous locals keen to preview Thornton’s second feature shot in Arrernte country, which has already garnered a swag of awards from festivals across the world.
Leading actors Hamilton Morris and Gibson John, standing proudly before relatives at the preview, spoke of the importance of acknowledging painful family stories while emphasising, graciously, the imperative now to “peacefully live together”.
The drama unfolds in 1920s cattle country of Central Australia where the calling cards of white men are grog, bigotry and violence. Fred Smith (Sam Neil), a fervent Christian, is an exception, advocating respect for his workers. Nevertheless he agrees to lend his trusted station hand Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris, at right) and Sam’s wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) to an unsavoury newcomer and war-traumatised veteran, Harry March (Ewen Leslie).
Brutality, rape and shoot-out ensue, a whitefella is left dead – these events foreshadowed by the use of disturbing flash-backs and flash-forwards. Sam and Lizzie flee, with a mounted police posse setting out in pursuit.
The dialogue is sparse, punctuated by the constant cursing of the whitefellas and potent silence of the blackfellas. All performances ring true.
Sweet Country takes a resolute stance around the significance of “witness” as observed so divergently by the black and white protagonists.
In the context of the whitefella court, set up hastily in the dust outside the hotel where the local drunks look down from the verandah, the elder Archie (Gibson John) suggests that “witness is answering questions when the judge asks”. Thornton insists the audience takes a much more thoughtful and provocative viewpoint.
The camera rarely moves above eye level, in fact it most often looks upward from ground level and focuses on rich grainy detail of flesh or rock, hand gesture or marks in the sand. Elders Archie and Sam know they are witnessing the desecration of country, the potential loss of sacred knowledge.
A senior Arrernte man warns Philomac, a mixed blood boy bullied by his white father, that he will end up myall (ignorant) like a whitefella. This man is confounded that they, whitefellas, got “atywerrenge arrangkwe” – subtitled as “no songs, no lore” (pointedly not spelt ‘law’).
The motif of implacable witness is reiterated via recurrent scenes of Sam and Lizzie moving quietly through stands of exquisite desert oaks. Standing tall and straight, the saplings are mysterious and hazy, the adult trees transformed into powerful oaks with fine, fringe like curtains, a metaphor for knowledge and testimony.
There’s a significant scene depicting town locals sitting in deckchairs outside the pub at night, watching a silent movie. Cinema buffs will recognise this as the original 1906 Charles Tait version of The Story of The Kelly Gang, the earliest feature film ever made, signalling the beginning of the Australian film industry and our nation’s love affair with cinematic bushrangers and outsiders.
This affection for renegade outsiders did not extend to the portrayal of rebellious Aboriginal warriors defending their country. The deck chairs are a recurring symbol of passive eye-witnessing, serving also as seating for the court audience while inside the hotel a female publican, girlfriend of the policeman Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown, at left), and her daughter serve despondent drunks knocking back copious amounts of liquor.
While Sweet Country does adhere to many of the tropes of the Hollywood Western genre – wide open spaces contrasting with close shots and dark claustrophobic interiors, silhouetted sunsets and liquor-sodden saloons – there is a determined turning of the tables. The observation point is from the outside, from the archetypal parched wilderness where the blackfella characters ponder what is transpiring on the whitefella verandahs and inside their dark huts.
The white man in the desert is confronted by his own pigheadedness and the limitations of his ability to survive beyond “civilisation”. The bleached scenes of Sergeant Fletcher and horse staggering, lost, across an infinite salt lake, while impressive, were perhaps a trope too overused. But unlike John Ford’s heroic blood and sweat epics, there are no sweeping vistas with lone cowboy charging through monumental backdrops, rather a measured pace, on foot, keenly observing country.
Some scenes are difficult to read, perhaps intentionally – the violent encounter between the police party and warriors where both parties suffer losses could imply that the warrior group in the gorge interpret this intrusion as a blatant disregard for traditional territorial boundaries. Or is there a misreading of intentions on both sides?
And what of the lightning brief scene where red-ochred warriors fall upon Lizzie, which surely will be regarded by white audiences as a rape scene, but which may be more about the very serious transgression of a woman straying close to men’s ceremonial business.
What is clear is that there is a chasm of cultural misapprehension and the director is purposely pitching the view not from a sharp-shooting gunslinger riding into town but from the standpoint of people in crisis, fighting for their survival.
The absence of a composed soundtrack intensifies the visual focus and asks us to listen intently to aural cues – a refreshing change from the usual overbearing symphonic accompaniment pinpointing how and what we should feel.
The film is by no means all heavy-hearted, high noon drama. That signature blackfella humour and playfulness sees the earnest missionary character Fred Smith (Sam Neill, above right) do a funny, tuneless camp fire rendition of Jesus Loves Me while the wry “yes boss” replies of the station hands underscore a mocking outlook. This is no more so than when Philomac takes a watch from the corpse of Harry March and declares him “a cheeky whitefella”.
It is the character of Philomac (below left), played with seamless conviction by twin brothers Tremayne and Trevon Doolan, which is the most interesting. Philomac is constantly keeping watch, weighing his options, resolutely defiant towards everyone. Hidden behind the old dunny, he does witness the moment that Sam’s bullet fells the maniacal March but he chooses to deny this to the court, even though this could provide testimony to Sam’s self defence.
The final image reveals Philomac toying with and then discarding the gold watch, another whitefella thing which may bring more trouble. He is a survivor who knows his country, who will make his own way in the world.
The cinematography by Warwick Thornton and Dylan River is masterful, showcasing Thornton’s distinctively painterly approach with the camera. It is not simply the saturated colours and sensual hues that signal his camera style. His use of natural light, his love of fire-lit scenes and strong shadows suggests an upbringing consolidated by oral story telling and family gatherings around the camp fire.
On leaving the cinema I wondered why I had expected or wanted more pace in the film, some unexpected twists and turns to keep us guessing. But Sweet Country has stayed with me, and smouldered.
The issues of racism and recognition of the wrongs perpetrated on Indigenous Australians simmer visibly up on the screen but Thornton’s style and original approach demand that we think deeply about the scenes we may not understand, that we dig deeper into the silences and seek more nuanced explanations.
One might conclude that the callous incidents depicted, based loosely on real events nearly a century ago, have little resonance today. But it is only a few months since the Turnbull government’s comprehensive rejection of the Uluru statement – a calculated dismissal of a majority demand by Aboriginal people across the nation for a constitutionally sanctioned Indigenous voice to Parliament. Sweet Country is a voice that demands to be heard.
Sweet Country is in general release around the country, including at the Alice Springs Cinemas from 25 January.
Pip McManus is a long term Alice Springs-based artist working in the areas of public art design and production, art videos, installation art and ceramics. She is a frequent contributor to public conversation in Alice Springs.