Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Sweet Country

Director Warwick Thornton

SWEET COUNTRY              B+                  
Australia  (113 mi)  2017  ‘Scope  d:  Warwick Thornton

Special Jury Prize winner at Venice where it premiered, Aboriginal writer/director and cinematographer Warwick Thornton of 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #8 Samson and Delilah takes us into the Australian Outback at a time when whites were grabbing up all the Aboriginal lands.  Revealing some of the ugly truths about the nation’s colonial past, the film is told from an Indigenous perspective, where according to the director, “A lot of our history was written by colonizers who wanted to write these stories about themselves to put themselves in a favorable light.  A lot of it is a lie.  Now we're starting to write down our history with our version of events.”  Set in central Australia in 1929 (though it feels timeless and could easily have been 100 years earlier), the film is shot near Alice Springs and the MacDonnell Ranges, the birthplace of the director, where the vast and spectacular lands are an outstanding example of an ancient landscape untouched by man, barren and empty, with picturesque gorges sculptured by the elements over time.  In something of an assault to the senses exposing a more primitive, raw edge even before the film begins, viewers hear a jarring sound design filled with racial insults and threats that remain off-camera, yet this unorthodox technique prepares viewers for what follows.  In a film where no one person is essentially a lead character, where all contribute to the whole, the only certainty is the hardship of the land, where Sam Neill plays Fred, a preacher who works as a local farmer, who believes all are equal under the eyes of God, and has an Indigenous couple working for him, Sam (Hamilton Morris) and Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber), treated fairly, sharing meals and dinner prayers together.  Their lives are interrupted by the presence of a neighbor, Harry March (Ewen Leslie), an ex-soldier still haunted by visions of the war (WWI), deftly shown through flashback sequences, drinking himself into a stupor every night trying to forget, yet he asks for help digging fence posts on his land, borrowing Sam and Lizzie for a couple days while Fred goes on a temporary excursion out of town.  Closer details, however, show a merciless treatment by the new settlers towards blacks, dispossessed, thrown off their land, living in slave-like conditions where they are treated as property for the exclusive use of whites, overworked, usually working for free, treated like livestock, and forced to sleep with the horses.      

Shot in just 22 days, the film has an expansive feel about it, covering a lot of ground, using an expressionist style of photography along with a naturalistic sound design that allows viewers to feel they are right there, given a front row seat, watching history unfold.  Interjected into the story is a somewhat rebellious half-breed Aboriginal youth, Philomac (played by twin brothers, Tremayne and Trevon Doolan), who seems to straddle both worlds, rarely speaking, stealing regularly, however, often getting himself into trouble, but somehow always slithers out of it.  His developing conscience is at the center of the picture, as he’s a work in progress, much like the nation as a whole at that stage.  Philomac lives with his father, the principal white landowner of the region, Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright), subjecting him to all manner of abuse, yet also treating him like a favored son.  The contempt shown to the Indigenous population is on full display throughout this film, as it typifies how whites view them.  This is most clearly expressed by Harry March, however, in particular during one of the most disturbingly graphic scenes, as one by one he casually closes the shutters of his home on Lizzie, literally locking her inside and making her a prisoner, creating a feeling of dread and slow suffocation until it’s pitch black, using only sound to express the horrors of sexual assault.  Threats to Lizzie suggest March will skin her husband alive if she utters a word about it.  In the aftermath, he kicks them out, as if that was the sole reason to ask for help in the first place, though he really had his eye on a much younger teenage niece that was alertly sent away beforehand.  In conversations with Sam, he could tell the man was touched in the head and not acting right.  But when Philomac arrives on his property, March zealously chains him to a rock, but he’s clever enough to escape anyway, making his way across the desert back to Fred’s ranch, hiding in a nearby structure as he hears March approaching on horseback, drunkenly bellowing for Sam to let him in, knowing Philomac is in there (he isn’t), shooting out the windows and kicking in the door before Sam shoots him dead.  Shooting a white man is about the worst offense possible, as any Indigenous person is presumed guilty by white society, living outside any democratic process, as they were not citizens at the time and had no right to vote.  Most weren’t even paid in wages, but forced to receive alcohol or tobacco instead.  In Australia, Aboriginals weren’t even recognized as “people” until a Constitutional referendum in 1967 included them in the census for allocation of federal seats in Parliament (Australian referendum, 1967 (Aboriginals) - Wikipedia).  Knowing the laws weren’t meant to protect them, Sam and Lizzie set out into the Outback, where a posse led by Sergeant Fletcher, Bryan Brown from BREAKER MORANT (1980), sets out after him. 

With a nod to Rolf de Heer’s THE TRACKER (2002), Fletcher’s rage knows no bounds, developing a manic obsession to track him down, where his feverish anger drives him into the heart of tribal lands, where unforeseen consequences are all around him, including deadly scorpions, tribal attacks, and a mutiny in their midst, suddenly finding himself all alone.  Singlehandedly entering a desolate stretch of white desert (shot in the dry salt flats of Lake Gairdner), a lone speck under an oppressive sun, lost in a sea of emptiness, pushed onwards by madness and delusion, recalling the brilliant desert scene in Stroheim’s Greed (1924), where sheer arrogance plunges him further into the depths of his own doom, eerily shot by Thornton (co-shot with his son Dylan River), mixing close-ups with extreme wide shots, resorting to stark imagery and surreal hallucinations, creating an insurmountable confusion, yet somehow he manages to survive, though still filled with sadistic contempt for the man who got away.  In a strange reversal of perspective, we see Sam and Lizzie actually tracking Fletcher, planting footprints for him to follow, luring him into a death trap, always remaining just out of range, but the hardship becomes too much for Lizzie who announces she’s pregnant.  This has a profound effect on the outcome, as the presumed outlaws suddenly turn themselves in, seen sitting in the middle of the street one morning before Sam is locked up and threatened with a hanging.  The town itself is dangerously unbalanced, with white men largely outnumbering the women, mostly due to land opportunities driven by the cattle industry.  When a judge arrives (Matt Day), there’s no church or courthouse, so seats are set up on the middle of Main Street, with a table for the judge.  Bringing civilized decorum to an unruly town that’s never had to follow rules, Thornton uses an interesting device to illuminate the moral hypocrisy of the town’s lynch-mob mindset, all gathered together in the center of the street to watch a movie, of all things, in this case The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), the first full-length narrative feature film, an Australian outlaw epic with sympathies clearly leaning towards the escaped outlaw (gunned down in a police shoot-out 26 years before the release of the film), painting police as comical hooligans, a film that was so successful with the public that a law was introduced (fearing civil disobedience) banning “bushranger” productions, or films about escaped convicts, which remained in effect until the 1940’s.  As much as the town loves and identifies with Ned Kelly, something of an Australian folk hero, they fiercely condemn Sam Kelly (yes, given the same last name) with a pathological bloodlust.  It should be pointed out that at Coniston Station in 1928 (Coniston :: The Coniston Massacre), just 400 kilometers from Alice Springs, more than 100 Aboriginal men, women, and children were slaughtered by murderous shooting parties that went on a two-month shooting binge in retaliation for the death of a local white man who took liberties with a married Indigenous woman, murdered by her husband, with a court inquiry declaring “the killing of all blacks to be justified” afterwards, the last legally sanctioned massacre against Aborigines, where an Indigenous population that was estimated to be about 500,000 in the late 18th century had shrunk to just 31,000 by 1911.  With subtle character development, using dialogue sparingly, and both flashbacks and flash-forwards in presenting a strangely compelling narrative, along with non-professional Aboriginal actors, the director’s use of various desert landscapes is simply stunning, creating a poetic exploration of racism and colonial exploitation. 

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