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Sweet Country

Here is a film which should be seen by as wide an audience as possible, especially Australian audiences, both indigenous and non-indigenous.

It is based on events that took place in 1929 and was filmed in South Australia. Director and cinematographer, Warwick Thornton, received great acclaim for his film about young people in and around Alice Springs, Samson and Delilah (2009). Thornton has photographed quite a number of films, including The Sapphires, as well as directing some short stories in The Darkside and an episode in Tim Winton’s The Turning.

At one stage, a remark is made that this desert outback is a sweet country, good for cattle. However, audiences immediately realise that it is not necessarily a sweet country for indigenous people. As the credits begin, there is a close-up of water boiling and racist remarks being made offscreen. Then there is a close-up of Sam, an older aboriginal man in a court case. How did this happen?

Sam (a first screen appearance by Hamilton Morris, highly effective and persuasive) lives with his wife and niece on a land spread, managed by a God-fearing, Bible-reading owner, Fred Smith (Sam Neill). All are equal on this property. Suddenly, a neighbouring landowner, Harry Mitchell (Ewen Leslie) comes to ask for help from Fred and then asking for its permission to take Sam and his family to help with work. Harry Mitchell served on the Western front, does not believe in God’s presence nor in equality. He is harsh with Sam, has a lustful eye on the niece, exploits Sam’s wife. He is also harsh with the young aboriginal lad, Philomach, who belongs to another neighbouring spread.

Complications ensue, the boy, in chains, runs away, Mitchell goes in pursuit, confronting Sam, guns drawn and Mitchell shot. Sam realises that in killing a white man, it will be hard for him to get a hearing and justice. He and his wife go walkabout.

In town, the local policeman, Fletcher, Bryan Brown, is definitely in charge, a touch of the genial but also more than a touch of the arrogant. A significant part of the plot is his going out into the desert in pursuit of Sam and his falling victim to the desert and lack of water.

When Sam gives himself up, a young judge (Matt Day) arrives, rejects the suggestion that the case be held in the bar, takes it outside with a desk and deck chairs. Fred is there in support of Sam.

The court scene is very moving, the young judge, rather inexperienced and a bit full of himself, makes demands in his questions, impatient for answers, not appreciating the pace of indigenous reflection and response.

The screenplay leads the audience to an appreciation of Sam, as well as the old aboriginal man, Archie (Gibson John also in a first film role) who was taken from his family and is subservient to the white owner, to watching Philomach, and wondering where he will finish. But the film also dramatises the exploitation of the indigenous, both men and women, by insensitive and cruel white men, treating the workers as the equivalent of slaves, no respect for them as persons, a rugged atmosphere, a rugged life, with seemingly no future for the indigenous men.

But, in 2018, almost 90 years later, an indigenous director all is telling the story and reminding everyone of the shame.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

This Australian drama is set in 1929 in the outback of Australia’s Northern Territory, and tells the story of an Aboriginal farmhand who kills a white man in self-defence, and goes on the run from a posse group, pursuing him to hunt him down. The film is inspired by true events. The film won the Special Jury Prize Award at the Venice Film Festival in 2017. The Indigenous Director of the movie (Warwick Thornton ) won the prestigious Camera d’Or award for Best First Feature Film, “Samson and Delilah”, at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. That film was about an ill-fated, teenage romance set in and around Alice Springs.

This film is set like a Western in isolated territory around Alice Springs again. There is no church, or courthouse, only a few shops, a hotel, and a Main Street. An honest and well-meaning preacher, Fred Smith, unlike others around him, believes all people are equal “in the sight of the Lord.” Fred (Sam Neill), lives with Sam Kelly, his stockman (Hamilton Morris), Kelly’s wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber), and Lizzie’s niece. Fred has no Church to preach in, but being Christian in outreach, he lends Sam and Lizzie for two days to an alcoholic, stressed war-veteran, Harry March (Ewen Leslie), who asks for assistance as the station-owner of a neighbouring property.

Harry March rapes Kelly’s wife, and denigrates Kelly. March later confronts Kelly with a rifle, fires into his house, and Kelly shoots March in self-defence. Convinced there will be no justice, Sam  and Lizzie run away, and are chased by a group, led by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), who pursues them obsessively. Learning that his wife is now with March’s child, and wanting help for her, Sam eventually gives himself up. A trial is held, Sam is acquitted, and told he can go free. As Sam and Fred drive away from town, justice comes to be delivered to Sam in a white-man’s way.

This is a dark film, making frequent use of tightly edited flashbacks and long-shots, that offer strong, moving comment on injustice, exploitation, and racism in an era of Australian history where white settlers made their fortunes through abuse of indigenous labour, and black people worked for free on land that was stolen from them by white people. The dialogue in the movie is  sparse, the tension escalates dramatically as the film progresses, and its violence is brutal. The Indigenous acting by nonprofessionals is outstanding; Sam Neill and Bryan Brown deliver excellent performances; and Morris’s acting as Sam Kelly is especially moving.

The movie has tough things to say about black humiliation and white racism, and depicts terrible injustice in a country that was hostile to Aborigines. It is full of blatant racism that hits hard, and Thornton has directed a movie with enormous historical significance. Questions of truth and justice are constantly kept in front of the viewer, as the plot relentlessly unfolds. Through exploring the country’s violent history in the way it does, the movie suggests strongly that racism is still prevalent in a “sweet country”, called Australia. A desperate, almost inaudible, plea heard as the film concludes, comes from Fred Smith’s departing words: “What chance has this country got?”

The film shows striking images of the outback, and the movie’s cinematography (by Warwick Thornton) is exceptional. Scenes of the Australian outback capture the isolation and harshness of the land brilliantly. Sam and Lizzie flee into the farthest reaches of the Australian outback, not yet subject to white-man’s rule, and the camera conveys the film’s messages through haunting imagery by integrating Australia’s barren scenery deep inside its heart.

This is a movie that doesn’t think twice about delivering tough punches. It is a powerful film of Indigenous hardship and injustice at a time in Australian history that never should be allowed to repeat itself again. Like other exceptional Australian movies, such as the drama, “Wake in Fright” (1971), the movie argues persuasively that Australians can live a much better life in the future by knowing and understanding the deep pain and tragedy of its past.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting Transmission Films

Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting | Uploaded by: Fr Richard Healey


This is the ministry of Fr Richard Healey, pastor of St Paul’s Catholic Parish, based in Albion Park, a southern suburb of the city of Wollongong.
Fr Rick is also Director of Vocations and Chaplain to Catholic Youth Ministry in the Diocese of Wollongong, NSW, Australia.
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