Driving back from the train station, Gisborne to Riddells Creek, the moon illuminates the earth and sky. Clouds occasionally block the moon’s gaze – and I feel the movie around me in this continuation of the country’s ancient beauty and sentient life. I am emotionally shredded by Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country. The last words of the film that Sam Neill’s character Fred Smith speaks, hark back and into my being: “What hope has this country got?” It is whispered, almost inaudible, unless you have your ear to the ground. I have my ear there and I want to stand up and repeat his words to the whole auditorium at the Nova Cinema. I don’t, I allow the movie to work its way into me. I barely sleep that night haunted by visions of violence, of immense suffering and the complexity of being a contemporary white Australian. What did my ancestors do in the name of righteous superiority?
Sam Kelly, brilliantly played by Hamilton Morris, is the central protagonist. He is an indigenous man in his country. He is ‘in place’ and his embodiment of this is critical to understanding what provokes the white men. Sam is present to his life and the life of those around him. He is calm, balanced and perceptive. His relationship with his wife and niece is respectful and protective. He will not be subjected to the questioning and assumptive arrogance of the white man, Harry March (Ewen Leslie). Even when his life depends on him speaking (to the judge) he maintains his dignity. What can we know or begin to understand in our blunt and dull questioning, what is shaming, inappropriate or culturally taboo? When will we listen to the silence and the space between to understand something of indigenous cultural knowledge? Why do we continue to believe we have the most sophisticated system of law? Sam tolerates the gaze and distain of white men; even the judge is forced to show his authoritarian white supremacy in a moment of frustration. Sam is mute but not dumb. He waits, considers and responds. His words are chosen carefully and are a distillation of the abuse and violence to which he and his wife have been exposed.
The white male characters are desperate, disturbed men recently returned from WW1. They beat ‘the hun’ but came home damaged men. The Australia to which they returned didn’t know the horrors they had been through and didn’t seem to care. Here in outback Australia, they have a kind of power, which the war has robbed them of. In this wild lawless place they wield all the power they can in their desperate attempt to feel potent. I have never seen or heard of conflating the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the violence played out in the context of white colonization and its’ brutalization of indigenous Australians. This film makes it palpably believable and all the more extraordinary for not being explicit. In the case of the central white character, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), even the love of a good woman can’t satiate his desire for obsessive control and power. His potency is dependent upon it. But the white men fail. The black man outwits them all the time. He is ‘in place’ and his knowledge and embodiment of country gives him supremacy they cannot abide. Alongside their cultural privilege of white masculinity, they are racist and sexist. Their attempts to control Sam are rendered absurd by the very actions taken.
How could my heart stay steady in this scenario? This is wonderful film making, magnificent art making - brilliant writing, alongside startling beauty. Sweet Country is culturally critical and profoundly moving. The extraordinary image of the sergeant and his horse walking into the salt lake becomes Dumas’ “Don Quixote” – a gorgeous gesture to the classics. This inclusion of white classical heritage is evidence of the dynamic continuity of Australian indigenous culture. Sergeant Fletcher would have died if not for Sam. But this will not save Sam it seals his death warrant. He has shamed a white man, a soldier and a policeman. A black man has no right to be more powerful than a white man. This strikes at the heart of the film. The utter terror the white men experience in the presence of the black men is palpable. They are ‘in’ country and the white men are not. They are perched on an edge of reality they can barely understand. The black man’s potency is palpable to them and in their exchanges with him they are confronted by it. The only way they know how to deal with their fear is through an assertion of brutalizing power. Only the Sam Neil character, through his Christian ethics, naively considers the equality of black and white people.
When Sam is shot and killed it is shocking and yet obvious he cannot be allowed to live. Too much rests on maintaining white male supremacy. Even the erection of the church framework reminds us of this. And when his body falls over his wife Lizzie’s (Natassia Gorey-Furber), we are reminded of JF Kennedy’s assignation and his brains and blood spilling over Jacqui. And in the film Archie (played by Gibson John) tells us it is the Kennedy’s who have stolen the land from his people … I’ll let you imagine how this might play out …
This is courageous art and Warwick Thornton is my hero right now.