Sweet Country (Australia, 2017)

Sour

My intention is to watch films ‘blind’; not with my eyes shut but with as few preconceptions as possible. I try to pick up a vibe as to whether the film is worth seeing and then take it for what it offers me. After watching the brilliant Sweet Country I was surprised to see it described as a Western. Was I simply not seeing the genre signifiers or was it, as director Warwick Thornton had encouraged the idea the film was of that genre for marketing purposes, seen as a Western because the idea was planted in the spectator’s mind? Of course now I see how it could be read as a Western, but for me the racial aspect of the narrative was the key framework. Although American Westerns did deal with race (particularly the ‘revisionist’ ones of the ’70s) the indentured slave relationship that Aboriginals had at the time of the film (1920s) was absent. Other than being co-opted as scouts, Native Americans were not portrayed as being part of white man’s colonial society. Hence, I think it is better not to read the film as a Western; Roy Stafford has some interesting remarks on the issue.

Such is the complexity of reading texts and I make no claim that my ‘innocent eyes’ are any better than those steeped in preconceptions. A reading of the film as a Western would no doubt reveal things I have missed.

To an extent the narrative, the racism against Aborigines in Australia, is full of familiar tropes; Rabbit Proof Fence is one powerful example. That’s not to say the message that colonialism is evil is one that shouldn’t be retold as often as possible, just that different ways of telling the tale are needed. No doubt that the fact Thornton is Aboriginal, as is one of the scriptwriters (and sound recordist) David Tranter, ensures we get a new perspective because BAME groups remain marginalised. I particularly liked the use of flashbacks and flashforwards, which often operate as an expressionist manifestation of a character’s state of mind; for example, the veteran suffering from PTSD is shown in mental torment. Incidentally, the film is based on a true story related to Tranter by his granddad.

Sweet Country abounds with brilliant cinematography, also by Thornton, who shows an area he knows well, around Alice Springs, in a wide variety of often awesome landscapes. Veterans Sam Neill and Bryan Brown add heft but theirs are minor parts and the central characters, played by newcomers Hamilton Morris and Shanika Cole, are absolutely riveting in their roles.

Probably my least favourite scene in cinema is the ‘courtroom’, but even that is gripping in this film. Cole’s Lucy is called to testify and her painful inability to speak is a testament to the marginalisation of people who are Aboriginal and female. It also shows the subtlety of Thornton’s direction: almost unnoticed at the edge of the frame, and then in the background, the only two white female characters quietly leave the scene when they sense it is going to get nasty. Rarely has boozy ‘incel’ (there are understandably very few women about), male culture been represented so well: ‘toxic masculinity’ doesn’t cover it.

I need to catch up with Thornton’s debut, Samson & Delilah (Australia, 2009), and hope he gets to direct another film soon.

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