Arnhem Land

Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country: a tragic investigation of race on Australia’s frontier

Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country: a tragic investigation of race on Australia’s frontier

File 20171008 25749 rxn1qy.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Natassia Gorie Furber and Hamilton Morris in Sweet Country.

Lucio Crispino, University of South Australia

The opening of Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (2017) is as prosaic as it is poetic. A battle-scarred billy on a roaring campfire has come to the boil. Into its churning depths an unidentified hand drops a palmful of tea, followed by two more of sugar. Just enough to sweeten its otherwise pungent bitterness.

Off-screen, from what feels to be another time and space, we hear a wildly enraged whitefella insulting an all-but-silent blackfella. The taunt “black bastard” is barked with undiluted contempt. Over the course of the film, this pointed juxtaposition of sound and image will be used, in concert with a series of fleeting flashbacks and flashforwards, to both layer and unfold an acutely tragic narrative.

Thornton’s sensitively scripted story, which draws on the conventions of the western, is simple. Its social and ethical implications, though, are not. In self-defence, an Indigenous man, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) shoots and kills a local landowner, Harry March (Ewan Leslie).

Only later, while they are on the run, does Kelly learn that March raped and impregnated his wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber). After they return and surrender themselves, this information has a decisive impact on the outcome of his trial and its traumatic aftermath.

In their film, set in the 1920s in the Northern Territory, Thornton and his scriptwriters generate a great deal of complexity from a relatively straightforward plot. For example, although the landowner for whom Kelly and Lizzie work, Fred Smith (Sam Neill), says he regards them as equals, this does not prevent him from “loaning” them to March and, in doing so, considering himself a good Christian. Likewise, March’s “borrowing” of them to help him work his land is clearly motivated more by a compulsion to abuse and terrorise them than a genuine need for their labour.

To complicate matters further, the roots of his pathological thirst for cruelty appear to lie in the deep psychological damage caused by years spent fighting in the nightmarish trenches of the first world war. It could even be argued that Kelly, long before March threatened him at gunpoint, was already at war with him and his ilk. This is a fact vividly magnified by the fatal encounter between Sergeant Fletcher’s (Bryan Brown) posse and a party of “undomesticated” Aboriginal warriors.

Impressive as they are, these are by no means the film’s greatest or most memorable cinematic subtleties. Sweet Country’s finer moments undoubtedly belong to its intelligent mise en scène; its unflappable trust in action as a means of telling, not just showing; and, last but not least, its delicate deformations of narrative flow and direction.

For instance, I cannot recall a single scene in which the landscape was merely a convenient backdrop or decorative setting for the actor’s bodies, gestures and dialogue. Even the light and weather that sculpt and animate its sublime, occasionally menacing immensity play an indispensable role in shaping the dramatic highs and lows of Thornton’s taut, but mercurial narrative.

Fletcher’s gruelling attempt to traverse the blistering surface of a blinding salt lake without assistance is unforgettable in this regard. Indeed, nothing sums up his not being in accord with the land he and his fellow invaders want to possess and dominate than his near death in this virtually wordless sequence. Kelly, who is in accord with it, rescues him.

Most impressive of all, however, is the film’s sparing (but potent) use of flashbacks and flashforwards. Thornton and his editor, Nick Myers, employ these to embody the partially abstract notion of historical consequences. By evoking the past or the future of a particular thought or act, they make visible a process that is sometimes hard to grasp, even when it is beyond doubt. To present the seed or fruit of a particular situation while it is still unravelling is to highlight its ethical dimension, to undermine its inevitability. We rarely see this kind of synchronicity between form and philosophy in Australian cinema.

That said, to my mind, Thornton’s widely lauded Samson and Delilah (2009) evinces a somewhat more uncompromising attitude towards the corrosive impact of British colonialism and European Christianity. This is because Sweet Country’s cultural and political authenticity, as it were, is affected by the fact that it features two internationally recognisable actors and draws on a Hollywood genre for its iconography. Fortunately, only in a handful of instances do these constitute a distraction of any real significance.

In truth, for me, there were many payoffs with respect to its powerful reworking of the outback western. Chief among these was a possible – tantalising – connection between settler Mick Kennedy’s (Thomas M. Wright) watermelons in Sweet Country and Tom Doniphon’s (John Wayne) cactus roses in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Both represent a point of collision between one world and another. Our task, as viewers, is to turn collision into crossover.

The ConversationSweet Country premiered in Australia at the Adelaide Film Festival. It will be released generally in 2018.

Lucio Crispino, School of Communication, International Studies and Languages, University of South Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Family of Gurrumul Yunupingu allows use of name and image to preserve legacy

Late musician Gurrumul Yunupingu will be identified by his full name and his image can be shown, says his family in order to preserve his music and memory.

The mourning family of late indigenous Australian musician Gurrumul Yunupingu is breaking with cultural tradition to allow the use of his name and ensure his legacy lives on.

“The immediate family of Gurrumul have been clear throughout the grieving process that the contribution he made and continues to make to Australian and Yolngu cultural life should not be forgotten,” his record label Skinnyfish Music said in a statement.

Critical time ahead for NT tourism industry

THE Territory’s tourism economy will be forced into an overhaul once major projects like Inpex reduce, the Tourism NT chairman Michael Bridge said.

Mr Bridge, who is also a director of Airnorth — Australia’s second oldest airline — said high airfares were just one part of the challenge ahead.

The cost of flying to and from the Territory has again surfaced with independent MLA Terry Mills pressing for the lifting of restrictions allowing international carriers to move passengers to domestic destinations.

Aboriginal people won’t benefit from NT space base claims missing MP

A port launching rockets into space from North-East Arnhem Land won’t benefit Aboriginal people and the Northern Territory Government is only promoting the project in its own interest, says a local independent politician.

Canberra-based commercial venture Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA) has signed a sub-lease with the Aboriginal Gumatj Corporation to build Australia’s first commercial rocket launching facility at a remote site near Nhulunbuy, in the Top End’s Gulf of Carpentaria.

“There’s enough trouble in the homelands out there already without this industry coming in that’s providing big dollar signs to the rest of the world … to Australia.”

Two men survive rollover in West Arnhem Land

TWO young men are lucky to be alive after rolling their car on a remote road in West Arnhem Land.

A 16-year-old and a 22-year-old were flown to Royal Darwin Hospital with suspected spinal injuries on Saturday afternoon.

They arrived at RDH in stable conditions about 11pm Saturday night.

A Health Department spokeswoman confirmed both men were still in a stable condition on Sunday.

Rocket base neighbour has no plans to move

A ROCKET base in Arnhem Land may have to get used to having an immediate neighbour, unless a long-term resident is kicked out of his home on the edge of the planned launch site.

There, in a house dubbed a “hideout of Galarrwuy Yunupingu”, lives a whitefella adopted by the Gumatj clan named Fonte, who has no plans to abandon his home, despite an impending plan for suborbital “sounding rockets” to be launched from the site, according to a Northern Land Council briefing, for “government, business and research purposes”.

No conflict between Indigenous people, native title and development

The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 is very special legislation, not just for the Northern Territory but by world standards.

It has enabled Aboriginal people to gain inalienable freehold title to 50 per cent of the Northern Territory and, through the High Court’s 2008 Blue Mud Bay decision, almost 90 per cent of the NT coastline.

NT Rehab Services Crack Under Pressure of Ice Addiction

MORE Territorians are seeking help for addiction to amphetamines, including ice, and rehabilitation services are beginning to crack under the pressure.

Newly released figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show the number of people seeking help for addiction to amphetamines in the Northern Territory increased from 279 in 2013/14 to 426 last financial year.

Darwin’s proximity to Asia and Northern Australia’s porous borders played a role in the prevalence of ice, Mr Franck said.

“And we’re so sparsely populated in the NT, particularly out in the rural areas that it’s harder for the long arm of the law to be out there and there’s more scope for baddies to do what they want to do,” he said.

NLC Grant Lease for Rocket Launch Facility

AUSTRALIA’S first civilian spaceport is another step closer with Northern Territory traditional owners preparing to lease land to a company that wants to blast off small rockets.

The Northern Land Council has granted a 275ha lease in northeast Arnhem Land to the Gumatj clan for use as a commercial rocket launching facility. That’ll pave the way for Gumatj Aboriginal Corporation to sublease the site to Equatorial Launch Australia, a firm whose $236 million space base proposal is being considered by federal and NT infrastructure funds.

Elcho bound light-aircraft crashes in NT

THE plane that crashed in Howard Springs killing two pilots yesterday was carrying a body for a funeral service at Elcho Island.

According to a source within the airline industry, the flight was a “funeral transport flight”.

It’s understood the body of the deceased was found separately to the two people killed in the crash.

There has been a suggestion that the coffin may not have been strapped in correctly.