Anyone who regularly visits my blog will know that if there is an Australian film available I will be at the first screening. Sweet Country is no exception.
Made by the same director as Samson and Delilah (LFF2009), this film shows Australian history from a slightly different perspective. Warwick Thornton is himself of Aboriginal lineage. His two feature films show primarily the lives of the aboriginals, in the first feature it showed the lives of two teenagers struggling against the perceived wisdom of twentieth century whites that all “blackfellas” were useless, ignorant and frequently drunk. The protagonist was Delilah, it was glue-sniffing Samson who need help, this was a beautiful love story.
In a way, this second film Sweet Country is a meditation on how that impression might have come about and why. Directed as a faux-Western in the Spaghetti-Western mode, no one is entirely wrong or entirely right, we first meet Fred Smith (Sam Neill) a solid Christian rancher who treats his Aboriginal workers as equals, a new neighbour comes to ask for assistance and obligingly Fred sends off his main worker, Sam (Hamilton Morris) with his wife and niece. But things do not go according to plan and Harry March (Ewen Leslie) sends them back. Harry then goes to another neighbour, Mike Kennedy (Thomas M Wright) who also obligingly sends two hands, Philomac, a young half-breed (almost certainly Mike’s own son) played by the twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan and another older man, Archie (Gibson John).
At this point things really begin to unravel, though this film has more twists than a barley-sugar stick ( a reference probably lost on anyone under the age of 65), there is a pivotal moment when everything that could go wrong begins.
Like any good Western, there are wild chases across vast empty landscapes, night camps under glowing starlit skies and beautiful scenery. Led by the aboriginal tracker Archie under the direction of Sergeant Fletcher (). Bryan Brown
It is not for nothing that people who go to Australia and people who live there think this is God’s Own Country, it is indeed sweet country. Filmed on location in the area surrounding the McDonnell Ranges, this is grass plains, light scrub and acres of flat land in every direction under an enormous sky, and then you get the mountains, rising like stone giants from the plains they are vaguely reminiscent of Monument Valley, but of a very different composition. Iron-stone, I would guess, craggy, crevassed and opening into deep gorges. It is an arid land and there are large salt-lakes of piercing whiteness.
The story unwinds to its end with occasional flashes of precognition, which only make sense once the film has ended.
Everyone needs to face the facts of the brutal history of Australia. Before European settlers (mainly British) arrived there were at least 900 different nomadic groups living there, not necessarily peaceably, but at least not rapaciously. White settlers changed all that and although the start was slow and devastating in small areas, after World War I land grabs of gargantuan proportions began in earnest. Central Australia and Western Australia, until then hardly touched, were plundered remorselessly, native bush scrubbed out and cattle grass laid, and cattle and sheep brought in and with them the infamous flies! With the land grab came the indenture of many aboriginals, anyone on the land, nomadic or not, became the property of the owner.
Unpaid, indentured labour, treated like dogs or worse than dogs. Introduced to alcohol, tobacco and small pox, the effect was devastating. And that does not include the “abo-hunts” where white settlers went about killing every “blackfella” on sight, until the population was suitably reduced (ie: they had enough hands and no more). If you think I might be exaggerating, I can assure you that I wish I was not. I have heard it told without a trace of shame by the grandson of a rancher in Northern Territories.
Failing to catch up with either of these films would be a pity, but you can also read the novels of Mary Durack Kings of the Grass Country, which is about her grandfather and his “appropriation” of land, though that is not exactly how she presents it and Kate Grenville who also writes, but with a good deal more self-awareness about her family history and its good and bad effects on the local (New South Wales) population in her trilogy that begins with Sarah Thornhill. Then there is Thomas Keneally in both fiction and non-fiction.