1929 Australia. A country still stretching out from settled cities into the lawless expanses of ‘the west, into territory held for tens of thousands of years by the original aboriginal inhabitants. Although Warwick Thornton’s SWEET COUNTRY has a lot in common with the American trope of ‘The Western,’ the particulars of Australian history enrich it with a moral ambiguity that allow his film rise above the standard stories of men in black and white.
Hamilton Morris plays Sam Kelly, a ranch hand for a preacher played by Sam Neill. Sam is well treated, a stark contrast to Archie and Philomac’s treatment at the hands of Mick Kennedy on the next ranch over. These are people desperately trying to keep their place in a country that intends to force them out of a perceived primitive past into a society they often want no part of. Or the only part they are offered – one of subservience. Some, like Sam, find a way to live among the settlers with pride.
This delicate balance is destroyed when Harry March [Ewen Leslie] moves in to the area and borrows Sam and his wife for a few days. Harry’s disrespect of Sam is obvious, as well as his lascivious intentions to Sam’s niece and then wife. A drunken confrontation leads to Sam shooting Harry in self-defense, and he must escape into the outback to avoid hanging.
It can’t be lost that Sam shares the last name of Australian folk hero Ned Kelly, who, depending on your view, is either the Robin Hood of Australia or a despicable murderer. Sam’s case sets up the same perspective of morality as the audience watches him be chased down by The preacher, Mick, Archie, and local law enforcement. Thornton’s film, full of intricate character portraits and spectacular cinematography, offers no easy answers. As I spoke with the director at Sundance, it became clear that moment in the film (far enough in the past to have some distance but close enough that the issues remain, even if they evolved into something more subtle) is a moment Australians are both ready and reticent to see.
BEARS: You’ve written films you’ve directed in the past, but SWEET COUNTRY came to you from two co-writers. Tell me a little bit about how you got involved in the project. What was it about the story that you got really excited about?
THORNTON: It was pitched to me on another set, a friend of mine [David Tranter] who’s a sound recordist. I get pitched occasionally, films that haven’t been written, by sound recordists and grips and graffers and what not. I went, “go ahead and write it and I’ll give it a read.” And most of the time, they never come back because they don’t write it – [but this time he did]. It wasn’t very well written, because he’s a sound recordist. But the heart was there. The dream, the belief. It’s about his grandfather. There was a fire inside him that he needed to write this. That, for me, was incredibly empowering when someone needs to do something, and it’s really important for them. Then the producers paired him up with an amazing writer named Steven McGregor, and they created this beautiful script.
BEARS: Was there any particular scene that you were like, “oh, I can’t wait to dive into.”
THORNTON: No, actually, there were a couple of things I was in absolute denial that I had to do them. Every director wants to make a western one day. That was a given. I was very excited about the whole thing. But there are a couple of scenes that are really dark and horrible, but they are really important for the film. They’re really important for the turning points of the structure of the characters in the film. Like the rape scene — I don’t wanna do a rape scene. I detest doing nudity, let alone rape scenes. I just did not want to do it, but it’s so important to the film that it was kind of like, “alright, we’re going to do this, but . . .” there’s nothing intelligent about a rape scene. There’s 120 film scenes I want to do and then there’s about 5 scenes in the film that I don’t want to do.
BEARS: When you approach material like this, obviously dealing with some dark times in Australia’s history, I know there are things in America we don’t like to think about…
THORNTON: Same in Australia.
BEARS: There’s a whole lot of information that is actually not being talked about, borderline erased. About the foundations of culture and democracy and country, ideology of a country.
THORNTON: Incredibly dark things. We were sort of, “oh, we won’t talk about that in Australia.” Australia’s full of it. That’s an empowering thing for me, as a filmmaker and a storyteller. That’s the stuff I want to talk about. I never see the screen as a right, for me. A given right, that I can just do whatever I want with that screen, in that cinema. I think it’s an incredibly important place for information and ideologies and a caring place. If I get access to a cinema screen, I want to make sure what I’m talking about or what I’m giving an audience, is actually something important.
BEARS: I feel like, in America, for a while we were saying we were living in a post-racial world and now we’re dealing with the fact that that’s not true at all. How is race is playing in Australia?
THORNTON: Just as many racists in Australia as there was in the 80’s. Or in the 40’s. There’s just as many. Except racism has become a dirty word. The belief, the ideology is still there — that there is a superior existence — and a fear — the media has a lot to do with that as well. Creating fear. Whether it’s someone on the other side of a border, or someone on a part of your street. People have learned now that this is not okay, but they still have the belief. So we’ve created a new world, which is the internet and the computer screen, where the venting is starting to be more apparent.
BEARS: And anonymous.
THORNTON: And anonymous! Rather than stand up and be counted as a racist.
BEARS: The moment of the film I found so fascinating was when they go out and they end up on tribal lands. There’s that perception — it’s like “oh, you’re all the same. One character says, “oh, these aren’t my people. I wasn’t born anywhere near here.” We see such different versions of where the Aboriginal culture was at that time.
THORNTON: There was 600 different languages in Australia, pre-Captain Cooke, pre-Governor Phillip with the first fleet and total colonization. Six hundred languages — If you treat every one of them like French, Italian — these are different cultures, different spiritual beliefs, these are different religions. All of that is happening in Australia. We did get on with the other tribes but maybe we’d all get together and go beat up some other tribes. We were doing all of that. Ironically, part of what colonization does is — and the British perfected this — is they assimilate a certain tribe somewhat and they give them weapons. They align themselves with that tribe and they get that tribe to go and fight for them against other tribes. They create, “I’m better than you because these white people like us. Given us guns or given us mirrors or given us beads, blankets, or whatever. We’re better than you and we’re going to take you over.” The British sit back. Get the tribes to assimilate and get them to go clean up the problems you’re having with the tribes who won’t assimilate.
BEARS: So how much of the cultural history has been lost? When you’re trying to recreate a scene in which you’re looking back, and you’re saying, “okay, this is 1929, this is how they’d be living.” Is that still part of the culture? Do people still know about —
THORNTON: The problem is a lot of our history was written by the actual colonizers. They’re always going to write that they were doing good. They’re not going to say, “oh, we went over the hill and we wiped out a whole tribe of 60 people, women and children included.” They’re going to say, “ah, there was a skirmish and we shot a couple, who tried to attack us.” That’s their version. Then we have the indigenous version which is oral history. Which people complain, it’s Chinese whispers — it changes all the time. The irony is we grew up with oral history and oral history is incredibly important for us. It was taught from an early age, memory was the most important thing because memory will get you out of — when you’re in the desert especially — memory will get you out, will get you to the next water hole, show you where water is, or food is, all those kinds of things. It’s incredibly important.
BEARS: So talk a little bit about the film as a Western and the character of Archie. He’s not a traditional Western hero. He’s on the run, but we’re still kind of man-against-many-men, that kind of thing.
THORNTON: A reluctant hero. It’s just pure survival. Absolute pure survival. He had to pull the trigger to survive. Then he had to go on the run to survive. It’s more to do with that then some sort of ideology he had to stand up for. It’s not that soapbox kind of storytelling. Ideologies are strange in that way. Dreams and beliefs and twisted storytelling. No, this is pure, head-down survival.
BEARS: I actually really appreciated that he’s living with Sam Neil — he’s taking in Sam’s religious ideology but he’s not taking on that himself. He’s considering it. He hasn’t allowed himself to be completely assimilated.
THORNTON: One hand’s in the traditional world and one hand’s in the western world he’s slowly moving into. It’s the fight to understand and to keep them both balanced. If you go purely to the western existence, all that connection to country, to spirituality, language, slowly gets lost.
THORNTON: I cast all the indigenous people specifically from that town, from Alice Springs where I was born, because this is their story. This story is their family’s story, just as it’s David Trantor’s grandfather’s story. Every aboriginal person in Australia went through that. It doesn’t matter if you’re working with cattle in central Australia or you’re working picking bananas in Queensland or pulling berries in Victoria — the land was taken, the colonialists came in, the ranchers — they took over. If you wanted to stay on the land you were actually part of the last 60,000 years, you had to conform and give up your spiritual beliefs. It was the only way you could stay there. Or you had to lie in a way and say, “yes, Hallelujah, Christian!” then secretly on the side you were practicing your religion and you were keeping your language alive. Anything to do with appeasing spirits you did it quietly in the middle of the night, just to keep the land alive with your culture. That’s why I cast people from there, because between Hamilton, that actor, and Natassia [Gorey Furber] who plays his wife — they have a really weird connection to the place that the camera is recognizing that I don’t think I’d be able to direct. I can’t teach people to be aboriginal or be from there and own that story. I can teach them to remember their lines or tell them fast or slow or angry or happy!
BEARS: It’s coming out in Australia next week, right? How do you think it’s going to be received?
THORNTON: We’ve had some preview screenings and they’ve been full. They’ve actually had to double the cinemas because they sold out way too quick. It’s a hard film for Australia because it’s about Australia’s history. But people want to know more about their past. Whether it’s the indigenous past or their frontier past, the foundation which this country was built on, because it’s not in the curriculum. These stories are not being taught at school, in high school. There’s a little bit being taught now in university, but it’s a specific subject — Indigenous History. People are really, really interested. That’s the best thing about cinema too, that access — you’re opening a door or a window to a world that people normally don’t have access to. It looks like they’ll come.
SWEET COUNTRY had its world premiere at the 2017 Venice Film Festival where Warwick won a Special Jury Prize. The film then went on to win the coveted Platform prize at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival as well as winning Best Film at the Adelaide Film Festival and the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. Samuel Goldwyn will release the film in the US.