Hamilton Morris stars in Warwick Thornton’s stark and parched western. In 1920s Australia, an Indigenous man is hunted down across the Northern Territory after killing a White man in self-defence.
The film opens on a cooking pot boiling aggressively over a campfire, a white hand adding first a black powder and then a fistful of a white powder as the bubbling water darkens and churns. This is what is seen. But what is heard is a fight brewing. A fight that begins with a man accusing another man of not working. Quickly the accusations become racial abuse. The racial abuse is joined by the sound of physical abuse, which evolves into the fight, half the dialogue in English, the other half a subtitled dialect.
The soundtrack builds, drowning out the voices with a noise that could be ambient desert sounds, but could just as easily be synthetic… manmade. Then the screen abruptly cuts to a black, the symbolism, aggressive dialogue and dissonant noise gone, but lingering heavily in the mind, setting the tone for a film that will tackle the complex and emotive subject of a colonising population oppressing and exploiting an Indigenous population set against the searing wasteland of Australia’s Northern Territory.
The first person we see is an Indigenous man, Sam Kelly (Morris), head bowed, chains around his neck being asked, ‘do you understand?’ He nods and bows his head again. But what is to be understood? Was Sam not defending himself against abuse? Or is Sam to understand that he should know his place and not put his abuser in the awkward position of abusing him? The question is levelled at Sam Kelly, but it is also the question Warwick Thornton wants the audience to be asking themselves over the coming couple of hours, and beyond. Also featuring Sam Neil as sympathetic rancher Fred Smith and Ewen Leslie as Harry March, the man whose fate will ultimately seal Sam Kelly’s fate.
Sweet Country – Monday at 11.50pm on FilmFour.