Sweet Country is about Sam, a middle-aged Aboriginal man who works for a preacher in the outback of Australia’s Northern Territory. When Harry, a bitter war veteran, moves into a neighbouring outpost, the preacher sends Sam and his family to help Harry renovate his cattle yards. But Sam’s relationship with the cruel and ill-tempered Harry quickly deteriorates, culminating in a violent shootout in which Sam kills Harry in self-defence. As a result, Sam becomes a wanted criminal for the murder of a white man, and is forced to flee with his wife across the deadly outback, through glorious but harsh desert country. A hunting party led by the local lawman Sergeant Fletcher is formed to track Sam down. But as the true details of the killing start to surface, the community begins to question whether justice is really being served.
I was keen to see this film because I have an interest in Aborigine culture, history, and lack of visibility in the arts. I often find Aborigines alongside East Africans of – Eritrean / Somali descent are seen as ‘other’ within the black community. It’s a conundrum to me, that even I, a dark-skinned, typical looking West African, Ghanaian woman have been guilty of othering them. To call an Aborigine simply ‘black’ seems to erase everything that comes with being Aborigine, yet I call myself black without second thought (it’s a whole discussion). However in 1920s Australia nobody has a problem with the defining lines. White Fella, Black Fella are terms uttered without thought. Along with the understanding that if you’re a White Fella you have ultimate domain over Black Fellas.
When Sweet Country opens, the first thing we see on screen is a boiling pot and what we hear is a fight between some unseen men. Then we’re introduced almost immediately to Harry March (Ewen Leslie) an alcoholic war veteran who has arrived in Alice Springs to take over a cattle station. Harry turns up at Fred Smith’s (Sam Neill) place, spies Aborigine couple Sam & Lizzie Kelly (Hamilton Morris, Natassia Gorey Furber – respectively) and their niece Lucy, and asks Fred if he would let his ‘blacks’ come and help him move into his station. Fred delivers the words (paraphrased) ‘they’re not my blacks, we’re all equal in the eyes of the Lord’.
It’s from this point Harry is set up as the villain, Fred is the hero, and Sam & Lizzie the innocent victims. Harry is forced to respectably ask Sam if he and his family wouldn’t mind accompanying him to his station to help. Sam, agrees with no fuss. In other words he’s used to White Fellas like Harry. Sam takes his family over to Harry’s station. Quietly tolerates Harry’s overly belligerent and racist behaviour as he helps with working the land, whilst his wife and niece work in the house. At one point, we are drawn into a tense situation where Harry sends Lucy outside as the camera follows him slowly walking around his one room home, closing each shutter, praising the work Lizzie has done, until the final glimpse of light shows a bed, and then the sounds of rape as the screen remains completely dark. Lizzie chooses not to tell her husband of the rape.
So whilst Sam is oblivious, after a disturbing conversation with Harry, who enquired about his niece, and the fact that Harry dismissed him without pay or a thank you returns to Frank’s station to ask him to take Lucy back to her mother in town as he’s concerned about Harry’s intentions towards her.
What then unfolds are a series of scenes where we’re introduced to other characters, Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright) who also has Black Fellas working at his station, but unlike Frank, he treats them like worthless property. One of them is a man named Archie (Gibson John), another man I didn’t catch his name, and a young mixed race (in those days called ‘half caste’) boy called Philomac (twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan). We meeting Mick whipping Philomac for stealing watermelons. Harry who has been left without Black Fellas, comes to Mick to use Archie and Philomac and it is from this point that a series of events occur which result in Harry shot dead, and Sam & Lizzie on the run. Another privileged White Fella we meet is Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) called in to find Sam after the news of Harry’s murder by a Black Fella reaches town.
What’s right with this film is that it is visually stunning, the Australian outback is captured in its awesomeness with a great eye. It doesn’t shy away from the racism and harsh reality for Aborigines at that time. It doesn’t necessarily spell it out but the casting of mixed-race Philomac and Lucy allude to Australia’s ‘Stolen Generation’ . The acting is good. There’s an interesting use of flash-forwards and, I guess you’d call them, flash-nows to fill in the gaps of what we’re to understand about some of the characters. It works sometimes, others I still felt none the wiser.
What I didn’t like so much was in the film’s sparseness and abstract delivery, some of the violence and racism seemed pantomimey. At times it was hard to understand why all three White Fellas Harry, Mick and Sergeant Fletcher are so warp 100 in their anger and how Frank was able to remain a nice calm White Fella. We get some insight that Harry is an alcoholic, but I always have a problem when villains are portrayed with ‘issues’ it’s an especially regular occurrence in films that deal with race. Almost like a justification – they’re only this level of racist because of alcohol or daddy issues [eye roll]. Archie jumps at every chance to betray, and or tell on Philomac and then Sam in a way that, I suppose assumption would lead us to believe he’s been brainwashed, he’s trying to survive the best he can, the African American Uncle Tom comes to mind. But it’s so troubling in this film. Maybe it’s not a flaw but an uncomfortable ‘truth’? But it made it harder to pin your anger on one villain as Archie’s behaviour is not likeable throughout the film and essentially he’s complicit in some of the bad things that happen.
The other issue I had was with two scenes featuring tribal Aborigines who hadn’t westernised themselves and lived deep into the outback in their natural existence. Tribal wear and practices. One scene they ruthlessly protect their land. Which if you understand the history of Aborigines vs. White settlers then it’s a quick redemption scene. The other scene isn’t complimentary and because there’s no other context, back story or validating issue, like Archie they’re lumped in with the villains.
Overall, I’m not sure if I liked this film. I spent a lot of time watching it with my brow furrowed. There are some brilliant fleeting scenes between Sam & Lizzie. Archie does get a scene where you could warm to him when he lectures Philomac about his position in the world, thus revealing a teeny glimpse into why he’s so horrible to his own. Notably when you look at empty the IMDB pages of the Aborigine actors in this film, it’s a reminder of who is not represented in the major arts. But the story is important, if only to once again shed light on the injustices the western world has put indigenous people across the globe through.
That said, I’m getting tired of seeing people of colour in epic narratives depicting their suffering at the hands of angry White Fellas.
Sweet Country screens as part of the 2017 BFI London Film Festival:
- Thursday 12 October 2017 @ 18:00 – Embankment Garden Cinema
- Friday 13 October 2017 @ 11:00 – Embankment Garden Cinema
Find out more and book tickets here.