Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country, written by the Indigenous writers Steven McGregor and co-producer David Tranter was announced as part of the Venice Film Festival’s prestigious competition. Three other Australian films also premiere at the festival in September.
We already knew that David Stratton would join Annette Bening as part of the official competition jury in Venice, which remains the venerable critic’s favourite film festival. But the news that he would be judging one of our own, Warwick Thornton, and his new feature Sweet Country, was only revealed yesterday. Sitting in a relaxing garden with the Indigenous director as he promoted his section of the omnibus film Words with Gods at the festival in 2014, it seemed like his kind of place too. Though when your film is competing with works by George Clooney, Darren Aronofsky and Alexander Payne, the heat is definitely on. Still, as so many film filmmakers have said in the past, being invited to the party is enough in itself.
Since he won the Camera d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival for his debut feature Samson & Delilah, Thornton has been one of our most respected filmmakers on the world stage (recently, his documentary We Don’t Need a Map opened the Sydney Film Festival in June.) For his new period western set on the Northern Territory frontier in the 1920s, he has amassed a stellar cast including old hands Sam Neill, Bryan Brown and Ewen Leslie, as well as newcomers Hamilton Morris, Tremayne Doolan and Trevon Doolan. The film is set in the desert of the MacDonnell Ranges around Alice Springs and is inspired by real events.
“The MacDonnell Ranges are always in my mind from growing up there with my family,” Thornton explains. “So Sweet Country is a film about the land and our family and what happened when the missionaries and pastoralists arrived.”
It follows a young boy, Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan), as he witnesses an Aboriginal stockman, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) kill a white station owner in self-defence. Thornton told the ABC last year that the film, which he calls his biggest yet, doesn’t pull any punches. “There were angels and demons on both sides of the fence.” While he noted that the film comes at a turning point in Australian history, he was also thrilled to make a cowboy movie.
Among the Australian films in Venice’s other sections this year is Jason Raftopoulos’s debut feature West of Sunshine, screening in the festival’s Orizzonti competition where it's also up for the best first film prize. Starring Damian Hill, Ty Perham, Kat Stewart, Tony Nikolakopoulos and Arthur Angel, the 78-minute Melbourne-shot film follows a father who has less than a day to pay back a loan shark, while also trying to look after his young son.
Also in Orrizonti is the 10-minute short The Knife Salesman, written, directed and produced by Michael Leonard, with Jamie Helmer also directing. It depicts how tensions build when a travelling knife salesman (Syd Brisbane from Bad Boy Bubby, Red Dog: True Blue) visits a frustrated housewife (newcomer Dana Miltins) in a heat-drenched coastal Australian town.
For the first time, Australia will have a film in the Biennale College, an annual initiative where the festival hosts a training laboratory for three young filmmakers to make micro-budget features. Alena Lodkina’s Strange Colours, which follows a woman who travels to a remote opal mining community to see her estranged ill father, will world premiere at the festival. “It’s been a whirlwind making this film happen in nine months,” explains Lodkina. “It’s been an exhilarating experience.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story was published with incorrect cast information. SBS apologises for the error.