Warwick Thornton is an Australian national treasure, not only because he is an excellent filmmaker, but because he is a good bloke and a cultural ambassador for Indigenous Australians. At the Venice Film Festival press conference for his new period Outback Western, Sweet Country, the director and cinematographer was flanked by the film’s Aboriginal writers, Steven McGregor and David Tranter (who also co-produced), and actors Sam Neill (who plays an Ocker kind of lay preacher) and Bryan Brown (as a racist lawman/soldier from World War I).
The Aboriginal cast members, including the film’s scenestealer, Hamilton Morris as accused murderer Sam Kelly, and twins Tremayne Doolan and Trevon Doolan, who shared the role of a young boy central to the story, Philomac, were unable to attend. Also impressive is Ewen Leslie, who seems to be on a career high at the moment and, in Sweet Country, is the “murder” victim, so doesn’t stick around for long. Meanwhile, Matt Day plays the judge who comes in to conduct the trial.
"Sweet Country is set in central Australia, where both me and writer David Tranter grew up,” Thornton explains in the press notes. “We both come from the same town and I’ve known him most of my life. My Kaytej tribe shares borders with David’s tribe, the Alyawarra. When David came to me with a beautiful script, loosely based on stories passed down to him by his grandfather, I immediately connected to it and realised it had a lot of me in it, too.”
Rapturously filmed in the MacDonnell Ranges, Sweet Country has been the buzziest of all the Australian films to premiere in Venice and Toronto. The film won Venice’s Special Jury Prize, which is like a bronze medal at the Olympics, and will screen at the end of the Toronto Film Festival in the Platform section, where it is eligible for an award to be judged by Chen Kaige, Małgorzata Szumowska and Wim Wenders.
Critical praise has been flowing in for the film.
Variety: “Racial tension escalates to bushfire levels of danger and damage in Warwick Thornton's majestic Outback Western.”
Canadian television and online critic Jason Gorber managed to catch the film at an early critics’ and buyer’s screening: “Sweet Country is a beautiful, quiet and impactful Western about justice and betrayal, highlighting how institutions can both foster and fail the disadvantaged. Excellent performances provide insight into the dark, nearly forgotten past of Australia that continues to resonate into the present day."
Below is an edited transcript of the Venice Film Festival press conference.
The genesis of the story
Warwick Thornton: It's a funny story, because David and I grew up in the same street when we were six years old, so when I was training to be a cinematographer, David was training to be a sound recordist. So we grew up learning how to make films together.
I hadn’t made a film for quite a long time and had been working as a cinematographer. I was looking for my second film after Samson & Delilah. The film had been so successful that I was sure my next film would be terrible and everybody would realise I was a fraud and I’d be ousted from the movie industry. Then I read Steven and David’s screenplay, and went, “Oh, this is amazing. This could be my second Zeppelin album or KISS album."
Steven McGregor: David came up with this fantastic idea and it’s been with us for 12 or 13 years. It’s his family story, and he’s been really passionate about it and shared that passion with us. We first made a half-hour documentary about the story, but David always wanted to make a feature, and kept pushing and pushing.
The treatment of First Australians
WT: There is a problem in central Australia and there always has been. The film [set in 1929] reflects the genesis of where this problem came from, back to the early history of colonisation and taking over another people’s country and then basically using them as slave labour, as people working for free on their land, and other people basically just taking the land and not paying for it. It’s part of what the problem is today – the idea of putting someone down, racism and the generational neglect of people. So the genesis of the problem you see in Alice Springs today is in this film.
Warwick Thornton's use of flashbacks and flashforwards as an attempt to emulate Indigenous storytelling
WT: Something like the Dreaming is generally the genesis of who we are and where we come from. We use that kind of storytelling not only through telling stories, but singing a story. A lot of Indigenous storytelling doesn't really reference now; it is to do with the past and needs to do with the future because now is just now. What’s important is what’s happened, and how we translate that to tomorrow and to the future.
Bryan Brown and Sam Neill's involvement
Bryan Brown: I got involved because the script was sent to me, and Warwick Thornton was going to direct and I thought I’d better not pass this up. I was taken by the story; I thought it was a very good drama. It deals with white attitudes towards Aboriginals at a certain time, but there are also other themes in there that Warwick explored. Like soldiers coming back from the war, the camaraderie of that, whether you’re black or white and how hard it is to live in isolation. I did get worried that I would play a character that everyone would hate and I think they probably do, but that's sort of how it goes if you get a good character sometimes.
Sam Neill: I saw Samson & Delilah, I can’t believe it was nine years ago, and that's one of the most extraordinary films I’ve ever seen in Australia or elsewhere. The opportunity to work with a great director is obviously a no-brainer.
I don't think I added anything at all – what you see is on the page. I don't worry about whether people like me or not in a movie, but I actually rather like this character because he is a white fella who recognises Aboriginal people as human beings, which is something that was absent in Australia for a very, very long time. As a non-Australian, it staggers me that this is a country where Aboriginal people only got the vote, they were only franchised in their own country in 1967, and that was actually in my own lifetime. This is an extraordinary idea that I have a lot of trouble coping with. There are so many stories being told and I thought this was an important one and I was very happy to do that.
WT: Shooting with these two ragbags [Brown and Neill] and the rest of them – Matt Day’s an amazing actor; he’s in the audience as well – was great because I really needed backup as a director. This was such an amazing script and I needed the best actors, some incredibly brave actors to play some pretty complicated characters. They stood up and completely supported me, as did some other amazing actors who sadly are not here. They’re in Alice Springs on the communities.
Warwick Thornton's love of Westerns
WT: I grew up watching Westerns with Bud Spencer and Terence Hill on VHS, and loving the American Westerns. They were perfect humans in those Westerns and, for me, everybody was bad, but they were good; they were anti-heroes. I recognised a playfulness and a cheekiness in the Western genre. As a child, I was cheeky and playful, and I recognised myself in those characters.
Watch 'Sweet Country'
Monday 4 July, 10:00pm on NITV
Tuesday 5 July, 7:30pm on SBS World Movies
Now streaming at SBS On Demand
Genre: Drama, History, Western
Director: Warwick Thornton
Starring: Hamilton Morris, Bryan Brown, Sam Neill, Thomas M. Wright, Ewen Leslie