You might remember Warwick Thornton arriving on the film scene like a thunderclap over a salt lake. His first film, Samson and Delilah, won the Caméra d'Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and since then, the 47-year-old filmmaker from Alice Springs has become one of our best. His examination of the intersection of Indigenous history, identity, and the ongoing aftershock of colonisation informs a body of work that is as entertaining as it is urgent.
His new film, Sweet Country, is just that. Sweet Country follows Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) after a violent altercation with a PTSD riddled ANZAC veteran, forces him to flee the authorities, and white justice. It’s a Western-style epic that deconstructs the Australian outlaw, daring white Australia to challenge its own national myths about justice, violence, and pride.
Released simultaneously is a Thornton-directed documentary called We Don’t Need a Map, examining the Southern Cross as miss-appropriated nationalistic signifier. And through both of these films, we see how Thornton has maintained his rage and enthusiasm in delivering films that seem tailor-made for Australia’s self-satisfied inertia.
VICE talked to the director about film, Aboriginality, white Australia, and their intersection.
VICE: Hi Warwick, how do you think Indigenous ideas of story, time, and space have shaped your filmmaking?
Warwick Thornton: I’m still learning this as a craft really. Talking about Sweet Country particularly, when you’re out there and you’re making the film, the desert is dictating the time that you use. It’s hot and the days are incredibly long, so you sort of get into a rhythm—a connection to country—that you operate by. At first you’re trying to create a different rhythm, you’re sort of fighting the way the country works. But then you slow down and ponder a little bit more, and then suddenly you’re talking to the actors, you’re talking to the editor, and you’re using those rhythms long afterwards to try and connect to the movie, the story, and the place you shot it in.
But I don’t know if that’s an Indigenous thing. It could be anybody out there directing a film, do you know what I mean? It’s a difficult one, that one. I’m still trying to figure out what an “Indigenous filmmaker” is. Hopefully I won’t find it so I can keep looking.
Regarding that idea of country, I read an interview where you said when you cast Hamilton Morris (who plays the film’s protagonist, Sam Kelly) because you were more interested in his relationship to country than his ability to act.
Totally. I just think there’s an unrecognised knowledge that he has, and a camera can recognise. I don’t think I’d be able to direct that if it wasn’t there. I can teach people to react: go faster, and slower, and angrier, say less is more and all those concepts of acting, but I can’t teach you to be Aboriginal and have a spiritual connection to the country. So I think that’s what I was looking for. Someone who already has a connection, knowledge, and an emotional feeling, that’s much more than I can create as a director.
Having said that, do you bring your connection to country to your directing?
Yeah, I am Aboriginal but when I step outside of Central Australia I am a tourist, just like everyone else. Like, if I was in Arnhem Land, I don’t really have a connection to that country. I do recognise spiritual diversities, and I do recognise that there are ancestral beings, I do recognise that whole connection, but my connection to it is very much limited. So when I do work in other peoples’ country I need to surround myself with people who do have that connection, to help teach me. That’s really important to making the film.
Do you think film lends itself to Indigenous ideas around memory?
Well that’s a dangerous one, because we come from an oral background. Our knowledge is orally transferred, and kept. We’ve got rock engravings and cave paintings, so they’re a form of library, but 99 percent of our knowledge is via oral transferal. So when you understand that—that knowledge is power—then you realise that so is memory.
It’s interesting with cinema because suddenly you don’t have to remember. If you watch a movie you can replay it again. You don’t have to remember it, you don’t have to hand it over to another person, it just sort of becomes embedded in a different form of knowledge. Like a book. You write a book, and suddenly it’s a physical form rather than it being in your head, and you don’t have to pass it on to someone else. It’s an interesting one because film kind of makes it lazy.
Related: The remote community of the Tiwi Islands, located 80km north of the Australian mainland, has a thriving gay and trans community known as the Sistergirls. Watch our doco here.
So do you feel some personal and creative tension in using film as a way to tell these stories?
Look, the most important thing to me is that I have an idea. Do I have something to say that’s empowering and that people will actually listen to? Just with my voice. Without the wizbangery, without the great actors, without the amazing landscape, without all of that: can I actually speak it like it was oral history, and does it still have the same power? If it does, then I’m on a good point. I’ve got the fire inside me to actually make the movie, to tell that story, visually.
Your films often seem to critique white Australian identity. In Sweet Country you use The Story of the Kelly Gang from 1906 to satirise the way we’ve shaped our national identity. Do you think new Aussie filmmakers have a role to play in correcting our identity?
Yeah we do because we’re actually one of the youngest countries in the world. And ironically, because our recognition of the Indigenous connection to this country is very loose and weak, we don’t realise that we are the oldest country in the world. Because for the last 100,000 years people have inhabited this land and there hasn’t been a break in that connection. So it’s sad that our connection to this country is basically Ned Kelly and a couple of wars. That’s our connection to who we are and how important we are. But we’ve got much better connections to so many more powerful things.
The irony of Ned Kelly is that if he was around today he’d be a meth head robbing a 7-Eleven. But we prop him up as this empowering figure. This criminal, is that who we are? Is that the extent of our birth of a nation of who we are? There’s so many more empowering and beautiful things out there but that’s what we thrust on ourselves. The irony in Sweet Country is that the man on the run is Sam Kelly and everybody wants to hang him. But they’re all cheering this movie about Ned Kelly because this guy robbed the equivalent of a 7-Eleven in the 1800s. So what?
The Western is a genre rooted in colonialism and nationalism. In Sweet Country you evoke films from Howard Hawkes and John Ford and the tropes and iconography of classic Westerns. How was it taking the genre and using it to satirise the very things it helped create? I think Australia has just as much rights to make a Western as any country. Because even though the frontier happened a lot later here, there was still that same idea that this land was a frontier, and it was lawless, and that’s what the core idea of the Western is. The irony is that there were laws here for a 100,000 years. People don’t even recognise that. There was democracy, way before. But that Western idea that “they’re natives, they must be all lawless savages,” that’s the sadness. We still think that way.
Your films often touch on white Australia’s appropriation of Indigenous space, bodies, ideas, and culture. I’m still haunted by the scene in Samson and Delilah in which she tries selling her art in the café. Do you think cinema can be a tool for Indigenous storytellers in Australia to reclaim things?
Yeah surely, because you’ve seen it and it still haunts you today [laughs]. Cinema is just knocking on doors and opening up time and places that you don’t have access to. That’s the most important thing about cinema.
Sadly, most cinema today is designed to make money, and large amounts of it for corporations. But cinema is simply storytelling. It’s exactly the same thing as a cave painting. It’s exactly the same thing as an old man or woman sitting under a tree telling a story. And generally when storytelling was evolving it was about morals. It was about passing down knowledge. It was about connecting and creating values. Cinema has lost a lot of that. There’s still cinema out there that isn’t abusing itself, selling itself cheaply. It’s actually creating foundations for society, and that’s where I stand. Don’t waste a single frame of that screen on crap, that’s the most important thing for me.
It’s interesting you say that because the past five years have been pretty brutal for arts and film funding in Australia.
That’s the other part of it too. There are bigger entities that are afraid of it. The arts is the lie that tells the truth. People are very scared of that. You know Churchill, during the Second World War. His ministers told him “we need to cut the arts budget.” And Churchill said “well, we’ll have no reason to fight then.” People forget that it is the arts we are fighting for. It is democracy in that form. To be able to lie about the truth.
Let’s talk about the recent discourse around Australia Day and how vitriolic the Right got.
Well that’s because they’re children. It’s such a young country and they’re still in nappies, the poor bastards. The irony of changing the date or any of this hysteria is that this whole thing is being driven by a much younger generation. It’s the older generation who are being childish about it, and when they die, the younger generation will simply change the date and get on with it.
Your films communicate so much history and trauma. Does it ever feel burdensome? When it comes to white audiences, do you feel like you’re trying to communicate with someone who is unwilling to listen?
It is difficult. But you know, it’s from little things that big things grow. You’ve got to start somewhere. You’ve got to kick against the pricks. There’s no point just going “it’s all too hard.” Hell, I’ll make a sci-fi movie one day, I don’t care. It’ll always have fingers in the genesis of humanity, and the complexes of who we are, and our sort of fear of the dark side. But for me personally, it’s a reason for being. I wouldn’t have it any other way, in a strange way.
Is that what drives you to tell stories?
I need a fire inside me. The last thing I want is to have it all. I like walls to climb over and tunnels to build under walls. I need a fight inside me to actually tell a story. And it needs to be hard.
Sweet Country is in cinemas now. We Don’t Need a Map is another Thornton-directed film exploring the history and meaning of the Southern Cross. It's screening around Australia with Q&A with Warwick throughout February.
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