Each year, a post appears on a news website sounding the alarm that Australian cinema is dead. It’s dying! It’s all going down and you better start selling the furniture now because how else will you make some of the money back? Well, folks, I’m here to say that I’ve not seen any articles of the such so far, so I’ll proudly pick up the baton and bemoan the death of Australian cinema.
But Andrew! You wrote up a list of thirty of the best Australian films of the year! How can the industry be dying?
Well, me, thanks for asking that question. I appreciate it. I’ll jump right into that exact topic in just a moment. First of all, I want to mention that this post is going to be full of a lot of ‘what about me’ whinging, so if that’s not your thing, then thanks for the click!
Still here? Great.
Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country is one of the greatest films Australian cinema has ever been fortunate enough to witness. It swept the 8th AACTA Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing. It joins the likes of Lion, Hacksaw Ridge, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Babadook/The Water Diviner, The Great Gatsby, The Sapphires, and Red Dog, as being the cream of the crop when it comes to Australian cinema as deemed by the Australian film industry.
Yet, unlike Lion, Hacksaw Ridge, and Mad Max: Fury Road, Sweet Country is decidedly absent from awards discussions and ‘Best Films of 2018’ lists. Where those films all garnered Best Picture nominations at the Academy Awards (mostly thanks to the international names and funding attached to them), Sweet Country is nowhere to be found in the discussion of films worthy of such an honour.
In a discussion like this, it’s hard to find an entry point that easily answers the question of ‘why isn’t Sweet Country being talked about more?’ The first response to that question is: does Sweet Country warrant being discussed in end of year lists? For me, I believe it does. But, it’ll take a bit of scene setting to explain why it warrants discussion.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I buy into my own hype. I love Australian films more than the average viewer and have created a platform that aims to elevate the awareness and discussion about Australian cinema. I’ve had my fair share of questions about whether I’m bias in favour of Australian cinema – and sure, I’ll cop to that. I get it. When someone goes on about one thing so much, it’s easy to raise an eyebrow and question whether they’re over-invested in that subject.
But, unlike Margaret Pomeranz, I don’t give Australian films a free ride. Margaret was quite vocal in giving Australian films an extra half a star when she rated them as she knew the value of her voice and the ability that both David and herself had in getting people to go and see films. When David and Margaret rated Warwick Thornton’s debut film, Samson & Delilah, a rare double five star rating, it helped propel the film up the box office charts with a gross of $3,188,931 in Australia. But, this was in an era when Australian audiences listened to Australian film critics (well, two of them at least).
That critical acclaim from David and Margaret meant the world when At the Movies was on TV. Folks would sit down on a Wednesday night and catch the reviews for the films that were opening the following day. The water cooler discussion launched right there and then, with people going on about whatever argument David and Margaret had last night, or the fact that they miraculously agreed on something and gave a film a double five star rating. Their opinions mattered and carried weight, and people went and saw films because of their opinions. Viewers picked sides, it was easy to dissolve your tastes into either critic, and people knew exactly what kind of film fan you were just by saying you were either a ‘David’ or a ‘Margaret’.
That era is long gone.
Where indigenous stories had been shown on screen before – Jedda, Walkabout, Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Tracker -, they’d so often been told from a non-indigenous directors perspective. They’re great films, but lack that lived-in experience from an indigenous voice. Samson and Delilah helped crack open indigenous cinema in a way that many films had struggled to do beforehand.
Rachel Perkins debut film, Radiance, was a transformative film for me, showcasing three aboriginal sisters talking about their lives. It’s beautiful stuff with great performances, and a vibrancy I’d never seen on film before. (It’s worthwhile noting that Warwick Thornton was the cinematographer on Radiance, as he has been for many indigenous films.) Then, of course, Ivan Sen’s essential debut film Beneath Clouds, brought a indigenous perspective to Aussie youth. Both are great films, but none broke through to audiences domestically and internationally in the way that Samson and Delilah did.
From the success of Samson and Delilah came films like The Sapphires, Stone Bros., Here I Am, Bran Nue Dae, and the Australian indigenous cinema revival was born. Indigenous stories told by indigenous Australians. Films like The Sapphires look at significant moments in indigenous Australian history and brought them to a wider audience. Wayne Blair’s film won Best Picture that year at the AACTA awards and hit $14,535,031 at the Australian box office. A great achievement for a great film. Internationally, The Sapphires copped a disgusting case of whitewashing, with promotional material putting Chris O’Dowd front and centre, misrepresenting the film completely.
So, domestically, indigenous cinema was doing alright. Internationally, it was struggling to gain attention. Samson and Delilah won Warwick Thornton the Caméra d’Or (Golden Camera Award) at Cannes – an award given to ‘Best First Film’ – sharing the honour with previous recipients like Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!), Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon), Steve McQueen (Hunger), and Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise). That award alone should have propelled Warwick to international acclaim and brought the spotlight fairly onto indigenous Australian cinema.
Instead, there was nothing.
Even though Sweet Country could be the best reviewed Australian film of the decade, it doesn’t appear to matter one bit. No matter how much excitement critics in Australia have for Australian films, Australian audiences simply don’t go and see them in the numbers that matter. Granted, this is part of a wider discussion that’s shaking the film criticism scene around the world where audiences see the presence of film criticism as some kind of war. Rotten Tomatoes percentages are bandied about like a baton where audiences (and filmmakers) rail against critics for not loving their films for whatever reason, and if they do love a film and it fails, then the critics are ‘out of touch’ with society, or paid studio shills.
My favourite example of this is the antagonism that was thrown at Aussie critic Travis Johnson for his review of Ready Player One – trundle over and read the comments that were directed at Travis for a film that he saw before anyone commenting did and see the blatant hypocrisy in action. It’s not uncommon to hear filmmakers throw around the phrase ‘this one is for the fans’ as a subtle way of saying, ‘look, this film is critic proof, audiences will love it regardless of its quality’. But, for fear I’ll dive down a rabbit hole I can’t escape, I’ll leave that topic alone for now and jump onto what Warwick Thornton said about Sweet Country when he was out doing promotional rounds for it.
From an interview with Aussie critic Luke Buckmaster in The Guardian (another voice you should read, folks), Warwick says:
“If we want to man up, or stand up as a country and move forward, we need to know about our history,” Thornton says. “The film is completely truthful about history, even though it’s fiction. I think Australia is really ready for films like this. We’ve got constitutional recognition, conversations about treaties. If you want to go into those conversations with better knowledge, it’s a good film to watch about Australia’s past.”
And here’s why Sweet Country deserves to be talked about in end of year lists. It’s a film that explores the racism and hatred towards first nations people in colonial Australia from an indigenous perspective. For Australia to become a better country, we need to address where we’ve come from and explore the foundations of what made Australia the place it is today. That means looking at the trauma that British heritage inflicted on Australian soil.
This part of Australian history has never been explored in cinema in the way that Warwick Thornton does with Sweet Country. So often we see the plight of the white man in the tough, rugged Australian landscape – Lucky Country or The Proposition for example – but never the plight of indigenous Australians at the hands of white men. This is a film that demands to be reckoned with. It demands you acknowledge the past that lives in every Australian. It’s as if Warwick is challenging viewers to realise that just by saying ‘sorry’, the impact of the genocide of first nations people is not wiped away.
In that regard, it’s vital for Australian audiences that films like Sweet Country exist, but it’s even more necessary for international audiences so they understand what kind of country Australia once was. If 12 Years a Slave can be used to display what slavery in America was like, then why can’t Sweet Country be used for the same purpose?
The critical path for 12 Years a Slave began at the Telluride film festival, where critics immediately lauded it as one of the most important American films ever made. The narrative of importance and relevance for the film was set in stone from the get go, making it a film that audiences and critics simply could not miss out on.
Film critics around the world like to appear to embrace world cinema in all its permutations. There’s always seems to be a race to be ‘the one’ to bring a film to the film loving community. Critics often (mostly American) will be the ones to get to see these films first at the many festivals that roll out around the worlds. Whether it be Cannes, Venice, Toronto, Sundance, or <insert name here> festival, you bet that there’ll be critics from all over itching to get that review up first. While criticism lacks the weight that it used to in the era of Roger Ebert and co., it does still pay to be ‘first’ in the industry. And a positive review can make a small film big.
With that said, websites like Little White Lies and Slant Magazine can easily push a film into the eye line of the exhausted cinephiles out there. For film lovers, it can be a tiring endeavour to keep up with the latest releases – while at the same time, trying to catch up with the never ending shame pile of classics that demand attention – so having a magazine like Little White Lies drop a review for Sweet Country that gives it a 5/5 should help push it into the attention of film lovers who want to engage in international cinema. Now, this isn’t always the case, but in theoretical terms, it should apply to cineastes above all else.