When Sweet Country rolled out around Australia in early 2018, there were remote regions which missed out on getting the film. The target audience for Sweet Country should ideally be universal across Australia, but given Australia’s indigenous population live predominantly in regional areas, the fact that areas that would appreciate it the most were going to miss out was a real shame. The town of Dubbo was most irate about it, eventually starting a petition to ‘Bring Sweet Country to Dubbo’. It took a while, but sure enough, Warwick Thornton ended up hand delivering the film to the town and held a Q&A for attendees.
Filmmaker Q&A’s have proven to be a popular way of getting viewers along to go and see these films, but surely getting a brush with celebrity shouldn’t be the only way of getting people to see these films? Surely quality alone should be enough to get viewers to seek out Australian cinema? People are surprised that Australia released more than ten films in each year, but how do we stop them being surprised and instead turn the discussion into, ‘shit, there’s too many Australian films for me to keep up with this year!’? I don’t have an answer for that, and I’m not sure anybody does.
Sasha Stone wrote an article recently about Damien Chazelle’s film First Man. In it, she mentions that ‘movies are personal’. For her, First Man was a testament to the achievements of America, a love letter to a president who dreamed of ambition, of what it means to be a parent, and what it means to lose a child. It’s a great read, and I recommend you dig into it.
While I disagree with her on the film, I can see the importance of First Man for her and America as a whole. I appreciate the way it explores American history. Just like Sweet Country, First Man has all but disappeared from discussion at the end of the year. It’s on a small handful of ‘Best of’ lists, and no doubt the champions of the film will carry on the torch for it as long as they can.
Which is where I wind up this long diatribe that’s been bouncing around in my head for the past few months. I first saw Sweet Country in December 2017, and I’ve seen it twice since that viewing. I’m more convinced than ever before that this is a powerful, important piece of cinema. Not only is it a great Australian film, it’s a great film all round. Warwick Thornton should be held up high and discussed in the same breath as the greats of cinema. Maybe it’ll take another film or two for the rest of the world to catch up, but given the immediacy of entertainment nowadays, there is simply no excuse to not embrace Warwick Thornton as a filmmaker right now. Where many filmmakers are compared to great European directors (just look at the discussions surrounding Roma and the comparisons to Fellini), Warwick Thornton feels like a unique voice, influenced by himself and his culture.
When I interviewed Warwick, I asked him about the grounded perspective that he presents in Sweet Country, and he mentioned how it was important for the viewer to understand that this is how indigenous folk traversed the land. They didn’t have a drone to show them where to go, they simply knew where to go from the lay of the land. The film puts you in Sam Kelly’s (Hamilton Morris) shoes, presenting how he would see the world.
Is this film for everyone? No. Of course not. No film is. Do I believe that Sweet Country has been given a hard wrap by the film loving community? Yeah, a little bit. For every Zama or Burning or Minding the Gap, there’s a Sweet Country or a Strange Colours or a Island of the Lost Souls that slips through the cracks. It’s the inevitability of cinema – there are always new films to dive into, new directors catalogues to explore, or the back catalogue of a countries film library to peruse. It’s never ending, it’s exhaustive and exhausting, but it’s why we love cinema. The variety, the challenges it presents, the unique voices – there is always something new to embrace.
I don’t have a solution to solving the desperate problem that is facing Australian cinema – and mark my words, it is desperate. I wish that film criticism embraced Australian cinema more, I wish that audiences around Australia would embrace Australian cinema more, and dammit, I wish that Australian filmmakers would embrace Australian cinema more. Every so often an Aussie filmmaker will shoot out a tweet in support for a small Australian film – Russell Crowe telling his followers to check out Backtrack Boys was a particularly sweet one – but the industry as a whole treats filmmaking as a competition.
If Australia won’t embrace Australian cinema, then it’s up to the international community to recognise the value of Australian cinema and show us the value of embracing our own art. If that doesn’t happen, then I’m not sure what else can be done. I know I won’t shut up about it, and heck, I’ll keep pushing Sweet Country onto anyone that will listen. I just wish there were more out there doing exactly that.
I know these 4000 words have been an exercise in navel gazing and self-absorbed pap asking ‘what about me’, and maybe this next sentence shows the level of my naivety and ignorance, but I really thought that Sweet Country would be a film that would be embraced by the film loving community at large. And yes, it’s disappointing when that doesn’t happen – we’ve all got that one film that we tell everybody that they simply must see it, and they never do – I had simply hoped that this time it would be different.
So, here’s a task for you in 2019 – seek out at least two Australian films from that year. Keep reading and supporting the critics that you read, but also seek out those you’ve not heard of. Seek out the films that aren’t being discussed, and when you find one you love, keep talking about it until everyone you know tweets at you saying ‘it must be time for Andrew to send out his daily “Have you seen Sweet Country yet?” tweet’. And most importantly, embrace independent cinema and be passionate about it. 2019 will be a year where it will need you the most. Stand by it and support it and embrace it. You’ll miss it when it’s gone.