The Survival of Kindness Review – An Unsubtle Film About the Brutality of Humanity

When Margaret Atwood wrote her feminist genre fable ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ in the mid 1980s she was using precedent that would become prescience. It is the paradigm of persistent cruelty in culture that Rolf de Heer is exploring in his dystopian tale The Survival of Kindness. The film happens in an unknown time which is simultaneously past/present/future. Although the events in the film are heightened, they are based in reality. Australia is a colonial nation, it is a nation built on stolen land, it is a nation that remains racist and actively locks people in cages — those cages are called ‘detention centres’ and ‘processing centres’ and they are immoral and inhumane, run by faceless bureaucrats.

de Heer opens the film with a scene that is deliberately disorienting. People in gasmasks are celebrating over a cake that has been made to elaborately represent the displacement of humans for an unknown state. A sugary confection of violence that is sliced and fawned over. There is no clear language that is being spoken, but it is evident that the people are greedily consuming. de Heer is not using metaphor sparingly in the film, in fact he is blatant in his use of imagery. Throughout his “fable” he is asking “Have you got the point yet?” and it would be someone with no sense of Australian and international history who would not recognise the symbols being employed.

We move to ‘BlackWoman’ (Mwajemi Hussein) who is being held outside in a cage. For no reason we can fathom she is pulled into the desert and abandoned in her cage to die. de Heer forces the viewer to spend a significant time with her in her cage. We watch as the sun beats down upon her, as huge ants rise up from the cracked desert floor to devour each other. We bear witness as she struggles to release herself from the cage, and when she finally does, we wonder if she has obtained liberty and what liberty means in her world.

BlackWoman’s bleak odyssey across the desert (filmed in South Australia and also in Tasmania) introduces her to numerous characters trying to survive some toxic event that has led to a totalitarian government. People are dead, dying, strung up after being hanged. An Indigenous man digs graves. BlackWoman finds clothing from a corpse. Misery seeps from every frame. The land is poisoned by something unknowable. People are poisoned. Minds are poisoned. de Heer’s tagline for the film is “After the loss of reason comes The Survival of Kindness,” and Hussein’s stoicism also translates into kindness when she meets others who are suffering. Hussein, who is not a professional actor, is our focal point, but also our eyes. We see the desert, the mountains, the absurd colonial museums, through her eyes. We see destruction, barbarity, wonder.

de Heer does not let us forget the history of colonialism. An Indigenous woman has attacked and murdered white men who were going to rape her. Guns are pointed at people who are simply trying to stay alive. Resources are fought over. The fascistic class in control of “the other” use bodies and enslave them the way white men did Indigenous people. In this future, as in the past, slave gangs exist.

In her only true encounter with kindness BlackWoman finds BrownGirl (Deepthi Sharma) and BrownBoy (Darsan Sharma) who help her hide and disguise herself as a white person under the WWI styled gas masks the elite wear. In an ugly industrialised wasteland, the trio attempt resistance only to be captured and enslaved. There is an inevitability in de Heer’s plotting that suggests that liberty is fleeting under totalitarianism. Those who fight the system risk being annihilated by it, but fighting the system is a moral imperative.

The Survival of Kindness pushes narrative boundaries, and the pitiless nature of the visual and psychological journey is punishing. The few moments where characters allow themselves some level of peace, a reminder that beauty exists and that human connections can be made, and that small respite is perhaps the kindness that de Heer is referring to.

However, those moments, as effective as they are, are dwarfed by the lugubrious tone of the film. de Heer in his script and direction is forcing the audience to face the truth about how easily humanity fractures, and how we have a history of using anyone we consider ‘other’ as a scapegoat and their bodies as sites where we can enact the most painful and degrading punishments that deny their autonomy and humanity.

History, past and present, has shown how elite classes shift into abusing those they consider less or disposable. The poor, the disabled, the bodies that are not white and of a certain class, a fed on by systems that are shaped by inequity. Power corrupts and turns humanity against humans. The Survival of Kindness is not a subtle film – the visual language is unceasingly reminding the audience of mindless but purposeful violation. The ending is open for interpretation, but de Heer’s thesis is not.

Director: Rolf de Heer

Cast: Mwajemi Hussein, Deepthi Sharma, Darsan Sharma

Writer: Rolf de Heer

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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