Indigenous Australian director Warwick Thornton talks being his own cinematographer on Sweet Country, shooting on Alexa and UV, and developing the film’s aesthetic.
Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country is not your typical western: it centers the perspectives of its Indigenous Australian characters, meaning it will necessarily break some of the rules of the genre. It works as the story of a man-on-the-run. When Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris shoots a drunken white colonizer in self-defense, he knows he’s in trouble. But what unfolds is a story of the trauma inflicted on Indigenous Australian Peoples by colonizers who refer to them as “black stock” and regularly treat them as near-slaves — even when they happen to be, generally through rape, the colonizers’ own flesh and blood. It’s an emotionally wrenching story in which the “sweet country” is both gorgeous and dangerous. Thornton’s framing makes us constantly aware of who has a claim on the territory.SWEET COUNTRY was one of the very best films at #TIFF17, yet it’s still floating under the radar.Click To Tweet
Sweet Country has already picked up prestigious awards at the Venice Film Festival (the Special Jury Prize) and the Toronto International Film Festival (the Platform Prize for best feature in the competitive programming stream). It was one of the very best films I saw at TIFF this year. Yet it still feels like it’s floating under the radar: the film is still seeking North American distribution, and many at TIFF hadn’t heard of it prior to its win there. It will continue on the festival circuit this fall, stopping at the London Film Festival and again in Toronto at the ImagiNative festival. After the North American premiere at TIFF, I sat down with Indigenous Australian director Warwick Thornton to discuss his visual approach to the film.
Seventh Row (7R): What did you want to make sure you raised at the beginning of the film?
Warwick Thornton (WT): For me, the sense of place, the style of the film, the pacing of the film, are really important at the beginning of the film.
Right at the beginning, there’s the [closeup of a cauldron with] boiling water: black tea goes in, white sugar. It’s all represents humanity, black and white, they all go into boiling water, and it all boils over, which is kind of the whole story in a way — black-white relationships. It’s a very hot country. It’s a closeup of a boiling water on a fire. That’s not how you’re supposed to make a film. Page one of making a western is a wide shot with sweeping music and a huge crane. But you’re not watching a normal western.
Then, suddenly, we go to a flash forward of him in court, and there’s all this murmuring, mumbling words, and then suddenly the words transition into clear audio. It goes, “Mr Kelly, do you understand”? As an audience member, I don’t understand a thing! What is going on? All of that, for me, is a sense of style, sense of pace, sense of place. This film is not going to be normal.
I like films that make me think. I’m intelligent, and I want a filmmaker who actually thinks I’m intelligent, as an audience member. A lot of films treat the audience like they’re idiots. A lot of cinema does that, and it’s so sad. If we’re going to play with flashbacks, we should also play with flash forwards. If you want to get inside characters’ minds, we don’t just think backwards of our fears. We think forwards of our dreams.