From left : Australian actor Matt Day, director Warwick Thornton, actors Bryan Brown and Sam Neill attend the photocall of the movie “Sweet Country” presented in competition at the 74th Venice Film Festival on September 6, 2017 at Venice Lido. Tiziana FABI / AFP
Indigenous Australian director Warwick Thornton hopes his look at one of the darkest periods in his country’s past will help it make better decisions in the future.
But most of all, the acclaimed “Samson and Delilah” filmmaker just wants people to go see “Sweet Country”, a chase and courtroom epic that explores the exploitation and abuse of indigenous farm workers in the Australia of the 1920s.
Alongside established stars Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, Thornton’s new work features a group of indigenous actors making their first film.
The movie had its world premiere Wednesday at the Venice film festival, where it is competing for the Golden Lion, eight years after Thornton won the Camera d’Or newcomers prize in Cannes.
“After ‘Samson and Delilah’ was so successful I was sure my next film would be embarrassing and everyone would think it was terrible,” Thornton said.
“But when I saw the script I thought this could be my second Led Zeppelin album, or Kiss album maybe.” “Sweet Country” is a nuanced depiction of life in one of the most isolated parts of the world in the aftermath of World War I.
White settler farmers struggle to make a living from cattle breeding on arid land confiscated from Aboriginal tribes. They are helped by indigenous workers toiling for rations in conditions not far off slavery.
“It is really important to talk about the past and look about where we have come from. The more you understand that, the better decisions will be for the future,” Thornton said.
Brown, who plays a grizzled police sergeant, said the script and chance to work with Thornton had attracted him to the project.
“It did deal with white attitudes to Aboriginals at a certain time but also other themes: soldiers coming back from the war and the camaraderie of that, isolation and how hard that is, whether you are black or white, and also how you make decisions,” Brown said.
“I did get worried that I’d be playing a character that everyone would hate and they probably do, but that is how it goes with good characters.”
Set in 1929 in the Outback around his native Alice Springs, Thornton’s tale is based on the true story of Wilaberta Jack, an indigenous man who was acquitted, on the grounds of self defence, of murdering a white man in Central Australia, only to be subsequently killed in a revenge attack.
Similar events befall central character Sam Kelly, played by Hamilton Morris, and the story is also seen through the eyes of Philomac (played by twin brothers Tremayne and Trevon Dollan), a 14-year-old boy living on a cattle station owned by Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright).
When World War I veteran Harry March (Ewen Leslie) moves into a neighbouring farm, Kennedy agrees to send two of his workers to help him get established.
A drinker struggling to cope with his experiences in the trenches, Harry chains Philomac up overnight and becomes consumed with drunken rage when the boy unpicks the lock and escapes.
His hunt for him leads to another property, where Sam and his pregnant wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) are employed by Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a kindly figure whose devout Christianity has led to him resisting the prevailing racist mindset of his neighbours.
With Fred absent, Harry’s arrival at the station ends badly. Sam and Lizzie find themselves on the run, pursued across the desert landscape of the MacDonnell Ranges around Alice Springs by a posse led by Fletcher.
Sam’s connection with the land of his ancestors means he is always one step of his pursuers, but Lizzie’s pregnancy means he cannot keep running indefinitely. He knows he is going to have to risk his fate in court.
Thornton co-wrote the film with Steven McGregor and David Tranter, a childhood friend, with the “Sweet Country” of the title a reference to the watermelon patch Tranter’s grandfather tended as a child.
Neill described the opportunity to work with Thornton as “a no-brainer” after being blown away by “Samson and Delilah.”
“There are so many stories to be told but I thought this was an important one,” he said.