For a film initially suggested by the sound recordist on one of his films, director Warwick Thornton has been overwhelmed by the early response to Sweet Country.
After being “unbelievably nervous” before the world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last month, he was thrilled when the outback western received an extended standing ovation and won a special jury prize.
Warm reviews called it “majestic” (Variety), “a drama of imposing breadth and emotional depth” (The Hollywood Reporter) and “a milestone for Australian Indigenous cinema” (Screen Daily).
Then came more acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival that included winning the prestigious Platform prize for artistically ambitious work.
“It’s been awesome,” Thornton said before the Australian premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival on Saturday night. “An absolute fairytale.”
Set in the Northern Territory’s MacDonnell Ranges in the 1920s, Sweet Country stars non-professional actor Hamilton Morris as an Aboriginal stockman who goes on the run with his wife (Natassia Gorey-Furber) after killing a white station owner (Ewen Leslie) in self-defence. The cast also includes Bryan Brown, Sam Neill and Matt Day.
“It’s a hard film,” Thornton said. “It hurts. When I walk out after a screening and do a Q&A, I generally apologise [saying] ‘Sorry about that but, anyway, that’s the truth’.”
Thornton, who made his name directing the wrenching Aboriginal drama Samson & Delilah and filming the hit musical The Sapphires, came to Sweet Country in an unusual way.
Sound recordist David Tranter, a friend since they grew up together on the same street in Alice Springs then both trained at the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, told him on set one day that he had a story for a film.
“I occasionally get ideas from grips and gaffers and make-up artists,” Thornton said. “You’re not dismissive but you go ‘well go and write it’ then generally you never hear about it again.
“But I told David ‘go and write it’ and he did.”
Working with Steven McGregor, Tranter delivered a script that Thornton loved.
Sweet Country continues one of the strengths of Australian film and television – Indigenous directors telling Indigenous stories.
For Thornton the last decade has included groundbreaking work such as Samson & Delilah, The Sapphires, Bran Nue Dae, Mystery Road and Goldstone in film and The First Australians, Redfern Now, Black Comedy, Cleverman and We Don’t Need A Map on TV.
“It’s a unique voice,” Thornton said. “That point of view that’s looking at history or life or our future fears or our future hopes from a slightly different point of view.”
He sees it as a natural development for traditional Indigenous storytelling.
“Coming from an oral history, Indigenous people having access to celluloid or to television is like a new kind of dreaming, a new idea of storytelling,” he said. “We’ve created a new library for ourselves.
“A lot of our history was written by colonisers who wanted to write these stories about themselves to put themselves in a favourable light. A lot of it is a lie. Now we’re starting to write down our history with our version of events.”
Tranter said Sweet Country, which opens in cinemas in January, was based on the real life story of his grandfather’s brother. He described the reaction to the film as “quite amazing”.
Despite being set in the past, Tranter believes the film’s themes will resonate with audiences now.
“They’re the same struggles and issues that we face today,” he said. “Thank Christ for our old people that they hold onto all the information because it gives us people in the film industry a future.”