Warwick Thornton’s debut feature Samson and Delilah (2009) earned him the Caméra d’Or at Cannes, while his second fiction feature Sweet Country (2018) took home both the Special Jury Prize at Venice Film Festival and the Platform Prize at Toronto International Film Festival. Despite the international acclaim, Thornton isn’t exactly a household name at home. This may be because his films actively challenge the foundations of Australian identity and question its validity. We sat down with Thornton to talk about his new film, Australia and Aboriginals on screen in cinema.
We’ve got three topics today: Indigenous storytelling, decolonising the cinematographic gaze and…
I saw that you work with Dr Romaine Moreton a lot.1
Romaine, she’s like the oracle to me. If I have a big question about who I am or how I feel, I ask her. She doesn’t give me an answer straight away; she thinks, she thinks and she thinks – and then she gives me these answers that blow my fucking mind.
I wanted to talk about your work with Romaine in The Darkside (2013), where you’re going through the National Film and Sound Archives. There’s this play with images, essentially where you’re looking at the anthropological Aboriginal body as scientific subject
Yes, that’s a horror movie. You know that anthropological, black and white footage? Measuring people, checking their skin and that. For an Indigenous person, that is a horror movie.
We’re still talking about a time, and this was up until the ‘70s. It’s kind of mentally still there, but we’re talking about a time when we were considered subhuman. They were absolutely adamant that we were the missing link between gorillas and the homosapien. They were desperate to prove that we were, so that’s where that came from.
How does film cut into that? As a kind of intervention into national consciousness?
You could say it’s debunking that… but that’s pretty pissweak.
Yes, it’s not the best…
It’s pretty pissweak. You know like, “We’re kicking against the pricks! And we’re fighting against the…” you know what I mean? “Debunking the notion that we’re flora and fauna!!’ We got over that a long time ago.
There’s this idea that the true ancestor to film is in rock paintings, because that’s the first time you see moving images.
Yes, totally. Absolutely, and there is lineage. There’s editing as well. And depending on which tribe took over another tribe, they would actually obliterate their histories.
Well they’d get rid of these stories and put their stories over the top, to empower their lore. There are cases of that. It’s kind of like pressing erase on a VHS tape. Or cutting out a certain scene that actually you do not like in that film, and then replacing it with your scene. This can be seen in rock paintings, because there was ebbing and flowing between tribes. Tribes would actually try and take over other tribes, this is pre-colonisation. They would actually instate their lore over that tribe, because the bigger the tribe the safer you are. We were fighting and half killing each other way before Cook or anyone else came.
Well there were over 600 sovereign nations…
Exactly. It’s not like we’re going to all get along like some utopian world. The editing, changing of lore and erasing of other people’s histories through the image was happening way before. We’ve been mucking around with it for a while, but not in a “we can tell a better story” way, always in a nasty way. In a disempowering, almost like a colonial way. Colonising another tribe, pushing your lore. Scratching off their sentient beings and replacing them with ours.
You’ve talked about how in Sweet Country, your aim is engaging audiences. To do that, your tactic isn’t brutal, full on, “This is fucked.” It’s more, “Look at the way our history was,” and there is still humour in that.
All cinema is selective and it selects which parts of history it uses. Storytelling is selective. But you see, the cinema that I’m trying to create is inclusive. I could do a film about one massacre, which would be the most horrific thing you’d ever see. Some form of Soldier Blue (1970); it’s an old cowboy movie of an Indian massacre. But that, for me, is unbelievably unproductive.
Because I cannot connect to a wider audience…
Wider or whiter?
Hey, you choose. Which one did I say? I’m not trying to heal a country, I’m trying to include a country. That’s what I’m up to, and I think that’s really important. Access to the screen is not a right for me, it’s not something that I have a right over. Whenever I get access to that cinema, or television screen, I really do think about having something important that can work. Rather than something that just goes, “Fuck you!”
It’s an important medium. A lot of people are going to see Sweet Country, and it’s important that they get something from it, rather than just react to it and push it away. It’s a selective history, in a way. That’s what I’m doing, but I’m selecting the shades of grey rather than the black and the white, and separating the black and the white. I’m trying to select the grey in-between so that good people can be bad, and bad people can be good. Looking at those kinds of notions.
They’re not one dimensional characters.
Thinking about black and white histories then, there’s a transition from the anthropological footage you show in The Darkside to The Story Of The Kelly Kelly (1906), which you include in Sweet Country.
They couldn’t get the black Kelly (played by Hamilton Morris). They’re all cheering on Ned Kelly. Australia has this wonderful fascination with that bloke, he was a murderer and a thief. I’m sure if we met him today he’d take your wallet and your cigarettes and punch you in the nose. You know what I mean? But, in a strange way if that was a Sudanese guy…
Oh yeah, it’d be gangs! “Gang crimes!”
Yes, but “Oh it’s Ned Kelly, he’s lovable!” It’s kind of like this pedestal that we put him on. There are so many amazing heroes in this country. Not just Indigenous, but white as well, but we keep just re-hashing this one bloke because he put a tin on his head. We need to grow up.
You should put a tin on your head.
Yes! Exactly, a flower tin, or a milk tin. We need to grow up and look further. There is a lot of Australian history that people don’t even know about, with people more amazing than Ned Kelly. And that’s the thing, the hypocrisy. They’re all cheering for Ned Kelly when they’re watching the movie [The Story of the Kelly Gang], but they want to hang Sam Kelly, the black guy.
I like to put history, real history, inside the things that I do. At that point there’s only about 12 minutes left of that film, and the Sargent trashed the last copy of The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) because it melts and burns when he pulls the screen down. All these wonderful things.
You said on the NITV program The Point that between being a director, screenwriter and cinematographer your favourite role is in cinematography.
I think that really comes through in your films. When you’re planning your shots, how do those ideas manifest?
They become, sort of, dreams when you’re reading through the script. Then you go to the location, then they become realities, in a way. Since I’m shooting and directing, all of the cinematic devices in the film are planned in pre-production. Not very many of them are actually created on set, because I need my shit together with that.
Well you’re on a schedule.
And you’ve got six actors needing to be nurtured and all of that kind of stuff.
To what extent does Aboriginal storytelling play into the way you plan shots?
Really, it’s as boring and basic as anything. In Sweet Country I made the really simple decision, with the exception of Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan), to never… you know that really basic stuff about filming under someone’s eyeline is empowering them, and above the eyeline is disempowering them? Really dumbass simple stuff like that. We decided that every single character, whether they’re a good guy or a bad guy, were going to sit under the eye line so that everyone is empowered on the same level.
As Sam Neill says in the film, “We’re all equal under God’s eyes.”
Yes, we’re not going to do that cheap, basic stuff. The decision is up to the audience as to whether they like that character or not. It’s something that as a director, I’m not going to dictate like, “Aw, this person is being beaten up so we’ll all look down on them!”
You’ve talked about that, how you don’t like to guide an audience’s’ perception. You don’t use emotive music, and this is the same thing, you’re not telling them how to think you’re leaving it up to them to decide.
Yes, absolutely. The most empowering thing about cinema, or any form of art, is that you have two people, and they’ve known each other since kindergarten, and they’re 80 now. They go to the cinema, or read the same book, or look at the same piece or art. One of them says it’s shit, and one says it’s the most amazing thing they’ve ever seen. That’s the beauty of the art of storytelling, if you do it properly. You don’t want everyone to like it because then you’re just in fear that you’ve made popcorn.
Yes, well that’s the fascism of cinema…
Or a chocolate cake.
I hate damper.