Australian director Warwick Thornton’s recently released film Sweet Country, which is making a buzz on the global scene, unfolds the relationship of power and domination within the purview of the colonial settlers’ encounter with the aboriginal people. The film set in the 1920s in the mesmerising landscape of Northern Territory near Alice Springs begins with the story of an indigenous couple Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) who were working on the property of a Christian preacher, Fred Smith (Sam Neill). A firm believer in racial equality with a kind heart, the character of the preacher, is historically analogous to those of British missionaries who had ventured out on Christianising the colonial subjects from Latin America, Africa, Asia, to Australia. Under the influence of the preacher, the couple adapts some basic religious habits such as giving thanks to Jesus before partaking meals. Thus, the film early on sets a stage for two sorts of encounters, cultural and political (including law) between the colonisers and the colonised.
In the film, two other white characters, a senile (Thomas M Wright) and bad tampered Harry March (Ewen Leslie)— the symbolism of the colonial power and ego—settled in the vicinity of the preacher, treat ‘black stockmen’ with strong racial prejudice. At this disjuncture of the film, the gap between the coloniser and the colonised reflects the implications of the colonial power’s domination for multiple sections of the indigenous society: for a woman—being reduced to an object of sexual harassment; for elderly indigenous—deprivation of male dignity at the hands of white males; and for children—a concern for indigenous future. All three sections are well portrayed through various indigenous characters in the film.
When Sam Kelly kills Harry in an act of self-defence and not for raping his wife, the colonial law takes its course in pursuit of bringing the criminal to justice. And the futile search begins to hunt down Sam who is roaming in the wildness of forest, mountain, and desert in Northern Territory. The imagination of the country at this point is somewhat in compliance with the idea of human closeness to physical attributes of a landscape. Long settled but not being in the line of an inheritor of the local knowledge places the white settlers as outsiders and distantly related to the land. Knowing a land, its beauties, its hidden mysteries, its difficult terrains, in the form of local knowledge makes a country sweet: both for human survival and for extracting its resources if not for greed then for everyday existence.
Sergeant Fletcher’s hunt for Sam Kelly through the desert results in an existential crisis. Devastated by thirst, the sergeant gets water from Sam only to be robbed of his weapons. Sam had no difficulty even in his fugitive lifestyle to access basic life-materials, unlike the Sergeant. This refers to a very powerful metaphoric trope in the film to emphasise the indigeneity of a population. Land and indigeneity have a close relationship from which all the native population was uprooted at some point of time in history by the colonial invaders. Although their lands were forcefully taken, nevertheless, the knowledge belonged to them alone. This knowledge has cultural dimensions which the film invokes by showing a relation between land, humans, and the knowledge of it. No land becomes a home all of a sudden merely by forcefully capturing it: rather the knowledge connects a human to the land. This trope is further stretched in the film in reliance of the Sergeant upon another local indigenous collaborator, Archie (Gibson John), in his attempts at locating Sam.
Already settled in the country for at least 150 years, the settlers long uprooted from their culture and society still see their familiar “other” from a different gaze marked by a racial attitude. The first demand of a little white crowd was to hang Sam immediately when he finally surrenders under the compulsion of his wife’s pregnancy—a result of rape by Harry. But it was the duty of the colonial law to make unjust just without any prejudice. To prevail the rule of law, the judge Taylor (Matt Day) appointed by the Queen dutifully performs his role. The verdict of the settler’s law is significant at least in its democratic prospects. The rationale applied and the judgement delivered to free Sam nonetheless gives the film a balanced approach. However, the meanings in it indeed extend beyond the scope of the film emphasising the neutrality of the law in its functionality. For millions of people all around the globe including the indigenous in Australia, their rights, and battle for equality and justice has to be recognised by law which is historically taking a slow but progressive approach. But the law has no significant value until and unless the powerful recognise it or the majoritarian civil society accepts it in behaviour. The film, thus, bolsters this expression of the insignificance of the law in the grip of power—when Sam gets killed by a bullet from an unknown source despite being freed by the law—in reflection upon injustice done in the past.
Mukesh Kumar is a doctoral candidate at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). His research interests include both history and anthropology, more specifically, colonialism-nationalism in princely ruled states, religious synthesis, and Hindu-Muslim cultural encounter in India.