One of the main themes this quarter has been on the alteration and reconceptualization of space and time among the Aboriginal people in Australia at the hands of the white man. This immense change resulted from European colonization and increased control of their lives and spaces of socialization. For the most part, there has been an incredible focus on how European incursion into Aboriginal land, played a big part in altering how most of the natives, in turn, lived their lives, as second class citizens in their home, constantly in passive opposition to the white man’s customs and practices. The 2017 Film, Sweet Country by Warwick Thornton, is set in the northern dry Australian outback and, based on an aboriginal man’s true story, tells the story of an aboriginal man, Wilaberta Jack, played by Sam Kelly in 1920.
Sam is wrongly framed and nearly convicted for a mad white man’s death, Harry March’s irrational actions of aggression towards him. There are several instances the film presents parallel themes between the main works of literature studied in class. In the end, a clear revelation that is presented to the viewer is the costly struggle of the aboriginal people to retain identity while also charting a new path in this dynamic world where their customs and traditions have become meaningless. This brief essay tries to establish some minimal comparison between the film, Sweet Country to the book, Carpentaria by Alexis Wright. In both works, the themes of dispossession of ancient aboriginal land by white newcomers, Christianity, and a great difference in the conceptualization of time and space (between the two cultures) takes precedence as the white man dominates the aboriginal.
Dispossession of land plays a role in stripping the aboriginal people in the film their culture and self-identity. Their role and needs are presented as secondary to the white man’s need even when they are justified to fight for their rights. In Carpentaria, Mozzie Fishman presented a similar vision of white domination and dispossession of aboriginal land when he stated that he saw a vision. In his recollection of the vision to his followers, Mozzie states, “‘Hands too many,’… ‘running like mice all over every dwelling, trying to reshape, push, mould, trying to make things different. White hands.’” (Wright, 132). This is a powerful vision of what was soon to come in the book and its manifestation is visually presented in the film Sweet Country after an old man near a spring gives Philomac a lecture as he contemplates whether to throw away the loot he took from March’s dead body. Here the old man identifies to him that Kennedy’s father stole our country from us like a white fella. He is got no lore, no Dreamtime” (Thornton). The old man identifies to Philomac, that if he steals, he feeds into his narrative and in so doing he becomes nothing, without lore (traditions), no culture.
The above scene is also a clear revelation into the lack of acknowledgement of the white man’s culture by the aboriginals who conceptualize space and time differently. The film literally only uses diegetic sounds of the set or leads the audience in this manner. There are non-diegetic sounds, but the sounds of the northern outback predominate the scenes. Time is also conceptualized differently. Every time a new character is introduced, the film provides a flashback or provides a flash-forward on how their lives will turn out. When Lucy is sent to town, to stay with her family, the film provides a flash-forward of her crying next to a horse carriage with her face drenched in blood. When the audience is introduced to Philomac, the audience is shown a flashback of him enjoying a watermelon he denied stealing. All of this is juxtaposed as part of the narrative and there is no distinguishable tool used to create a difference. The film also presents the aboriginal to exist with their custom in the midst of the white man domination. This is shown especially through Sam passive approach to the white man’s customs and traditions.
Sam by all means is presented as a quiet person who understands and has managed to navigate between the two cultures. Although he is well informed on both cultures, the concept of the court evades both Sam and Lizzie, who fail to acknowledge the significance of the judge. The courts are quintessentially a white institution. They do not understand its significance in offering them justice even when they are questioned by the judge repetitively. In vain, the judge tries to make them answer, even going as far as threatening them to be in contempt of the court but Lizzie does not budge. Archie too does not understand the significance of a witness and believes that he is on trial. He goes ahead and tries to lie to the judge that Sam was the person who stole the watch from Harry’s body, despite this not even being part of the line of questioning. Sam and Lizzie struggle to make a prayer before they eat when they are left alone in Franks house. Sam asks Lizzie to do “it,” Lizzie asks Sam instead and so forth until Lizzie finally does it. While they abide by these rules even independently, they fail to see their significance and abide by their own lores.
Most of them participate in these new rituals since they have become dispossessed of their own. The old man at the spring speaking to Philomac states that there is no water, no more lore, no more culture, no more ceremonies, no more land, no more songs to bring the rain (Thorton). Nothing. In Sally Morgan’s My Place, similar sentiments are made in reference to the white man’s arrival and its effects on the people. The narrator identifies that “I came to the realisation that it was impossible to change my environment. I decided to try and change myself instead” (Morgan 221). Rather than lose their culture, they continue with their old traditions and also change themselves to fit into the white man’s perspective. Sam could as well have killed Seargent Fletcher in the desert, and he would have never returned, and be always on the run. No one would have ever found him, but instead, he chooses to make sacrifices and return for the sake of his pregnant wife.
Conclusively, there is a great resemblance between Sam and Normal Phantom. He seamlessly adapts to both cultures with limited efforts in trying to resist the white man’s ways. While he does not understand Christianity, he nonetheless participates earnestly. He also has an ability to survive in a stressful environment, just as Norm embraced both the white man’s perspective and his own by reading widely. Similarly, in both Carpentaria and Sweet Country, the white man has dispossessed the indigenous people their land with impunity. Still, the majority of the aboriginal people, albeit passively, maintain a need to hold their traditions close. This is signified in the last scene when Philomac throws the gold pocket watch into the stream to avoid becoming a “Myall”- stranger or obsolete person. An aspect that he was persuaded to do by the elder.
Morgan, Sally. My Place. 1st ed., Fremantle Arts Centre, 1987.
Thorton, Warwick. Sweet Country. 2017.
Wright, Alexis. Carpentaria. 1st ed., Giramondo Publishing, 2006.