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Filmmaker Warwick Thornton’s latest offering, Sweet Country – a dark, outback, period western – brings the truth of Indigenous history to life through fiction. Says Thornton: “I was ready and really hungry, and a nice, big-arse western, a massive epic full of horses and guns, men scratching their balls, felt really, really good to me.”

By Steve Dow.

‘Samson & Delilah’ creator Warwick Thornton

Warwick Thornton.
Credit: MARK ROGERS

As a young teen, if he likes a girl, Warwick Thornton grunts and groans and throws rocks at her. For him, Alice Springs is full of angels and demons. He is a lost kid on its streets, “drinking, smoking, thieving and fighting”, but he will find his voice as a DJ on the local Indigenous radio station, playing songs requested by prison inmates, fuelling empowerment as a priority in his later art.

For years, Thornton, whose Kaytej mob is from Barrow Creek, about 280 kilometres north of Alice, carries around in his head a love story, which will finally emerge on 35-millimetre Kodak film, austere and simple, his anger about neglect of kids in central Australia driving this project.

Thornton hates the process of writing, and tends to spell phonetically. His teenage Samson and Delilah will speak largely in body language. Having made several short films, he determines the soundtrack while still scripting this first feature: Charley Pride’s “Sunshiny Day” over Samson waking in bed and reaching for a can of petrol to inhale; the Desert Mulga Band’s riffs in line with frustrated, misspent energy.

In scene 45, Delilah looks out the car window and sees Samson do a slow, sexy dance. “Shame job,” says Rowan McNamara (Samson) after the scene wraps, having unsuccessfully pressed Marissa Gibson (Delilah) to leave the set before he performed the dance. She teases him that he looked like he was pulling a rope.

While the untrained, first-time actors fight off screen, the on-screen chemistry is universally understood. As Samson’s sinewy body sways, Delilah hears Mexican singer Ana Gabriel on the car radio, pleading “Como Olvidar” (“How to Forget You”): I’m sure that you/ Will never forget our moments…

Samson & Delilah premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009 and won Thornton, then 38, the Camera d’Or for best debut feature. Looking back, did the success create a weight of expectation? “Yeah, it’s the whole second album syndrome, which is funny,” says Thornton now, in black T-shirt, jeans and baseball cap, sitting on a couch in a film-editing studio in Sydney’s inner-west.

He is about to show investors a rough cut of his new feature, Sweet Country, which took the filmmaker to Arrernte–Luritja country, on the Ooraminna cattle station, 40 kilometres south of Alice Springs. Samson & Delilah had been made at Jay Creek, 45 kilometres west of the town.

Thornton sits with film editor Nick Meyers (Balibo, The Rocket), debating at which precise point to insert a flash forward to show one character is a dead man walking. The film is shot not on film but on Arri Alexa digital cameras, and Thornton’s son and eldest of his three children, filmmaker Dylan River, 25, was second unit director.

“I was ready and really hungry, and a nice, big-arse western, a massive epic full of horses and guns, men scratching their balls, felt really, really good to me,” Thornton says. “You know, it’s a dark story; it’s pretty hardcore. I read the script and I went: ‘Alright, I really like this.’ It’s got some holes, but it’s nothing we can’t fix. Let’s just go for it.”

Thornton still has the beard but has lost a little weight, which he often does when submerged in work. In 2013, his feature The Darkside, a series of actor’s monologues recounting ghostly encounters, was released. This year, his soulful documentary on the deeper meaning of the Southern Cross to Indigenous people, We Don’t Need a Map, opened the Sydney Film Festival to acclaim.

He directed season one of the Hetti Perkins series Art + Soul, released in 2010, and was cinematographer on Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires, a local hit in 2012. Thornton has also made other forms of art. In the series Debil Debil (devil-devil), Thornton portrayed himself in photographs as a pastoralist, a policeman and a priest.

He explains: “Okay, imagine the pastoralists are coming in, they’re poisoning waterholes, they’re shooting blackfellas. They’re recognised quickly as a demon. But then the missionary comes in, and he goes, ‘Hey, if you come and stay on my mission with me, I’ll protect you from the pastoralists, but you have to give up all of your language and culture, and then suddenly, I’m going to start taking your children away if they’re of mixed colour.’

“And then the policeman’s taking the children away, and the policeman’s aligning with the pastoralists. Some old men go and kill a cow, because they’re hungry, to feed the tribe, then the policeman and the pastoralists are riding together as a posse to shoot the blackfellas.

“So suddenly, from an Indigenous perspective, they’re all a demon.”

Growing up, Thornton absorbed on VHS tapes Sergio Leone’s 1966 spaghetti western epic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Ralph Nelson’s 1970 film Soldier Blue, and Elliot Silverstein’s 1970 film A Man Called Horse, as well as any John Ford movie. Soldier Blue’s massacre scenes of Native Americans are “pretty hardcore”, says Thornton.

“Aboriginal Australians, our connection was more to black America, and the Panthers. Everybody wanted an Afro and to be part of the Panthers, in a strange way, whereas the true connection that we had spiritually … [was] to Native Americans.”

Thornton’s own great-grandmother was shot in the 1928 Coniston massacre of dozens, possibly more, of Indigenous people in the Northern Territory in retaliation for the killing of a white dingo trapper. “Dead as a doorknocker,” Thornton says.

The story of Sweet Country is set in that epoch, in 1929, when an Indigenous boy, Philomac, played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan, 12 at the time of filming, witnesses Sam Kelly, played by Warlpiri man Hamilton Morris, kill in self-defence a station owner, Harry March, played by Ewen Leslie. Sam and his pregnant wife, Lizzie, go on the run as a posse pursues them.

Thornton cast Morris, from Yuendumu, after seeing him in the Alice Springs sitcom 8MMM. “He could go places,” says Thornton. “What I needed I could teach him, but I needed him to be ready to be taught, and to be open to laugh and cry. These barriers of ‘being shame’ or being a rabbit in the headlights, was what I needed from actors.”

Thornton’s long-time friend and sound recordist, David Tranter, the grandson of the real-life Philomac, whose story forms the basis of the tale, wrote the initial script. Some of this territory was covered in a 25-minute documentary, Willaberta Jack, which Tranter directed in 2007.

To discuss what happened to Philomac would be a plot spoiler, however. Steven McGregor wrote the final Sweet Country script that was shot. Sam Neill, Thomas M. Wright and Bryan Brown also star.

Unlike Samson & Delilah, Thornton is determined not to include any music, except for when the credits roll. The atmosphere is the score: cicadas singing in the gum trees, sawing timber to build a church, billy tea boiling.

“A big sweeping score for a film like this for me would be really cheap and nasty and easy: ‘It’s a sad scene, so let’s play some sad fuckin’ music.’ Na, I’m gonna rip all that out, and just have it so incredibly truthful to the time and the place, and reality.”

 

IN 1847, a Benedictine college opened at New Norcia, 132 kilometres north of Perth. Co-founders Rosendo Salvado, a good-humoured monk from Galicia in northern Spain, and José Serra, a stern Catalan, were missionaries whose first three students, Noongar boys Upumera and Conaci, both 7, and Dirimera, 9, “left their families of their own free will”, Salvado insisted.

In 1848, Serra took Upumera, baptised Benedict, to be educated in Europe as “part of the grand experiment of the civilisation of the Aborigines”. Upumera died at sea, cause unknown, author Anouk Ride writes in her book The Grand Experiment. In 1849, Salvado took Conaci, baptised Francis Xavier, and Dirimera, now John Baptist, to train as missionaries. The boys knelt before Pope Pius IX, then hiding from revolutionaries in Gaeta.

Conaci, a bright student, died in a Rome monastery in 1853 after a fever, and is buried in a monks’ communal ground. Dirimera finally secured passage home, but died in 1855, about 17. Salvado wrote that Dirimera was the “first Aboriginal Australian buried on the mission as a Christian”. Three more Indigenous children were taken to Europe; all quickly died of Western diseases.

The grand experiment of Indigenous missionary training having failed, Salvado College in Byford, south of Perth, continued educating Indigenous students on site into the 1980s. Warwick Thornton, born in 1970, was one of them, from the age of 13 to 15. His mum, Freda Glynn, a co-founder of broadcast network Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA), had packed him off to live there.

Thornton found himself, Lord of the Flies-style, at the bottom of the pecking order at Salvado College, whose namesake had died in 1900. He went from street kid to church twice a day and was picking olives with other “country blackfella” kids.

“I needed some stability. You find structure and self-respect,” he says, “but then you want to break the rules. You don’t want to be there, but it’s a bit too far to run away. The harder you kick, the more you get pricked. But then, when you stop kicking, you go: ‘Oh, I’m happy. I can stop kicking and exist.’ ”

Back home and finding his feet as a DJ, Thornton leapt into cinematography when CAAMA launched a film unit, which led him to study at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney. He graduated in 1997.

Thornton says he’s never known anything about his dad. “I know he’s dead. He died when I was one or two, yeah.”

He has two children, filmmaker son Dylan and a daughter, policy researcher Rona, 22, from a previous relationship with producer Penelope McDonald. In 1999, he met Warramungu director and film writer Beck Cole, with whom he has a daughter, Luka, 14, but Thornton and Cole separated nearly three years ago.

Looking beyond Sweet Country, Thornton is developing a vampire-inspired TV series with friend and Mad Bastards director Brendan Fletcher, as well as rewriting another feature film script that he wrote before Samson & Delilah was made.

Thornton’s brother, Scott, who drew on his own life to play homeless alcoholic Gonzo in that film, is again “drinking too much”. Another brother, Robert, cannot work because of disease that has fused his backbones.

Is Alice Springs important? “I miss it and then I fucking hate it. At the moment I hate it, so I’m staying away.” Thornton won’t specify what he hates. “A lot. I’m a bit homeless at the moment, but that’s alright. I’m just focusing on work.”

He can reconcile Jesus with Indigenous spirituality such as the rainbow snake. In his 2011 short film Stranded, Thornton depicted himself as a cowboy Jesus, nailed to a revolving cross, above a waterhole, as an Indigenous spiritual symbol of life.

“The songlines, all those creation stories, you open up Genesis, they have all those wonderful stories based on moral connection,” he says now. “We have that. You look at a mountain range, it is a Bible.”

How does Christianity sit today? “Any religion that is supposed to promote harmony and connection – don’t go killing each other; if you kill someone you’re not a true representative of whatever religion it is – I like that.

“The irony is, they’re all fucking hypocritical. See, our law system is built on Christianity. The whole thing. So I like to put Christianity in my films, not to wrong-do it, but to recognise it. It’s always there. The Ten Commandments work pretty well, though it’s broken, more by Christians than by anybody else.”

Despite its darkness, the empowerment for Philomac in Sweet Country will be truth, Thornton says.

“The problem with our frontier history, it was written by the people actually doing the shooting. So the copper who’s going to write down what happened had his finger on the trigger. How much of it is true? … Oral history passed down gets changed and diluted. Sometimes, thankfully, some priest or missionary wrote the truth.”

He cites marine captain Watkin Tench’s journal showing vials of smallpox carried by the First Fleet: “And do you know what happened to the Gadigal?”

Virtually wiped out, I say.

“By?”

Smallpox.

“Oh. Do you think the governor would have written, ‘Oh, we opened the smallpox vials and spread it on some stuff and handed it to the blackfellas?’ We only know the vials were there because of the inventory. History’s funny like that.

“So making Sweet Country: it’s fictional, but there’s truth in it, and the truth is what I need, about how people were treated.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 14, 2017 as "Crown of Thornton". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Sydney-based arts writer and the author of Gay: The Tenth Anniversary Collection.

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