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AACTA Film Fest | Seeing the Landscape

Article by Sydney Film Fest host Andy Hazel.

For over a century Australian cinema has been defined, both nationally and internationally, by the relationship between Australians and the land. From bush-rangers using it to evade capture in Charles Tait’s 1906 film THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG, via the connection between First Australians in Charles Chauvel’s 1955 film JEDDA, to the post-apocalyptic wastelands of George Miller’s MAD MAX, the expansive land is an omniscient character.

Many of the most acclaimed films set away from Australia’s cities portray the land as a prison of both the mind and the body, necessitating stories of survival and masculinity. But as the demographics of Australia have changed, so has our relationship to the land, and our understanding of it. In 2018, new stories are being told by a more diverse and thoughtful collective of filmmakers than ever before, and this year’s AACTA Film Fest showcases some of the finest examples.

Two of the standout films in this year’s slate, Warwick Thornton’s SWEET COUNTRY and Mark Grentell’s THE MERGER, show Australia as a very different character to one we’ve seen before. Hostile and accommodating, closed and open.

THE MERGER tells the story of failed AFL player Troy Greenwood, played by Damian Callinan, and the antagonism shown toward him by the town in which he lives, the fictitious Bodgy Creek. As the town’s much beloved AFL team are facing a merger, and their club rooms require destruction, Troy sees an opportunity to secure funding for the club if they bring in skilled refugees who have been recently relocated to Bodgy Creek from Australia’s offshore detention centres.

Grentell uses the town as a setting to explore empathy and the battle to overcome prejudice by welcoming new residents to the town. Like his previous film BACKYARD ASHES (2013), Grentell uses the locations and people of the city of Wagga Wagga as a set to tell his stories, effectively opening up the community and land, and showing their inseparability. THE MERGER is a warmly-lit and lovingly told family comedy in a town where front gardens overflow with flowers, the biodynamic winery and football field are verdant, and viewers are welcomed into this affable community and its archetypal locations. The film’s refugee characters are encouraged to tell their stories in football club rooms, the town hall, a school classroom and the local pub, while non-Muslim refugees drink beer, effectively putting them in the heart of the community, using the film’s landscape to build empathy as the town’s new residents are introduced.

In this way it has much in common with Rob Sitch’s 1997 comedy THE CASTLE. THE CASTLE was a suburban comedy with a subtle narrative about Aboriginal land rights, as told through the eyes of a young boy. THE MERGER uses the guise of a sports comedy to humanise refugees and appeal to the humanity of its viewers as a young boy is making a documentary about Troy Greenwood, the man trying to bring the town together. At its outset, Bodgy Creek is a land contested. “They don’t belong here,” John Howard’s cantankerous Bull says to his grandson, Neil, played by Rafferty Grierson. “Who does belong here?” Neil replies. “Well I don’t know. You, your nanna, your mum. Dad. We’re forgetting who we are. Change is no good.” THE MERGER shows one path to how this land, in particular a non-urban community, could be shared.

The people contesting the land in Warwick Thornton’s SWEET COUNTRY could be the ancestors of those residents of Bodgy Creek. Thornton’s western tells the story of Arrernte man Sam Kelly, played by Hamilton Morris, living near Alice Springs in 1929, and how colonial justice impacts Aboriginal lives. Evading the brutality of racism by working for a local preacher, Kelly kills a farmer in an act of self-defence and is forced go on the run with his wife Lizzie.

The land of the Northern Territory is depicted by Thornton not in the hallucinatory tones of Nicholas Roeg’s WALKABOUT, or the hot hues of Leo Kotcheff’s WAKE IN FRIGHT. Instead, it is at once seen as engendering fear and respect. The land is a place of banishment and salvation. Seen through the eyes of Sam Kelly, it is, according to reviewer Guy Lodge, “scorched but rustling with life, painted with a rough-bristled brush in streaks of ochre.” More than just providing cover as Victoria did in THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG (a film which is briefly seen projected in Thornton’s), Kelly’s symbiotic connection to it, weaponisation of it and the fear it engenders in himself provides the film with much of its tension and release. The empathy we feel in SWEET COUNTRY is unequivocally directed to Kelly, his partner and nature. We have been watching Australia for a long time. In SWEET COUNTRY, Thornton lets us see it.

 

THE MERGER and SWEET COUNTRY were screened in cinema in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane during September 2018 as part of AACTA Film Fest. The films will be available for members to watch online via AACTA TV until 11 October 2018.

For your complete guide to the feature films competing for a nomination for the 2018 AACTA Awards presented by Foxtel, download the Film Fest Guide here (6MB).

 

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