Sweet Country

Glasgow Film Festival, 21 February – 4 March 2018

Director Warwick Thornton’s debut feature Samson and Delilah was described on release as “the first Australian film” and for this ex-pat living in Scotland, that’s exactly what it felt like. This was a side of Australia that many of my fellow audience members had never seen before, an intensely subtle, silently emotive film of lives blighted by racism, poverty and dispossession. It is also a compelling love story, the kind that offers the possibility of hope, regardless of whether the world within and out-with the film permits it. Unusually on screen, the depiction of life for two indigenous teenagers in “the lucky country” was one I recognised. Far from the projection of a carefree sun-drenched paradise of plenty, Thornton’s depiction of a harsh, unforgiving and increasingly unequal society, separated from the land and clinging to the very edges of it, was a welcome dose of reality. The film had an enormous impact on me when I first saw it previewed at the Inverness Film Festival in 2009. Afterwards I felt a combination of deep sadness, hope and relief, that finally an essential process of re-evaluation had begun in a country founded on the lie of “Terra Nullius”.

Like many white Australians of my generation, I grew up in middle-class suburbia, surrounded by blatant racism. It was a divisive domestic environment of hostility and paranoia, boarded with reticulated lawns. Fortunately, being drawn to Art from a very young age taught me other ways to see. The beauty and freedom of Art/ Cinema is connection-imagining and creating a different state of being and sharing that vision. No matter how oppressive the environment, we can think and project ourselves beyond circumstances, even if in the here and now, it is only in our dreams.

By the time I was a teenager in the mid 1980’s, Australia was starting to wake up. In 1992, a result of the landmark High Court Mabo vs Queensland decision, native title was recognised for the first time by the Australian government. A year later, when Prime Minister Paul Keating made an official statement denouncing the “convenient fiction” our country was founded on, it was a conceptual turning point. The idea that when our white, pioneering forefathers first arrived, Australia was uninhabited, a “land of no one” was no longer sanctioned as truth. Our untaught history of systematic exploitation and genocide has always been there, you just have to dig- and not very far beneath the skin. However, as Warwick Thornton commented after the GFF screening of his latest film Sweet Country, “most people just don’t dig.” The myth of an empty land, “Terra Nullius”, newly discovered, turns conquest into heroic entitlement with no conscience, regret or apology required.

You must lance and drain an infected wound before it will heal – that is how I have always felt about the country I was born and raised in. That excavation is essentially painful, finding out who you are and where you come from, so that self-determination becomes a possibility. Sweet Country digs right into the flesh and consciousness of the country in ways that no other director/ cinematographer could. Written by Steven McGregor and David Tranter, the film is an incredibly powerful statement, part of a vital process of re-evaluation and creative renewal. Thornton is a director who embraces the complexity of being human head on, illuminating this on screen to kick start the national conversation and initiate perceptive change. Sweet Country is a remarkable film, as a damning indictment of racism and injustice- and one that wholly succeeds in not alienating audiences. To his credit, Thornton’s vision is big enough not to.  Although this is a deeply personal story of his people, based on true events and filmed on location in the Northern Territory, with the emotional investment of local/non-professional and professional actors, it also transcends its location.

Hamilton Morris in Sweet Country, Bunya Productions.

Though many people in the UK will find this hidden history shocking and confrontational in terms of outback Romanticism imploded, Thornton’s baseline is always expansively compassionate. It’s an indigenous vision of the world that denies nothing. Although packaged as a Western, this isn’t a story of reductive “black and white” morality, with good and bad cowboys, an epic chase and a conventional shootout delivering frontier justice. Instead the Western genre is meshed beautifully with a rhythm of storytelling that will be less consciously familiar to audiences, moving in and out of time. In an Aboriginal context, The Dreaming, or Dreamtime, is omnipresent, encompassing all time-past, present and future, so this is a very natural mode of storytelling. Despite the ravages of colonialism, the spiritual core of the country survives in the way the story is told visually.

Set in the 1920’s, when vast tracks of land were being claimed and worked as cattle stations, the story of an Aboriginal stockman Sam Kelly, played with quiet reserve and immense dignity by Hamilton Morris, brings conditions of the past resoundingly into the present. Sam and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) live and work on a homestead owned by Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a Christian Preacher. There is a degree of safety for them in conversion and service, compared to life in the surrounding countryside, as we see in the brutal treatment of a young boy, Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan) and an elderly stockman, Archie (Gibson John). Worn down by systematic abuse, both gradually succumb to a state of complicity to survive.

We see in Philomac the conflict of the next generation growing up in the shadow of a white father who shapes him into “a man” through punishment. Philomac is part of a lost generation. It’s clear he will never be accepted as part of his white father’s line, nor is he able to return to his people and ancestral land. Like Archie, he has been taken from his home as a young boy and forced to work on the station. The vulnerability of this character is felt acutely in violent outbursts of self-loathing projected onto the son by his biological father. This enforced judgement of worth becomes an inherited cycle of deprivation and dispossession, infecting every character on screen in one form or another.

Natassia Gorey Furber and Hamilton Morris in Sweet Country, Bunya Productions.

As the central protagonist, Sam Kelly is a complex figure of gravitas, self-possession and grace. Sam has learned to avoid conflict by turning the other cheek, until forced into an extreme position of self-defence. His relationship with his wife Lizzie is tender and trusting, revealed not so much in words, but the intuitive expressions and body language of two people at ease with each other. Sam is an everyman, who quietly absorbs the world around him, but like all the characters in the unfolding drama, he too is capable of judgement. When Lizzie reveals that she’s pregnant, the result of rape, he judges her. The underlying theme of what it is to be a man and what happens when the status quo of masculine power (black or white) is threatened comes to the fore. Sam is equally generous and compassionate, saving the life of Sargent Fletcher (Brian Brown) who relentlessly pursues him across the desert. With or without Christian influence, we feel the presence of a deeply sensitive man with a good soul. There’s gentleness and sense of underlying respect between Sam and the preacher Fred Smith, however this relationship isn’t quite friendship.

Smith is a kind man who practices the compassion he preaches, seeing everyone as “equal in the eyes of the lord” and asking Sam not to call him “boss”. However, his relationship with Sam and Lizzie is based on cultural loss and denial of existing lore, a well-meaning and subtle betrayal of identity that “saves” and obliterates with the same soft hand. Smith’s humorous out of tune rendition of “Jesus Loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so” is a moment laced with genuine belief, missionary zeal and ineptitude. Literally and metaphorically Sam is unable to have children, implying generational loss of life, culture and human potential in conversion. Even in this, the film resists black and White judgement. Human beings and the histories we weave are much more complex- this is the truth, reality and sincerity of the film and its maker.

The arrival of neighbouring landowner Harry March (Ewen Leslie), wanting to use the “black stock” on Smith’s homestead to work his own land, is an explosive catalyst revealing the true nature of racism as self-hatred, heightened by emasculation. March is a man defined by hate and brutality, having returned from WWI and survived its horrors, only to inflict a rule of violence on others. It is a moment of great sensitivity and insight when Sam identifies that March “is ashamed”, testifying at his outdoor trial just prior to the judgement which saves and condemns him. Although March is a vile character, the nature of his actions can’t be dismissed as madness or evil. Thornton places the viewer in a much more essential position, where we are unable to place the character beyond our own conscience as “other” by simply demonising him.

The insidiousness of racial abuse is a respectable uniform and a base need for power, absent in everyday life. In the lead up to a scene of sexual violence, perpetrated in the dark with only sound used to orientate the audience, we see March calmly closing all the doors and windows, barring light and any means of escape. The horror of this scene is that it isn’t in any way irrational, but highly controlled. We understand from March’s calm composure that he’s done this before and as a white man has no fear of justice. It is dispossession of multiple aspects of self, creeping into everything, twisting human behaviour into something monstrous and oppressive. The choice of this historical era, parallel to Weimar Germany and the rise of Nazism, reflects forces at work in our own turbulent age, making the story culturally specific and completely universal. Very uncomfortably at times, we are unable to relegate what we see on screen to the comforting distance of history, because it is so urgently relevant today.

Warwick Thornton awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 2017 Venice Film Festival.

Sweet Country is a gear change for Thornton, a more viscerally direct statement which never loses its humanity, standing very confidently on a world stage. The director’s creative evolution and artistic leadership is thoroughly inspiring. Australia is a country which so often seeks cultural validation outside itself, a quality that Thornton spoke about in his post screening discussion. Media attention at international film festivals and multiple awards including Best Film at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, the Platform Prize at Toronto International Film Festival and Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival have enabled greater recognition on home soil. As the film is distributed more widely, my hope is that this creative and political momentum will grow, changing how and what we’re taught about ourselves. I have no doubt that Sweet Country will generate healthy scrutiny and essential debate wherever it is screened. As Thornton stated in a recent Guardian interview (Jan 2018) “Australia is ready for films like this.” Thornton’s empowering work in cinema thus far makes me incredibly hopeful, not just for Australia, but in the humane, global reach of his work.

To respond hopefully to Sweet Country might seem strange, given what we bear witness to on screen, however this is clearly framed as a man-made environment. The opening sequence in closeup of a seething, almost molasses thick concentration of boiling billy tea, with a handful of white sugar dissolving into darkness, is accompanied by the sound of racist abuse depicting the violence off screen. It is such a powerful image of confinement in a world of overheated testosterone, imminent threat and negative masculinity about to boil over. Throughout the film, tension is prophetically heightened by flashforwards, giving us glimpses of characters and their potential fates, placing the audience emotively and psychologically on the edge of their seats. The combination of sound, images and editing, with no music, delivers a knockout punch of emotional intelligence. We’re not told what to think or feel, but are free to interpret the flow between past, present and future. The story is held in imaginative spaces of light and shadow in the mind of the viewer, an ultimate form of realism aligned with ancient traditions of storytelling and the birth of Cinema.

Ned Kelly’s last stand, from The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) Directed by Charles Tait.

Thornton reclaims this cinematic inheritance in a brief clip from The Story of the Kelly Gang, premiered in 1906 and at the time the world’s longest feature film, seen on a makeshift screen as part of a travelling Picture Show. This isn’t just hat tipping though. The subject on screen is national legend, the Irish Bushranger and folk hero Ned Kelly, an underdog fighting against corrupt authority and instantly recognisable to most Australians with his tin helmet. Immortalised on film, in literature, song and in the iconic silhouette of Sidney Nolan’s Kelly series of paintings, this mythic figure of resistance is subverted and transformed in the heat haze of a salt plain. During his Director’s Q&A, Thornton spoke about Aboriginal resistance to colonisation and massacres at the time, completely written out of history. Whilst Australians readily embrace the Irish outlaw/ bushranger as a heroic figure with the odds and justice tragically stacked against him, in stark contrast Aboriginal resistance to genocide has barely entered public consciousness.

The Western is a genre that naturally confronts audiences with the impacts of institutional racism and colonisation, right on the edge of human behaviour. There’s intense cruelty and enduring beauty in that whole landscape of memory, even more so in the Outback Western. This frontier of lawlessness is permeated with cultural references to masculine honour, fighting “for Queen and Country”, “the last post” reference to ANZAC bravery and sacrifice at Gallipoli, Sargent Fletcher’s belief in the ultimate authority of his uniform and the unhinged discipline of March’s rifle drills on the homestead porch.  There’s an absence of blame and positive alignment with accountability in understanding what drives the characters.

Sadly, the underlying nature of their predicament is as relevant today as it ever was. However, the eyes behind the camera (Thornton and his son Dylan River) bring with dark recognition a stark light which is uniquely Australian. When the question is asked at the end of the film, whether change is even possible in the country, Nature answers with an enormous rainbow. There is an overwhelming sense of ancient forces greater and more enduring than humanity in this final sequence, as the preacher turns his back and walks away towards the horizon carrying his disillusionment and doubt. Above his head the sky he cannot see speaks its truth, and what a gift it is that Thornton captures that shining, undeniable projection of hope for all the world to see.

https://glasgowfilm.org/glasgow-film-festival

North & South: Landscapes of Lotte Glob

8th July – 29th August, The Watermill Gallery 

Lotte Glob, La Gomera Walks X (Ceramic) Image courtesy of The Watermill Gallery, Aberfeldy.

Lotte Glob’s 5th exhibition at the Watermill Gallery is a celebration of her distinctive vision, boundless creative energy and perpetually evolving practice in ceramics, etching and drawing. For the viewer, it is an invigorating experience of connectivity with Nature, guided by the artist’s masterful transformation of materials into deeply grounded, visceral works of Art. Born in Jutland, Denmark in 1944, Lotte Glob’s command of her chosen media is undeniable, with over 50 years’ experience as a leading international ceramic artist. Her vibrant energy, reverence for the natural environment, creative experimentation, playful humour and enthusiasm for life are inspirational, expressed in the prolific outpouring of works in ceramics, sculpture, painting with clay, printmaking and drawing. She is a remarkable woman and a force of Nature, inseparable from the mountainous Sutherland landscape. The UNESCO North-West Highlands Geopark is her back yard and from her home on the shores of Loch Eriboll, the rugged, ancient landscape is a natural wellspring of creative renewal, providing raw materials and spiritual sustenance. Rocks and sediments gathered on treks into the surrounding country are incorporated into Glob’s work, fused with glass, clay and fire. Often works are returned to the landscape of lochs, mountains and moorland, a way of restoring balance within and without. The artist’s characteristic strength of form, rendering of texture, sensitive handling of colour and glazing techniques are incredibly painterly, bringing extraordinary depth, skill and understanding to the Art of Ceramics. Her drawings and etchings also bear the unmistakable mark of a human hand aligned with Nature’s endless cycles of creation, destruction and rebirth.

Seeing Lotte Glob’s work is always an immediate, heartfelt experience of connectivity with forces greater than ourselves, testament to our essential relationship with the natural world.  Like the Australian Aboriginal vision of the Dreamtime, not as a dream but as a timeless, living reality, where everything is alive; rocks, water, trees, animals and ancestral beings, there is an overwhelming sense of holistic Creation in Glob’s work. It’s in the substance of her materials drawn out of the physical and unconscious ground, the alchemical process of creative distillation and the artist’s vision, above and below the surface, which enables us to perceive the world around us with renewed, multifaceted richness.  For the last six years during the Scottish winter the artist has travelled to La Gomera, off the coast of Morocco, spending time walking and absorbing the colour, light and raw energy of the volcanic island. Inspired by North and South, the sense of rejuvenation in the exhibition touches the soul.

Lotte Glob walking on La Gomera. Image courtesy of The Watermill Gallery, Aberfeldy.

Blue Lagoon (Ceramic, 61 x 61, Edition No: unique) is a stunning introduction to an exhibition you can dive into on so many levels. The glassy pool of vivid turquoise and ultramarine blended with umber, descending to black, contains a world of life on a universal scale. You feel immediately that the gradients of hue in this sphere have been created by a knowing hand, an absolute master of the medium who can control exquisite accidents of firing, fusion and glazing. Glob paints with ceramic, suspending umber like peat sediment in water, blurring the line between Nature’s marks and her own. The primary circular form feels like a portal of the imagination, a scrying mirror, the human eye/mind as a window and the substance of an entire planet. There is depth, breadth and height in this cosmic view, like a feature in the landscape captured by satellite from infinite space.  There is a sense of macrocosm and microcosm in this life-giving pool that sets the tone of the whole exhibition in terms of rejuvenation through creativity and the forging of raw elements; within the individual/ collective Self and the wider world. In the presence of Lotte Glob’s work, it is impossible not to feel the connectivity of humanity, our dependence on the natural world and the power of Mother Nature. Framed by what feels like the cracked, parched skin of the earth, cream layered crust separating from red molten core, Blue Lagoon is a sublime and tactile affirmation of life and fertile imagination. It is a pool of blue that unexpectedly swallows you whole with its beauty, a release and relief from the everyday, relentless blur of urban existence. At its centre is the stilled truth about how to heal ourselves and renew the world through shifting perception.

Hung side by side in perfected symmetry are Erratics on the Move-Day (Etching, 68 x 87, Edition No: A/P) and Erratics on the Move-Night (Etching, 68 x 87, Edition No: A/P), which bring an ancestral presence to stone, darkness and light. On a geological level, ‘erratics’ are rocks or boulders that differ from the surrounding land, having been carried and deposited away from their place of origin by glaciers. There are also human associations with the word, which we feel in the paired forms present in both images, isolated in darkness and light. Inclined towards each other, they feel like aspects of Self, masculine/ feminine elements of procreation or the beginnings of life on a cellular level, ‘on the move’ in a state of metamorphosis.  The erratic, wandering spirit that creates a different path through life, defying expectation, is also part of the artist’s identity. In the “Day” image two steely, solid forms with a delicate patina of etched marks are illuminated by a cream, green tinged ground of light, whilst “Night” immerses the viewer completely in the tonality of moonlight. Ovid hollows of stone are formed by the finest etched marks imaginable, receding into orbital craters of mind, scoured by time, winds, rain and lunar tides. The two etchings operate beautifully in unison like hemispheres, evoking a sense of completion and illumination moving from darkness to light.

Lotte Glob, Erratic (Etching) Image courtesy of The Watermill Gallery, Aberfeldy.

A larger scale work; Erratic (Etching, 120 x 80, Edition No: 1/10) in blues, greens, rusted orange, burnt umber, yellow ochre and charcoal black, also brings humanity to consideration of Nature. The seemingly precarious balance of a smaller stone holding up an enormous boulder is a relatively common sight in the North West Highlands and Islands, landscapes sloughed and smoothed by the last Ice Age, but this isn’t a vision of landscape as mere scenery. Incredibly focused details; striations and cross hatching, energy and light, hit the haloed edges of the boulder, as if energy were flowing out of it, creating a powerful force field of resilience. Made up of tightly coiled circular marks and elongated forms flowing into each other in emerald green, yellow, rust and charcoal black, the boulder opens out like a living organism. The land is a matrix of air, stone, earth and water, imprinted with vegetation, scratched and etched marks like miniature energy trails of mind, boring into the soil. In the mid ground, the wave of a mountain seems reflected in the water, then perception shifts, moving beneath the surface it as if entering an underworld, swimming through etched, undulating lines which the mind parts in the eye being drawn into the image. The blue pool in the foreground is where we stand immersed at the centre of evolutionary life, pivoting like the grounding stone and held in the palm of the artist’s hand. Pigment is drawn right to the edges of the composition, suggesting that we are seeing only a vertical slice of the monumental landscape.  The adjacent pastel drawing Boulderland presents a grouping of living stones, each with an eye or nucleus, resting in rubble like sentinels as the earth turns, erodes and reforms itself, a process invoked by the artist’s use of earthy ochre, burnt umber and charcoal black. There’s a sense of what is held in the landscape in Glob’s drawings and etchings, the mythology and depth of ancestral knowledge which reveals itself when we choose to be still, listen and (collectively) remember.

The permanence of ancient stone is contrasted with the dynamism of elements and seismic events in Eruption Diptych (Ceramic, 30 x 61 each) and Hills on Fire (Ceramic, 47 x 64). In the latter, the artist captures in mind, body and spirit the ethereal spatter of ash and smoke rising from the flames, the burning heat becoming air, scorching our senses. Glob’s La Gomera Walks series are journeys into different strata of landscape, utilising a palette of red rust, acidic, sulphurous yellow, moss green, pure ultramarine, turquoise, peaty umber and black with the separation of ground, pigment and glaze akin to the volcanic formation of the earth’s surface. Saturation of colour, variation of texture, density of light, minerals and sediments create a feeling of landscape that combines an aerial, God’s eye view with microscopic culture. We can feel the granular friction of stone, massed energy, the flow of lava and the dry atmospheric air of Tazo Walk I & II encountered by the artist as a physical reality and transformative state. That sense of journeying into the landscape reaches a zenith in Bird’s Eye View/Ridge Diptych (Ceramic, 30 x 61 cm each) where we move along a sculptural path of fused rock and in Spine of the Hill (Ceramic, 30 x 61) with the interior structure of the mountain laid bare in white stone vertebrae, exposing our bones of ancient lineage. These powerfully structured, abstract compositions work in brilliant counterpoint with the artist’s ability to create highly nuanced, illuminations. This phosphorescence, isn’t an optical experience, but operates in the same way a Russian icon painter uses light reflective minerals, engaging the mind’s eye of the viewer to complete the devotional work of Art in the act of seeing. In Northern Lights a ceramic tile becomes a lustrous, shimmering, iridescent movement of pure radiance, a shared human experience of the Divine in Nature that is instantly relatable and awe inspiring, regardless of belief.

The open stone work and exposed timber beams of the historic Watermill in Aberfeldy provides complimentary textures and a series of intimate spaces to contemplate Glob’s work. The artist also features permanently as part of the architecture, with a large fused disc of glass, clay and sediments in vivid turquoise at the entrance to the building and the outdoor lower terrace area home to a group of her wonderfully animated flying stones. This is an exhibition to stimulate your senses, nourish the imagination and revive your spirit.

http://www.aberfeldywatermill.com/art/exhibition/lotte-glob-tiles-and-etchings

http://www.lotteglob.co.uk/