Warwick Thornton

The affinity that Indigenous people feel for the land is integral to Warwick Thornton’s art through both his cinematic work and his photography. ‘I am an Indigenous artist,’ he says. ‘I could get rid of the art. I could be a plumber or an electrician. But I can’t just wash away being Indigenous and I wouldn’t want to. And it’s all art to me.’

Anyone who has visited the Tjoritja ranges west of Alice Springs is struck by the ever-shifting colours, the rocks seguing from green to purple to crimson without warning, like viewing the Aurora Australis in stone. This is a delight for Balanda (white people) who know the area as the MacDonnell Ranges and who take happy snaps of the surreal changes. For the Aranda, the traditional owners, Tjoritja (pronounced choor-it-ja), is a complex realm of culture and belief.

For artist Warwick Thornton, Tjoritja is a complex realm indeed. For one thing, as Thornton explains, he is a Kaytej man whose customary lands reside to the north of Alice Springs. ‘I am Kaytej and this is Aranda Land so I don’t know the stories, so there’s something unknown to me there. I can’t own it. There are different belief systems. It’s full of mystery in much the same way one feels visiting Hanging Rock.’

Thornton faced several other problems when he chose to shoot his most recent film, Sweet Country, at Tjoritja. The ever-shifting colours may be splendid fodder for photographers, but alongside blistering heat and sporadic flash floods, for filming they proved daunting indeed.

‘It’s ever changing between dawn and dusk,’ he says. ‘You have to keep changing your palette. It takes you into a conversation with your tonal values and in its different moods it expresses happiness and sadness like a sentient being. It’s beautiful, but making movies there is just so bloody difficult, it won’t stop for you. You have to time yourself and it can fuck with the narrative. You have to close your eyes and listen to the landscape – it’s trying to communicate.’

There can be no doubt that Thornton wrangled a way to collaborate with the beast. The praise for the resulting film has spread far and wide. Sweet Country won the special jury prize at the September 2017 Venice film festival, then, one week later, received another gong from the Toronto International Film Festival. This was followed by the best film award at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, and the accolades continue to flow. The Venice Jury described the film as ‘a great saga of human fate, and its themes of race and struggle for survival are handled in such a simple, rich, unpretentious and touching way, that it became for us a deeply emotional metaphor for our common fight for dignity.’

Like Thornton’s 2009 directorial debut, Samson and Delilah, Sweet Country is both beautiful and brutal. Writing in The Guardian newspaper, Peter Bradshaw described it as ‘Old Testament cinema with an almost biblical starkness in its cruelty and mysterious beauty.’

As with his films, Thornton’s still photography tackles social issues head on and holds no punches. His last exhibition (in 2015) at Anna Schwartz Gallery, ‘The Future is Unforgiving’, featured innocent looking children adorned in beer cans and fast food detritus leading to the ongoing threat of obesity and diabetes – or, as some would say – eradication via diet. ‘We’re all dying from bad food, not from terrorists,’ he says. ‘The ticking time bomb is bad diet, bad stuff that we get fed every day, which is legal. That shit is killing us. Such issues are more safely communicated in the cinema or gallery,’ says Thornton, not without a tone of sarcasm.

Rather than delving on social issues, we return to the landscape. ‘We often describe nature as lawless,’ Thornton says. ‘We always have to find a law – but we’re wrong. Nature has laws that we don’t understand, which is why we always feel a drive to colonise the land and impose our own laws, which often doesn’t work.’

Thornton says that there is an ‘emotional intensity’ to making films. While he films quickly, the background – funding, casting, finding locations and promotion – can be exhausting. ‘A film takes at least six years to do. It’s like getting an old steam train running, you have to get the water, the coal. But sometimes it’s the best medium. Some stories should be Country and Western songs, some a painting or a photograph. Sweet Country had to be a film.’

Anna Schwartz, who represents Thornton, recalls that she first met the artist when Marcia Langton invited him to participate in a large exhibition Langton curated in Schwartz’s Sydney gallery at Carriageworks in 2013. ‘The exhibition was titled ‘Debil Debil’ and it invoked the interpretation of ancestral ghosts by the participating artists. Warwick produced a remarkable series of diptych photographs,’ she says.

‘Following this I invited him to devise an exhibition in my Melbourne gallery and to produce both photographic and video works, something he had not done previously, as his works had been either still photography or cinema,’ Schwartz says. ‘Video is a different form entirely. The 2015 exhibition he produced, ‘The Future is Unforgiving’, was powerful and very effective in the cultural response it elicited. The works were, as much art of this time is by necessity, political, however they were simultaneously intimate and emotional.

‘We are in discussions about what Warwick’s next exhibition will be. It could be anything as he is an artist experimenting across forms and media, who is very intentional and potent in the work he makes.’

But for now, it is the frantic whirl of promoting Sweet Country that is all-engrossing. In capturing the grandeur and the harshness of the Tjoritja ranges, Thornton found a readymade setting for his Western. In his capturing of the vast sky and the seemingly never-ending vista of Central Australia, Thornton shares much with such American filmmakers as John Ford, Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood.

However there is something particularly unsettling about Australia’s landscape on film, in photography and often in painting, from Frederick McCubbin through to Rover Thomas and Paddy Bedford. But it’s on celluloid that the landscape really stars, from Peter Weir’s 1975 masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock to Fred Schepisi’s 1978 The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith to George Miller’s 1981 Mad Max 2 through to the more recent films John Hillcoat’s 2005 The Proposition and Rolf de Heer’s 2002 The Tracker. With Sweet Country, Thornton comfortably joins and arguably surpasses such predecessors.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 43, 2018

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