The Survival of Kindness

Mwajemi Hussein in The Survival of Kindness. Image courtesy Vertigo Productions

M, 96 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A new film from Rolf de Heer has at last arrived. A drama with a cool, fierce intensity that is of a piece with other work in his distinctive oeuvre, while it carries his concerns even further forward.

Thirty years have passed since his feature Bad Boy Bubby, a cult classic with notorious scenes of family dysfunction, burst onto the screen. It was quickly followed by other work that secured the filmmaker’s reputation with prestigious festival recognition for films like The Quiet Room, Alexandra’s Project, The Tracker, Ten Canoes and Charlie’s Country at home and abroad. His new film has won this year’s top jury prize at Berlin.

The Survival of Kindness opens in low light, among masked figures apparently celebrating their claim to contested territory. There is a flag, there are figurines that in close-up tell the ghastly tale. If this wasn’t disturbing enough, after revealing a massacre represented in icing on a cake, it becomes clear that the jolly chat muffled behind gasmasks is impossible to understand.

Before our eyes have adjusted to the gloom or quite fathomed the meaning of this grotesque tea party, our attention turns to a woman of colour held captive in a cage. She is hauled away into a desert, where she is left to die under a blazing sun. Just where this ghastly striking image comes from, we do not know.

We cannot be surprised by the ideas that emerge from this auteur’s imaginative arsenal

Suddenly alone in the silence and stillness with only colonies of ants for company, BlackWoman (Mwajemi Hussein) has only herself to look to for support. As night follows day, she comes to realise that she can, with imagination and persistence, free herself from her cage, and perhaps from the suggested malevolence of the ants, whose bulbous bodies are enhanced in big close-up.

On the journey she undertakes into the world after she breaks out of prison, it is clear she has these resourceful attributes in spades. As she encounters atrocity in many forms along the way, other post-apocalyptic journeys come to mind like the John Hillcoat film of Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road.

As BlackWoman walks through desert and mountain wilderness and enters a city centre, the ravages of pestilence and systematised racism become increasingly brutal. De Heer acknowledges the impact of the intersection of the covid pandemic with the Black Lives Matter movement on his film, and while events that inspired were global and the locations clearly Australian, the dystopic vision here is a universal narrative for fraught times in our challenged world.

Despite the horrors in the foreground, the natural world is a dominating presence

The night sky full of stars above the South Australian desert, the glorious mountain wilderness of kunanyi/Mount Wellington in Tasmania are never quite brushed aside by the human violence. If anything, the grandeur of a timeless nature captured by cinematographer Maxx Corkindale is all the greater. The lovely score by composer Anna Liebzeit is a further enhancement.

Meaning is expressed through tone and gesture as the narrative evolves with characters grunting, moaning, wailing or speaking in mutually unintelligible language. Words are redundant here, though the exchange between BlackWoman and two young dissidents of colour (Deepthi Sharma and Darsan Sharma) who she teams up with in the city, can be clearly interpreted and can move you greatly.

It’s not what it may seem. Mwajemi Hussein and Deepthi Sharma in The Survival of Kindness. Image courtesy Umbrella Entertainment

 

The lead actor Hussein, who fled on foot from the terror of violence in her country of birth, Congo-Kinshasa, and experienced years in refugee camps before arriving in Australia, has remarkable presence. Her part was originally destined for de Heer’s Indigenous friend and collaborator, Peter Djigirr, but she has made it her own.

Her character’s stoicism and equanimity in the face of unspeakable brutality, her practical response to the need to stay alive with boots bartered for a mug of water, clothes taken from a tortured corpse, and stockman’s hat appropriated from a colonial history museum. These and other images will stick in your mind.

From the gasmask props to vision tracking the desert night sky, from the mute protagonist to the industrial wasteland, elements of de Heer’s other films are scattered through. None of his previous work however, quite prepares us for the grim finality here in the final moments that resonate long after the credits scroll.

First published in the Canberra Times on 6 May 2023. Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes

Jane Freebury is the author of Dancing to his Song: the Singular Cinema of Rolf de Heer, Currency, 2015. Read her interview with de Heer published in The Guardian