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The Survival of Kindness

Marking his first feature since 2013's 'Charlie's Country', Rolf de Heer's latest film is as haunting as it is visually stunning.
By Sarah Ward
May 04, 2023
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By Sarah Ward
May 04, 2023
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Anger doesn't need words to echo. In The Survival of Kindness, it resounds so urgently without a comprehensible remark spoken that it creates its own simmering soundtrack. Stepping behind the lens for his first feature since 2013's Charlie's Country, Dutch Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer gives his latest movie an actual score — largely an atmospheric, wind-beaten piece by first-timer Anna Liebzeit, but also with strings and birds — however, his audience can always hear rage at its loudest. It reverberates in an attention-grabbing opening where a colonial bloodbath is made of cake icing. It may as well whistle, too, when the feature's protagonist is left caged in the blazing rays against a claypan desert landscape that's instantly recognisable as Australian. And that fury about oppression and discrimination, plus the privilege that's behind it, keeps silently singing as a woman wanders — which isn't all that The Survival of Kindness is about, but is primarily what it depicts.

Credited only as BlackWoman, and portrayed in a phenomenally expressive performance by the Democratic Republic of the Congo-born, Adelaide-based Mwajemi Hussein — a debutant who had never even been to a cinema before she made the film — The Survival of Kindness' central figure does indeed walk. The red dunes get scrubbier, desolate ruins appear, then remote shacks and empty towns. Next comes a lake, and finally an industrialised city. Through each, BlackWoman keeps putting one foot in front of the other, striding forth in search of safety and solace, with sorrow evident, and also to subsist. To make that relentless trek, she must break free first, after the masked folks initially seen cutting cake drive BlackWoman into sun-bleached isolation. Days pass, plus freezing nights, both with only the battling ants for company. Those little critters are determined, but rarely more so than de Heer's heroine.

The Survival of Kindness' first scenes are calculated to engage and stun. As they segue from the model of a massacre atop a dessert to BlackWoman incarcerated in dark of night outside, then to her trailer being towed to the desert, they're crafted to clash and contrast as well. There's nothing dreamy for a moment about what de Heer's film is saying, but a dreamlike quality lingers in the way that he unfurls this unflinching narrative. His story so overtly deploys Australia's terrain, with the movie shot in South Australia and Tasmania, but never says that's where it takes place. It spends much of its first half with little but ochre soil and virtually cloudless skies surrounding BlackWoman, but townships and cityscapes are a part of its world. It feels as if it is peering backwards and peeking forward simultaneously, while also being firmly a product of the present. It brings fellow Aussie greats Walkabout and Mad Max to mind, and also has a dialogue with the pandemic and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It dwells in the aftermath of a catastrophe, yet leaves its plague unnamed.

That inscrutability is wholly by design; BlackWoman could've strolled through history, across an apocalyptic future or right now and her dystopian tale wouldn't differ. That's one of the raw and resonant messages beating down on The Survival of Kindness as harshly as the sun, noting how cruelly those of wealth, power and white skin have long treated people of colour. In a feature also sporting a sense of absurdist playfulness, finding footwear routinely turns out badly — when BlackWoman secures a pair from a corpse, they're swiftly snatched with a gun pointing her way — in a smart and loaded piece of foreshadowing. When the land that she moseys over becomes more populated, the film's lead is soon scavenging for clothing for a different type of protection: so that she can smear white ash around her eyes beneath one of her oppressors' full-facial coverings, as needed to keep walking without her race being spotted.

Hussein is always noticed, though. A social worker off-screen, she blasts a matter-of-fact, always-resolute and innately empathetic stare at everything from those warring insects to boot-clad skeletons. She too is impish when she's stripping mannequins for their attire — rapping the head of one dressed as a policeman with its own truncheon — and almost jocular when she's bartering with a forlorn man mourning his wife over water and, yes, those pesky kicks. BlackWoman's eyes are always scrutinising the horrors before her, and Hussein's soulful peepers are frequently surveyed in turn. Such is the quiet force rippling in her performance, one that just keeps having to weather the world's worst tendencies, that it's impossible to imagine The Survival of Kindness feeling as human as it does while burdened with so much bleakness and ire without her presence.

Not merely because the title says so, Hussein's is a face of kindness, giving the movie a warm and lively focal point amid its rampant suffering and atrocities. That said, BlackWoman does eventually have company in BrownGirl (Deepthi Sharma, another debutant) and BrownBoy (fellow first-timer Darsan Sharma), who come to her assistance and welcome her into their camaraderie. Between them, goodwill endures — but The Survival of Kindness knows, sees and stresses how truly rare that is in its own realm and in the reality it's so eagerly reflecting within its frames. It isn't by accident that de Heer begins with violence in miniature, immediately and blatantly posing his picture as a condensed portrait of life and history as we know it. Similarly, the lack of intelligible dialogue and the anywhere, anytime air purposefully ensures that BlackWoman's plight remains deeply universal.

For Aussie viewers, there's nothing global about the scenery captured by cinematographer Maxx Corkindale, who also lensed the de Heer-produced documentary My Name Is Gulpilil about the director's The Tracker, Ten Canoes and Charlie's Country star. Add The Survival of Kindness to the pile of local features that do what only the best can — fare such as Mystery Road, Goldstone, Sweet Country and High Ground in the past decade, for instance — by making such oft-used dusty expanses seem like they've been unearthed solely to fuel the picture they're so essential to. Corkindale also looks upwards, watching the heavens cycle in time-lapse. He gazes at minutiae, adopts BlackWoman's gas mask-wearing perspective and, throughout it all, shoots with pure naturalism. He draws attention to the act of seeing, too, which couldn't be more pivotal: de Heer isn't making a doco here, but The Survival of Kindness is still bearing enraged witness.

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