The Survival of Kindness

Director: Rolf de Heer
Starring: Mwajemi Hussein, Deepthi Sharma, Darsan Sharma, Gary Waddell, Natasha Wanganeen
Distributor: Vertigo Productions
Runtime: 96 mins. Reviewed in May 2023
Reviewer: Peter W Sheehan
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Mature themes and violence

This Australian drama follows a BlackWoman abandoned in a cage to die on a salt pan in the middle of Australia. She escapes to experience freedom, but is recaptured. She escapes again.

Set in Tasmania and South Australia, this Australian drama is an allegory for racism and tells the story of BlackWoman who is imprisoned in a locked cage in the middle of the Australian desert. She is the archetypal black person, forever to be restrained. The film featured at the 73rd (2023) Berlin International Film Festival where it won the Festival’s FIPRESCI Award for Best Film. The movie is directed, written and co-produced by Dutch-Australian Rolf de Heer and has no intelligible dialogue. The film supplements his trilogy films that reflect Aboriginal experience: The Tracker, Ten Canoes, and Charlie’s Country, and this movie involves close collaboration with Indigenous communities. The film is not an Indigenous story, but raises Indigenous issues that are relevant to felt oppression.

In the film, the world has undergone an apocalypse, cruelty is everywhere, and white people in masks are killing non-whites. Tanzanian refugee, Mwajemi Hussein, takes the role of BlackWoman, and she has been abandoned in a metal cage on a trailer in the middle of a desolate Australian desert to die. Hussein delivers an incredible performance without the need for dialogue. This is a film, that fiercely depicts racism, and uses allegory to examine race and privilege. BlackWoman manages to escape from her trailer and she walks free, and treks from the desert to the city, across mountains, to experience a different form of captivity in urban life. She eventually becomes restrained by armed forces that are hunting down survivors of the virus. Only BrownGirl (Deepthi Sharma) and BrownBoy (Darsan Sharma), who come across BlackWoman on her trek to find freedom, go out of their way to help her.

The title of the film refers to ‘kindness’ in an intentionally misleading way to describe a world which is the opposite of that word. A virus has inflicted the world’s inhabitants. White people wear gas masks to fend off a life-threatening illness that doesn’t appear to affect people of colour nearly as much, yet it is a world where coloured people continue to be enslaved. The only way BlackWoman can survive is to disguise herself as a white person, but, hunted down, she ends up being restrained once more. Despite white people’s vulnerability to sickness, they are determined to hold onto privilege. BlackWoman re-experiences captivity, but free once more by her own hand, she returns to the wire cage on ‘her land’ to die – the image provides an extraordinary conclusion to the film.

The cinematography in the film is outstanding, and the movie explores stunning Australian landscapes in a creative way. This is a radical film that uses its imagery to communicate a compelling fable on racism and colonial exploitation. The film’s brutality forces the viewer to reflect on tough questions involving race, inequity, and abusive power. A film that has been titled optimistically, becomes a movie that is bleakly pessimistic. Its images involve, hate, violence, cruelty, sadism and disease, yet its moral messages are about equality, acceptance, kindness, and non-discrimination. Threading through the film, there is compassion for the plight of persecuted peoples, and it uses stunning imagery of landscape and persecuted people to reinforce its moral messages.

This is a film that communicates silences expressively. It is a striking, thought-provoking film that conveys its messages in a grim way by depicting a world that is seemingly the opposite of ‘kindness’. The movie depicts a world where what we know as kindness has a slim chance of surviving. We live in a world of white oppression, the film says, where hope has little chance, if racial oppression is permitted to continue. Future survival of ‘kindness’ requires that we must change how we treat each other.

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