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Byron Shire
February 27, 2021

S Sorrensen’s Here & Now: Sweet and sour

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Image S Sorrensen

Kyogle. Saturday, 2.30pm

The credits come up. The lights come on. No-one moves.

I’m not reading the names on the screen; I’m just sitting in the cinema, allowing the feelings left by the film to linger.

Sweet Country is a good film. (There. I’ve got the review out of the way.) It explores the European colonists’ relationship with Aboriginal people in Australia. That relationship, then (in the 1920s) and now, is an awkward one. (Understatement? You bet.)

An old bloke on crutches starts hobbling his way to the door. The cinema manager, who is standing near the door, smiles at him. It’s a small town, Kyogle.

I hear rain on the cinema roof. Another shower. It’s been good to spend a couple of hours tucked snugly in the dark bowels of movie-land. I love movies. It was a pleasure to leave my shack under the cliffs, steer my Superoo over the range to the Kyogle cinema, buy a ticket and choc top, and watch the movie.

Watching Sweet Country is pleasure – and pain. Pleasure, because Warwick Thornton knows how to make a good movie (I think Samson and Delilah is one of the great Australian movies), and pain because it shows that whitefellas are lost in this land. We’re out of our depth. We were then; we are now.

We came to this land all guns, crime, empire and bluster and we were engulfed by a landscape crafted over millenia by people whose worldview dwarfed such desperate and menial aspirations. (I say ‘we’ because I believe responsibility is intergenerational.)

The first white explorers marvelled at the beauty of this country. As Bruce Pascoe, in his book Dark Emu, points out, the most frequent descriptive phrase used by the first explorers was ‘like a gentleman’s park’, highlighting the intentional design of the landscape. The Indigenous people were not simple hunter-gatherers wandering around subsisting at nature’s whim. No. They were land managers the like of which the Earth has never seen.

When the Dreamtime Ancestors roamed the barren land, they created the landscape and all that exists in it. They created the network of relationships that is all life today. That network must be maintained. It’s the law.

The Indigenous people continued creating the landscape until, in 1788, it was a garden (or The Biggest Estate on Earth according to Bill Gammage) that easily supported its people, giving them the time and comfort to contemplate the network of relationships, to observe the law. The landscape was sculptured to their philosophy, created for abundance, and contained all they needed.

Then, following the explorers, who looked in wonder upon this southern Eden, came the overworked, half-starved settlers. They blundered into a world they could barely see. With a gun and no law, except that of foreign desperation, the whitefellas quickly brutalised the people, fractured the culture and blighted the land. After them, came the gentry. Blinded by bigotry, driven by greed, the looting of resource and culture continued. And continues.

What a loss for the planet. And a tragedy for the original people, too huge for us to comprehend.

We still maintain the myth of a people who had no towns, agriculture or civilisation (terra nulius). In fact, they had permanent villages, huge grain fields and were civilised enough to have abundant food and few, if any, wars among the hundreds of nations.

The destruction and brutality continues; the disorientation of us whitefellas continues – and will continue until we acknowledge what was.

The patrons get slowly to their feet. They’re all older people. Maybe that’s just Kyogle. Or maybe it’s because older people have the wisdom to learn the truth, to reflect on the network of relationships that is life, and to acknowledge responsibilities.

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