Rolf de Heer Explores Racism

Feb 22, 2023

While Rolf de Heer has a prolific career comprising dozens of movies from diverse genres, the filmmaker is mostly known and awarded for his unique exploration of the aboriginal perspective of Australian history. With The Tracker, Ten Canoes, and Charlie’s Country, de Heer gave voice to native people in front and behind the cameras, forcing people everywhere to reflect on the scars left behind by colonization. Almost a decade after his last movie, The Survival of Kindness comes to remind us why de Heer is so important for international cinema, as he pushes the boundaries of his filmmaking technique to tackle race conflicts and power.

While de Heer previous studies about colonization were focused on the Australian reality, The Survival of Kindness approaches the subject through the lenses of abstraction. That’s why, instead of giving the audience enough context to divine where the movie takes place, and who are the people brutalized by colonizers, de Heer instead chooses to keep things vague, so that each viewer can fill in the gaps with the historical atrocities that touch them the most. Even the movie’s protagonist, BlackWoman (Mwajemi Hussein), receives a generic name to underline how she’s simultaneously less and more than her ethnicity. Less because colonizers insist on reducing BlackWoman’s whole identity to the color of her skin. And more because, in The Survival of Kindness, she represents the people who were brutalized during the process of colonization.

It’s true that each continent, ethnicity, and tribe has gone through a particular process of colonization. However, we cannot deny that colonization as a whole was a social machine created to grind down and destroy all people that didn’t look white enough by European standards. And by stripping down its story from flags and nations, The Survival of Kindness can get to the core of the issue.

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The Survival of Kindness follows BlackWoman as she’s put in a cage and left to die by white invaders. Once she escapes, she roams through a desolate world that’s been gradually destroyed by the invaders’ influence. Everywhere she goes, BlackWoman finds sickness, death, and misery, underlining how the faceless invaders that torment her also bring destruction to nature itself. The opposition between living in harmony with nature and destroying it in the name of progress has been part of de Heer’s filmography for a while now. And in The Survival of Kindness, the filmmaker shows how this dangerous way of living germinated from colonization, when Europeans enslaved non-white people to explore natural resources to exhaustion, harming entire cultures and ecosystems to feed their greed. It’s curious that de Heer decided to call his movie The Survival of Kindness, as the first thing one might wonder while watching the feature is how any kindness can survive amidst all this violence.

While all this might sound a little on-the-nose for the movie’s own good, The Survival of Kindness is actually a highly allegorical exploration of these complex themes. For starters, there isn’t a single line of intelligible dialogue in The Survival of Kindness. Each group of characters speak their own language, and cannot communicate with people that are different from themselves. While this reinforces the isolation such predatory process forces upon individuals, it also gives the cast the opportunity to shine, as each actor must do their best to convey layered emotions with gesture and expression alone. On that note, it’s impressive to learn Hussein has never acted before, as she has the talent to carry the entire movie on her back. de Heer has always had a knack for finding hidden talent among regular people, and The Survival of Kindness once more proves there can be powerful cinema outside the usual chains of production.

Without dialogue to guide the audience, de Heer uses each character in The Survival of Kindness as a representation of an idea connected to the process of colonization, racism, and power struggles related to ethnicity. That makes The Survival of Kindness’s tight runtime of 91 minutes extremely dense, as there isn’t a single frame of the movie that’s not trying to convey meaning and discuss a new aspect of the complicated relationship native people create with the world and themselves after the intrusion of European invaders. And while some images might be puzzling, they all look gorgeous thanks to cinematographer Maxx Corkindale’s (Cargo, My Name is Gulpilil) expertise in bringing the Australian outback to life.

The Survival of Kindness might be too abstract for its own good, a creative decision that will alienate a good part of its potential audience. Still, this is a remarkable return for de Heer, as The Survival of Kindness lingers with you long after the credits roll, forcing the viewer to reflect on the tough questions of race and power it explores.

Rating: B+

The Survival of Kindness had its international premiere at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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