Plenty of people will tell you that Rolf de Heer’s The Survival of Kindness is a “weird” film. That’s probably an understatement considering that all the dialogue is muttered in an incomprehensible language – or set of languages, and that most of the characters walk around wearing large, clunky gasmasks. Nobody has a name, and no explanation is offered for the dystopian scenario in which we find ourselves.
De Heer has described this film as “pure cinema”, a term coined by French avant-gardists in the 1920s for a movie in which there is hardly any plot, dialogue, or characterisation to distract from the virtuosity of the camerawork. There are, however, degrees of purity, and most films labelled in this manner are narratives distinguished by an innovative use of cinematography. Sydney academic, Bruce Isaacs, has written a book on Alfred Hitchcock called Pure Cinema, but Hitchcock was also one of the greatest exponents of popular cinema.
The Survival of Kindness is no Hitchcock, but neither is it an experiment by Man Ray. It is an allegorical portrait of a world in which racism and fear of contagion have become the dominant factors. The ugly spectacle of humanity at its worst is set against breathtaking scenes of the natural world, from the desert to the mountains and the forests. Nature endures while one group of humans seeks to exterminate the other.
The weirdness begins with the very first scene, in which we see a cake decorated with an elaborate diorama of a village in which a man in a gas mask plants a flag, declaring victory. As the camera pulls back, we see the bodies of black people who have been tied up and executed. A large slice of cake is cut and handed to a guest, who, like everyone else in the room, is wearing a gas mask that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the trenches of World War One.
Outside in the darkness, a trailer is hooked up to a car and driven into the desert. Sunlight reveals a black woman in a cage, who is left in the middle of a salt pan, with neither food nor water. The protagonist, known only as BlackWoman in the publicity release, will spend the first fifteen minutes of the film in this trailer, as the camera swings around in every direction, emphasising the heat, the glare and the emptiness. Her only distraction is watching two groups of ants fight a pitched battle, with the big ants dispatching their smaller opponents.
When BlackWoman finally manages to escape her prison, she starts walking. She will encounter mainly ruins and corpses. She’s not averse to stealing the shoes and shirt from a body, only to have the same shoes taken from her by a masked gun man. The people she sees on the way are sick, deranged, or violent. Stopping in a deserted town she enters a local museum and equips herself with a new outfit and pair of boots.
Gradually the desert landscape will give way to scrub, then a mountain range, and a lake. The forest becomes increasingly lush as she makes her way toward what might be laughingly called “civilisation”. But as roads and houses appear, she is still passing the bodies of black people who have been shot or hanged. To traverse a white community she needs a disguise, which comes with a gas mask and gloves – this time taken from two hands that have been chopped off and left on a fence post.
Walking into the city means walking into danger, and BlackWoman has a narrow escape, thanks to a pair of anonymous helpers, who turn to be a young Indian man and woman. They have made their home in a railway yard that somehow doesn’t attract the attention of the masked gunmen who prowl the streets.
The time BlackWoman spends with the Indian kids is one of the few respites from the threatening atmosphere that prevails almost everywhere. But it’s only a momentary relief. To step outside is to walk back into fear.
The only actual kindness in The Survival of Kindness, is that exchanged between BlackWoman and her two rescuers. It’s otherwise a relentlessly brutal world in which black people are murdered or enslaved by white ones. Part of the problem seems to be that the blacks appear to be immune to the contagion that lurks in the air, which forces the whites to wear those clumsy masks. Those who catch the bug develop massive red sores on their skin and soon die.
This is another one of those fims in which we spend a good deal of time wondering how it’s going to end. Not well, was my lingering suspicion.
By now you’re probably thinking that de Heer has made the most depressing feature of the year, but The Survival of Kindness is easier to watch than describe. Cinematographer, Maxx Corkindale steals the show in the way he positions BlackWoman within the landscape, in an impossible journey that takes us from the salt pans of the South Australian desert, through the Flinders Ranges, and into the forests of Tasmania. It’s a dream-like odyssey in which the walker never feels the need to eat or drink. Anna Liebzeit has contributed a discreet, skilful score.
The lead role is played by Mwajemi Hussein, a refugee from the Congo, who had not only never acted before, but allegedly had never been inside a cinema. For the ultimate amateur she has tremendous screen presence, mainly thanks to an open and honest face that we see in countless close-ups.
This story was born out of the COVID-19 lockdowns and the Black Lives Matter Protests as an almost visceral response to a world in which the worst forms of racial hatred and division are being resurrected. It’s also a rather heavy-handed take on colonialism, whereby native people are dehumanised and treated as slave labour by their conquerors. To make the film, de Heer employed a young, culturally diverse crew who had the energy and enthusiasm to steer the project through the obstacles thrown up by the pandemic.
It’s hard to love such a beautiful-ugly film but it’s equally hard to write it off. De Heer is one of Australia’s most original and committed filmmakers, and there’s an abundance of heart and conscience in this dark fable. By now you must already know whether you want to see it or not.
The Survival of Kindness
Written & directed by Rolf de Heer
Starring: Mwajemi Hussein, Darsan Sharma, Deepthi Sharma, Gary Waddell, Craig Behenna, Natasha Wanganeen,
Australia, M, 110 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 6 May, 2023