Warwick Thornton’s ‘Sweet Country’ to premiere in competition at Venice Film Festival

'Sweet Country.'

Sweet Country, Warwick Thornton’s 1920s-set outback Western starring Sam Neill, Bryan Brown and Ewen Leslie, is set to make its world premiere in competition at Venice Film Festival.

Other Aussie films to screen at Venice include feature West of Sunshine, short The Knife Salesman and, Strange Colours.

Talking to IF earlier this year Thornton called Sweet Country a “big movie”, inspired by events that happened to a relative of his long-term sound recordist, David Tranter.

Tranter wrote the script with Stephen McGregor, and co-produced with Bunya Productions’ David Jowsey and Greer Simpkin.

Sweet Country marks the first time that Thornton – who won the Camera d’Or at Cannes Film Festival for his feature debut Samson and Delilah – has directed a script he didn’t write, but he said the story “grabbed me and empowered me.” Thornton also served as the film’s DOP, shooting alongside his son Dylan River.

Warwick Thornton on the set of ‘Sweet Country’.

Set in the Northern Territory, Sweet Country, which follows an Aboriginal stockman put on trial for the murder of a white station owner, also stars Hamilton Morris, Gibson John, Natassia Gorey-Furber, Thomas M. Wright, Matt Day, Anni Finsterer and Tremayne and Trevon Doolan.

Of the film’s entry into Venice, producers Simpkin and Jowsey said they were deeply honoured. “To represent Australia on the cinematic world stage with such an important story is both humbling and thrilling. To our stellar cast and crew we thank you; to our inspiring director – we salute you, and to our funding partners who believed in this production from the start – we are sincerely grateful.”

Head of Screen Australia’s Indigenous department Penny Smallacombe said this was a landmark moment in Australian screen history, with Sweet Country being the first Australian Indigenous feature to screen in official competition in Venice.

Sweet Country is an outstanding Indigenous collaboration, from the incredibly talented writers Steven McGregor and David Tranter and the extraordinary vision of director Warwick Thornton. This is a vital and rich Indigenous perspective of how Aboriginal people have been treated historically and we’re proud the film will premiere at one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals.”

Sweet Country was backed by Screen Australia’s Indigenous department in association with Create NSW, Screen Territory, South Australian Film Corporation and the Adelaide Film Festival, where the film will make its Aussie premiere in October.

International sales are being handled by Memento and the Australian release by Transmission Films.

Jason Raftopoulos’ feature debut West of Sunshine will make its international debut at Venice, competing in the Orizzonti section. Produced by Alexandros Ouzas (Plague) for Exile Entertainment, the film is based on Raftopoulos’ previous short Father’s Day, which won the Silver Remi Award at the Worldfest Houston International Film Festival.

Shot over 18 days on the streets Melbourne using a mix of professional and non-actors, West of Sunshine follows a father (Damian Hill, Pawno) who has less than a day to pay back a debt to a loan shark, while at the same time trying to look after his young son. It also stars Kat Stewart (Offspring) and Tony Nikolakopoulos (Head On).

West of Sunshine is a metaphor for Jim’s life. It’s a place where the sun never sets, the place in your mind where family is, where love is, where hope and the future resides,” said Raftopoulos. “I’m humbled and honored that a film inspired by Italian neorealist filmmaking will have its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. This film was made with sheer passion, a love for cinema, and the generous collaboration of those who believed in the project.”

The Knife Salesman, directed by Michael Leonard and Jamie Helmer, will screen in competition in Venices’ Shorts section. Leonard also wrote and produced the film which follows Mary (Dana Miltins), a frustrated housewife invites travelling knife salesman Tom (Syd Brisbane, Bad Boy Bubby, Red Dog: True Blue) into her home.

Strange Colours is the first Australian film to screen as part of Venice’s 2016-2017 Biennale College – Cinema selection. Co-written by director Alena Lodkina and producer Isaac Wall, and produced by Kate Laurie, the film follows a women who travels to a remote opal mining community to see her estranged father.

The Biennale College, which provides advanced training dedicated to the production of micro-budget features, provided development and production investment support for the film. Lodkina said: “It’s been a whirlwind making this film happen in nine months – an exhilarating experience. And it’s so exciting to have the premiere at the festival! It’s surreal.”

Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason said that the range of Australian stories and talent that Venice had chosen to showcase is astounding.

“From visionary Warwick Thornton to emerging artist Alena Lodkina, to get this kind of attention from one of the world’s most prestigious festivals is significant. A warm congratulations to all the creatives, cast and crew who have been honoured by these selections,” he said.

Venice Film Festival runs August 30 – September 9.