Lady in a Cage: de Heer’s Dystopia Explores the Enduring Echoes of Colonialism
Dutch-born director Rolf de Heer has been a mainstay of Australian cinema since the mid-1980s, though his most well-traveled films dealt specifically with a reclamation of the country’s Indigenous population. Titles like Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie’s Country (2013) featured Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil (who co-wrote the latter and notably made his debut in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, 1971). Gulpilil died at the age of sixty-eight in 2021, which seems to have led de Heer to his most distressing film to date with The Survival of Kindness, a more experimental take on racism and colonialism featuring newcomer Mwajemi Hussein.
A Black woman journeys through a wasted land after escaping certain death, where disease and pestilence have decimated everything, and those in charge are masked white men brutally enslaving or murdering all those in their wake. As told from her perspective in a world where language has also descended into fractures driving all Others apart, it’s a disorienting and overwhelming journey in her search for a humanity likely long extinct.
The film opens with a scene of enduring brutality. Characters known only by their racial identifiers appear in a world obliterated by some unknown event, with white men in gas masks (who sound like Star Wars droids) violently ruling. BlackWoman (Mwajemi Hussein) is carted into the middle of the desert in an iron cage and left there to die in the baking sun. But she desires to live, finding an innovative way to free herself and wander out the desert. Her freedom is short-lived, but she manages to cross into the mountains and eventually a city. Aided by a brother and sister, BrownGirl and BrownBoy (Darsan and Deepthi Sharma), the trio finds themselves captured, with BlackWoman forced to work in an industrial facility while chained. Again, she finds a way to escape. But for how long can she remain free in a world overtaken by abject hostility?
The Survival of Kindness is not the first dialogue-free film posing as an epic survival poem, as something like Jerzy Skolomowski’s Essential Killing (2010) immediately springs to mind. Although it’s aided by eloquent narration, Goran Stolevski’s You Won’t Be Alone (2022) is also an exercise in the search for the milk of human kindness through the perspective of a girl sacrificed to a cruel witch. But de Heer’s inventiveness only goes so far, and it’s not long before a maudlin hokeyness descends upon The Survival of Kindness, leading to a finale which can’t seem to help itself in all its obvious glory. BlackWoman’s harrowing journey, which exemplifies her significant resiliency, eventually feels like glorified miserabilism, and if the point of the film is to generate repulsion, it certainly succeeds. Initially. But there’s a repetitiveness which eventually calcifies the pacing.
On the plus side, Mwajemi Hussein gives a highly expressive performance, who, despite her misery, conveys a sense of levity in surprising ways. Her visage is the guiding virtue of the film, while DP Maxx Corkindale explores juxtapositions and intersections in the changing landscapes of her journey suggesting all has been lost, leading us back through a deadly cycle. In a world out of control, our barely contained savagery flourishes, and as this moral fable exemplifies, trenchant hierarchies will amplify exponentially. The Survival of Kindness is a wearying film, which is likely the intention.
Reviewed on February 22nd at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival – Competition section. 96 mins.