‘The Survival of Kindness’ Review: Rolf de Heer’s Grim Tone Poem Tracks a Black Woman’s Odyssey Out of Captivity

‘The Survival of Kindness’ Review: Rolf de Heer’s Grim Tone Poem Tracks a Black Woman’s Odyssey Out of Captivity
Feb 2023

This dialogue-free dystopian vision distills the eternal plague of racism into one harrowing journey, with echoes of global pandemic disruption.

In his films The Tracker, Ten Canoes and Charlie's Country, Rolf de Heer has mixed lyrical allegory with naturalism and genre conventions, ethnographic docudrama with morality tale and Aboriginal storytelling traditions to reclaim the dignity of Indigenous Australians and decry the injustices of white colonization. The collaborative spirit of those projects -- notably with the great Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil, who died in 2021 -- has enabled the Dutch-born writer-director to avoid charges of cultural appropriation.

His new film, The Survival of Kindness, returns to the theme of racism, this time as a minimalist tone poem entirely without intelligible dialogue, its key characters identified in the credits only as BlackWoman, BrownGirl and BrownBoy. The dystopian vision is set against harshly beautiful landscapes that are recognizably Australian yet distinctly abstract in their depiction of place and time.

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The Survival of Kindness

font-family-accent lrv-u-font-weight-bold lrv-u-color-brand-primary lrv-u-font-size-16 lrv-u-display-block">The Bottom Line Outback gothic.
<strong>Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Mwajemi Hussein, Deepthi Sharma, Darsan Sharma, Gary Waddell
Director-screenwriter: Rolf de Heer
1 hour 36 minutes

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The Survival of Kindness

The degree to which this lament for humanity connects with any audience will vary wildly. Some will find it immersive and others distancing; many will find it unrelentingly bleak, even infuriating in its ability to be simultaneously opaque and obvious.

It's a bold experiment, resourcefully made during Australia's extended COVID lockdown, which is reflected in many ways, most directly in the full-face respirator masks worn by the white oppressors. Despite its many interludes of oneiric transport, however, it's ultimately hard work, and unlikely to land among de Heer's most widely seen films.

The bizarre opening is one of a small handful of touches of mordant humor. DP Maxx Corkindale's camera slowly pulls back on what appears at first to be a crude modeling-clay representation of a massacre, with Black bodies strewn on the ground and others fleeing from gas-masked gunmen. But once the similarly masked family gathered around this gruesome display is revealed, murmuring away in muffled grunts that bear little discernible resemblance to actual language, it becomes clear that the diorama is a cake, which they slice up and serve.

Outside in the darkness, a lone Black woman (Mwajemi Hussein) crouches in a rusted cage mounted on a utility trailer. The cage is hauled to a remote claypan surrounded by scrubby desert, where the trailer is unhitched from its vehicle and the woman is left alone in the blinding sunlight, presumably to die. A striking drone shot shows the terrifying extent of her isolation, with a vast expanse of nothing in every direction.


But the woman is not so easily defeated. While large red bull ants emerge from the cracked ground and do battle, she persists through blazing hot days and freezing nights until she wrenches loose a small metal bar. Working away on the rough floor of the cage, she fashions it into a tool with which to unscrew the bolts on the door and liberate herself.

That marks the beginning of her odyssey, as she walks barefoot for days, her tears dissolving into an anguished howl. Any buildings she comes upon are long since abandoned and in ruins, and no sooner does she find a pair of boots on a half-buried skeleton than she's relieved of them at gunpoint. But when she encounters a sickly, traumatized white man (Gary Waddell) cradling his dead Black wife on the porch of their home, she trades him a tin of water for his shoes.

Nervously eyeing a Black corpse hung from an abandoned barn, she arrives at a small ghost town and finds useful items in what appears to have been a local historic museum: a military uniform, a protective hat and a rifle, albeit unloaded. She relaxes into a moment of peace beside an inland lake, but more often passes disturbing sights like people dead or dying from some fresh crime; a line of refugees trailing across the barren country, some of them picked off by an unseen shooter; a Black man being pursued by armed white aggressors.

When that fugitive tosses a respirator mask her way, the woman grinds up white pigment from the earth to paint the area visible through its eyeholes, allowing her to pass through more populated areas unnoticed.

The film proceeds in this manner from one distressing sight to another, with Hussein's expressive face showing both stoicism and sorrow as she witnesses executions and more Black people being caged and abused. The title begins to seem a misnomer until she's helped out of a sticky situation by a brother and sister (Darsan and Deepthi Sharma), who appear to be of South Asian origin.

While they share no common language, the strangers take her to their hideout in a vintage train. But that reprieve proves short-lived when they travel to a city and are captured in an industrial complex where the woman is put to work in a salvage yard, scrounging for metal. Again, she shows resilience, finding a wire that she uses to saw through the collar that shackles her. But escape brings more grief and pain, causing her to seek comfort in the least likely of places.

De Heer shot the film in remote parts of Tasmania and South Australia, blending rugged landscapes that range from desert to mountains to rocky gorges in widescreen compositions that are frequently arresting. And Anna Liebzeit's score shifts atmospherically from unsettling ambient noise to more melodic strings, giving way in brief interludes to the tranquility of birdsong and lapping water. But although the storytelling conveys deep compassion for the plight of persecuted peoples, and Hussein's unflinching performance speaks volumes, mostly without words, there's a grim inevitability to The Survival of Kindness that becomes wearing, making its 96 minutes feel longer.

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