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The Survival of Kindness

Allegorical Australian film paints the colours of racism and violence without using any comprehensible dialogue - from the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival


White hands cut a large cake with the diorama of the desert land that we’re about to see. It reminded me of the racist cake episode in Sweden. I have no idea, however, whether this was the intention of the filmmaker. The Survival of Kindness is a deeply symbolic and abstract film open to a million interpretations. Most of its signifiers are barely decipherable, in a movie intended to be contemplated and unravelled in equal measures.

What follows is a 15- to 10-minute sequence of a black woman (Mwajemi Hussein) inside a locked cage in the middle of the desert. Seventy-one-year-old Australian director Rolf de Heer is no stranger to the topic of imprisonment: in his best-known picture Bad Boy Bubby (1993), an abusive mother holds her mentally ill son captive in their own home during his entire life. Our protagonist attempts to release herself by breaking the thin metals bars and twisting the rusty screws that hold the precarious prison together. It feels like a performance that could be carried out inside an art gallery (I could almost see Marina Abramovic doing it for hours).

The black woman eventually breaks free and walks towards some sort of post-apocalyptical world dotted with rotting corpses and crumbling buildings, and where violence is the main currency. She steals the clothes from the dead bodies of white people upon which she stumbles on her seemingly aimless journey. An armed white man steals her shoes, a much coveted item in an inhospitable environment where burning sands castigate bare feet. Mannequins and gas masks add the final touch of creepiness to this ghostly and surreal world almost entirely painted in scorching hot, sandy yellow.

A knife-wielding indigenous woman ambushes the black woman, but our loving protagonist quickly conquers her trust. She is now fully clothed, armed and shod, much like the white people who terrorised her earlier. She encounters two mixed race teenagers and immediately bonds with them. That’s presumably the titular “kindness”. Their verbal communication is extremely scarce. Characters grunt and shout incomprehensibly. They briefly talk to each other in some fictitious language (there are no subtitles, leaving audiences to guess what they are saying). The trio then head to an apparent power plant by boat. Is this industrial site responsible for the catastrophe that has befallen mankind, or are humans victim of racist war? Are the three survivors seeking an explanation, redemption or simply a shelter? The final sequence offers viewers a heady type of closure, blending tragedy and stoicism.

The Survival of Kindness is showing in the Official Competition of the 73rd Berlinale. A interesting art film destined mostly to the festival circuit.

By Victor Fraga - 19-02-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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