It is probably Australia. But it could be anywhere where the sun is hot enough to bake the earth into boundless stretches of cracked crazy-paving. It is probably an alternate recent past. But it could be any period in human history when mankind has divided itself into categories of oppressor and oppressed. The most remarkable aspect of Rolf de Heer’s elegiac, elemental “The Survival of Kindness” is that it is an allegory so direct as to be obvious, told in a style so spartan as to be opaque. Not one syllable of intelligible language is spoken, but the choral anguish of generations subjugated to colonial cruelty rings loud through every wordless frame.
In a forbiddingly desolate desert landscape, shot with DP Maxx Corkindale’s elegantly unadorned realism, the only evidence of humanity is the very definition of inhumanity: a crude iron cage in which is locked a woman (an amazing debut by Mwajemi Hussein), who has been left there to die. Only named in the credits as BlackWoman, she is not perhaps as alone as she first appears. Under the tires of the trailer, two columns of ants go to war.
Lips chapped and face dusty, she swelters by day and freezes by night as the stars swirl in timelapse across the sky. Who knows how long passes, before she notices a bend in one of the cage’s bars. Preternaturally nimble despite all the privation, she worries at it until a short piece snaps off. This she sharpens for use as a screwdriver to loosen the padlocked door. Suddenly, she’s free — or at least in a much larger prison.
She sets out across the arid plain, bare feet padding on hard clay. It inevitably calls to mind Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout,” which not coincidentally was the breakout film of recently deceased Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil, whose third and final collaboration with de Heer was mutual career highlight “Charlie’s Country.” Here, however, the landscapes eventually change and the dystopian sci-fi element — think a deep-arthouse “Mad Max,” with its max turned all the way down to minimalism — comes to the fore. Dust becomes rock, flats become hillocks. A dirt track leads to a road that leads to a ghost town and a railway line, heading for a stone-walled city built around a clanking power plant.
With less hostile terrain come different perils. An airborne plague has ravaged the land (de Heer wrote and shot his film while Australia underwent harsh pandemic lockdowns), forcing the ruling classes, such as those who drove BlackWoman into the desert, to wear muffling, mole-man gasmasks. Of the remaining unfortunates, those who have dodged the plague appear likely to end up swinging from a noose — many is the tree, bridge and crumbling building that bears such strange fruit.
It is all quite extravagantly grim, yet Hussein’s magnetism and the vividness of a character who is functionally mute yet blazing with personality and wry wit, make even its bleakest stretches compelling. BlackWoman’s wary interactions with the people she encounters on her strangely singleminded odyssey are shot through with offbeat humor, just like the swooshes and metallic, rusting chords of Anna Liebzeit’s spartan score are shot through with twanging guitar.
In the ghost town’s janky abandoned museum, BlackWoman salutes a mannequin before stealing its hat; another, representing a policeman, she bonks lightly on the head with its own truncheon. She fetches water for a man cradling the body of his dead wife on his porch, but with impish pragmatism, only hands it over in return for his shoes: Her ongoing search for footwear has an almost Beckettian absurdism to it. In the city, disguised as one of the gas-masked white oppressors, she meets two resourceful kids (Deepthi Sharma and Darsan Sharma) who are similarly “passing” as citizens, and the warmth of their connection is immediate and gratifying. The moment when they crack each other up back in the kids’ train-carriage hideout has enough heart to sustain us through all the further tragedies that lie in store.
From the ugly diorama celebrating colonial brutality that decorates the cake BlackWoman’s jailers enjoy in the creepy prologue, to the fighting ants, to the fully functioning train set the kids have assembled, we are cued to view this story, too, as a microcosm. Man’s enormous inhumanity to man is reproduced in precise, characterful miniature, with a pared-back artistry that somehow earns de Heer the right to be thematically blunt, and deeply pessimistic. That BlackWoman’s mission, once revealed, is quixotic and may even, the rather overdetermined ending suggests, be wholly or partially imaginary, does not lessen the film’s power as a parable for resisting injustice. Maybe, when oppression is so crushing it threatens to extinguish all spirit, to dream so vividly of rebellion is rebellion itself.