Stunning Acting Debut by Mwajemi Hussein Elevates ‘The Survival of Kindness’ as it Juxtaposes Pandemic and Racism – Berlin Competition

The Survival of Kindness
Triptych Pictures

The intersection between Black Lives Matter and a COVID-like pandemic plus a standout performance from non-professional actor Mwajemi Hussein is sure to make “The Survival of Kindness” one of Berlin’s most talked-about films.

The film is deliberately obscure – the little dialog that is heard involves each performer speaking in a language of their own invention with the meaning known only to that actor and the film’s director, Australia’s Rolf de Heer.

And it is minimalist. Character names are purely functional. Location filming was done with a crew of just nine people who walked extensively across Tasmania and the deserts of South Australia and cooked for each other between set-ups.

Yet “Kindness” packs in a lot. It opens jarringly with a gas-mask-wearing tea party before cutting to a black woman abandoned in a metal cage in the middle of a sandy desert. After she escapes into a dystopian setting that is timeless and geographically anonymous, what is left of humanity is to be found either at the end of a noose or pox-ridden and suspicious. Some are trading shoes as if they were currency. Others are marshalling those without masks into factories at the barrel of a gun.

“The times we live in inform everything and particularly the politics of the time. This project had a special freedom; [it had to be] COVID-nimble, meaning that we could find a way to shoot through COVID,” said de Heer in Berlin on Friday. “Its development came through my need to make a film and the locations that were interesting… and the collision between BLM and COVID, which was very evident in Australia. There was a need for protest, but protest was banned because of COVID. I let it go in that direction.”

Cinematography from Maxx Corkindale, working on his first feature, and an eerie soundscape with a huge dynamic range elevate the banal into something much bigger. Composer Anna Liebzeit said she “went looking for broken instruments” and chose not to score the violence but rather “the empathy, the people met along the journey.”

“When people are discriminated against, those in power don’t see how the others are suffering,” said Hussein in response to a question about the film’s recurring shoe motif.

Her nuanced performance, all about looks and body language, is all the more remarkable for Hussein’s almost complete ignorance of the medium. “I didn’t know film festivals existed,” she said and explained that she had a “family meeting” with her husband and children before accepting the role.

Hussein arrived in Australia some 17 years ago as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and now earns a living as a social worker. “Trusting is a good thing and [so too is] taking risk. [In social work we say] we can’t achieve big, bold things if we don’t take risks.”

De Heer, who has worked on many films with Australia’s Aboriginal people and has a track record of highlighting minority tales, was challenged by a journalist at the Berlin press conference and asked if an upper-middle class white man should be making such a film. His response was typically measured.

“I ask myself questions every time I make a film. A director’s job is to understand a range of people. I’m as qualified as any. In the end, this is as much a white story as a Black one. Whoever makes this story has to understand both sides,” he said.

“There is much kindness in this world, but we are in danger of losing it. It touches me a lot when someone is kind. I’ve come to expect the opposite,” said De Heer. “But on my way to this festival, I’ve received nothing but kindness.”