I was fortunate to meet Rolf de Heer and Mwajemi Hussein while they were visiting Perth in the lead up to the release of the film, The Survival of Kindness (2023). de Heer is the film’s director and is well known for directing other Australian films including The Tracker (2002), Ten Canoes (2006) and My Name is Gulpilil (2021). The Survival of Kindess (2023) is Mwajemi’s first role, and I thought that her portrayal of the character, BlackWoman, gives a fresh perspective on the dark themes of oppression and colonialism that are reflected in the storyline.
Me: Is there a story behind how the two of you met?
Rolf de Heer: I had originally written the script for someone I knew, who was a man. The detail of what’s written was for him but then he couldn’t do it, so I was in the process of finding a replacement for him. I was at the refugee and migrant centre in Hobart and there was a woman working there [who] had this quality about her and I spoke to the staff, asking if they knew someone like her but who was a man. Then I thought, what do I mean like her? Why not her? I re-read the script at home and tried to see if it would still work, and it did. I went back and made a formal offer to her, but it turned out that [the] woman wasn’t available for the role. Instead, the casting director in Adelaide put the role out on social media, searching for someone with no experience, and we narrowed it down to two people. After their interviews, we chose Mwajemi for the character, BlackWoman.
Mwajemi Hussein: I didn’t know Rolf and I’d never come across any of his films. I live in Adelaide and I’m involved in many community groups because I love networking with people. One of our members knew they were looking for a black woman of my age to be in a film and she called me, encouraging me to apply. I hesitated because I never thought I could do this role, but I still sent in my application. When I met Rolf, I said, “To be honest, I’ve never been in a movie before, I’ve never acted before but if you instruct me, I believe in myself and I can work.” And that’s how it happened.
Me: What does it mean for you to be involved in The Survival of Kindness, whether that is through directing or acting?
RH: The way the film started was, I had another project that was substantial, and I thought I had financed it. Then Covid started and it fell apart. Once I emerged from the lockdowns, I was thinking, what will happen to the film industry? I decided to re-write the project and then I realised, I needed to make another film. We had to create a structure that would survive the problems which followed Covid. That included filming exteriors and no interiors at all and having a small crew. While I was going around remote Australia searching for filming locations, an image came into my mind of a black character in a cage surrounded by desert. I knew the film was going to be a journey, and the character would have to get out of the cage and walk somewhere. That’s how The Survival of Kindness began to develop.
MH: For me, acting means telling a story behind the person who is acting. You give the audience a story for them to know what is going on in the world. It’s a part of you. Acting has changed me because now I understand a little more about who I am because I have done this. I don’t think the world would be exciting if we didn’t have stories. We need stories, and we need to find any way to tell stories through performances. In this film, there is no dialogue, but people still understand the message behind it.
Me: Were there any scenes in The Survival of Kindness that you found challenging in the filming process?
RH: For a small budget film, we were able to maximise the look of the film in many ways. The locations we chose created mystery, and the scenes came from the cinematic locations themselves and we had to work with a very small crew. We needed to have quite a bit of visual interest which is usually done by the art department. The museum for example, was exactly how we found it, so we didn’t have to dress the scene up. Near the beginning, when BlackWoman comes across the ruins of a house and there’s a room with animal bones inside, we put those bones there. With low budget filmmaking, it can often happen that you don’t have the resources to do something, but in this case, for us it didn’t matter. We got these bones by picking up animal carcases on the side of the road.
MH: I had to practice putting in contact lenses for the scene where my eyes change to the colour blue, so once I knew the process, it got easier. Another scene was when I had to climb the mountain because I had to train for that. People think that it’s unreal, but it’s real. I was tired afterwards. When I was acting as BlackWoman I had to wear a mask which looks uncomfortable, but I could see and breathe it in. The parts where it shows what I see from inside the mask, it’s the camera and not me, so I only had to put on the mask for a short amount of time. To perform well, I wear the character too. The person in the mask wasn’t me, but BlackWoman. The scenes where I didn’t have shoes were simple because I’m used [to] it. Most of life, I was without shoes. I would walk long distances to fetch water and firewood with no shoes, so working this way was natural to me. Being left alone in the desert, BlackWoman was desperate and didn’t know if she would survive. I believe the part in the film where I cried was attached to my personal story, because I was rejected a lot in my life so I had to survive many times.
Me: Do you have any advice for young people who are thinking about going into the film industry?
RH: The core of the crew were two or three years out of college. They had studied and made sure they were around film, [forming] attachments, and were beginning to find their way into the film industry, and because they were determined to stay in that space, they got the break. It’s madness to think you want to work in the film industry but once you find that madness, then you have a chance. You’ve got to be madder than everyone else and you must persist. I went to film school knowing that nobody was going to offer me a feature film, so I began to work on my own, which years later became Bad Boy Bubby (1993). Think smart about what you can make because every time you make something, you get better.
It’s madness to think you want to work in the film industry but once you find that madness, then you have a chance. You’ve got to be madder than everyone else and you must persist
MH: I am fifty-two and I have seven children. I always say to young people that they should take every opportunity that comes. If you feel like you can do it, then do it. If you believe in yourself, accept it, and go for it. Why would you do gardening if you heart was in dancing? By saying “only young people” then we are forgetting about people like me who are fifty-two. They might think it’s too late but it’s never too late and they can still do it. I have done it and so can anyone. It’s possible.
Me: There was an article in The Guardian where you, Rolf, were quoted, “It’s not a coincidence that somebody correct for the casting (of The Survival of Kindness) is more likely to be a refugee in this country than somebody who’s not.” Are you able to explain this further?
RH: The casting is different for every film. Mwajemi displayed an inner depth from her experiences prior to coming to Australia, and many refugees have these terrible experiences, not all, but they survive. I wanted to tell another kind of story. It was at the time when the pandemic and Black Lives Matter were emerging. There was a lot happening in the US, the UK, and even India, where the world’s conservative leaders downplayed the significance of the pandemic because it [was] largely only killing poor people and black people, and often it wasn’t overt, but sometimes it was. That sat over the top of everything I was doing, and it was necessary to take it away from just an Australian perspective, so once I discovered that, it liberated my thinking.
Me: Mwajemi, I read an article about you in The Sydney Morning Herald, and they were talking about how you’ve basically become a movie star. There was a quote from you, where you said, “Everything is possible if we give people who are struggling a chance.” Can you expand on that?
MH: Disadvantaged people are faced with barriers. I have been in Australia for nearly eighteen years, but I still feel uncomfortable going places, like for example a restaurant, unless I’m with someone else. I think to myself, “No, I can’t sit here.” I’m not used to that. As an African woman, going out isn’t part of my culture. I was raised in a village thinking I needed someone to support me. When I came to Australia, I didn’t speak English at all and I didn’t have any qualifications, but the people I connected with saw that I could do something. People who are disadvantaged need people to empower them, because sometimes they don’t believe in themselves. As a Social Worker, I believe in advocacy and empowerment. We need to empower people.
People who are disadvantaged need people to empower them, because sometimes they don’t believe in themselves. As a Social Worker, I believe in advocacy and empowerment. We need to empower people.