August 28, 2014
Director of the gritty Australian thriller Mystery Road, Ivan Sen discusses the problems of racism rife on his home continent.
In his latest film, indigenous Australian filmmaker, Ivan Sen crafts a taught indie thriller blended with the tropes of a western. Mystery Road boasts an impressive cast, including Hugo Weaving, and explores the modern day challenges of race relations and indigenous communities against the vast backdrop of the Outback.
The story centers upon Jay (Aaron Pederson), an indigenous detective, who returns to his outback hometown and begins investigating the mysterious murder of a young girl. Jay realises that local gangsters are at the root of it, putting the local young aborigines at risk, including his daughter.
We recently spoke with Sen, to discuss the situation of racism in Australia today, as well as what the future holds for Australian cinema.
Film3Sixty: This film seems very timely after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. How much does Australia suffer from a similar racism problem in your view?
Ivan Sen: Racism is the darkness at the heart of Australia and feeds on the national apathy surrounding its Indigenous people. Racism allows the dispossession of land and culture, high incarceration rates, poor health, education, housing, employment, and it gets in the way of improving these things.
F3S: Jay (Aaron Pederson) finds himself caught between the two communities – some of his own see him as a traitor, some of his colleagues distrust him. You have often drawn on your own aboriginal heritage in your film making, how much of you is in the character, in that sense?
IS: Jay faces similar challenges to what I was confronted with growing up in a small conservative town. My skin was light enough to allow me to live within the White fabric of the town, and dark enough to be accepted by the Black part of town. I had to learn to exist within the two cultures and was sometimes forced to choose sides. This created an identity dilemma and still confronts many Indigenous people who must work for the White establishment and their communities. I always think of the Black Tracker as the first to face this situation during the early days of colonisation, and Jay is a kind of a modern version of it.
F3S: The film seems to portray a sense of distrust on both sides – do you hope the film will play a part in speaking into that?
IS: There’s much Indigenous mistrust against the White establishment resulting from how this country was forcibly colonised and the subsequent implementation of destructive Government policies. In the film, Jay is seen as a part of this not to bet trusted establishment even though he is Indigenous. There is a lot of suspicion and fear of Indigenous people by the general public. When Indigenous people confront non-Indigenous people, they are often faced with the result of 200 years of cultural destruction and all of its associations. They are faced with the open sore of injustice and dispossession, and this creates and encourages the racist attitudes inherent across the country. The hope is that this film can, in part, create empathy for the “other” and understanding and acceptance of truth.
F3S: You wrote it, directed it, did the score, cinematography and editing. Everything! Is it important for you to have a central hand on everything in a film like this?
I suppose it is. I feel filmmaking can be an art form if you allow it to be. You can have a canvas and dip your brush into different colours at an unconscious level and build textures on the canvas. If you do not have the perfect team around you, then this is the only alternative to creating something pure and whole. I believe I’ve just recently found the perfect composers, so I’m more than happy to give the music away, for the next couple of films.
F3S: Is there a danger of being too close by being so involved in every aspect of the filmmaking process?
IS: Yeah, there’s also a danger of being too removed, where you don’t see the mistakes you’ve made. It’s all a balance. The real danger is not having the right test audience feedback, and getting a clear idea of what is understood and what isn’t.
F3S: It’s a crime film but with a significant dose of Western – there’s a big shootout to finish – how much did the Genre influence you?
IS: The story came first, which is based upon a real life murder that happened in my family. Then the western and thriller elements were enhanced to give it an identity as a film. It was originally set in a cotton growing landscape, but the western approach influenced the location which moved to the outback cattle country.
F3S: How did you try to bring out the vastness of the outback setting that the story is set in?
IS: Sometimes it’s not easy to capture a location on a film, to make it look as strong as it does in reality. It’s a lot to do with lens length and perspective. Our eyes are constantly zooming around in reality to give the best perspective, so we have to try and imitate that with camera lenses. Sometimes a wide lens makes things feel vast, but sometimes only a long telephoto lens can do it. Another important aspect is the light. Sunshine gives contrast, light and shade. We had a lot of rainy days on the shoot where I had little choice but to shoot interiors or nothing at all.
F3S: There are a number of shots filmed from high above the car Jay is driving – what were you trying to evoke?
IS: The aerial imagery also shows a vastness and the immense power of the land. The aerial view is very much an Indigenous perspective of the land – it is how it is represented in song and painting. So when we see the social construct of the rural ghettos, we get a sense that this thing is unnatural and will never feel like it belongs.
F3S: You leave the audience to do a fair amount of work – the plot is not always signposted – we aren’t always aware of how Jay is putting the pieces together – was that intentional?
IS: I guess this depends on different audiences. Too much for some, too little for others – again it’s always a balance. Hollywood makes films for lowest common denominator, but I am not that sort of filmmaker.
F3S: Mystery Road, The Rover and the new Mad Max, are we seeing a renaissance in Australian filmmaking?
IS: Who knows, but I’ve got another modern western coming next year. This time set in a mining town and exploring people trafficking and cross-cultural corruption where the bad guys are also black.
Mystery Road is released in cinemas on 29 August 2014.