The West Australian
October 16, 2013
About a decade ago, I sat down with budding indigenous filmmaker Ivan Sen to discuss his debut film Beneath Clouds, a brooding, beautifully shot tale of displaced indigenous youth in rural Australia.
Back then, Sen was a skinny, laid-back lad barely out of AFTRS film school. But his low-budget indie drama – which played at festivals across the globe – announced him as a gifted newcomer with plenty of promise and a quiet determination to tell the kind of Australian stories our other filmmakers have shied away from.
“That may be indigenous stories here or elsewhere,” Sen points out as we reunite for coffee on the release of his fourth film Mystery Road. “We all come from where we come from, and we all share things in common.”
As with his previous works, Sen – now 41 and living in Brisbane – serves as writer, director, cinematographer, editor, gaffer and scorer on Mystery Road, as if following a proud tradition of DIY Aussie filmmakers. But given a bigger budget and a stellar Australian cast, Mystery Road marks a distinct departure for the thoughtful, deep-thinking one-man filmmaking machine. It is his first unashamed genre piece; a “cowboy western” complete with Stetson hats, six-shooters, dusty towns and a gripping climactic shootout.
Indeed, it’s as close to High Noon as an Aussie western gets.
Aaron Pedersen (Water Rats, City Homicide) gives a breakout performance as Aboriginal detective Jay Swan, a quiet yet clever cop in a white cowboy hat. He returns to his small outback town to investigate the mysterious murder of a teenage Aboriginal girl. Yet his fellow white police officers, led by a dodgy old-school copper (Hugo Weaving), shun Swan as much as the indigenous townsfolk.
“We kill coppers bro,” a young Aboriginal boy tells him, and then asks if he can hold his gun.
Stuck between two worlds, Swan finds key clues close to home from his ex-wife (Tasma Walton) and a crazy old coot (Jack Thompson). It all builds to a handsomely staged High Noon-style shootout amid the rocky outcrops of a remote quarry.
“Every detail in the film comes from reality in some shape or form,” says Sen, who hails from Toomelah (the name of his second film) to an indigenous mother and European father. “Even the main character is close to my own life as a guy who grew up between the black and white parts of town but not really belonging to either.
Like him, I’ve always been a loner.”
Shot in Winton in rural Queensland and co-starring Ryan Kwanten and David Field, Sen admits the mystery of a murdered Aboriginal girl also comes from close to home.
“Every family is touched by a story like this, mine included. I’ve had three women murdered in my extended family. One of them was found in the same circumstances – under a roadway days later – as the dead girl in our film. So that’s a very literal connection there.
“That murder happened not that long ago, so it’s an element that worked its way into the story. But you can’t imagine how many murders of indigenous people have gone unreported, right back to first contact. There are a lot of horror stories out there.”
The murder of his relative inspired Sen, who has added some muscle to his biceps to go with his added muscle as a filmmaker, to write about a little-known practice in remote Australia where indigenous girls as young as 13 sell their bodies to truckers on remote long-haul routes. It’s a dirty little secret that Sen knew about and has woven into his murder mystery.
“These girls are very young and their home life is often very bad. Their parents are drunk or on drugs. There is domestic violence. There is little hope for them. So they escape and get up to all sorts of mischief. And that often puts them in danger.”
The quietly spoken filmmaker scored his film by playing guitar and keyboard with heavy reverb that stretches eerily out over the dusty landscape and rocky panoramas. But he lights up when I ask how he got such an iconic cast into his film.
“I wanted an iconic cast from the beginning, to the extent that when I was writing the script I would write the actor’s name I wanted instead of the character. I was a bit anxious about getting them all, but they all loved the script. Jack and Hugo and Ryan were the most difficult to work around their schedules but I made sure we did everything we could to get them out there together. It all clicked into place at the last minute.”
With just four films over a decade, Sen is less prolific than profound. But he and his long-time producer David Jowsey clearly know what they’re doing, and made Mystery Road as a “stepping stone” to bigger projects.
“My first films were a chance to express myself culturally and my identity,” Sen muses, “but Mystery Road is a stepping stone across the river. It is a chance to step more towards that genre place, to bigger and bolder films, though I’ll never fully step away from my cultural perspective.”
With that, Sen has already drafted a script and designed the lighting for his ambitious next film; a $20 million action sci-fi romance which he hopes to shoot late next year. He lists Blade Runner, The Dark Night and Skyfall as inspirations, so his aspirations are clearly high.
“A lot of big films have no passion or story behind them. They just want to make money. But commercial films don’t have to be so crap, as Chris Nolan has proved. They can have great ideas and stories. That’s where I want to go.”