June 6, 2013
Having braved the queues snaking down Market Street and multiple security checks, I finally enter the main foyer of Sydney’s State Theatre on a cold, windswept winter’s evening (summer for the rest of the world). It’s Opening Night and the Sydney Film Festival’s 60th anniversary is being celebrated at a gala event with the usually invisible Australian film crowd out en masse for the world premiere of Ivan Sen’s MYSTERY ROAD. This is a subsection of the Sydney population scarcely seen outside cramped wine bars, Asian art gallery openings or before 2am on a Friday night—a rare spectacle for the residents of central Sydney.
Swarms of tanned starlets in tiny, weather-defying dresses; a cloned army of champagne-sipping French-speaking men wearing identical black suits, thick glasses and two-day stubble; more fur coats than I have ever witnessed in a sub-tropical country. In fact, this doesn’t really feel like the Sydney I know.
Even if the Opening Night rituals seem to be veering dangerously towards Las Vegas-style glitz, the hauntingly elegant State Theatre ultimately saving the day. Could anything possibly detract from the sheer old-world glamor of this cinema? With its gothic chandeliers, art deco statues and dimly lit maze of corridors, you can’t help but feel transported into another, more sober era.
At last I’ve found my seat, the Sponsorship formalities come to an end (finally) and suddenly the entire room falls silent. Ivan Sen, arguably Australia’s most prolific Indigenous filmmaker, takes to the stage to acknowledge the traditional Garrigal owners of this part of Sydney. It’s the first time an Indigenous Australian film has opened the SFF, and a timely reminder of the 60,000 years of Indigenous story telling that existed in this country prior to British colonization—let alone the sixty years of the SFF, a guest points out.
“How y’all going?” asks a beaming Sen to the packed venue. “We’re all really pumped to be here!” he exclaims, inviting his cast to join him (including a relaxed and smiling Hugo Weaving who tonight has taken a backseat from his duties as Jury President.) Finally! The European pretensions have fallen away, and as an audience of celebrities giggle at Sen’s stream of quick-as-fire jokes, it finally feels as if the Opening Night has found its natural footing.
For all of Sen’s upbeat public personality, his films are not ‘easy’ viewing. Slowly revealed plots with lingering scenic shots, minimal dialogue and a large proportion of untrained actors, MYSTERY ROAD is trademark Sen. It’s a style that we’ve come to associate with the ‘inner world’ of the Outback: the vast expanses and sleepy pace of small-town life in rural Australia, a sight unknown to most urban dwellers that few have captured with as much poetry and authenticity as this young filmmaker.
Having already received standing ovations at Cannes and a string of international awards for BENEATH CLOUDS (2002) and TOOMELAH (2011), MYSTERY ROAD confirms Sen’s status as one of Australia’s most impressive young directors. It is less a story about black-white relations in Australia than a broader attack on a series of internationally pressing issues: corruption within the national police, small-town scapegoating, and the chronic shortage of education and resources within rural Indigenous communities.
The Australian Western
Creating an Australian take on the classic Western, the film traces the story of Indigenous detective Jay Swan (an enigmatic Aaron Pedersen) who returns home to an outback town after years in the big city. He is immediately enlisted to solve the murder of Indigenous teenage girl, whose battered body is found under the trucking route highway out of town. Suddenly an outsider in his own home, Jay is alienated from the local police force, his community and his family; all of them reluctant to cooperate with his investigations.
Is everybody collaborating against him, or are they simply too scared to talk? A recent rise in drug and sex trafficking has cast a shadow over this small community, and Jay is shocked to find that the locals—police included—are more keen on saving their own skin than helping to solve the case of the murdered teenager. Drug abuse, domestic violence and rape go unchecked, and the white homicide squad sent from the city is of no assistance. On his own, Jay uncovers a complex crime web, and even if the final pieces fit into place just a little too neatly, MYSTERY ROAD makes for a tense and often shocking story of gang mentality and exploitation.
Sen is a multi-talented filmmaker, and his cinematography (Sen did his own camerawork) and sound work capture the Australian Outback like you’ve never seen it before. He works with the burnt-orange color spectrum like a true artist, and his minimalist soundscapes make you feel the sheer silence of these terrifying, open spaces. By the end of the film your ear has become attuned to the slightest crunch of a footstep, or the sound of a truck coming from a mile off. Sen more than transports us into this alien world that is Australia ‘outside Sydney’.
Sitting in the darkened cinema, you can’t help but feel this is an important moment in the history of Australian cinema. We don’t see this sort of movie on the big screen every day, let alone in front of a power-wielding A-list audience. MYSTERY ROAD presents a grim vision of the wall that still exists between urban and rural Australia today; but instead of visible segregation, we see entire populations left in the dark to fend for themselves.
Ivan Sen pulls no punches in representing the countless ways in which Indigenous communities are being abandoned by a defunct system, yet this is no simple blame game. Everyone is corrupt, everyone is equally guilty of this systematic, national failure to govern and provide—Indigenous men abuse Indigenous girls, white men kill white men, and even the police chief (played by an unrecognizable Hugo Weaving) has a part in the secrecy.
The worrying thing is that despite a major spike in funding, Indigenous cinema has been largely ignored by mainstream Australian audiences: bar Rachel Perkin’s upbeat musical BRAN NUE DAE (2009) and the feel-good story of a 1960s Indigenous girl band, THE SAPPHIRES. A happy-go-lucky attitude certainly helps to sell movie tickets, and the major Australian distributors know this only too well.
I doubt MYSTERY ROAD will have quite the same broad appeal. Nevertheless, it’s an important look inside Australia as it stands today, not to mention a completely unique reinvention of the classic American Western. After the Cannes Camera d’Or winning Indigenous film SAMSON AND DELILAH struggled to spread beyond arthouse cinema screens, can we assume that MYSTERY ROAD will receive broader distribution than its predecessors? Is Australia ready to take a long, hard look at itself? Now, there’s the real mystery.
Stay tuned to WearetheMovies for exclusive news, film reviews and updates during the twelve days of screenings and events.
The Sydney Film Festival runs from June 5-16, 2013.