Sydney Morning Herald
September 28, 2013
As Ivan Sen surveys the Housing Commission estate he grew up on, he calmly notes all the changes. Gone is the drive-in where he watched Star Wars, Grease and Jackie Chan movies, often sitting in the gutter across the road and listening on a walkie-talkie. The shop by the railway tracks has been razed. There are pockets of vacant land where houses once stood.
But for all the changes, there is still a sense of struggle, as shown by the neighbour who lurches out her front door, yelling abuse at the unrecognised car. It is a side to Tamworth, the country music capital in northern NSW, that tourism authorities won’t be boasting about any time soon.
“It’s pretty shockin’,” says Sen, the writer-director of three heartfelt films about the tensions in black and white Australia. Just over a decade ago, he made the tender drama Beneath Clouds, centred on two troubled Aboriginal teenagers; two years ago came the confronting Toomelah, about a 10-year-old boy whose future hangs in the balance on a former Aboriginal mission; and now comes Mystery Road, an outback western about an indigenous detective, played by Aaron Pedersen, investigating the brutal murder of an Aboriginal girl in a country town.
While just about every one of Sen’s Aboriginal male cousins either went to juvenile detention or jail, the quietly spoken 41-year-old has become virtually a one-man film crew whose work screens around the world.
In the 15 years since graduating from film school, where he was known as “the ghost” for the way he turned up at night to do his own work, Sen has been prolific.
He has made four feature films – including the little-seen sci-fi pic Dreamland – and 15 documentaries on such racially charged subjects as the unsolved murder of Rhoda Roberts’ twin sister and the mixed race heritage of actor Tommy Lewis.
He is part of a rich seam of indigenous filmmaking talent that includes Wayne Blair (The Sapphires, Redfern Now), Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae, The First Australians, Mabo) and Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah). But ask him when he first became proud of his Aboriginal heritage and he is surprisingly uncomfortable.
”I don’t think I’m proud of it now,” he says. ”I guess I own it now. I have a problem with pride as an emotion; it’s a concept I don’t quite get. But my work has become an expression that showed everyone who I was and that allowed me to own it.”
This uneasy sense of identity, a constant theme in his films, dates back to his childhood.
To get away from a violent, hard-drinking father, Sen’s mother took her three children from a tobacco farm to that new public housing estate near family in 1975.
“She worked at the CES [Commonwealth Employment Service] for a while but she was struggling with raising three kids and having all these people dropping in, sometimes drunk, asking for money so they could buy booze,” he says.
To get the children away from that, his mother moved them to a smaller town, Inverell, in 1982. “When I moved north, you weren’t just a kid. You were a kid who came from a certain family and that identified who you were.
”I couldn’t really identify myself coming from an Aboriginal family because we were living on the other side of town – the white side – away from all the influences of the Aboriginal community. But at the same time people knew about that Aboriginal background so I wasn’t totally accepted by all the white friends at school.”
These friends would often talk dismissively about “Abos” and their problems – Sen even had a surrogate father at one stage who said the best solution was taking them all into the outback and “blowing their heads off”.
The unsolved murders of three members of his own extended family – all young Aboriginal women – partly inspired Mystery Road.
“The cops don’t care,” he says. “There’s a lack of connection …
“Because of all the social problems around indigenous people, they spend all their time locking blackfellas up. So when they come to them for help, there’s a reluctance – it’s like, ‘Don’t come to me asking for help, I’m trying to find your brother to throw him in jail’.”
Mystery Road, Pedersen’s detective, Jay Swan, doggedly ignores slights on both sides of town – black and white – as he investigates. Sen has a similar determination to express his feelings through his work rather than react in the moment. “When you get angry, you lose your power,” he says.
What changed everything for Sen was discovering photography when his new stepfather, the editor of the local paper, gave him a camera and access to a darkroom.
“When I had a camera in my hand, it was like I was grounded to the earth – having a direction and a sense of purpose all of a sudden,” he says. “It just felt comfortable. It was like there was something to do for the rest of my life.”
Studying photography, Sen discovered the power of matching music to images.
“I let go of photography straight away,” he says. “Film was the thing. It was just the emotion it was giving me. I just felt like it was something I was in touch with.”
Sen found a production house that would let him work on commercials and corporate videos while he spent four nights a week at TAFE, studying writing, acting and directing. He shot a 30-minute documentary about Toomelah that won him a place at film school.
Sen remembers what a racist place Australia was and, he believes, still is, in contrast to the sense of community in his Chinese town.
“Something that really stayed with me was when I was in high school and I was hanging around my white friends,” he says. ”One of them one day said, ‘Someone said you’re a blackfella. That’s not true, is it?’
“I just shook my head. I denied it. It’s stayed with me my whole life: the fact I did that. That I was forced to feel ashamed of who I am and ashamed of my family.”
Back with his family in China, Sen has resumed work on his sci-fi movie Loveland.
”After my next film, the indigenous filmmaker tag will get left behind,” he says. ”It’ll just be Australian filmmaker. There’s so much more in this world than identifying as Aboriginal or white. The important thing is to get off your arse and do something good.”
■ Mystery Road opens on October 17.