‘We’re a travelling culture’: Why Australian filmmakers are looking abroad

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They arrived in Kiev – chosen because Swinburne had visited and Stevens loved his photos – with no cast in place, no locations, and just one contact, who quickly went AWOL. Degree of difficulty: 10. Five weeks later they began filming.

“I only had a certain amount of time on my visa, which meant I had to leave pretty much the day after we finished shooting,” Stevens says. “So if anything went wrong I was stuffed.”

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But perhaps the biggest challenge was working with actors who spoke no English while neither Stevens nor Swinburne speaks Ukrainian. That made workshopping scenes almost impossible. “I would say something deep about the character, and the translator just wouldn’t translate,” Stevens says. “The actors didn’t know what was going on. They were like, ‘This is so weird’.”

For Josephine Mackerras, though, shooting her first feature in Paris was entirely pragmatic. A feminist drama about a Parisian woman who becomes a high-class escort after her husband bankrupts the family through his addiction to the very same, Alice “had to be shot in a big city but it could have been in any country really”.

Mackerras, who is originally from Brisbane, wrote her screenplay in English, “but I made it in France because that was where I was living. I shot it in my apartment, with my boy [as the couple’s toddler son]. That was the easiest option for me to make the movie immediately, which is what I wanted to do.”

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Mackerras self-financed the movie, with her mother’s help, and crewed it with people she knew in Paris, where she has lived for 15 years. “So it was actually easier to make it there; it wouldn’t have been logical to make it here.”

In fact, the biggest challenge she faces may yet come from the fact she worked outside the state-supported systems of both countries. It is both an Australian film and a French one, and thus neither. Because the French have a quota system for cinema distribution, not being “officially” French could make life hard for her very French-feeling drama.

By contrast, Rodd Rathjen’s Buoyancy simply could not have been shot in Australia. A meticulously researched drama about the Thai fishing industry’s use of kidnapped Cambodian children as slaves, he says “the subject dictated where we had to make the film”.

On the surface of it he’s another first-timer making life inordinately difficult for himself, but perhaps the relative lack of experience (he had made a short in the Himalayas) worked in his favour.

“I’ve got nothing else to compare it to really,” says Rathjen, who calls Melbourne home. “Filming on water was a huge challenge, as was having a child actor in the lead who’s also a non-actor, and working with a cast who are mostly non-actors. But I wouldn’t complain about the challenges we faced because the film is about men and boys who have lived incredibly tough lives, have been subjected to torture and violence. So making it was easy compared to that.”

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There’s enormous pay-off for a filmmaker willing to engage in a new culture, Rathjen adds. “Cultural infusion and learning is actually entwined in my process as a filmmaker now.”

However, it’s important to guard against white saviour syndrome. “I want to make films with foreign cultures, not for them,” he says. “We tried to do as much as we could to make a really confronting, challenging piece while keeping it as authentic as we could.”

As a gun for hire on Animals, a film based on a book set in Manchester, Adelaide’s Sophie Hyde might have seen her second feature as nothing more than a gig away from home. But when UK funding fell over and production relocated to Dublin for financial reasons, her company Closer Productions became more intimately involved.

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The film became the first official Australian-Irish co-production, she took a bunch of her filmmaking mates to Dublin, and inevitably her distinctive fingerprints soon began to mark the story of two party-hard friends – Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat – who find themselves at a turning point in their lives.

The rules around co-productions mean key creative positions on the film need to be Australian, which allowed Hyde to take several of her regular collaborators along for the ride. It also meant the long slog of post-production could be done at home in Adelaide.

“It’s like school camp, where you’re all in it together but elsewhere,” she says. Working at home is definitely easier, she notes, but “who wouldn’t want to be in interesting places shooting?”

As for the vexed question of what makes a film Australian – especially one made elsewhere – Hyde says it’s time we expanded our horizons.

“I really believe in the Australian ‘voice’ being the filmmakers, the point of view, not just the ‘accent’,” she says.

“And if that’s the case then of course you’re looking outside of just telling stories that are set in Australia, as if that is our culture.

“Our culture is a travelling culture too.”

Follow the author on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on twitter @karlkwin

Karl is a senior entertainment writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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