Image credit: Jem Cohen
Strange Colours is one of the most refreshing films to come out of Australia in recent years, heralding a new talent in the form of its director, Alena Lodkina. Premiering at the 2017 Venice Film Festival after receiving funding from the festival’s own Biennale College, the film has since won praise from critics both internationally and locally. Set in the remote opal mining town of Lightning Ridge in northern New South Wales, Lodkina’s debut feature follows a young woman (Kate Cheel), as she arrives in town to visit her hospital bed-bound father (Daniel P. Jones, of Hail fame). Once there, she develops connections with the hypermasculine members of the local community, who welcome her into their daily routine of drinking beers, telling tales, and living in hope of digging up the precious black opals that lie beneath.
Early one morning ahead of its Sydney Film Festival screenings, we discussed the film and its influences over a refreshing can of VB.
We both went to the same high school, but I personally don’t remember learning much about film at school, aside from maybe watching Blade Runner in English class. My interest in film developed later, at university. Did you have a similar experience?
I did watch films, and I was actually remembering this very recently, but when I was back in Russia – my family migrated to Australia when I was 13 – when I was a kid, the way that people would get ‘cool movies’ was through these shops that just popped up in random supermarkets. There’d be a little shop that would rent pirated VHS tapes. It would be these really bizarre libraries, with hand-drawn titles. I used to go with my parents, and we’d get an ice cream and go to this one shop. I remember it really vividly, this bizarre lady who would be like, “I have a fantastic new film”, and she’d pull something out from under the table. So I watched heaps of movies with my parents like that, and that was when I really fell in love with movies. But I wasn’t one of those teenagers with really cool taste…
I think my favourite movie as a teen was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Pulp Fiction…
Exactly, Pulp Fiction. Or, like, Lost in Translation.
“The world is so dark and interesting…”
Yeah, I remember the day I discovered Donnie Darko, I was like, “I’m cool“. But I think I watched Woody Allen, and my mum would show me Fellini and Bergman films.
What a great mum.
It was pretty cool. But not until uni did I discover, like, Fassbinder. Mainly through the library at UTS, it was a really good resource.
So, I understand Strange Colours was developed from your earlier short documentary Lightning Ridge: The Land of Black Opals (2016). Where did your interest in Lightning Ridge stem from?
My parents did a road trip of New South Wales, and passed through Lightning Ridge, and took pictures of it and told me about it. That was when I was still at university, and it really stuck with me, the idea of this place and ‘opal fever’, and all these bizarre stories. And one day I was looking for something to do, I wanted to get away and got on a bus and went there.
So your experience somewhat reflects that of Milena’s in the film?
Yeah, I think very much. I tried to channel my own impressions of the place through a fictionalised story.
I really loved the contrast between the masculinity of the opal mining community and the mysterious femininity of the jewels that they’re mining. Was that something that you wanted to draw out in the film?
I think it’s that contrast of these kind of guys, these rough, tough-appearing dudes and the fact that they are just digging in the ground to find these tiny little fragile pockets of stones that have this really mesmerising geology. Everything about it seems very mysterious and strange. And their daily life is so rough, but then the stone is going to go to some lady in Pakistan. The private clients they have are like sheiks, or really rich people in Japan, the people who buy the rare stones that are worth like $100,000.
The black opals?
The black opals, the really good ones. I thought that there was something so incongruous about that tension. I could never quite put it together in my head how it all fits, and I think the film was a response to that tension.
There’s a palpable affection and compassion to Strange Colours, which I think helps it avoid being a caricature of the community – a compassion towards the characters as well as the landscape. Is that important to you as a filmmaker to have that compassion?
I think that the films that I like in the end – I can forgive basically everything, if it’s formally a bit scruffy, or whatever – but if a film has humanist values, I’m always like, “Yes, I like this.” I guess I try to somehow do that. Also, because I had actual personal ties with the people, the ethics of working with real people was something that I struggled with, and was constantly aware of. That’s why I didn’t want to do a documentary, because I thought fiction is a nice way to protect people. It’s freeing in a way, and it gives you space to play. Within documentary, there’s always the risk of doing an exposé on the community, and I really didn’t want to do that, because it wasn’t something that I thought was my responsibility. I just wanted to make something with the people. Sometimes I wonder if it’s too protective, I really felt like I wanted to protect them.
I think you did a really good job of that.
I don’t know, I feel like we admire filmmakers who really push boundaries…
That comes through for me in the formal aspects of the film. It reminded me of films by directors like Angela Schanelec or Valeska Grisebach, the kind of controlled formalism but also compassion in your work. Were they influences on you at all?
I love Western.
That came out after you made the film though, right?
Yeah it did, I was like, “Ah! That’s the film I should have made!” I discovered Schanelec’s work quite recently, when the Fireflies issue came out. I really like Angela Schanelec, but I have mixed feelings about some of her work. But I love Bresson, so I think maybe it’s Angela Schanelec via Bresson. I think his films are perfect, or, most of them. Au hasard Balthazar is like, “How does that even exist?” It’s so complex, and it does so much with so little.
I love that film. I definitely love Pedro Costa – Casa de Lava was a big inspiration to me, how he worked with real people but then it has this kind of magical Jane Eyre-esque quality, this movie magic.
There’s a real beauty to Pedro Costa’s films.
I like how it sits in that place between an anthropological exploration of place but then also a reflection on movie-making.
I was really excited to see Daniel P. Jones in your film. I’d only recently watched him in Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s Hail (2011), but it doesn’t seem that he’s done much in terms of acting between then and Strange Colours. What was the process of casting him like?
He was the first person we had locked in, because we were writing this character based on a couple of people from the place, as kind of an amalgamation of various archetypes of the father, and also the macho man who does exist there. And then at one point producer Kate Laurie said, “Danny would be really good for this.” And we were like, “Oh, yeah. That’s Danny, it should be Danny.” And from that point there were no other options imaginable. He was just so perfect. When I met up with him, I was really intimidated at first, it took me a long time to feel like I was friends with him. But I can’t imagine anyone else doing that role. He brings so much energy, and it was so fantastic to bring him back, to remind audiences of his work.
Hopefully we’ll see him in more films, he has such an amazing screen presence.
I hope so as well. He’s got an exceptional screen presence.
You can’t take your eyes off him.
When we were casting Milena, the test was how the actress could work with him, and how their energies would match. And he kind of approved of Kate Cheel in the auditions, so that was a big sign for us.
Have you shown the film in Lightning Ridge? What was their response to it?
Yes! We actually were able to show it, luckily, before the Gold Coast premiere. So it was the first place in Australia where we screened it. It was probably one of the nicest experiences of my life. I was really nervous, of course. Luckily there’s this outdoor cinema set up there, in this historical centre that does screenings. They have a projector set up, that was projecting onto this white building. So we gathered everyone up as the sun was setting, and they were all drinking beers, sitting outside, and it was a really warm night. The way they watched the film was like how I imagine people watched silent films when they were first coming out. They were like, “No! Why is she doing that?!” Or laughing and crying. They were so proud, and they all hugged each other afterwards. It was a really heartwarming experience for a filmmaker, to realise this actually means so much to people. They see themselves, and they enjoyed the story… It was a real high point. I don’t think that could ever be replicated in other screenings.
As well as making films, you also write about film. You’ve written for Senses of Cinema and Fireflies, as well as our own very illustrious publication, 4:3. How do those activities inform your work as a filmmaker, how do they connect for you?
It seems like it makes so much sense for filmmakers to also try their hand at writing, because for me, I am quite an analytical filmmaker and I try to think about how films are constructed, and the ethics of what that means, and how it sits in history. The kind of writing that I really love is writing that takes criticism beyond just “is it good or bad?”, because who really cares? What’s important for me is what does it mean for us, this film, what does it say about humanity? How does it sit in history, what does it represent? And I think making films and writing about film should be a dialogue about what film means in our society.
You’re also an editor, you edited Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s 2016 film The Silent Eye. You must have been very involved in the editing process of Strange Colours as well?
I was very lucky to work with Luca Cappelli, he’s a brilliant editor. We worked together a short film in the past, so I was very excited to take that relationship into a bigger space. We were together throughout the whole thing – we didn’t have much time, so we really had to capitalise on it. Sometimes I’d just be sitting there on eBay, shopping, and he’d be editing. But it was a real conversation, and I enjoy working with other people. I would never edit my own feature – I think, I hope. Because the film is reborn again in the edit.
I’m glad that you ask about it, because people never really ask about editors. I think that the reason working with Luca was such a rewarding process and such a success is because he is a real humanist. The way that he looks at films, his ethics, everything is really aligned with him. He has a great sense of humour, so he could see the absurdity in small moments, and he has a good eye for performances. I think he was really able to shape the film in that very delicate way, he brought a real delicacy to the film.
Absolutely. I imagine shooting the film would have been quite a challenge in the harsh environment of Lightning Ridge?
Totally, and Michael Latham the cinematographer did an incredible job of working with very scarce resources and being very inventive. He had to power everything on generator, and he’d make use of house lights, car lights, and a tiny little pocket light that he’d have with him.
It’s mostly natural lighting?
Mostly it’s natural lighting. I think he did a really good job of lighting the night scenes, they feel so intimate. And the producers should be credited as well, it is so hard shooting in those conditions, and the things that we struggled with, from bindis in socks when we were shooting the scenes in the bush, and all sorts of hazards like snakes, and mining pits. The fact that the production was pulled off in 21 shooting days is definitely credit to Kate Laurie and Isaac Wall, for just being able to manage this crazy shoot in all these different locations. We had to drive four-wheel drives everywhere, because you can’t even get through to some places, and there were a lot of hazards.
It was definitely worth it! One thing that really struck me was the motif of the night sky and constellations. Even down to the bus that Milena travels to Lightning Ridge on, the fabric of the seats is plastered with stars. Did that come from your experience in Lightning Ridge?
It’s definitely the first thing whenever anyone goes to the bush, they go, “Oh my God, I can see the stars!” It really strikes you. But I also think there’s something, when I first started working on the project… Do you know that Walter Benjamin essay “The Storyteller”, where he talks about a Russian short story “The Alexandrite”? It was really inspiring to me because alexandrite is this rare, precious stone that’s mined in a rural region in Russia, and my granddad collected precious stones as well, so he went to all these places and tried to find stones. So I had this spiritual idea of gemstones, and in that essay he talks about how there’s something really, I can’t remember quite how he puts it, but something to do with predicting fate and magical stones and how all that tradition has been lost. And even in that short story he connects gemstones and constellations and traditions of astrology, and all these oral traditions of exchanging knowledge and the world seeming this magical place through that. I kept reflecting on that, and I think that that’s how constellations and stars and opals feed into this mythology of place. I always saw opals as this godly presence that keeps this community together – it’s so out of reach and there’s something very mysterious about that.
Strange Colours is screening at the 2018 Sydney Film Festival on Friday 15 June and Sunday 17 June.
Disclosure: Jessica Ellicott was on the Film Advisory Panel for the 2018 Sydney Film Festival.