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Monday
Apr202015

SRI LANKAN STAR SOARS IN HELMER'S HARD-HITTING '28'

One of Sri Lanka’s most adored stars, Mahendra Perera has been a box office draw for over three decades. But his latest work, Prasanna Jayakody’s 28, is a challenging social drama that refuses to pander to the mainstream; it follows three working class men as they transport a murdered woman across mountain roads for a hometown burial. As Abasiri, Perera loses himself in one of the most complex screen characters of his long career; the performance earned the veteran star a Best Actor nomination at the 2014 Asia Pacific Screen Awards (APSA). With his writer/director by his side (for whom the actor kindly provided translation), Perera spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about the career-defining role, the establishment’s reaction to the non-conformist narrative, and the fearlessness being embraced by Sri Lanka’s new wave of talent… 

"When I first read the script, I was a little confused,” admits Perera, star of such regional blockbusters as Walls Within (1997), Flying with One Wing (2002), Boungiorno Italia (2004) and Machan (2008). “I did not form too many ideas. It took a dialogue with Prasanna (pictured, below), and many discussions afterwards, for me to form a picture of this man.” His character is unaware until the day of the long journey that his cargo is to be his late ex-wife, Suddhi (Semini Iddamalgoda). “Finally, I was able to understand his emotional side and bring that out. The inconsistent nature of his behaviour, the ways in which he confronted the situations he found himself facing…well, it proved a challenge to get to the core of this complex character but somehow we did it.”

The inspiration for 28 (the title representing the morgue drawer in which Suddhi’s body is kept) was, as they say, ripped from today’s headlines. Writer/director Jayakody (Sankara, 2007; Karma, 2011) had become disillusioned by the violence that had become increasingly endemic to his homeland and wrote the script as a means by which to interpret this dark shift in the population’s psyche. “In the past few years in Sri Lanka, the newpapers have been full of horrible accounts of violent crimes, especially sexual crimes against women,” says the softly spoken auteur. “Sex is a beautiful, natural thing and it is always disturbing when human desires lead to horrible acts. It is destructive to our society, to any society.”

Wavering between pitch-black character comedy, a searing indictment of patriarchal brutality and open-road travelogue, the film is at its most daring when Suddhi breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience from beyond the grave. Jayakody acknowledges the bravery required for his leading lady (pictured, left) to take on such an artistically and culturally challenging part. “Semini was required to do some extraordinary things, perform in a way that she had never been called upon to do in her other movies,” he says. “Her character is a portrayal of so many Sri Lankan women and hopefully conveys so much of what the women of Sri Lanka must endure. Sri Lankan women can’t speak the truth when they are alive; it is only possible for a dead woman to speak the truth.”

A revelation as the everyman Abasiri, Perera establishes a rich chemistry with his male co-stars Sarath Kothawala and Rukmal Nirosh (pictured, below). But it is likely that a single scene, in which the identity of the woman dawns upon Abasiri and grief and memory overwhelm him, impacted most upon the APSA judging panel. “My studies in the Stanislavsky method of acting were called upon in that scene,” the actor recalls. “I sought out friends who had suffered through a similar grief and drew upon them for guidance, to spark that emotion deep within myself. I was determined not to act, but to try and find that truth within myself, as if that was my wife. It was very difficult, because we shot that scene many times, to get the precise emotion.”

28 has emerged as one of the ‘new wave’ Sri Lankan works, steeped in both high-end artistry and strong social commentary. For Perera, the period represents a rebirth-of-sorts for the local sector. “After 30 years of war and terrorism, it is finding a new shape,” he says. “We still have problems, and there are still those for whom films like 28 will be too disturbing, but we have new, young filmmakers who are willing to work with very challenging concepts. And we have a huge audience in Sri Lanka for this movie, for any movie that comes with new ideas or new themes that can be discussed.”

The national cinema of Sri Lanka faces a number of uphill battles to retain its potency. The exhibition sector is dire; prior to the outbreak of war, 400 cinemas serviced the population. Today, 120 operate; only half of those screen locally made product (it is expected that the region will be fully upgraded to DCP technology in 2017). More worryingly, cinema is often overseen by conservative governing bodies, which monitor content and distribution channels. Says Perera, “There are these political and philosophical officials, who think that these films do damage to our country, but these are unique subjects that need to be addressed in our cinema. As the films begin to get recognition at international events like APSA, a new respect forms.”

Wednesday
Apr082015

DIRECTOR SUMMONS MIDDLE EASTERN DEMON FOR U.S. DEBUT

As a boy, Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad would sit spellbound as his elders retold the story of the Jinn. Mythological creatures that have walked amongst the living since the dawn of time, they have all but disappeared, unseen to the shallow gaze of modern man. Ahmad’s fascination with the legend has led to his debut feature Jinn, in which a centuries-old curse resurfaces to terrorise the present-day descendant of an ill-fated clan. For the young auteur, bringing to life the folklore of his Middle Eastern ancestry for a modern audience proved an enormous yet rewarding challenge…

“There has not been one particular project, book or film, that has attempted to modernize the concept,” Ahmad (pictured, above) told SCREEN-SPACE from his US base. Inherent to the spiritual teachings of Arabic and Asian cultures, the legend of the Jinn speaks of supernatural entities, conjured from ‘smokeless fire’, and are referenced throughout the Islamic holy text, the Quran; thought to be the basis for the legend of the ‘Genie’, they are one of the three creations of God, alongside man (made of clay) and angels (made of light). Says Ahmad, who also wrote and edited his film, “We wanted to use ‘Jinn’ the movie to not only bring the concept to the western world but to also create a mythology that had some rules to it.”  

For Ahmad and his production team at Exxodus Pictures, crafting a modern action thriller from a centuries-old text brought with it great responsibility. “Basically, (the narrative) stayed true to the beliefs that are common around the world, and then (we) filled in the story gaps so it became more fully-realised,” he says. The central figure is Shawn (Dominic Rains), a strapping hero whose life with his beautiful wife Jasmine (Serinda Swain) becomes the focus of a vengeful demonic force. He teams with wizened cleric Father Westhoff (William Atherton, of Ghostbusters fame) and mysterious warrior-type, Gabriel (fan favourite Ray Park, pictured, right; from X-Men, G.I. Joe and Episode 1: The Phantom Menace) to see off the powerful foe. (“Ray was a big win for us,” admits the director.)

Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad cites as his filmmaking influences the great modern directors whose works combine vivid imagery and assured technique with strong, soulful characters and storytelling. “The short list, of course, is made up of Spielberg, Cameron, Ridley Scott, Lucas,” he says. “These directors were able to create new worlds for people to visit and I want to do the same thing. Jinn was a exercise in that (style of) direction.” Raised in the once thriving American industrial hub of Detroit, Ahmad was determined to shoot his first production on the streets from which he drew much inspiration over time. “Detroit and the state of Michigan were integral to the creation of Jinn and rolled out the red carpet wherever and whenever we needed them to” he states. “We are all proud to be from here and are even prouder to have been given the chance to give something back.”

Raised in strict adherence to the Islamic faith, Ahmad was aware that a film steeped in Muslim iconography and originating from a culture misunderstood by many of his fellow Americans may prove to be a tough sell. But his faith in his family’s adopted homeland was unwavering. “I'm a firm believer that America is, in general, a great place to live, made up of mostly good people with open minds. If that weren't true, I don't think my father would have chosen to come here and settle with his family,” he says. “I know that prejudice still lurks in dark corners, (but) I grew up seeing a very fair America.” As his script began to take shape, Ahmad became determined to tell his unique, original genre story in a strong voice, confident that fans would respond. “Rather than concentrate on who wouldn't like the concept of Jinn based upon those prejudices, I think I was hoping that there would be more people that were interested in learning about a new idea and making it their own,” he says. “After all, that is what the U.S. was founded on. And I think that ended up being true.” (Pictured, left; the director, on-set)

Supporting that notion is the fan base that Jinn has generated since its release. Following a limited US theatrical run, the film has played to enthusiastic international audiences, both in densely populated Muslim communities and with broader western filmgoers. “We've been very lucky in that our fan base has grown substantially around the world,” says Ahmad, citing the social media following and VOD traffic numbers as evidence. “There have been thousands asking for a sequel and we feel that Jinn could easily support more movies. With a little luck, I'm sure we'll be back in production on another Jinn concept soon.”

Jinn will be released in Australia across all platforms on April 16 via Third Millennium Entertainment.


Monday
Apr062015

SOLDIER BLUE: THE ODEN ROBERTS INTERVIEW

Oden Roberts’ A Fighting Season is a film about a soldier’s heroism, although it takes place a world away from the hot zones of international war. A searing character study, it examines the courage needed to fight for the honour of a soldier’s life on home soil, while summoning the strength to battle one’s own inner demons. Set amongst a team of recruiters stationed in an everyman enclave of middle America in 2007, it is a dark, disturbing take on the swirling maelstrom of national pride and muddied morality that swept through Roberts' homeland post-9/11.

An NYU Film School graduate, Oden Roberts’ debut feature had its world premiere at the recent Byron Bay Film Festival, where a rapturous response from festivalgoers secured it a ‘Jury Special Mention’ honour and earned the filmmaker the Best Director trophy. Roberts was a popular attendee, his droll humour and engaging love of cinema proving a winning combination. SCREEN-SPACE spoke with the LA-based auteur about the personal journey that inspired his narrative, the function that film plays in dissecting the impact of war and how dissenting voices are crucial in a true democracy…

The ‘recruitment office’ dynamic is a setting that will be unfamiliar to many outside the US, although the target-oriented desperation and the immoral methodology recalls films such as Glengarry Glen Ross and Tin Men. Were the characters drawn from men and situations you have known? 

My work always draws from personal experiences and people I’ve met in my travels. A Fighting Season is based on being recruited during a six month (period) in my senior year of high school. The characters are based on an assortment of real people and hundreds of hours of private interviews with Army recruiters, so I hope it feels very real. I drew from my own recruiter’s charismatic, machismo personality to create the characters. In fact, (the) supporting cast features former military recruiters and some of the recruits are now serving overseas. A kind of ‘art depicts life’ moment. 

The conflicted complexity of your lead character, Mason (Clayne Crawford; pictured, right, on-set with the director) creates a tangible tension throughout the narrative. How did his character develop, from your first thoughts in the early stages of the script to Crawford’s contribution?

My goal for Mason was to depict (a) modern day hero but avoid the clichés seen in Hollywood, such as American Sniper's Chris Kyle, where one man takes down the entire enemy - the Rambo film. The subdued nature of Mason is an honest depiction of a PTSD-affected soldier, trying to survive after being torn apart by war. And Clayne’s alpha-male persona, coupled with his ability to keep a stiff upper lip, made him a perfect choice for the role. After the first two screenings of the film, I had a handful of audience members ask me how I received permission to shoot the actual recruiters. This comment says so much about Crawford’s performance, (that) he’s the real thing. Sometimes heroes aren’t larger then life, they are normal people just like you and I under extraordinary circumstances. 

Was there an extended rehearsal period that allowed for the actors and yourself to detail backstory and foster the on-screen chemistry?

I always write with an actor in mind, one that represents the tone and mannerisms I hope to achieve on and off camera. I’ve known both Lew (Temple) and Clayne (pictured, left; in uniform on set, with co-star James Hechim) for years and admired them as performers and as individuals. With A Fighting Season, I was extremely lucky to get the two leads I wrote for. Our rehearsal process was short because I knew what to expect out of the gate from these two talents. Lew and Clayne were only with us for 14 days, so my initial choice for chemistry was create on the page and in casting. 

Your film will draw comparisons to two of the decade’s most acclaimed war films – The Hurt Locker and, as you’ve mentioned, American Sniper. As an interpretation of the plight of the returned serviceman, what does your film have in common with those films and what is its point-of-difference?

A Fighting Season makes a commentary on the controversial recruiting practices post 9/11, particularly the Army policies that support the cherry picking of the meek or underprivileged and the taking advantage of woman sexually. The film points out very clearly that recruiters are under extreme pressure to make their numbers and in doing so are often pushed to make immoral decisions. The major point of difference is to not celebrate the war, but hone in on what is important about soldiers and the battles they face internally when returning home. Other films about war are often blockbuster action hits, used to feed the American image of ‘no guts, no glory’. A Fighting Season is what I consider an honest film about real American soldiers, not a poster boy from a polished “Army Strong” commercial. 

Cinema takes a while to process the costs of war – M*A*S*H came well after the Korean conflict; Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, a decade after Vietnam. In the wake of 9/11 and the Bush/Cheney administration’s morally ‘murky’ deployment of troops, is portraying wartime heroism on screen harder than it should be?

We lack cinema that portrays troops with any real accuracy. There are documentaries on the subject, (but) even there you find a collection of films that are financed by the Army and military branches. The film is meant to lend an alternative opinion to that fuelled by 9/11 propaganda. We can never know the costs of war until decades later, but for now the film serves as a reminder that troops are suffering by the hundreds of thousands, returning with trauma, and battle scars. It’s extremely hard to get past the superhero complex that American audiences buy into. In war, there aren’t always heroes, sometimes, just survivors.

How do you answer those inevitable protesters who will claim anything less than glowing portrayals of US soldiers is ‘unAmerican’ or ‘unpatriotic’? 

Our first amendment right is freedom of speech, (so) I encourage any protest through words. But I’d challenge the critic by asking them to create something they consider American before they’d cast A Fighting Season as anything less. We live in interesting times and under a cloud of ‘American Propaganda’ that casts around the world. This film offers a different perspective on how many Americans who protest the current war perceives the issues. Diversity sparks conversation, leads to debate then results in more diverse thinking. A Fighting Season is a film that brings the debate of war and terrorism to the forefront. It clearly states, ‘what is the war on terror and why are we in it?’

Monday
Mar022015

ENEMY MINE: THE RICHARD TODD INTERVIEW

The brutal nature of coal seam gas extrusion, in which the vast expanses of subterranean earth is fractured to allow access to the profitable resource, is the key issue facing a great many rural communities across the world. The heartless practices of the mining industry and the social cost to already struggling landowners are further examined in Richard Todd’s Frackman, the tough talking, tender hearted account of Queenslander Dayne Pratzky and his alter-ego, the titular militant agitator determined to right some basic wrongs. Ahead of the highly-anticipated 2015 Byron Bay Film Festival screenings, ‘Toddy’ (pictured below, left, with Pratzky) spoke to SCREEN-SPACE about his film, the issues it addresses and the fearless unpredictability of his protagonist…

When did you first become aware of the impact that coal seam gas and ‘fracking’ technology was having on our land?

I read about it in my local paper in Margaret River. There was a company wanting to drill through our local aquifer, 15kms from the centre of town, which sounded nuts. (It is) one of the tourism gems of Australia. I started to research the topic and that’s when I heard about CSG. That led me straight to where it was already in action, in Tara/Chinchilla. 

When the production rolled into small towns and you began to get your camera in front of the people being impacted by CSG mining, how did they react?

It doesn’t take long for people to forget I’m there because the first two years it was just Dayne and I chatting to them, rather than us sitting down for interviews. Interviews hardly happened, ever. We did less than six in four years, so it was very observational. They haven’t seen the film yet but they’ve been very responsive to rough cuts we have shown some of them. We have invited several of the main characters to BIFF, (so it) will be pretty exciting to have them there.

How would you describe the dynamic between you and your ‘leading man', Dayne Pratzky? He is presented as a fearless force-of-nature, singularly committed to the cause. How much about Dayne the man is up there on the screen?

Most of it is up there. I hope it is a fairly accurate representation of Dayne and covers most of his emotions. He is an ordinary bloke that has fought an extraordinary battle. He is a good man but it was tough for both of us. It’s bloody like Dad and Dave on the road! You laugh, you get frustrated, you get angry, you fight but when there is only two of you in one old Hilux, there ain’t nowhere to go. The stakes were high from day one and we did a lot of stressful stuff. The nice thing is we both pushed through it and we are still mates now.

When was the decision made that the narrative had found its ending?

Oh my God, we wrote three different scripts re what could happen. Of course we didn’t know. We were way into the edit when the ending occurred in real time so we went back out for one last shoot in Tara and that’s in the film. It just ended up (being) ‘the time’ re Dayne’s journey, so it actually happened quite naturally but in the middle of editing, instead of the normal ‘ end of shoot’ time.

The ‘ advocacy doco’ as a genre has flourished in the last decade, but do 'message movies' reach beyond the converted? If so, how do you ensure that happens?

I hope we are not just preaching to the choir. They will turn up, (but) we have gone for a more personal, emotive story, to avoid it being a movie just for the converted. We have been inviting the (mining) industry to the screenings and they are accepting the invitations, which is very cool. I hope all the workers watch it. It doesn’t matter whether they agree or disagree but I’m sure it will stir up some debate and conversation and that is what we hope to achieve.  It has the potential to effect social change. Only time will tell.

Like every other superhero franchise, is there a ‘Frackman 2’ in the works?

It will be up to Dayne and how long he wants to stay in CSG world. No doubt we are both welded to the subject now and that is OK, but Frackman 2…mmm, not sure about doing another lap. 

Saturday
Feb282015

HEAVEN AND EARTH: THE NICOLAS HUDAK INTERVIEW

Afforded unprecedented access to the Blackfeet reservation in Browning, Montana, director Nicolas Hudak (pictured, below) and his wife, producer Anna Hudak, set about capturing the modern experience of three young Native American people. As filming began, each was on the verge of their adult lives - Andi Running Wolf, an intelligent, independent woman about to leave the reservation for college life; Edward Tailfeathers, a philosophical backyard muso caught between a teenage mindset and his grown self; and, Douglas Fitzgerald, a softly spoken, family-oriented cowboy, working the earth of his ancestors.

The Hudak's moving account of these lives, Where God Likes to Be, examines a world of rarely-glimpsed bonds within the Native American community - between the Montana land and its people; the old traditions and new society; and, most tellingly, between youth and adulthood. Ahead of its Australian premiere at the 2015 Byron Bay Film Festival, Nicolas Hudak spoke to SCREEN-SPACE about his unique production experience...

What was so unique yet so universal about the experiences of the three young people that led to them becoming the focus of your documentary?

When we set out to make the film on the Blackfeet reservation we did not have a specific topic or narrative in mind. The Native American stereotype across the US is one of downtrodden impoverishment and hopelessness. We wanted to show another side of the Native American experience, one that explored the feeling of somehow being between two worlds, coming of age in modern America and clinging to a sense of unique indigenous culture. Spiritual leaders, teachers and people we met on the street encouraged us to make a film that is uplifting and inspires cultural pride in their youth. The three young people that allowed us to have their voices in the film struggle with many of the issues that are universal on the Blackfeet reservation - and at the same time really try to make the best of it and create opportunities for themselves.

Was the broader reservation population open to the intrusive-by-nature arrival of a documentary crew? How did you and the production team go about ingratiating yourself with the community?

Actually no, they were initially not open to having a documentary crew there. People there have been burned so often by white people coming on to the Rez, looking for the sad Indian story, focusing on alcoholism, substance abuse and general "poverty porn". I think a lot of Blackfeet people are just sick of it. In fact, shortly before we showed up a National Geo crew was thrown off the reservation. We learned that it was important to them that their voices were heard, rather than having another film that points fingers and has outsiders talk about them. We spent almost six months talking to people without touching our cameras. Once we started filming we tried to tread lightly and stay small, which wasn’t too hard since most of the time we were just a team of two. We lived in a trailer on the reservation for six months while filming which I think helped us blend into the scene and really get a feeling for the place. (Pictured, above right; Andi Running Wolf)

How did the experience of living and studying in New Zealand shape this film and the filmmaker you've become?

New Zealand showed me how a country with a colonial history can have a different relationship with its native people, identify on a national level with the indigenous population and even have that be part of its popular image. New Zealand also awakened in me a deeper sensitivity to landscape. Obviously, it is a very picturesque land but there is a melancholy there that I had not ever before experienced in a landscape. I began to read and interpret landscape differently there and I think I took a bit of that back to Montana with me when we started working on the film. (Pictured, above left; producer Anna Hudak)

Does the film tell the story or send the message that you set out to convey? How did the film take shape as the production progressed?

We initially thought we'd make more of an activist film but that is just not what we found there. Finding a strong storyline was definitely our main challenge in post-production. In the end, the film shaped us more than we shaped it. I am happy with the message it conveys and it has been very interesting to see people's reactions to it. Often after screening Where God Likes to Be, white people will come up to me and comment on how depressing they find the film (yet) right afterwards a Native American audience member will thank me for finally making an uplifting positive film about an American Indian reservation.

Although your film is not the advocacy/call-to-action type of documentary, what do you hope the narrative inspires in audiences?

I would like for Where God Likes to Be to evoke an understanding of how deep cultural roots are for a lot of Native people and how progress is not just about providing more of the kind of opportunities we think people on reservations need. I hope it leads to small actions on a grassroots level; to more respect and understanding for American Indian people, their reservations and their situation. (Pictured, right; Nicolas Hudak and crew member Anu Webster, on location)

Finally, how did the Blackfeet people and the residents of Browning react to the film?

The Blackfeet Nation and the residents of the reservation have been incredibly kind to us and the feedback we have been getting has been overwhelmingly positive. We are lucky.

WHERE GOD LIKES TO BE Teaser from counter production on Vimeo.