Debutant director Rhiannon Bannenberg tackled her debut feature, the striking and thoughtful Ambrosia, with a bold self-belief rarely seen in first-time filmmakers. Thematically entwining loss, memory, grief and love, Bannenberg’s script follows a troubled young woman named India (Rebecca Montalti), who returns to her childhood home with family and friends to find peace; a chance meeting with an enigmatic stranger called Harriet (Natasha Velkova) changes the lives of everyone. A deeply personal, skillfully realized drama, Ambrosia puts the local industry on notice that Bannenberg is a unique talent. Hailing from the Illawarra region on the New South Wales southern coast (a key locale that her camera captures exquisitely), Bannenberg spoke to SCREEN-SPACE ahead of her film’s hometown debut…
The film exhibits a very strong European sensibility, comparable to the likes of Mia Hansen-Love; it will play very well in upscale festivals overseas. What filmmakers, artists, writers inspired your vision?
I grew up in an old house, with a family that encouraged me to value both the past and present. As I grew older, I was drawn to English literature, painting, poetry and history. I have a particular love for John Keats ‘Endymion’, John Fowles ‘The French Lieutenants Woman’, Gillian Armstrong’s film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ and Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’.
It is clearly a very personal film. But is it a recollection on a moment in your life or does the ‘personal’ extend to something more cathartic?
The film is in part drawn from my own experiences of chronic pain as a young adult, and also just as much a figment of my imagination. Now when I watch the film in its entirety, I can see the cathartic qualities that helped me accept and manage life with chronic pain.
The chemistry between the cast is very strong. Was there an extended rehearsal period or were they chosen from a core group of colleagues? Was there much improvisation?
I am very fortunate to have a supportive, energetic and creative group of friends – all of whom I recruited to become the cast and crew of Ambrosia. We didn’t have much rehearsal time, but we did have open discussions about the tone and style of the film and everyone was able to put their ideas forward. I knew if the cast and crew had a strong friendship, it would be reflected in the story we were telling on screen. These friendships have lasted beyond Ambrosia and I hope to work with such a vibrant and talented group of people on another film.
It is an exceedingly ‘beautiful’ film – it’s rich look, the beauty of all the cast members, the photogenic setting, the lush and varied music, the costuming. How does the ‘styling’ of your film, its aesthetic qualities, enhance the drama?
The visual tapestry of the film was influenced heavily by my home environment and my own desire to find and be immersed in beautiful, haunting places. I wanted the story of India and her experiences to take place in a slightly altered reality, one where there was an ambiguity of time and place. I also wanted to bring the characters to life in the very places I spent my own childhood – the beautiful Illawarra on the South Coast of NSW.
Be it painting or poetry or prose or even kite building, creativity and artistry fuels and defines every key character in your film. What does Ambrosia, your own artful creation, express about you?
In reality, I’d say I was quite pragmatic but in my imagination and creative expression, I am a complete romantic. I’m fascinated by the idea of being connected to people and to places and I definitely have a romanticised nostalgia for the past. I am constantly driven forwards by the desire to connect to others and express human thoughts and emotions – and I think film is such an eloquent, powerful and experiential medium to express these stories beautifully.