The colours of the outback are a slowly transforming, shifting an unexpected palette, much like Russian-Australian director, Alena Lodkina’s new film Strange Colours that premiered at The Venice Film Festival to broad critical and audience acclaim. Lodkina is overwhelmed by the Venice experience and just how many doors it has opened up for her.
The film is set in the outback opal mining township of Lightning Ridge amongst opal miners, drinkers and drifters. Milena (Kate Cheel), a young woman, travels by bus to see her estranged and sick father, opal miner Max (Daniel P. Jones best known for his remarkable performance in Hail). He is in hospital, and while she is a competent young woman she is left alone at his corrugated iron bachelor’s shack in the middle of nowhere. She is bush smart and not overly freaked out by a python in the bedroom and comfortable enough to sleep outdoors on a camp bed, but is also scared and vulnerable when she is woken up by strange men appearing in the middle of the night, beers in hand and headlights blinding.
There is just a smear of that Wake in Fright menace that we have come to associate with city folk stranded in the bush. But this is a different film: it is not about the horror that lurks in the outback but about how the colours of the outback change and transform the people bathed in them.
Milena is surrounded by hairy, sweaty blokes. Blokes who have a VB in their hand all the time. But these blokes celebrate her father Max and take her in as one of their own. They call her ‘mate’ and look after her in their own way. A recurring topic of conversation is that they were just passing through and ended up staying 20 years. The blokes love the lifestyle and the freedom. But Milena seems to have itchy feet. She intends to stay just long enough to reconnect with her dad and then move on during a gap year from her studies. But things get complicated. There’s a “purple man” on the loose and he is trying to steal from Max’s mining claim. Milena and Max try to mend their fractured bond, but their connection is fragile, like the strange, colourful opals Max digs up from the earth that seem to lure all sorts of strange people.
Alena Lodkina has produced an assured film with a clear directorial eye and robust performances. While the film lacks dynamism, it does capture the melancholy and loneliness of outback isolation and the desperate attempts at connection by these often damaged but passionate men trying to reconcile the freedom of the bush and their mutual responsibilities.
Lodkina claims that she wanted to capture wildness and the tales of some of the characters that she met while researching and making last year’s short documentary, Lightning Ridge: the Land of Black Opals.
Aside from the perpetual beer can in their hands, Max’s miner mates seem to be a solid bunch of blokes that are caring and resourceful. The film has a sad, lyrical mood that – while toying with that outback menace – is far from being a thriller. It is largely about a search for freedom and invites the audience to share that freedom to observe but not necessarily to judge. It is a highly realistic, emotionally restrained and anti-sentimental portrayal that draws out the precision of the characters all of whom – aside from Kate Cheel – are non-professional actors.
Lodkina explains: “I wanted to tell a story of three lonely people floating in this unique microcosm, with its own ideals and rules, surrounded by vast stretches of bush. A closed off, strong willed daughter longs to know her absent father before he dies, and travels here for the first time. The father is cracked open by the past he’s abandoned. An enigmatic miner is thrown into a fleeting romance despite his reclusive lifestyle. The characters seek connection with one another, but are torn apart by themselves and the world around them. They struggle to find what to say. I worked towards images that would carry the languid magic, the melancholia I myself felt in my travels.”
Alena Lodkina is a Russian-born filmmaker based in Melbourne, Australia. She received a BA in Communication Studies from UTS and worked across a range of craft areas. She worked as an intern on Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s Hail (2011) and subsequently edited his The Silent Eye. Strange Colours is her first feature project.
The film was one of three début feature films made under the innovative auspices of the Venice Biennale College Cinema. The process involves pitching and then a competitive selection followed by a heavily mentored ten-day development workshop and then a month later the delivery of the script. With a budget of 150,000 Euros, the production of the full film was delivered by late August – a turnaround of around 10 months. The Biennale College Cinema is an advanced training laboratory, open to young filmmakers from all over the world for the production of low-budget films that has been successfully running as part of the festival for 5 years and has produced original new works. While Alena Lodkina found the short production and development process stressful in terms of the lack of time, she said, “I found that the microbudget was entirely appropriate for the project and I prefer working with a small team and despite the difficulties, with non-professional actors.”
Lodkina’s next project is in story development, set amongst Melbourne’s young bohemian set it is a story about an unrequited love triangle that is an adaptation of Sappho’s poetry. Her desire is to once again work with non-professional actors in a lyrical drama influenced by the Soviet director Gennadiy Shpalikov (Long Happy Life) possessing a mood that is at once sad and romantic.