The dark and confronting narrative of locally-produced film Greenfield could have been ripped from the recent news headlines. In fact it began life over half a decade ago when Danish film-maker Julius Telmer spent six months in WA. He talks with Mark Naglazas about the origins of the film, which opens this month.
There’s a short but significant history of overseas directors who made movies in Australia, FIFO filmmakers who cast the eye of the outsider over our landscape, our culture, our people. That list includes Brit Michael Powell and his culture-clash comedy They’re A Weird Mob (1966); Canadian Ted Kotcheff, whose Wake in Fright (1971) unmasked what we now call toxic masculinity; and Englishman Nicholas Roeg, who captured the mysterious beauty of the Australian outback and our First Nations inhabitants with Walkabout (1971).
To this impressive line-up we can now add Julius Telmer, a Danish writer and director whose debut feature Greenfield takes us into the belly of the beast, a Western Australian Wheatbelt town (a thinly disguised Merredin) where excess consumption of alcohol and drugs, mateship and misogyny, rampant sexual abuse and homophobia capture an Australia that’s currently coming into sharp and shocking focus.
While the dark and confronting narrative of Greenfield appears to have been ripped from the headlines it began life over half a decade ago during Telmer’s six-month study stint at Curtin University. One weekend Telmer found himself at a backyard barbecue and feeling like an outsider amidst the heavy drinking, the separation of the sexes and the all-round chest-beating and aggression.
“As an outsider from Europe I didn’t fit it,” Telmer tells me over Skype from his home in Copenhagen. “Everyone was putting on a show of being tough and challenging each other to be the alpha male. Even the ones not wanting to be a part of it were drawn in just to be a part of the group.
While Telmer struggled to make Australian friends he did establish a close relationship with actor and producer Daniel Tenni, whom he met while they were studying film at Curtin.
Telmer’s difficulties integrating into Australian society got the pair thinking about struggles of being an outsider, especially in a country in which there is so much pressure on men to conform to the stereotype.
Telmer and Tenni found a parallel to the travails of the outsider and toxic masculinity in the Western genre, which has long utilised the trope of the loner rolling into town and helping the locals to see the destructive nature of their ways (George Stevens’s 1953 classic Shane is the most obvious model).
“Those classic directors like Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah were sensitive men making films about the tough men they really wanted to be,” Telmer says.
They cooked up the tale of a sensitive, quietly spoken young man named James (Ethan Thomas) who travels from the city to Greenfield to be with the woman he loves, local teacher Kelley (Marthe Snorresdotter Rovik), only to find himself dealing with a group of men who wear their boozing, their sexual aggression and their homophobia like a badge of honour (Tenni, as well as producing, plays the most vicious and psychologically damaged of the locals).
While Telmer looked to the Western for inspiration the finished film feels closer to a European psychological drama, with its pared-back visual style, multiple intertwining narratives, focus on the characters, emotional intensity and extensive use of sub-text (it is pleasingly free of big melodramatic speeches). Indeed, Telmer’s feature debut feels like a near relative of the films made under the Dogma 95 banner set up by fellow Danes Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg.
Telmer doesn’t embrace my linking of Greenfield to Dogma but admits that the pragmatism of the movement – it was about stripping movie-making of elaborate special effects and sticking to the essentials of story, acting and theme – sits well with his personal aesthetic, that is, Greenfield is Dogma-ish because it was made for little money and quickly.
“It’s all about working with the resources you have. You’ve got to be able to put a camera on your shoulder, have two actors and make it work. Tell a good story. You don’t have the time or the money to worry about niceties such as make-up. You just have to tell a good story,” explains Telmer.
With a light crew and minimal technical restrictions (the film was shot mostly with natural light) Telmer was able to capture the actors in a way closer to documentary, in which unscripted moments of truth are allowed to shine through. “Without having to deal with the circus of traditional filmmaking you are able to capture those ‘gifts’, those little moments that surprise us.”
Greenfield is the second film released by the newly formed Pickle District-based distribution company HALO Films. Former Paramount Pictures state manager Ian Hale was inspired to expand his exhibition and post-production operation The Backlot into a distribution entity because he saw too many WA-made quality lower-budget movies languishing on shelves.
HALO Films’ first release, the Swan Valley-set coming-of-age drama The Xrossing, has been playing for months, garnering strong reviews and an enthusiastic audience response, proving that local audiences want to see their city and state represented on the big screen without being accessorised with pretty pictures of the tourism imperative.
“I’m proud that The Xrossing has managed to find an audience who appreciate a WA-made independent film with important themes. I have every confidence that the next two releases, Greenfield and the anti-hunting documentary Last Horns of Africa, will just as enthusiastically embraced.”
Seesaw has two double passes to give away to Greenfield. Be part of the opening night buzz at Luna Palace Cinemas on May 13. Details on how to enter are here.
Pictured top: Julius Telmer directs actor and producer Daniel Terri in ‘Greenfield’. Photo supplied
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