Culture

Film

‘Strange Colours’ directed by Alena Lodkina

By Rebecca Harkins-Cross
Australia is cast in a new light in this debut feature made outside industry conventions

Landscape is the font of Australian cinema. No matter the stats on urban populations, our filmmakers are lured back to the outback’s endless vistas: the stolen land from which the nation grew, the originary wound whose blood we’re yet to staunch. I could cite examples from nearly every Australian classic, but I always return to that 360-degree pan across the burnt ground that opens Wake in Fright (1971): a vision of nothingness made threatening in its infinitude.

So it’s gently bracing when Russian-born Australian filmmaker Alena Lodkina opens her feature debut, Strange Colours, by looking up at a galaxy of stars, not menacing or melancholy but glittering and alive. She rounds out her one-two combo by plunging us headlong beneath the earth’s surface before she reveals the landscape where the film is set: Lightning Ridge, the remote mining town in New South Wales, whose tourism website welcomes you to “the Black Opal capital of the world”.

Down here, the chatter of crickets is obliterated by the thundering staccato of drill on rockface. Two shirtless men perform an apparently Sisyphean task, golden light making the scene ever-so-slightly spectral. A bearded man is frozen in tableau, his gaze askew, bathed in a seraphic glow that renders his body like a Renaissance painting. Below the spirit level–flat horizon lies violence, yes, but also a queer beauty.

This homespun claim is worlds away from the mega-mines that are the wellspring of Australia’s wealth. Still, my mind immediately wanders to the open cuts of the Pilbara, when witnessing the earth being pillaged. The ailing patriarch of Strange Colours, played by Daniel P. Jones, is both ordinary and archetypal, defending his humble patch of dirt with as much tenacity as a magnate. While he’s laid out in the hospital, he worries that someone else is doing the plundering.

Luckily, Lodkina isn’t much interested in national mythmaking. This naturalistic and softly lyrical film was made through the Venice Biennale College, devised outside of traditional funding models and gatekeeping processes, where debates over what constitutes an Australian story can still ensnare filmmakers and tighten around the imagination like a noose. In Strange Colours, the sierra formed from bleached rocky spoils, set against a white-hot sky, could be the surface of the moon.

Counter to the masculine milieu of the mining town, Strange Colours is the story of a prodigal daughter’s return. Milena (Kate Cheel) has heeded her sick father’s call, but she’s in no hurry to make up for lost time. Even when he’s huffing an oxygen tank, prostrate in bed, he commands some terrible power. She can hardly look at him, the sins of the father crowding the silence between them. “You look all frozen up … What’s going on in life and all that stuff? Tell me,” he demands. We suspect this question hasn’t been asked in a long time, a chasm too wide to broach.

Daniel P. Jones’s first role was in Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s (who serves as executive producer on Strange Colours) Hail (2011), after meeting Courtin-Wilson when he was documenting a theatre group of recently released prison inmates. Even with his grizzled ponytail and faded tatts, Jones is capable of remarkable vulnerability, even tenderness. But there’s a sharpness to his piercing blue eyes, some subterranean fury. When this erupts in Hail, the film dissolves into a kind of pure abstraction of light and sound, as if realism couldn’t cope with the depths of his hurt.

Milena is the only woman who appears in Strange Colours, apart from one glimpsed in the shadows across a crowded country pub. This is men’s country, populated by a cast of lost souls (played largely by unprofessional actors from the region), whose lined faces map intricate topographies of hard sun and, we suspect, hard lives. We’ve met these men before, not on-screen but in the real world beyond its clichés. Lodkina and co-writer Isaac Wall capture the rhythms of the Australian diction, its falters and upward inflections and humour, with a rare veracity.

Milena may be a drifter too, on her way to Alice Springs chasing a vague job offer (“You’re not just bouncing around the country like a tennis ball, are you?” asks her father), but she’s not a character we recognise from Australian cinema’s past, either. When Deborra-lee Furness rumbles into town on her motorcycle in Shame (1988), she’s descended upon by a pack of slobbering men who’re holding the town’s female inhabitants hostage. One of the only women in Wake in Fright, Janette, servant to the men around her, is understandably a hysterical mess. The teenage girls of Walkabout (1971) or Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) wander beyond civilisation’s bounds at their peril. But out here, these men insist Milena could find a place to belong.

When we hear the rumble of an engine approaching in the dark, we’re trained (as is Milena) to start. Invitations to outback parties, the pub or offers of a beer at breakfast are initially met with trepidation, but this isn’t the overbearing hospitality of The Yabba. Out here, everyone is burdened by a past, but these men say they’ve found solace in the stillness. Lightning Ridge is a secret Eden, they insist, despite its looks. “You can just live here,” they say.

In Lightning Ridge, the divide between inside and outside blurs. Milena discovers a python when she enters her father’s tin shack, a frog at her feet in the shower. She sleeps outside on a trundle bed, with the mozzies, beneath the swaying trees. There are moments of violence, say, when dogs attack a boar, but for the most part this landscape isn’t out to devour her. Rarely changing out of the flimsy ochre dress she arrives in, Milena finds an ease here.

When Milena’s father offers to drag some tin and insulation across the dusty yard to build her a room of her own, it’s an act of magical thinking – a presumption that the prodigal daughter has returned for good. But these hurts can’t be healed through ownership or possession. Unlike her father, Milena has no desire to leave a mark.

She strikes up a friendship with her dad’s employee Frank (Justin Courtin), who carries some damage in his crinkling eyes. He speaks with hesitation, thinking before he speaks, like she does. “What star sign are you?” he asks her, deadly serious, as they share a smoke outside the pub. “You believe that stuff?” she asks. “It’s hard to say. Something running through the environment, I dunno, it’s a life force or something. I dunno. It’s just a constant, it’s everywhere, it’s in us all,” he replies. She’s sceptical: “I guess I believe in what’s here and now … My fucked-up father calls me and tells me he’s dying, here I am.”

And yet there’s some life force running beneath Strange Colours, too. Occasionally the film digresses into fleeting, otherworldly moments: a man drinking a VB, the vision slightly blurred and accelerated so the movement of the can ascending to his mouth looks robotic; shirtless men we don’t recognise sitting around a card table, beads of sweat running down their bodies; a man with a face stained lilac in the middle of nowhere; another in a ragged suit inapt to the climate, waving beatifically as a car speeds past on a lonesome road. Against the film’s naturalism, these uncanny moments make the familiar alien, but it’s entirely different from the so-called Great Australian Loneliness.

This mood is encapsulated in a scene where Milena enters her father’s mine. There’s not much down here, just rough beams and darkness, but she turns a corner and there it is, a strange and shimmering vision. The world disappears and, for a few seconds, everything exists in the motion of light on the opal’s face. Sparkling constellations, continents of colour, cumuli from another dimension. A Rorschach inkblot charting the contours of your mind. This fractured image is pure possibility, but as quickly as it arrives it’s gone.

We cut outside into the sharp light, where this magical moment hasn’t changed a thing. We must learn to face the silence, to sit with the trouble, with the history that radiates from this wounded country. There will be no revelations here, except in Lodkina’s crystalline vision.

 

Strange Colours is in limited release now.

Rebecca Harkins-Cross

Rebecca Harkins-Cross is a writer and cultural critic. She has received several awards from the Australian Film Critics Association.

Strange Colours

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