November 2011



By Peter Robb
Ivan Sen filming 'Dreamland' in the Nevada desert. Image courtesy of Ivan Sen.
A journey through north-western NSW with Ivan Sen

We were driving north along the flat road from Moree, past trees and cotton fields, between green verges brushed with purple smears of Paterson’s Curse and along the black ribbon of Highway 39, sprinkled at the edges with white cotton balls blown from the bales on the backs of trucks.

Ivan Sen was heading for the place that gives its name to his new film Toomelah, the place where he made the film. We drove through Boggabilla, pop. 750, more or less. The two-storey verandahed Wobbly Boot Hotel looked enormous, and Sen talked about the big and violent racial confrontations outside the hotel 30 years or so ago. The only movement in Boggabilla as we passed through now seemed to be of white police vehicles. “Big police presence in Boggabilla,” remarked Ivan. “Huge, really, for the size of the place.”

It was getting on for midday when we reached the mission. It was very hot, very still, very quiet. Birds, people, dogs were saving their energy. We were at the Queensland border, defined here by the muddy water of the Macintyre River. We were now in the Aboriginal community of Toomelah, also called a station. Toomelah had earlier mutated from reservation to mission but the Pentecostal church was long ago closed up and fenced off and is now a home to pigeons. You see it in the film. The government reservation opened, if that’s the word, in 1937, when the New South Wales government rounded up the Gamilaraay people who lived at Old Toomelah 100 kilometres further west and delivered them here in trucks. Across the river was the land of the Bigambul people, and Boggabilla’s twin town of Goondiwindi.

The sun was at its height and nobody was around. We cruised around the undulating streets, among pleasantly scattered low houses in pale brick, quite a few burnt out or boarded up. Like the sealed road, the sewerage and the water bore, they dated from 1987, after the years of racial violence, and were products of Australia’s first intervention. We saw a few people in doorways and on verandahs, small kids on bikes, an older person heading off somewhere. A few people called out when they saw who was driving the hire car.

“Ivan!” Everyone at Toomelah knows Ivan. His mother Donella was born in Toomelah in 1948, 11 years into the reservation’s history. When she was 14, the station manager took her away to work on a remote farm where she was beaten, and so scared of what might happen at night that she dragged a wardrobe across the door before she slept. Nearly all of whatever she earned went to the manager at Toomelah and presumably the government. Less than 50 years ago in NSW, Ivan’s mother was the government’s child slave. It was like that for everyone sent to work, the men, the girls. Farmers used to come to Toomelah for cheap day labour.

In the ’60s Donella married a man born near Dubrovnik in the terrible confusions of the ’40s to a German soldier father and a Hungarian peasant mother. Duro Sen had fled to Italy and then Australia to escape conscription into Tito’s army. He cut cane for Italians in northern Queensland, then moved south to work on an Italian tobacco farm 60 kilometres upriver from Toomelah on the Queensland side. Their second child, Ivan, was born in 1972 and spent his first four years as a constant visitor to Toomelah. Even after Donella Sen left her husband – who got violent when he drank – and took the children to live in Tamworth a year after Ivan’s sister Alena was born in 1975, they often came back. Ivan has family at Toomelah.

A car full of very young girls pulled up alongside. He’d been away most of the year but it felt like a day. “So wattcha doin’?” Ivan asked. “Lappin’,” replied the girl at the wheel briskly. She was too young to be driving. Lappin’s what everyone does if there’s a car to pile into. Round and around. Carloads of people tool around, link up for random conversations. Windows are rapidly lowered as people in one car pick out individuals in another and lean across others to speak.

Last year Ivan practically lived at Toomelah for the six weeks he filmed there. Toomelah was not a mega-production. The budget was a bit over $500,000 and Ivan made the film on his own. The whole cast bar one was found among the 300 or so people who already lived here. The male lead, Daniel Connors, was nine and the rest ranged upward to 70 or so, which is a rare old age in Toomelah.

Ivan’s equipment was piled into a beat-up 1991 Commodore that broke down six times in the six weeks. He stayed in a motel in Moree and by the time he got back in the evening he was often too tired to do other than soak in one of the town’s hot mineral baths. Variety calls Ivan a multihyphenate, meaning he’s a one-man band. In nearly all his films he’s scriptwriter, producer, director, cinematographer, continuity man, editor, composer, player and recorder of the soundtrack music.

We wandered around Toomelah. We spoke to some people sitting in a row on a verandah. They spoke to Ivan. I was invisible. They were all male except a young girl I recognised from the film. The older man in the curly brimmed felt hat who was sitting out in the sun was her grandfather. I told the young girl how good she was and she turned away and hid her face. “The camera loved her too,” said Ivan kindly. “And she loved the camera,” said a male relative unkindly. The young girl shrank into the shadows and buried her face in the crook of somebody’s arm.

Ivan asked about a few people. Some were improbably far away in other country towns. Some were in jail for car stealing, including at least two actors from the film; car stealing is a major activity among Toomelah males. Some of the men were down at the river fishing. We saw the closed-up church and other places from the film. Ivan noticed that the graveyard of burnt-out car wrecks had been dispersed, but down by the river we found others that had recently been pushed off cliffs. Half-submerged on the edge of the sand where the men used to hold their outlawed ceremonies in secret.

The day before, five cars had been stolen in Goondiwindi. The owners were sending texts to warn that if the cars weren’t promptly returned – along with the iPods, iPads and iPhones inside them – a bunch of underbelly guys would be up from Melbourne to sort the Toomelah mob out.

Some of the people Ivan asked about were dead. One of the actors from the film had been hit by a truck and killed a few months earlier. A lot of people died like this. The narrow road was a major trucking route. Ivan was looking for the man’s mother, who was also in the film, to give her some stills of her dead son. The mother, an impressively immobile presence as Daniel’s grandmother, is in her seventies but looks older. He couldn’t find her at Toomelah and wouldn’t leave the pictures with anyone because he knew they’d get lost. We saw her later walking in Moree. She was very ill.

We looked around the little graveyard. There was a plaque for a local elder who had lived to be 110, but that was from the first days, when life was still healthy. Toomelah people die young now. The most shocking thing you see in the film is Daniel’s legs, two black wires. And the way he eats, or doesn’t eat. One new grave, a high mound of freshly turned earth, was planted with several recently emptied double-sized Jim Beam bottles.

One of the stresses Ivan faced while filming in Toomelah came from the cast not always turning up for the day’s shoot. Garments and other props essential for visual continuity would go missing. There were always other things to do, futile and evanescent things for the most part. Being in Ivan’s film didn’t necessarily have a huge priority on a given day. For a quiet, seemingly immobile community, Toomelah is the centre of a lot of movement. Most of the men Ivan asked about on the day of our unannounced visit were elsewhere. A lot of them were temporarily hundreds of kilometres away. Sometimes they would be down at the river fishing, which is the only productive activity on the mish – as the people who live there still call it – and the Murray cod and yellowbelly they catch are the only decent part of the Toomelah diet.

Fishing figures in the film because Toomelah is about life on the mish. There’s a story, which is about a young boy drifting into the mish’s version of a gangsta milieu – a matter of making a modest income from small-time local substance dealing – and about the way everything falls apart when a former resident returns from jail.

Just enough story to keep you watching, enough suspense for you to have no idea what’s going to happen next, so little do you understand the life of this place. As the grave and beautiful images unfold with rather little action and fewer words – old, young, male, female, Ivan Sen can hardly take his eyes off a face – you realise not only that you are getting to know a group of people rather well but that you care deeply about what happens to them.

Some of the best films have had children at their centre. Maybe the very best are the Indian Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali from 1955 and the Spaniard Carlos Saura’s Cría Cuervos of 20 years later. Toomelah, though it wobbles at the end, can stand a comparison with these. Dramatically, it stands between them.

Pather Panchali was made, like Toomelah, at tiny cost with an amateur cast. Cría Cuervos was professional – even the child actor Ana Torrent had starred before – but like Ray’s film it drew on the austere humanity of the great Italian neorealist films. So, at greater distance, does Toomelah. Ray’s Apu and his sister belong entirely to their rural community in Bengal. Saura’s Ana is an implacable observer of Franco’s dead-end Spain and the custodian of her dead mother’s memory. Sen’s film makes young Daniel both observer and participant, and in its modest and beautiful way Toomelah is almost the most complex of the three. The older films have long been part of my mind and I think Toomelah will be too.

Ivan Sen had done something like this before. In 2002, after several short dramas made mostly for SBS TV, he made his first feature film, Beneath Clouds. Two young people hitch from Moree to Sydney in search of family – a young Aboriginal who has broken out of a juvenile prison farm to find his dying mother, and a blonde and less obviously Aboriginal girl who is looking for her Irish father.

The film is about their journey, about the difficult and unlikely feeling that grows between them. Ivan Sen says now that he knew nothing when he made it. But its loving attention to individuals and to the places they are in gives the film its own spontaneous life and lifts it beyond its well-meaning origins. Beneath Clouds won a prize at Berlin and made Sen known as a director. Its young male lead later died in a car crash and the young female lead found no further work.

Toomelah got a prolonged standing ovation when it was shown in Un Certain Regard at Cannes this year, and the actors who travelled from Toomelah to Cannes were briefly celebrities. Daniel wore a dinner jacket for the screening and handled the international media like a pro. For the film’s Australian release this month Ivan is organising a screening at Toomelah, maybe open-air, and sorting out where and how to hold it was one of the reasons for our visit. It has to be said that nobody in Toomelah seemed overcome with excitement about the coming show. Daniel, now ten, is enjoying some accoutrements of stardom, in the form of wardrobe upgrades and a cell phone. Ivan heard him call a friend the other day.

“So wattcha doin’?”

“Nuttin’. Wattcha doin’ there?”


After Beneath Clouds Ivan made a string of ten or so documentary films for ABC TV, including a notable study of the pioneer activist Charles Perkins, Fire Talker, in 2008. He used the money to finance a feature film of his own. In 2009 he spent a long period with the actor Daniel Roberts in the freezing high Nevada desert making a film about – basically – a man on his own in the desert. A man who had something in common with the man making the film. Few have seen Dreamland. Ivan loves it, and so apparently do the handful of others who know it. He talks about this film with an intensity of tone he does not bring to bear on other things. Ivan Sen’s time in the desert sounds like a kind of mystical crisis, in which he says he came to understand “everything” about films and making them. Dreamland was the film Ivan had to make, and he was well pleased.

When it was shown at the Brisbane Film Festival in 2009, Variety’s reviewer Richard Kuipers called it “hypnotic … magnificently photographed and sound-designed”. He said the film “approaches themes of identity, loss and obsession with storytelling technique from the outer limits” and that “dazzling time-lapse photography of the night sky and archival footage of space missions and nuclear tests are brought into play … Sen creates an atmosphere that inspires wonder about the universe and the place of human beings within it.”

The reviewer added firmly that “mainstream acceptance is out of the question”. Others thought so too. This clearly hurt the film’s maker. The rawness in this calm man’s quiet voice when he talked about his film, the blazing eyes and flushed cheeks, showed his feelings. He seemed to become transparent, and to be on fire inside.

He’d been canny enough, however, and modest enough, to earn through his television documentary work all the money Dreamland would cost to make, so no irate investors lost out on the uncommercial result. No studio or production company was able to make him mutilate the film he loved. Ivan Sen took a decision almost chilling in its rationality. He would keep his film for the enlightened to know and love, whenever its time came. Explaining this, he sounded like Stendhal in 1835, knowing the “happy few” would love his novels a century later.

Meanwhile, as all serious artists must in the late capitalist world, he would make his peace with the market. He would “give people what they want”. He was still riding the emotional wave of Dreamland when he said this. Yet he doesn’t even have a copy of his loved film. It isn’t on DVD or found online. He thinks his producer David Jowsey has a master somewhere. It’s complicated, a passionate solitary’s learning to live in the world. Toomelah is the first film to give people what they want, and nobody would say it makes a lot of concessions to commerce.

Dreamland will be remade entirely in a commercially acceptable version, leaving the original untouched for the happy few to understand and enjoy some day. Mightn’t giving people what they want mean giving people what they didn’t yet know they wanted? The eyes blazed through me and I had no idea what it was they saw on the other side.

Ivan Sen has the eye of a filmic Rembrandt or Vermeer in the unyielding gentle stillness of his gaze, but he is also a director who can move people with the exhilarating verve of a Fellini. Movement transformed Beneath Clouds – however much he may think of it now as child’s play – and gave it animal life.

His very next film will be called Moree Girls, and will show a scary side of life in a town Ivan knows all too well. It will be a thriller, a crime film in which the man who finds the truth as well as the crime’s victims will come from Moree’s Aboriginal people. He talks a bit of industry talk about genre movies and arthouse movies. Moree Girls will be genre, a kind of Australian Western, with the visual sweep of American Wild West movies. He wrote the script in six weeks flat this year. Screen Australia is already in raptures and says it’s ready to go. The town of Moree is filling Ivan’s head as image and movement, and so is the whole sweep of the Moree Plains up to Boggabilla, Toomelah and Goondiwindi.

After Moree Girls comes the Dreamland remake in 2013. The year after that is for Loveland, which is already in development in Hong Kong. The script, like all the others, is entirely written by Ivan Sen. He is quietly, utterly certain all this will happen. In some strange way it is written.

Ivan Sen talks quietly and fast. He cuts a slight figure, not tall, super-fit, a non-drinking vegetarian who runs up and down steep terrain for pleasure. He worries about eating fish but feels he needs the protein. He goes bounding over rocks. Flat ground is dull and wearing. Pencil thin against the light and wearing his hoodie, he has the look of a hunter and a warrior. He was good at soccer years ago, chosen young for regional teams and aware that Charles Perkins had started as a professional footballer. But even at school he saw how and why lesser white players were being preferred. He turned away from sport.

Close up, you see the gauntness of the long-distance runner carved into his cheeks. Otherwise Ivan Sen looks, moves and sounds as if he were still in his twenties and not knocking 40. The day before we met in Sydney he’d used a Hong Kong stopover to run up the Peak and down again, and he arrived stiff in the legs but not jetlagged. His talk is clear, direct, precise and responsive, humorous and gently ironical. He’s deeply aware of other people’s ways of speaking and being, as only a person who lives a full and complex social life can be. But that’s not how he describes himself.

He tells you that, yes, as a child he was happy and popular, never more so than in the eight years he spent in Tamworth with his mother and siblings until he turned 12. His face lights up when he talks about being friends with everyone – the black people he lived with south of the railway tracks, the black kids at school, the rich white kids at school, the poor whites, all of them. About the free social mingling and friendliness of Tamworth, where Ivan was welcome in everyone’s home. And the returns to Toomelah. The family never lost touch with their past. At least once their father Duro came to visit them, and even now Ivan sees him from time to time.

There was one moment of confusion and dismay in this long idyll, a surge of deeper feeling he didn’t understand at the time, nor ever forgot. One Saturday afternoon when he was nine, Ivan went to see Peter Weir’s new film Gallipoli at the Tamworth Regent with his brother and a couple of friends. As they made their long way home over the tracks, the kids were talking about what they’d seen. Ivan tried to say something about the film and found he couldn’t. He was all choked up. Then he started to cry. Gallipoli – and especially the way it ended – “blew me away”. It was the first Australian film he’d seen.

He saw a lot of other films then and later. Mainly genre. Ivan uses this word often now, with a wonderful blend of affection and contempt in his voice, and his future will turn on this blend. He went to the drive-in, where, if you were well placed, you didn’t pay and caught the sound without a car. A friend’s father had a rare VHS player and he saw a lot of videos. Aliens, stuff like that.

Among the genre stuff were Bruce Lee and a whole string of kung-fu movies. He also loved the late ’70s Japanese TV series Monkey, based on the old Chinese Buddhist novel Journey to the West. The images of China lodged in his mind, and years later he would make his own journey to find the reality behind them. He was already thinking of a film. In 2006 he took off to Hong Kong for a week, looking for locations and staying at the Chungking Mansions. Soon he crossed to the mainland. He’s been there, on and off, for two years, and these days he commutes improbably between Chengdu in Sichuan and Moree in NSW.

When his mother decided in 1984 that she needed to take her children away from the deteriorating environment in Vegemite Village, as people called the area south of the Tamworth railway tracks, Ivan was shattered. He couldn’t bear to tell anyone. On his last day at school the teacher told the class to say goodbye to Ivan, and “everyone burst into tears – black kids, white kids, everyone.”

The move to Inverell was the end of childhood. Ivan became, in his own account, a solitary boy, unhappy in a smaller town whose social and racial antagonisms seemed marked and cruel in a way he’d never found in Tamworth. He hardly spoke and it lasted all through school. A girlfriend called him “a social reject” because he never went to parties. He refused to go to the high school formal or to write his entry in the school yearbook. The teacher who did it for him noted dryly that “Ivan sees all, hears all and says very little.” They didn’t notice at school, but Ivan’s life had already changed.

In 1988, when Ivan was 16, his mother married the editor of the Inverell Times, and Ian McDougall had an old Olympus camera he used to take pictures for the paper. Ivan had always longed to take photographs but never had a camera. His new father not only showed him how to use one, but taught him film processing and all the ancillary skills of photography. Soon Ivan was doing work for the newspaper himself. When he left school he took a photography diploma course at Griffith University in Brisbane. What fascinated him there were the carousels of transparencies, the powerful effects of sequence. Images in motion.

There was no stopping him now. He moved on to film school at Griffith and more importantly he worked hard for a year at a company that made TV commercials and corporate videos. Here he learnt all the practical skills in sound- and camera-work that now let him work alone. After a year at Griffith he moved on to the film school in Sydney.

The solitude of high school was nothing to the new solitude of the Australian Film Television and Radio School. In Sydney Ivan knew nobody. He had no money. There were three other Aboriginal students there, all on Indigenous study grants. Ivan paid his own way. He lived in a students’ cottage right by the school, and when everyone else went home at five he moved in and worked the equipment till midnight. He watched hundreds of films. The rest of it washed over him. He had little time for the middle-class talkers who made up the student body, and he opposed the industrial and Hollywood-based model of filmmaking the school taught. In another rare moment of intensity and slightly raised voice, Ivan said this model produced directors who were monsters. He used the word several times.

We drove back to Moree. We went to the swimming pool, which was a pile of rubble. Ivan had told me this in Sydney. “Destroying the evidence,” he’d said with a little smile. He was talking about the Freedom Ride of early 1965, when Charles Perkins led a busload of people around western NSW to challenge the de facto and de jure racial discrimination in country towns.

The big stop was in Moree, where Aboriginal people had been banned from the local swimming pool for 40 years. A crowd of whites blocked the pool’s entrance and threw eggs and tomatoes, seen around Australia on TV. Moree council quickly rescinded the racial ban. Leaving Moree, the bus was forced off the road and broke down. The riders returned and found the ban in force again.

Moree is divided vertically by the railway line, and a few years ago a high cyclone-wire fence was built along the track through town. The safety measure, to stop people crossing the tracks, kept those who lived on its eastern side, who were mainly Aboriginal, from walking into town. Not everyone had a car to go lappin’ in, and the long way round was a very long way on foot. Ivan pointed out the series of person-sized holes that had been cut in the fence immediately after construction, and was gently ironical about the fence’s efficacy and the council’s intention in building it in the first place.

We drove to some basketball hoops in a small area surrounded by a high barred cage built in some scurf at the edge of some housing. In this part of Moree there were even more bricked-up houses and blackened shells than on the mish. A lot of the burn-outs and abandonments were recent. Ivan knew the vanished occupants and got filled in on events. The high cage looked sinister and without going into details Ivan mentioned it was called the rape cage and that girls kept away after dark.

Screams and yells and imprecations came in a stream from one of the houses. A tall young girl with a ballerina’s pulled-back hair and skinny jeans recognised Ivan and rushed up. She was Mariska and the screamer inside was Mariska’s mother, who’d thrown her husband out and been drinking and yelling on her own all through the night and most of the day. Mariska jumped in the back and came lappin’ with us. She had a cell phone and called ahead to other knots of kids and parked cars to announce her coming.

We stopped, started and kept on lappin’ round Moree. The sun reddened and sank through some shreds of cloud, a long way off in the west. Small boys hurtled round on bikes in the growing dark, over grass, path, roadway at all angles. Sometimes they hurtled in clusters in supermarket trolleys or invalid wheelchairs. There were no teenage boys for some reason. It was all girls who piled in and out of the car, and all the girls loved Ivan.

We gave a lift to a more mature couple, a long-haired lady in black with high boots and her sleek companion, gleaming of skull, off to post-funeral drinks at the RSL and already well primed. They’d skipped the funeral itself. After they got out, Ivan said, “I gave a lift to a couple like that a few weeks ago. They started fighting in the back seat and he tried to kill her. I was driving and he was trying to strangle her.” Many adult men Ivan asked after had recently gone to jail. Then again, others had recently come out. It never ended.

We saw people gathering on the grass at dusk for bingo. The girls joined in and lost all their change. Often we stopped behind a red car full of other girls, who chatted with our girls by cell phone from a dozen yards away. The air was electric and the talk was manic. The red car was driven by a white woman and the girls said she was from the Family Support Service.

“So what she do for you then?” Ivan asked.

“Oh … helps us look for work. Drives us round.”

“Ever find anyone a job?”

“Gunna. Kesha got out a coupla weeks ago and she got her a job straight away.”

“What she in for?”

“Oh …”

Mariska suddenly sat up straight. “Maya!” she said. Maya was her younger sister, who frequently got into fights with other girls. Pre-alerted, she was waiting at the corner and after some discussion through the window, jumped in. The big news was their friend Kia had left town. Ivan seemed a bit disconcerted to hear this.

“Where she go then?”

“Down in Melbourne now.”

“What she doin’ down there?”

“She said she got a job.”

“What kinda job she got down in Melbourne?”

“Said she doin’ modellin’.”

“Modellin’, eh.” Ivan looked thoughtful. “Maybe shacked up with some boy down there.”

“Earns good money down in Melbourne.”

Later Ivan brought the conversation round again to the lady from Family Support who took the girls lappin’ in her red car. “She come round and visit you at home a lot?”

“Oh yeah!” Laughter.

“She ask a lot of questions?”

“Yeah …” The voices trailed off. This was a place the girls didn’t want to go. When we got back to their house it was dark and silent. Their mother had gone to sleep, locking them out and pulling a sofa across the door.

We took off again and a bit later we found their father standing outside a hotel. The girls hadn’t eaten for a day and a half, were locked out and had no money. It was often like this. “You see how thin they are,” Ivan said later. “They don’t eat.” This time their father gave Mariska a banknote and told us he was looking for love. Ivan drove to McDonald’s and we waited until Mariska came out with a McChicken Meal in a brown bag. The car filled with the smell of chicken fat and frying oil.

After bingo Maya rejoined us and we did a drive-thru for another McChicken Meal for her. Outside in the dark we kept seeing the red Family Support car pulling up at traffic lights. It was on our same lappin’ circuit and we wondered whether this counted as overtime for the driver. The girls were studying the stickers on their brown bags. If you bought enough McChicken Meals and got enough of the right kind of stickers, you were in the running for a Sony PlayStation, a Holden sedan or a cash reward. There was also a Pacific cruise. The odds were coded in colours and letters and looked pretty long to me.

Earlier that afternoon, I’d realised a few things Ivan was doing that day. He hadn’t come to Moree just to go lappin’ with me. He talked about the lie of the land, the endless plain out west, the sky, the light, the way the sun went. Often he’d stop the car, jump out and take a few quick pictures of a location. He talked of the helicopter he was bringing in to film Moree Girls. He talked about the land seen from low in the sky, about the sweep of it and the light at certain times. He’d spent a lot of time doing this already. He was living himself back into the land of Moree and the plain and the rivers that ran through it, the railway line, the truck routes, the bridges and overpasses.

He was seeking out the Aboriginal inhabitants of Moree, old friends and new faces, to people his story. He was anxious about Kia’s travels because he had her in mind as a major presence in the film. Beautiful and fearless, unlike most of the desperately shy young girls of Moree – the infinitely touching Mayas and Mariskas, who shrank under a camera’s gaze. Later we went to Woolworths to find an elderly Aboriginal man who worked as a security guard there, still unaware of the film life Ivan had in mind for him.

Early in the afternoon, we passed one of Moree’s big old hotels, another huge wooden nineteenth-century place with two storeys of verandah, standing on a highway intersection and now boarded up and for sale. Ivan mentioned that a cousin of his mother’s, a young black man of 19 called Ronald McIntosh and known as Cheeky, had been shot dead outside that pub by two white men in 1982, when Ivan was ten. The killing returned to his mind 20 years later, when a cousin of his own, Theresa Binge, was found murdered under an overpass near the Queensland border, not far from Toomelah. The murder was never solved and thinking about it precipitated Ivan’s feelings about the past and present of all the places round here that he and his family come from. Places which in a sense he’s never left, and which will never leave him. Places he’s already filmed in Toomelah and Beneath Clouds and is returning to with Moree Girls.

The hotel where Cheeky McIntosh was shot was on our lappin’ circuit, and when we drove past for about the twentieth time that afternoon, and after a day of listening to a series of tragic personal histories and social facts, however lightly recounted, and despite the fizzing spirits of the youngsters we’d been meeting, I wondered aloud how Ivan could bear to keep on returning here, though I already knew why he did.

He was quieter than usual for a moment and then admitted that maybe Moree wasn’t one of his very favourite places. The question was irrelevant. Ivan Sen’s films are about how place and your past in a place possess you through your life. You can never simply abandon them. Dreamland was about the universe. Loveland will be about the China he’s discovering, and Moree Girls about this particular part of what is now New South Wales in the country that is now Australia.

Peter Robb
Peter Robb is the author of Midnight in Sicily, which won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for non-fiction and was named a New York Times Notable Book. His other books include A Death in Brazil (the Age Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2004) and Street Fight in Naples.

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Election special: Who should you vote for?

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!

Image of the Stone of Remembrance at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Remembrance or forgetting?

The Australian War Memorial and the Great Australian Silence

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, Labor MP Emma McBride and shadow housing minister Jason Clare after meeting with young renter Lydia Pulley during a visit to her home in Gosford on May 3, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Property damage

What will it take for Australia to fix the affordable housing crisis?