A drama about boatpeople being chased across the outback has some light relief, writes Sandy George
THE new Australian film Lucky Miles won the audience vote at last month’s Sydney Film Festival. At its only screening, at the State Theatre, the filmmakers made an audio recording of the response of the 1400 people present. When the DVD eventually hits the shelves, after the film’s cinema run, viewers will be able to ramp up their at- home experience by opting to play this 104- minute soundtrack of shuffling, gasps, coughing and laughter while they watch the film.
Lucky Miles doesn’t sound like a comedy: its story of Iraqi and Cambodian boatpeople abandoned, lost, then pursued across the outback could be expected to arouse sympathy rather than laughter. But there are laughs galore as the Sydney festival soundtrack attests.
‘‘ You don’t start out exploring a serious subject by cracking jokes but it bubbled up through the research,’’ director Michael James Rowland says. ‘‘ Tragic things are often very funny, pending a bad outcome. When Fiark tried to leave Indonesia the first time, the boat sank even before it left the harbour. He laughs about that now.’’
Fiark is Fiark Hany, an Iraqi living in Australia on a temporary protection visa and one of Rowland’s many consultants.
Lucky Miles is comic for many reasons. It has lashings of fish- out- of- water humour as the characters encounter a strange new land. People making grossly misguided assumptions about each other’s cultural differences adds to the absurdity. And Aussie deadpan is provided by a trio of army reservists who would rather kick back with a fishing line and a few beers than chase illegal immigrants.
Rowland says he knew from the outset that he would be unable to avoid making Lucky Miles light in tone just because of the sort of person he is. He loves a meaty discussion on matters he views as important to society but has learned that others have to be drawn in gradually and that humour is the best way to do it.
The first- time feature director embarked on Lucky Miles about seven years ago with serious intent: globalisation was being welcomed as a way of delivering great wealth, but little heed was being paid to its consequences. One consequence, Rowland says, is that people from very different countries become interdependent, often against their will.
‘‘ My life’s experience is that when cultures that have had little to do with each other come into contact, there is conflict before harmony,’’ he adds.
A film about foreigners appearing from nowhere on one of Australia’s most desolate stretches of coastline seemed a good way to explore this. He wasn’t interested in complicated back stories or an expose of detention centres, just the story of 15 men washed up on our shore with dreams of living in the West.
Rowland says he wants Lucky Miles to spread the word that, with the passage of time, there is usually little to fear when culturally diverse people come together. He sees no harm in encouraging people to ponder how much room there is in their hearts for compassion.
The political climate surrounding refugees and unauthorised immigration has changed significantly since 1990, the year in which Lucky Miles is set. Tampa, September 11 and wedge politics have made immigration a page- one story.
‘‘ I am not completely comfortable that I live in a time when, if you humanise people in need or a person of a certain ethnicity, you are being political,’’ Rowland says. ‘‘ There are forces that organise our society through fear and there is no shortage of people [ who] will tell you it’s a very political film. But all I am doing is painting a portrait of human beings.’’
Rowland refers to his film, at various times, as a buddy movie and a road movie. He referenced an extremely diverse group of films when writing it: Some Like it Hot, Red Rock West, Down by Law, No Man’s Land, The Motorcycle Diaries and, a particular favourite, Withnail & I.
He is proud of the film’s truthful depiction of different cultures. Thomas Brooman, artistic director of world music festival WOMADelaide, told him the best way to achieve authenticity was to establish genuinely trusting partnerships with people in the know. Rowland worked as closely with his cultural consultants as with his filmmaking colleagues.
Many non- actors, drawn from Australia’s migrant communities, were employed on the film. The three key characters are all acting graduates who rarely, if ever, play significant roles in Australian films.
Rodney Afif plays Youssif, the odd man out among the Iraqi refugees because he is better educated. Srisacd Sacdpraseuth plays Ramelan, the nephew of the tough Indonesian man making a living from human trafficking. Kenneth Moraleda is the main Cambodian character, Arun. He is a US- born Filipino but Rowland says he was ‘‘ coached to within an inch of his life’’ so the Cambodian cultural nuances ring true.
That coaching job went to Adelaide- based Thorl Chea, who spent 10 years in a Thai refugee camp before migrating to Australia with his Cambodian family. The film was shot principally in South Australia.
‘‘ WOMAD’s audience is very hard to define, but one thing they place an absolute premium on is authenticity,’’ Rowland says. ‘‘ We didn’t set out to cynically capture that audience but authenticity has been very important to us because if you are going to adopt this tone and tell this story it has to be.’’
Rowland is toying with the idea of a film exploring how society may change with the looming energy crisis. He says he is also interested in climate change.
‘‘ They are issues that will drive us into each other’s laps quicker than anything else, and if we insist on being scared and demonising people from other countries we are going to reduce our own capacity to respond.
‘‘ A lot of issues we have now won’t rate too highly when oil hits $ 300 a barrel.’’
Lucky Miles opens on July 19.
Vantage point: Kenneth Moraleda and Rodney Afif in Lucky Miles