Dry hu­mour

A drama about boat­peo­ple be­ing chased across the out­back has some light re­lief, writes Sandy Ge­orge

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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