SEN MAS­TER

DI­REC­TOR IVAN SEN RE­VEALS THE TER­RI­BLE TRUTH BE­HIND HIS NEW FILM MYS­TERY ROAD

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

ON the night of June 17, 2003, Theresa Beatrice Binge, a gre­gar­i­ous, stocky Abo­rig­i­nal mother of three, dis­ap­peared af­ter leav­ing the his­toric Vic­to­ria Ho­tel in the south­ern Queens­land beef, cot­ton and wheat town of Goondi­windi. Her bat­tered and near-naked body was found 12 days later be­neath a con­crete cul­vert in Boomi Road on the out­skirts of Bog­ga­billa, NSW, a tiny town about 10km south of the Queens­land bor­der.

Re­port­edly clad only in sil­ver track­suit pants and wear­ing just one run­ning shoe (her yel­low rugby jersey has never been found), the 43-year-old’s body showed the marks of great vi­o­lence, al­though foren­sic tests would later rule out sex­ual as­sault.

This lonely grave, sur­rounded by kilo­me­tres of vast, fea­ture­less scrub bi­sected by roads and dot­ted with small home­steads scat­tered across the rich black soil of the Moree Plains, yielded no clues as to her last mo­ments. At a 2008 in­quest, NSW deputy state coroner Jac­que­line Milledge ruled the cause of death as ‘‘ homi­cide by per­son or per­sons un­known’’ and re­ferred the case to the NSW po­lice un­solved homi­cide unit.

Ten years af­ter her mur­der, Binge’s killer re­mains at large de­spite a new $100,000 re­ward and a cam­paign of yearly marches and pub­lic ap­peals by fam­ily and friends. ‘‘ We know we are not the only fam­ily that has lost a loved one,’’ Binge’s sis­ter Lili Bartholomew told a lo­cal news­pa­per in Moree in July. ‘‘ We will never for­get and we will never give up.’’

Sit­ting in a Surry Hills pub­lic­ity of­fice on a bright week­day af­ter­noon, Ivan Sen, the award-win­ning in­dige­nous di­rec­tor of ac­claimed fea­ture films such as Be­neath Clouds and Toome­lah, holds up three bony fin­gers. ‘‘ Eight years, five years and three years ago,’’ he says flatly. He’s re­fer­ring here to a grim timeline mark­ing the dis­ap­pear­ance, and pre­sumed mur­ders, of three women in his ex­tended fam­ily in the past decade. One rel­a­tive ‘‘ was last seen in a bar with some cow­boy . . . a week later she was found un­der the road. Her killer was never found.’’

I’m meet­ing Sen to talk about his fourth fea­ture film Mys­tery Road, a moody, slow­burn­ing mur­der mys­tery to be re­leased na­tion­ally next month af­ter its de­but as the open­ing film of this year’s Syd­ney Film Fes­ti­val. It also screened at the Toronto Film Fes­ti­val this month, where it re­ceived mostly glow­ing re­views. Fea­tur­ing a stel­lar cast in­clud­ing Hugo Weav­ing, Tasma Wal­ton and Jack Thomp­son, it tells the tale of an in­dige­nous out­back de­tec­tive played with pow­er­ful grav­i­tas by Aaron Ped­er­sen, who me­thod­i­cally hunts down the killer of young Abo­rig­i­nal girls against a back­drop of po­lice in­dif­fer­ence and racism in a trou­bled, se­cre­tive coun­try town be­set by drugs, prostitution and ter­ri­to­rial vi­o­lence.

Sen’s film opens with the tall, bulky fig­ure of de­tec­tive Jay Swan driv­ing along a lonely coun­try high­way to the body of a young Abo­rig­i­nal girl dumped with a cut throat in a cul­vert be­neath the road. It is said you ac­cess Sen’s films through faces, and in a lin­ger­ing close-up we see Ped­er­sen’s dis­gust and rage as he in­spects the slight, bloody body.

The scene draws its power, ev­i­dently, from real life. In a di­rec­tor’s state­ment, Sen says: ‘‘ A few years ago, a dis­tant cousin of my mother was found dead un­der a road­way in north­ern NSW. She had been stripped and bru­tally mur­dered.’’ The po­lice, he says, had ‘‘ seem­ingly done very lit­tle to bring her killer to jus­tice and this has brought re­sent­ment from the lo­cal in­dige­nous com­mu­nity’’.

Cu­ri­ously, Sen re­fuses to con­firm if Theresa Binge is this dead rel­a­tive de­spite the eerie par­al­lels ev­i­dent in the stark open­ing scene of his film. (A publi­cist later tells me he wants to pro­tect his fam­ily’s pri­vacy, al­though he’s men­tioned Binge in the past.) A thin, pale man with a string­bean run­ner’s body and an as­cetic’s tran­quil, carved face (Ped­er­sen jok­ingly refers to him as ‘‘ the Dalai Lama’’ courtesy of his un­flap­pable de­meanour on a film shoot), he’s far more out­spo­ken when our con­ver­sa­tion moves from the per­sonal to the po­lit­i­cal: in this case, the in­vid­i­ous racial pol­i­tics in Aus­tralia that have long deemed a black life, es­pe­cially if fe­male, less im­por­tant than a white one. He nods gravely when I raise the is­sue of ‘‘ miss­ing white woman syn­drome’’, a term coined by Amer­i­can me­dia crit­ics who posit that white women (‘‘es­pe­cially if they’re young and beau­ti­ful’’, Sen says) oc­cupy a priv­i­leged role as vi­o­lent crime vic­tims in news re­port­ing.

It’s a view that many sup­port. The sex­ual ex­ploita­tion and even mur­der of young Abo­rig­i­nal girls and women is an ‘‘ en­dur­ing mys­tery’’ in Aus­tralia, wrote jour­nal­ist Jeff McMullen in in­dige­nous mag­a­zine Tracker in July af­ter watch­ing Mys­tery Road with Sen and his mother, Donella, at the Syd­ney Film Fes­ti­val open­ing.

‘‘ De­spite a $100,000 re­ward of­fered by the NSW and Queens­land gov­ern­ments ear­lier this year a po­lice strike force has made no pros­e­cu­tion. No one has called Crime Stop­pers to tell the truth of what hap­pened around midnight on that June evening in Goondi­windi 10 years ago. The Bar­won Lo­cal Area Com­mand still can­not give Theresa Binge’s daugh­ter, Day­lene Bar­low, any ex­pla­na­tion that would give her clo­sure.’’

Sen wearily cites the cov­er­age ac­corded to Vic­to­rian mur­der vic­tim Jill Meagher com­pared with, say, the still un­solved se­ries of killings in the early 1990s of three in­dige­nous chil­dren by a sus­pected se­rial killer in Bowrav­ille, NSW. ‘‘ There’s not the ef­fort put in, and it’s not just the po­lice that are guilty, but it’s our me­dia too. It doesn’t make the head­lines.’’ It may be un­palat­able in a civilised so­ci­ety, but the worth of a hu­man life is cal­i­brated by skin colour more of­ten than we think, Sen be­lieves. Does he ever get an­gry at the in­jus­tice? To a de­gree, he says. ‘‘ But I’m al­most over anger be­cause it’s been hap­pen­ing for­ever, es­pe­cially to in­dige­nous women.’’

McMullen writes about a kind of col­lec­tive am­ne­sia that is sym­bolic ‘‘ of our na­tion’s de­nial of the past and the present’’. Sen, how­ever, in­sists on us not for­get­ting: . ‘‘ What are we do­ing with with th­ese Euro­pean, English, Welsh and Scot­tish names? We are all chil­dren of rapes.’’

In the flesh, Sen is an enig­matic pres­ence. That wide, sen­su­ally full mouth is at odds with the lean im­mo­bil­ity of his face; he has a dark, shy, watch­ful gaze that of­ten slides to a spot 5cm to the side of your face as if eye con­tact is dif­fi­cult. Ev­ery­thing about him is muted, like a ra­dio dial turned down low: an en­try in his school year book noted, ‘‘ Ivan sees all, hears all, says lit­tle’’.

Four­teen months ago, he be­came a fa­ther to a lit­tle boy, Kayenta (it’s a Navajo name for Mon­u­ment Val­ley in the US’s Colorado Plateau). He speaks lov­ingly of his son and Chi­nese wife, but he’s loner at heart; he re­veals sheep­ishly that he ‘‘ stuffed up’’ a chance to visit his much loved nieces and brother by opt­ing to work in a cafe un­til midnight the night be­fore we chat. He needs space ‘‘ up here’’, he says, tap­ping his rum­pled dark head, to make sense of his tum­bling, quick­sil­ver thoughts. Run­ning is a form of ther­apy and se­da­tion. He en­joys the pain of lac­tic acid pool­ing in his mus­cles, of bat­tling his own lim­its by tear­ing up moun­tains as fast as he can. He de­scribes him­self as a ‘‘ fish and egg-eat­ing’’ veg­e­tar­ian who drinks very lit­tle. You sense a pu­ri­tan’s love of dis­ci­pline. Scal­ing steep peaks is about ‘‘ de­stroy­ing your­self’’ and emerg­ing, bliss­ful and re­made, through the veil of pain.

Lost black girls have haunted Sen’s creative out­put. In 2004 his doc­u­men­tary Who Was Eve­lyn Orcher? in­ves­ti­gated the ab­duc­tion of

his grand­mother’s sis­ter sis­ter as a child from her home in Toome­lah, NSW, in 1949. In this case, Orcher, a mem­ber of the Stolen Gen­er­a­tion, was not taken by a ran­dom stranger but by govern­ment wel­fare work­ers.

In his 2007 doc­u­men­tary A Sis­ter’s Love, he doc­u­mented di­rec­tor and ac­tor Rhoda Roberts’s hunt for an­swers af­ter her twin sis­ter Lois’s re­mains were found in Whian Whian State For­est, north­east of Lis­more, NSW, in 1999. ‘‘[ Po­lice] didn’t bother to take it se­ri­ously,’’ Roberts said, and this sense of dis­pos­able lives fu­els Sen’s fierce sense of in­jus­tice.

‘‘ For me, it’s about a lack of con­nec­tion and sen­si­tiv­ity and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion be­cause a lot of time the po­lice are sent out to lock them up and not help them,’’ he says qui­etly. ‘‘ So when they’re the vic­tims of crime and the roles are re­versed, it can take a bit to turn that or­bit around the other way. As an in­dige­nous vic­tim of crime in the coun­try, you can’t avoid it. The po­lit­i­cal un­der­cur­rents are al­ways there.’’

In the past, Sen has been hailed as the great black hope of Aus­tralian cin­ema, but it’s a man­tle he’s un­easy with. He has re­ferred to his Abo­rig­i­nal back­ground as ‘‘ some­thing to be proud of but also just a tag, a hook’’ and for all his loathing of in­jus­tice (he salutes AFL foot­baller Adam Goodes’s fiery pub­lic stand against a per­ceived racist taunt from a young fan; be­lieves there’s a case for a mass law­suit against the fed­eral govern­ment for ‘‘ de­struc­tion of cul­ture’’; and says what gets his blood boil­ing nowa­days is the ca­sual sense of en­ti­tle­ment dis­played by ‘‘ some An­glo man or woman abus­ing an Asian or an African on a bus some­where’’), he’s not in­ter­ested in sac­ri­fic­ing sto­ries and char­ac­ter for heavy-handed polemic. But in all his work there’s a keen moral and so­cial aware­ness and it’s there be­neath

Mys­tery Road’s car­toon­ish vi­o­lence, in the de­pic­tion of grind­ing poverty and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and the sex­ual ex­ploita­tion of young Abo­rig­i­nal girls (Sen says there are ru­mours of prostitution rack­ets in­volv­ing truck­ies in towns like Moree). He cap­tures the des­o­la­tion in the close-ups of the faces of black chil­dren haunting the fringes of town, in the wide shots of fields filled with white crosses and burnt out cars and in the sullen gag­gles of teenage boys who taunt the in­dige­nous de­tec­tive Swan as a sell-out to the whiteys.

Sen has al­ways been in­trigued by the his­tor­i­cal fig­ure of the turn­coat as rep­re­sented by the na­tive tracker, and the lonely Swan, caught un­com­fort­ably be­tween two worlds, in the same way Sen was a child, sym­bol­ises this in the film.

No film­maker at present, it seems, is bet­ter able to cap­ture the de­spair and anomie of the tum­ble­weed coun­try towns of north­west­ern NSW, Sen’s creative stomp­ing ground. To McMullen, the town of the film ‘‘ is like many in our na­tion where some Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple have drifted or more of­ten been driven from their lands . . . there are ghostly truths about the past and present lay­ing just be­low the dust’’. For McMullen, watch­ing the film sparked mem­o­ries of ‘‘ the mas­sacres that have oc­curred across so much of this coun­try’’.

Asked if he feels im­po­tent in the face of the de­spair he’s so of­ten cap­tured with his cam­era lens, Sen says, as a film­maker, ‘‘ the first step is to make sure it gets recorded and doc­u­mented, at least, and that the mes­sage gets out’’.

This kind of so­cial dys­func­tion is so in­tractable be­cause it is a func­tion of long-term gen­er­a­tional dis­ad­van­tage. Too many in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties are now in a spi­ral of de­cline: any good that schools con­fer is wiped out by ugly home en­vi­ron­ments.

This is not alien ter­ri­tory for Sen. Born in 1972 in Nam­bour, Queens­land, he has strong child­hood mem­o­ries of his mother Donella’s birth­place of Toome­lah, the no­to­ri­ous for­mer Abo­rig­i­nal reser­va­tion for the Gami­la­raay and Biga­mul peo­ple, founded by the NSW govern­ment in 1937, where the ap­palling con­di­tions — ‘‘ no clean run­ning wa­ter, no sewage treat­ment, and this is in the early 1980s’’, Sen says — sparked jus­tice Mar­cus Ein­field’s blis­ter­ing, na­tion-sham­ing re­port in 1988.

Like other in­dige­nous girls, Donella was sent out to work as a do­mes­tic at 14, and saw most of her earn­ings con­fis­cated by the mis­sion man­ager on be­half of the NSW govern­ment; she later mar­ried Sen’s fa­ther, Duro, a vi­o­lent al­co­holic farm labourer of Ger­man and Hun­gar­ian de­scent ‘‘ who al­most killed her a few times’’.

Donella fled with Sen and his two sib­lings to Tam­worth, a town riven by deep racial di­vi­sions. As it is so of­ten is in coun­try towns, class and race were de­mar­cated by ge­og­ra­phy: the rich white kids lived high up on the hill in big, ‘‘ fan­ta­sy­land’’ homes (‘‘we called it Snob Hill’’) while Sen and the rest of the in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion lived in de­crepit pub­lic hous­ing in ‘‘ Vegemite Vil­lage’’ south of the train tracks.

Sen had a big group of white friends, though he says he’d some­times be con­fronted by some­one in his peer group ca­su­ally say­ing things like ‘‘ shoot ’ em all’’.

In 1984, Donella moved the fam­ily to In­verell. The young Sen, in­tim­i­dated by this con­ser­va­tive, old-money town, re­treated into si­lence, find­ing so­lace in paint­ing and draw­ing and then pho­tog­ra­phy af­ter his new step­fa­ther, an In­verell news­pa­per edi­tor, gave him an old Olym­pus cam­era.

Af­ter study­ing pho­tog­ra­phy in Bris­bane — he has said he was at­tracted to the medium

‘‘ be­cause I’ve al­ways seen my­self as an out­sider look­ing in’’ — he moved to Syd­ney to the Aus­tralian Film, Tele­vi­sion and Ra­dio School, mak­ing his mark with in­tro­spec­tive doc­u­men­taries and short films in the early 90s be­fore his break­through au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal film Be­neath Clouds in 2002 and, later, his Cannes suc­cess

Toome­lah in 2011. Sur­pris­ingly for a film­maker so closely iden­ti­fied with an art­house sen­si­bil­ity, he says he al­ways wanted to make films for main­stream au­di­ences. He has said his ideal form of film­mak­ing com­bines the con­trolled, de­tailed style of Hol­ly­wood di­rec­tor Michael Mann with the un­adorned, seem­ingly im­pro­vised ap­proach of Lars von Trier. Mys­tery Road is his at­tempt to meld com­mer­cial and art­house ele­ments — western and film noir, specif­i­cally — into a co­he­sive whole.

Land­scape is a char­ac­ter in Sen’s films. Filmed mostly in Win­ton, Queens­land, a town of about 1000 peo­ple, Mys­tery Road bears Sen’s dis­tinc­tive aes­thetic of huge skies and low hori­zons and glow­ing or­ange sun­sets. He and Ped­er­sen made a road trip to Moree and then Win­ton so the Alice Springs-born ac­tor —

‘‘ the most un­der­rated in Aus­tralia’’, his di­rec­tor says — could get a feel for the land.

In his usual man­ner, Sen took on all the key roles — di­rec­tor, writer, edi­tor, di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy, com­poser ( Va­ri­ety dubbed him a

‘‘ mul­ti­hy­phen­ate’’). It’s a rare thing to wear so many creative hats only be­cause ‘‘ Hol­ly­wood tells us it is’’, he says. ‘‘ Why can’t a film­maker be like a painter? Why can’t you choose from this palette of ele­ments?’’

He speaks wist­fully of how, as a lit­tle boy, he loved paint­ing and draw­ing: that tal­ent has long dis­ap­peared, he says with re­gret. But his films re­veal a painterly eye; they’re of­ten glow­ingly beau­ti­ful in their com­po­si­tion, bring­ing to­gether land and sky and hori­zon in gor­geous stri­a­tions (writer Peter Robb says he has the eye of a ‘‘ filmic Rem­brandt or Ver­meer’’). With his doc­u­men­tary back­ground, his films adapt to their en­vi­ron­ment rather than the other way round. Nashen Moodley, di­rec­tor of the Syd­ney Film Fes­ti­val, de­scribes him as ‘‘ a true ge­nius’’ and Hugo Weav­ing hails his ‘‘ won­der­ful eye’’; long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor and pro­ducer David Jowsey adds that ‘‘ he sees the film in his mind be­fore shoot­ing it’’.

In July, San­dra Levy, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Aus­tralian Film, Tele­vi­sion and Ra­dio School, hailed the great changes that have oc­curred in in­dige­nous film­mak­ing since she started work in the in­dus­try in the 70s. Back then, ‘‘ a white [English] man played the cen­tral Abo­rig­i­nal char­ac­ter in the TV se­ries Boney. Films such as The Chant of Jim­mie Black­smith, Walk­a­bout and The Last Wave, os­ten­si­bly Abo­rig­i­nal sto­ries, had white di­rec­tors [Fred Schep­isi, Ni­co­las Roeg and Peter Weir].’’ But within a gen­er­a­tion, Levy said, there had been a re­mark­able cul­tural shift. A surge of ex­cit­ing new work — she cited Wayne Blair’s The

Sap­phires and Ca­tri­ona McKen­zie’s Satel­lite Boy along­side Sen’s Mys­tery Road — ‘‘ means we can con­fi­dently say . . . Aus­tralian in­dige­nous film­mak­ers have be­come a force to be reck­oned with world­wide’’.

Sen takes quiet pride in this rev­o­lu­tion but stresses there’s a long way to go. We can all warm to a feel-good story such as­The

Sap­phires, cer­tainly, but he sus­pects Aus­tralians aren’t com­fort­able with in­dige­nous sto­ry­lines that are ‘‘ re­ally in-your-face. I was con­scious of that in Mys­tery Road. I pulled back be­cause I wanted to find a more main­stream au­di­ence.’’

A critic once said Sen’s films are all about how your past haunts you all your life. At 41, de­spite the re­cent joys of mar­riage and fa­ther­hood, he re­mains, you sus­pect, that lonely In­verell school­boy caught be­tween com­pet­ing worlds. He spends his time be­tween Chengdu, in Sichuan prov­ince (where he’s pitch­ing his next film, Love­land, a ‘‘ CGI, ro­mance ac­tion, sci-fic­tion film set in a fu­ture city’’) and Moree, Bris­bane and Syd­ney, and ad­mits he feels like an out­sider wher­ever he is.

‘‘ Even when I’m there, with my Chi­nese fam­ily, I’m not there. It’s just too much up here’’ — he taps his head again, gri­mac­ing.

‘‘ It’s hard. It’s like you’re al­ways chas­ing some­thing. In some ways be­ing an out­sider can be quite amaz­ing be­cause you get to see the truth of th­ese two dif­fer­ent worlds, but it’s also a lonely place. And that’s why the work be­comes an im­por­tant thing to grab hold of. It be­comes like your soul, like your fam­ily.’’

Mys­tery Road is in cinemas na­tion­ally from

Oc­to­ber 17.

Clock­wise from top, Aaron Ped­er­sen in

Mys­tery Road; Daniel Con­nors in

Toome­lah; Ivan Sen di­rects Mys­tery

Road; and Sen with Hugo Weav­ing, left, and Jack Thomp­son at the Syd­ney de­but of the film ear­lier this year

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