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