Every year, the Venice Biennale College program offers a handful of talented emerging filmmakers from around the world an intensive training course in micro-budget filmmaking.
The process involves a pitching and development workshop, and then the 12 filmmaking teams – who are working on their debut or second feature – are given a month to deliver a script. From there, the college will go on to fund the production of just three of the projects with €150,000.
The filmmakers are not allowed to raise additional finance for the production, and film must then be completed in time to be presented at the next year’s Venice Film Festival – which gives them generally around nine to ten months.
Russian-born, Melbourne-based writer-director Alena Lodkina’s feature debut Strange Colours premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2017 as a result of the program, and will have its Australian premiere at the Gold Coast Film Festival tonight – where has already won the Blackmagic Design Best Australian Independent Film Award.
Strange Colours follows a young woman, Milena, played by Kate Cheel (Riot, One Eyed Girl) who travels to a remote opal mining community to see her estranged, ill father (Daniel P. Jones, Hail) to try and mend their fractured bond. Lodkina wrote the script with producer Isaac Wall, and Kate Laurie also produced.
Lodkina tells IF that the Biennale College program was an incredible challenge. “The constraints of a small budget allowed us to be really intimate and small; it suited the nature of the project. But the time constraints were completely overwhelming.
“What I really got out of it in retrospect was being forced to be really intuitive in the process. There was not much time to sit around and dwell on decisions… [I had to] just trust my instinct, trust my team, [and] really collaborate with everyone.”
The film was shot in Lightning Ridge in northern New South Wales over 21 days, and Lodkina says the film is as much an exploration of place as it is of the characters. The director previously spent time in the area after film school, captivated by the surreal landscape and the open generosity of the people in the area. Initially she made a short documentary Lightning Ridge: The Land of Black Opals, which played at Antenna Film Festival and the Melbourne International Film Festival, and from there had ideas for different stories and different characters that could flesh out a feature film.
Jones is known for starring in Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s Hail. Lodkina says she always wanted him for the role of Milena’s father, and that he fit in with the local guys from Lightning Ridge.
“There’s no one else like him – he’s very memorable. He has that quality as a filmmaker you want to put on screen,” she says.
Cheel was found through an audition process. Lodkina says her presence already came through on her tape, and once she was brought in to test opposite Danny, it was clear she could match his energy.
“She’s an amazing performer. She’s a theatre actress as well, which I think is really interesting on screen, because she has this very graceful, delicate presence. Her craft is extraordinary as an actress. Now I watch the film I can’t imagine anyone else in that part.”
A majority of the other cast are untrained actors from the local Lightning Ridge community. While Lodkina says the process of directing those who were untrained involved trial and error to make them comfortable, she doesn’t believe the line between an ‘actor’ and a ‘non-actor’ is that strict. She was inspired by directors who have also worked with non-actors, such as Abbas Kiarostami and Robert Bresson, as well as Courtin-Wilson, who she has worked with closely throughout her career – she was an intern on his narrative debut Hail and edited his most recent film, The Silent Eye. He was also an EP on this project.
“I think that some people are just naturally performative, and you can work with them on camera and they have that presence.”
Lodkina says the Venice premiere was “surreal and overwhelming”, and she has been heartened by the warm response it has received so far. She says the setting of the film means some audience members might expect a thriller like Wake In Fright, but it is quite different.
“Watching Russian cinema growing up… perhaps I have a more existential take [on the outback mining town],” she says. “I wanted to let the people speak for themselves, and not impose a narrative that was expected of them. What I saw were very complex men, with a quite melancholic and dreamlike kind of existence – where their days just drag on, and they drive their 4WDs around down and have beers here, and beers there. I really liked that, the everyday existence. A lot of cinema I like works with that imagery.”
The film’s producers are currently in the process of negotiating Australian distribution, however Lodkina says the hope is for the film to play more festivals in Australia before a small cinema rlease.
As for her next project, the director is in the early stages of developing Petrol, a film about the friendship between two women set in Melbourne artistic circles.