Darlene Johnson’s ‘Obelia’ selected for Wscripted’s Cannes Screenplay List

Darlene Johnson.

Dunghutti filmmaker Darlene Johnson has had her feature screenplay Obelia showcased at this year’s Cannes Marché du Film after being selected as one of ten participants for Wscripted’s Cannes Screenplay List.

Now in its fourth year, the initiative highlights feature scripts by women and non-binary storytellers at the market. The 2024 list was curated by actress Vanessa Kirby, Costa Rican-Swedish director Nathalie Álvarez Mesén, and writer and filmmaker Nathalie Marchak, and presented in collaboration with Mubi.

Obelia follows a courageous and defiant teenager in 1950s Australia who escapes an Aboriginal Government Station to join a travelling sideshow where she passes for white and falls in love with a charming Aboriginal boxer, putting her identity and survival to the test.

Johnson’s ancestry inspired the story, specifically her mother and grandfather who were both showies, the latter being a boxer, and the former billed as Obelia the Mermaid, an act where she would eat, drink, and smoke underwater.

The filmmaker told IF she had been working on the script on and off for a “long time”, describing it as a “mixed genre bag”.

“It’s got high adventure and magical realism, while also dealing with identity politics, romance, and coming of age,” she said.

“So it’s got a little bit of everything in it but is infused with my own personal family history, and the setting and the world haven’t really been represented on screen before. I get to really portray my beautiful language, Dunghutti, on screen in a theatrical form for the first time.”

Having forged her early career in documentary with projects like River of No Return and The Redfern Story, Johnson shifted into drama, with her 2015 short film Bluey winning SFF’s Event Cinema Australian Short Screenplay Award. Her directing credits include Aquarius’ Born to Spy, The Heights, Neighbours, and Home and Away and she was also in the writer’s room for Netflix/Peacock drama Irreverent.

In 2021, Johnson became the inaugural recipient of Sydney Film Festival and Deutsche Bank’s $20,000 First Nations fellowship, allowing her to work with Aquarius Films to undertake both a producer and director’s attachment, while also developing with the company her own original TV drama concept.

Obelia is her second feature script after Jiling, a feature adaptation of Bluey about an angry young woman trapped in a life of self-destruction and violence, who meets a tough mentor who could change everything. The project, which received development funding from Screen Australia, is out in the marketplace.

However, Johnson acknowledged that Obelia may come first, given she had already fielded interest from Cannes.

“It’s great to know [First Nations] stories are resonating internationally,” she said.

“The jury, whom I never met before, totally related to the themes, characters, and world that I’ve written about, which just goes to show that our stories can travel overseas.

“That’s just hugely exciting and encouraging and that’s where we need to be – in the global arena.

“We haven’t really had a chance to make that leap yet internationally.”