‘Hearts and Bones’ creates an emotional stir at TIFF

'Hearts and Bones' stars Andrew Luri, Bolude Watson, director Ben Lawrence and Hugo Weaving.

‘Hearts and Bones’ stars Andrew Luri, Bolude Watson, director Ben Lawrence and star Hugo Weaving. 

For director Ben Lawrence, the reaction to his feature debut Hearts and Bones at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was both “emotional and overwhelming”.

Lawrence reports the standing ovations at every screening and the outpouring of praise for the cast, particularly for South Sudanese immigrant Andrew Luri in his acting debut, made a huge impact.

Of the film’s Canadian reception, Liane Cunje, TIFF Discovery and International programming associate said: “I’ve run the gamut of audiences reactions here at TIFF for films we programme from around the world, and I’ve never witnessed such an emotional celebration after a screening as the one I saw after Hearts and Bones.”

The film, which made its world premiere in competition at the Sydney Film Festival in June, screened as part of the TIFF Discovery program, which highlights outstanding feature debuts globally. It was one of only four international premieres in this category.

Overall, the Canadian festival was a strong showcase for Australia, with five other local projects also on the line-up: Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang, Unjoo Moon’s I Am Woman, Daniel Gordon’s The Australian Dream, Gregor Jordan’s Dirt Music and Blackfella Films series Total Control, directed by Rachel Perkins. It was a diverse slate, covering the personal impact of inherited trauma, the political and social toll of toxic masculinity, and female empowerment and racial parity – all with a unique Australian twist.

“TIFF, as well as being one of the world’s premiere film festivals is also a bellwether for the North American market and it was fantastic to have six very diverse and distinctively Australian titles selected to screen this year,” Screen Australia CEO Graeme Mason tells IF.

Black B*tch, known here as Total Control, was the first Australian television series to be selected for the festival, and it was incredible to be in the room and witness the audience reaction.”

Mason reported that the Total Control premiere screening, which featured a Q&A with cast and producers, garnered a powerful and emotional reception with members of the audience crying.

He was also impressed with the international impact of The Australian Dream. “It is a uniquely Australian story and to see international audiences respond the way they did was very moving, it gave me goose bumps.”

Two historical biopics, the trailblazing feminist rise of Helen Reddy in Unjoo Moon’s I Am Woman and Justin Kurzel’s anarchic True History of the Kelly Gang, were embraced by critics and audiences alike.

“The public screenings for Unjoo Moon’s I Am Woman were huge hits. It is such a feel good film and Tilda Cobham-Hervey gives a career defining performance as Helen Reddy. True History of the Kelly Gang received rave reviews.”

Mason adds that Ben Lawrence’s “moving refugee story Hearts and Bones continued to impress international audiences following its Australian premiere and Dirt Music put Western Australia’s dramatic landscapes on show in this iconic book adaptation.”

Written by Lawrence with Beatrix Christian, Hearts and Bones follows a war photographer (Hugo Weaving) and a refugee (Luri), who discover a photograph that threatens to destroy them both.

Produced by Matt Reeder, the film received funding support from Screen Australia and Create NSW, who were attracted to the authentic portrayal of cultural diversity.

“It wasn’t conscious that I wanted to portray diversity, but this story was important as it was not being told,” Lawrence says.

Lawrence wanted to cast authentically and found Luri, a 58-year-old bus driver who turned up to an open casting.

“He completely gave himself to the process and to the nuance of the character. He has fled South Sudan twice and this story resonated to him personally on multiple levels which contributed a whole lot of gravity to his performance and he did an amazing job.”

Coming from a documentary background, telling the untold story is in Lawrence’s DNA, as is exploring the effects of trauma on the psyche. Hearts and Bones is his first move from documentary to drama but plays in the same thematic territory. For Lawrence it’s a progression of the many of the issues he has worked with in the non-scripted world.

The director started his screen career creating testimonial-styled campaigns as a commercial director at Exit Films. In 2016 he co-directed the ABC’s Man Up documentary which focused on Australian men’s mental health and suicide and more recently worked on the ABC’s Exposed: The Case of Keli Lane. His 2018 debut feature length documentary Ghosthunter, supported by Good Pitch, was a multi-layered meditation on abuse and the generational damage of male toxicity.

“Hearts and Bones is essentially about two men Daniel Fisher (Weaving) and Sebastian Ahmed (Luri) and their relationship to the other. One has a horrific experience that he is trying to out run and one has problems facing his future. It is in the dynamic of how they help each other story comes about,” Lawrence explains.

While Hearts and Bones covers very distinct Australian multicultural terrain, Lawrence says he set out to make a universal story that resonated across borders and straight into personal experience. “I wanted to create a story that showed our connection to the rest of the world but at the same time could take place in any part of the world.”

A core part of the universality of Hearts and Bones is centred around the use of music, inspired by a story Lawrence was working on for Amnesty International on a Bosnian refugee choir that met every week to heal themselves through song.

“The choir in Hearts and Bones provides that same refugee solace in a suburban hall in Western Sydney. It is a central part of the film and works to not only provide community but to shake up pre-conceived ideas of culture.”

Lawrence’s aim is that by providing this vision of a community, the film will help to disarm fear-based control, and change the way the ‘other’ is treated in our society and the way we communicate with each other.

“From my work on ABC’s Man Up and exploring the issues around the abnormally high Australian male suicide rate to the generational effects of childhood abuse, I wanted to explore trauma and how to deal with it. In writing Hearts and Bones the issues of war trauma and domestic violence all fed into the story along with the lack of ability of men in handling it.”

Hearts and Bones will open theatrically in Australia via Madman Entertainment. Visit Films is handling international sales.