When Matthew Walker travelled to Tamworth in 2014 to film short Heart of the Queen, he knew little of the queen in question.
What began as a four-day shoot transformed into a five-year journey dedicated to sharing the unfiltered story of enigmatic country music performer, Wanita Bahtiyar, the subject of his debut feature documentary, I’m Wanita.
“I’d never heard of her, knew nothing about her, and knew as much about country music as any person who’s interested in music knows,” Walker said.
“We just went out there and started filming – I just walked into her life and learned at the same rate as the camera was learning essentially.”
Bahtiyar grew up in northwest of Victoria, listening to Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams and dreaming of singing at the Grand Ole Opry.
The film, which was produced by Carolina Sorensen, Clare Lewis, and Tait Brady, catches up with Australia’s self-proclaimed ‘Queen of Honky Tonk’ in her late forties, having lived a life that has encompassed autism, parenting, struggles with alcohol, a tumultuous marriage, sex work, and an unrelenting (if unwanted) tendency to burn bridges.
However, she continues to strive for greatness as she battles her demons, undertaking an odyssey with musicians Gleny Rae Virus – also her manager at the time – and Archer to record an album across Memphis, New Orleans and Nashville.
Walker said the country music aspirations at the centre of the film were emblematic of a well-worn path.
“You don’t need to be a country music lover to enjoy this story at all, you just need to have tried to achieve something,” he said.
“I guess in this world where we are bombarded with curated images of people living their best lives, this film is a bit of an antidote to that, where we see what really goes into someone trying to be their best self.’
“It can actually be a little bit ugly at times and other times transcendental and hugely uplifting.”
The universal themes of the project have already reached audiences across the globe, with the film having its world premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in April and screening at festivals in Toronto, New York, London, Nashville, and Barcelona.
Domestically, it premiered at Melbourne International Film Festival before being shown at the Sydney Film Festival, where it was awarded Best Documentary.
Walker said he had so far been fascinated by varying responses to Bahtiyar as a character.
“People just seemed to get what we were trying to do with the film, which is a rare, rare thing,” he said.
“They really took to Wanita as a character and people interpret her differently – it’s very very interesting.
“I’ve noticed younger women love her and they think she’s such a strong, powerful woman that is doing her thing her way.
“And you also get a whole series of responses to the other characters in the film, such as Archer and Gleny.”
I’m Wanita will be released in cinemas in Sydney and Melbourne next month via Label Distribution, coinciding with Bahtiyar latest.
Walker is also set to explore new opportunities out of the documentary, having joined Sorensen and Lewis at People Productions, which produced the film in association with Brady’s Acme Film Company.
He said he “loved every second” of his first outing as a feature film director.
“It was such a privilege I guess, and so confusing at times, and so satisfying when you get to the end of it,” he said.
“For me, it was the opportunity to collaborate with certain people that give you their best for a period of time and what they manage to do when they are given the chance to do what they do best.”
I’m Wanita will release in Sydney and Melbourne cinemas on January 6.