Dir: Rachel Perkins. Australia. 2001. 54mins.
A showing at the Berlinale continues the remarkable journey of this sub-one-hour, made-for-TV outback musical drama, a collaboration between the lively Sydney-based MusicArtsDance Films (which is now working on Paul Cox's drama-doc Nijinsky), ABCTV's Arts and Entertainment department and OzOpera (the experimental division of Opera Australia). The cross-discipline creative team originally developed this filmed 'opera for television', but so compelling was the drama, so urgent the songs and so sweeping the landscapes that Dendy Films offered a pre-broadcast arthouse cinema release. Favourable critical coverage has failed to translate into box office success from its limited release in Australia - at 54 minutes, hardly surprising - but it has paved the way for international travel, including awards at the New York International Independent Festival in November 2001 and plaudits at Sundance earlier this year.
The simple plot is full of raw operatic emotion. In bleak, windswept, outback South Australia, 1932, the six-year-old daughter of a struggling farming couple goes missing, drawn to the distant ranges by a brilliant full moon, lost without trace in an alien landscape like the overdressed schoolgirls in Picnic At Hanging Rock. Her frantic parents (Kelly, Fairfax) will do anything to find her except welcome the one person likely to be of real assistance - Albert, the local blacktracker (Pell). "I don't want some darkie leading the search," says the father and even his distraught wife at first agrees. The all-white search party spends days looking in the wrong direction and tragedy looms.
The film's key collaborator turned out to be Paul Kelly, veteran singer/songwriter and recent screen composer (Lantana, Silent Partner). Commissioned to write songs for the grim white farmer, Kelly's powerful contributions lead to him playing the role himself, his first dramatic screen performance. Shaven headed, sunken eyed, Karl Malden nosed, Kelly sings and glowers with equal intensity.
Kim Batterham's magnificent camerawork offers landscapes and skyscapes that would grace movies with budgets many times bigger. Rachel Perkins, an indigenous director whose first feature Radiance (1998) marked her as a talent to watch, shows great skill in balancing the wider theme of bitter, uncomprehending racism with the delicate, doomed relationship between the missing girl's parents.
Prod co: MusicArtsDance Films
Aust dist: Dendy Films
Int'l sales: Digital Classics
Prods: Aanya Whitehead, Paul Humfress, Kevin Lucas
Scr: John Romeril, Rachel Perkins
Cinematography: Kim Batterham
Prod des: Sarah Stollman
Ed: Karen Johnson
Music: Kev Carmody, Paul Kelly, Mairead Hannan
Main cast: Paul Kelly, Kaarin Fairfax, Kelton Pell