Ivan Sen admits to a little stretching of the truth when he was convincing Australian actors of the calibre of Jacki Weaver, David Wenham, Alex Russell and respected Chinese actor Cheng Pei-pei to sign up for his latest feature film, Goldstone.
The film was shot on location in the tiny dot in outback Queensland that is Middleton: population three. No motels, no cafes, no mobile-phone coverage, just a great expanse of nothingness. For six weeks the cast and crew slept in shipping containers that were trucked in and doubled as a set.
“We assured them we had five-star accommodation, then once they got there we said, ‘Look, this is actually what we’ve got,’” Sen says with a chuckle. “And they said, ‘No worries.’ They loved it, everyone loved it. Aaron never gets a trailer anyway.”
Aaron is Aaron Pedersen, Goldstone’s conflicted lead character, Indigenous detective Jay Swan, who shows up unannounced in the frontier town of Goldstone on a missing-persons inquiry. His presence is both unwanted and unwelcome, as is made patently clear when bullets decimate his motel room soon after he arrives. But who ordered the hit: the corrupt mayor (Weaver), the crooked mining boss (Wenham) or the local cop, who also appears to be on the take (Russell)?
The result is a visually stunning, deeply arresting film. Part outback western, part dramatic thriller, it is easy to see why Goldstone was awarded the highly sought-after accolade of opening this year’s Sydney Film Festival.
Goldstone manages to pack in a raft of issues including human trafficking and prostitution, corporate greed and corruption, the stolen generations and the urgent need to act in support of this country’s ancient Indigenous culture before it is torn apart.
This is Sen’s second film exploring the character of Jay Swan, a man caught between a white establishment – the police force, which doesn’t want him – and Indigenous people, who don’t trust him. The first, Mystery Road, was also given the SFF opening-night slot when it premiered in 2013, before going on to win numerous awards including best film, best director and best lead actor.
Sen’s films have been so successful a new term has been coined to describe them: “outback noir”. But for this Indigenous director – also the films’ writer, composer, editor and cinematographer – the point is to use film’s ability to draw audiences to issues like racism, human trafficking and corruption. Issues they might not otherwise be aware of or think to care about.
“All this stuff is out there but the media glosses over it,” he says. “Just go digging, you’ll find it. People don’t want to know about it. [With film] you can actually put something that’s glossed over by the media in front of someone’s face, and they’re only sitting there facing it because you’ve presented it in a way that’s palatable. But you also entertain and move them at the same time. That’s why I find film so powerful.”
Pedersen’s arresting performance of Detective Swan is so realistic it’s almost too painful to watch – so convincing is he as this damaged, lost man who drinks to forget yet is driven by the need to see justice done.
In person, Pedersen is a likeable chatterbox, brimming with energy and jokes. Nevertheless he says he didn’t have to look far for his character’s inspiration.
“When you grow up with a mother and father and grandfather who were part of the Flora and Fauna Act – considered plants and animals – well, there you go,” Pedersen says. “It’s unfathomable, really. How the fuck did they survive, to get us here? There’s so much ugliness in that. Now we’re warriors of a generation that has to stand up and speak, in a language that not only entertains but empowers, and makes people go, ‘Yeah, that’s not right.’ Like Jay Swan.”
So compelling is Pedersen’s personification of the detective that an ABC TV series is already in development to further explore his story, while a third film is in the wings.
There is some hope. An increasing number of Indigenous filmmakers are ensuring their story gets out there and is heard by the mainstream. Witness Wayne Blair (Cleverman, The Sapphires), Stephen Page (Spear) and Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae, Redfern Now). And with an Indigenous cast as rich as Goldstone’s (David Gulpilil, Ursula Yovich, Tom E Lewis), there is clearly plenty of talent.
“Our audiences are intelligent, and we’re being smart about it, too,” Pedersen says. “We know we’re collecting people as we go along. The family is getting bigger.”
Goldstone screens as part of the Sydney Film Festival on June 10–12 and is released nationally on July 7.
Director Ivan Sen will be in conversation at two free sessions on June 11 and 12.