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It was once said location was everything in real estate investing; rising Aboriginal filmmaker Ivan Sen says the same goes for filmmaking, but in his case, the more extreme the better, he tells Andrew L. Urban as his debut feature, Beneath Clouds is released.

We are in the belly of two beasts . . .It seems a perfect location for an interview with the fast rising filmmaker Ivan Sen; we are seated at one of several small tables, each with four chairs, but we are alone. On one side there is a small pool table. We are in a room adjacent to the basement bar of the Dendy Cinema in Sydney’s Martin Place, the commercial heart of the city but under the ground. It is obviously film related and has a unique sense of place, which is exactly what Ivan Sen uses as the driver for his films. 

Sen has just driven down from the Central Coast; he shuffles his overnight bag to one side and sips at a strong morning coffee. His manner is a curious mixture, equal parts shy and confident enthusiasm. “I’m interested in extreme locations,” he says, as we start talking about his first feature film, Beneath Clouds. In a way, the film is the full exploration (“a combination,” he calls it) of some of Sen’s acclaimed earlier work, short films like Tears. 

Lena (Dannielle Hall) has an absent Irish father she longs to see and an Aboriginal mother she finds disgusting. When she breaks away, she meets up with petty crim Vaughn (Damien Pitt) who’s just escaped from low security prison to reluctantly visit his dying mother. Blonde and light-skinned, Lena is remains in denial about her Aboriginal heritage; Vaughn is an angry young man with a grudge against all whites. An uneasy relationship begins to form as they hit the road heading to Sydney, taking them on a journey that’s as emotional as it is physical, as revealing as it is desperate.

"I’m attracted to each of the crafts"

“I have a strong vision as soon as I start writing,” he says, “and so I feel I want to control every detail in the film, down to the sound of cicadas in the background. I cross over with all the departments – music, camera, everything. I’m attracted to each of the crafts so it’s a natural process for me to be involved in all aspects of making my film. That, and having something to say, is a reason to make films.”

Sen says the crew he works with are used to him; “they know they’ll get more direction from me than usual.” But he’s careful to involve the whole crew, “so they don’t feel like just hired hands.” As for cinematographer Alan Collins, “I don’t even need to speak; he knows what I’m going to say.”

Sen explains how specific he is with everything, which is part and parcel of his unique, holistic approach to making films. He begins perhaps at a keyboard, or a guitar, spontaneously composing something, “something in the moment’ and records it. He plays it back to write.

“Years ago I would try and find soundtracks to suit what I was writing. So now I can write specifically for what I’m aiming.” But what that is can be a little uncertain – except in emotional terms. In notes to Beneath Clouds, he says he was never certain of what he was setting out to achieve. Except for one thing: the emotion audiences would feel at the end of the film. What they feel as the credits roll. “That’s my biggest concern, as the audience sits in a darkened room. I cant explain or articulate what that is, and I know everyone will have a different emotion but for me it’s what I wanted. It’s closure yet its’ open…there’s sadness yet hope…it’s just this big ….thing!” However we each feel it, he says he hopes it’s something we don’t feel in our day to day lives.

Ivan Sen’s filmmaking career began with a moment of realisation, a creative bolt of lightning. It was 1991 and Sen was studying photography at Griffith University. One of the subjects was audio visual presentation, using music and images. “I think I was going to do photo essays for National Geographic or something,” he says. “But when I put my photos up and played some soundtrack music, it hit me like a sledgehammer. So I did then what I’m doing now, using music to drive the images.” Paradoxically, Sen thinks that music is used too much in most films. 

He is already working on his second feature script, and as he says, it is driven by a sense of location. “This is set in a small Mexican town. It’s very clear in my mind, this place, with 25 caravans parked off the side of the long road. . . I can see it. Now I have to feel the characters. But this is a thriller/black comedy on the outside but inside it’s an intimate cultural perspective …” Although it’s still untitled, Sen speaks of it with the confidence of optimism. “It’s a genre film and I want to use high profile actors, so the money shouldn’t be a problem. I want to explore the blurring between documentary and drama. . .turning the picture back on America itself.” 

"I’m keen to challenge the medium"

And, he says, he wants the film to appeal equally to the Berlin Film Festival (where in 2002 Beneath Clouds won a First Movie Award and Dannielle Hall won Best Young Actress award) and his cousins in Mooree. “I’m keen to challenge the medium, to do crazy things with the genre. I feel a freedom to explore the theory of realism in film.” Coming from someone else, this may sound faintly pretentious and naďve. For Ivan Sen, it’s just the excitement of filmmaking, and now he’s been let loose on a feature film, there’s no stopping him. And it’s that sort of enthusiasm a filmmaker needs to spend two or three years creating and producing 90 minutes of cinema. And for Sen, it’s a simple enough quest. 

“I don’t want to change the world. I just want to do what feels right.”

Published May 16, 2002

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Ivan Sen


Beneath Clouds releases nationally May 23, 2002 (sneaks May 17, 18, 19)

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