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Three sisters - an opera singer, a nurse and a party girl - return home for their motherís funeral, which nobody else attends, in a story that spans 24 hours and rattles a number of skeletons; this debut feature for Rachel Perkins, has already gathered a following.† She talks to DAVID EDWARDS.

Rachel Perkinsí Radiance is the new darling of the festival circuit in Australia. Having won audience awards at the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals, it completed a trifecta by winning the vote at the recent Canberra event. Internationally, the film has widespread recognition, appearing in the lists of festivals like Toronto, London, The Hamptons, Wellington, and Vancouver.

This virtually unprecedented reception for an Australian first feature does not seem to have fazed its director, Rachel Perkins. Speaking during a whirlwind visit to Brisbane, Perkins was as down-to-earth and refreshingly honest as the characters in her film.

"Originally intended to be a short"

Radiance was originally intended to be a short, but Perkins was persuaded to turn it into a feature. In doing so, she was forced to break from her background in TV and documentaries to bring Louis Nowraís tale to the screen. In making the film, she says she learned "everything", from dialogue, scriptwriting, adaptation and working with actors, to post-production and editing techniques.

Perkins wanted to capture an authentic Queensland feel in Radiance, and quite by accident, stumbled across a derelict house in the town of Agnes Waters, near her producerís house. By sheer luck, the owner of the property was going to demolish it; but in return for a small payment and a case of Moet & Chandon, he allowed it to be used in the film.

One of the features of the film is the exquisite use of landscape; something Perkins says was entirely intentional, and which underlies the drama. Her intention was to use the landscape as "one of the characters" partly because of its connection with the Aboriginal people, and to provide mood and tension. She was aided in this by DOP Warwick Thornton, who framed the various scenes for maximum effect. However, she was also aided by the filmís limited budget. This meant that camera "tricks" were virtually out of the question, ensuring the crew had to get the most from every shot.

"Differing reactions..."

Radiance is brought to life by three strong performances from Rachael Maza, Deborah Mailman and Trisha Morton-Thomas. The casting process involved testing "just about every Aboriginal actor in the country" before the right combination was struck.

Perkins acknowledges that Radiance has had differing reactions and the range of opinions has surprised her. Some have said that the story is unsophisticated; while others have seen many levels of meaning. Some have thought the opening too slow, but others have found the pacing to be just right. Some have felt it was too "arty", but others charge it wasnít "arthouse" enough.

But Perkins says that whatís important to her is that "normal everyday Australians like the film" - and its winning of audience votes around the country is evidence that she has connected with those Australians.

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The story of three Aboriginal sisters, who discover more about their late mother than they care to know, is the first of several feature film and television projects in development by Eclipse Films, formed by filmmaker Ned Lander and financier Andy Myer. The film was acquired for international sales on completion, by Beyond Films, just two months prior to Cannes 1998.

"Radiance came to us through other discussions with (writer) Louis Nowra," says Myer, "and both he and Rachel Perkins were very keen on adapting it for the screen. The script deals with issues and themes common to all human beings: trust, love, truth - and the secrets of the past. Itís an Aboriginal story, because Louis originally wrote the play for three Aboriginal actors, but they could be three Caucasian women."

With investment from the Australian Film Commission, SBS Independent, the NSW Film & TV Office, the Premium Movie Partnership and some private investors, the finance package, says Myer, could be an example of how more and more films might be financed in Australia, with larger numbers of investors sharing smaller risks.

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