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A perfect social storm helped propel a vulnerable family in a vulnerable community towards the evils that became known in the 1990s as ‘the bodies in the barrels’ murders – in Snowtown. Director Justin Kurzel explains why he made a film about the horrors to Andrew L. Urban.

“Making the film has had a huge effect on me, actually,” says Snowtown director Justin Kurzel, reflecting on the process at some distance from it in the relative calm of a Sydney hotel, well after completing the film and just a day before flying to Cannes for the Festival screening of the film in Critics Week.

The film explores the real events In a working class suburb north of Adelaide in the 1990s, impressionable 16 year old Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) forms a friendship with a new man in his mother’s (Louise Harris) life, John Bunting (Daniel Henshall). John is affable and always smiling, but Jamie fears there is something dangerous about this new father figure – a fear that is soon shown to be well founded.

"a very intimate process with the community"

“The filmmaking process has de-mystified the events for me,” he says. “When I read the books about it I had horrific nightmares. It’s been a very intimate process with the community where the murders took place.”

That place is familiar to Kurzel: he used to live just 15 minutes from the area. He spent some time researching and filming in the location. “Sitting in a house three dors down from the place where it happened ... the brutality of it affected me.”

Kurzel feels the film presents the events in a fresh light, and not in the simplistic, one-dimensional manner “as it was reported and referred to in the media. I had known very little of the case until the script landed in my lap,” he says. “The screenplay was about a vulnerable family in a vulnerable community that wasn’t being heard. It showed how easily they were led and manipulated – and descended into evil.

“That area is known for abuse – sexual abuse and child abuse. There are very few if any positive father figures there. It was a perfect storm…. so when John Bunting turned up with a sense of purpose, it resonated.”

Kurzel began reading up on the case, not least from the books that had been published, which screenwriter Shaun Grant had used for background material (along with transcripts of the trial).

"I wanted the film to be a visceral experience"

The film is not driven by the violence of the story, although there is one particularly disturbing scene of a murder. How could there not be, given the subject matter. “I wanted the film to be a visceral experience,” says Kurzel, “not an analytical film with dates and details. More an impression of the community.”

Although the filmmakers had no direct contact with the community, the families of the victims or the perpetrators, “we did have contact with people connected to them. For one thing, we auditioned 700 people from the area…”

Kurzel, who is now working on a black comedy as his next feature, believes it’s a cautionary tale; “A lot of it happened because a community is ignored and there is nobody to give moral guidance or direction. And there are other communities like this which are at risk, not just the one north of Adelaide.”

Published May 19, 2011

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