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A new voice (or is it a lone voice?) from Australian filmmaking is pushing through the cracks into the sunlight of recognition by its sheer power and gripping reality. The Finished People is raw, real and a window into lives in Sydney’s dark, drug and crime riddled Cabramatta; yet the film’s effect has been a force of change – for the better, it’s maker Khoa Do tells Andrew L. Urban.

It was big deal when Khoa Do’s micro-budget, digital video film The Finished People was selected for the Montreal World Film Festival in August, but you get the impression from Khoa that it was an even bigger deal to get a personal phone call from Jane Campion to congratulate him on the work. “She rung me up and said she really believed in what we were doing…she really supported us. That just completely knocked me out, I couldn’t believe Jane Campion calling me.”

"raw, real and revealing"

Campion has since been joined by several film critics to praise the film, including Urban Cinefile’s Jake Wilson, as well as this writer. The film is a snaphsot of the lives of three young men in their late teens and early twenties, all living desperate lives on the streets of Cabramatta, Sydney: Tommy (Jason McCormack) is a longtime heroin addict who’s once again trying to reform himself and get a job, with the help of his friend Sara (Sarah Vongmany). Van (Joe Le) has spent time in jail and now lives in a high-rise carpark. And Des (Rodney Anderson) is a drifter with a pregnant girlfriend, who joins a gang in order to raise some much-needed money.

The actors are the real thing: kids who were attending video classes run by Do in Cabramatta. “Those who came regularly were cast in the film.” The script was a collaboration between Do and the cast. And it is indeed raw, real and revealing.

Says Jake Wilson in his review: “..the two standout performances are by Jason McGoldrick and Daniela Italiano (plays Carla), both extroverted, unselfconscious personalities who heartbreakingly play “themselves”. A scene near the end where Italiano breaks down is difficult to watch, both because her distress is clearly unfeigned and because it’s impossible to know how far the character’s desolation mirrors her real plight.”

But the good news is that the film has had a powerful, positive impact on the cast. “It’s had an amazing effect. When we finished filming at the end of last year, we all agreed that what mattered most was not the final film and what happened to it, but that we got through the process. We did it. I had promised that if they put in the hard work and commitment, I would do my utmost to make this film something we can all be proud of. 

"changed his life around"

“After we finished filming, a little earlier this year, I got a call from Jason saying, ‘Khoa, I’m clean! I’m off it [heroin].’ This really changed his life around. If you look at him today and compare with the person he was in the film, you can’t recognise him. 

“Then Daniella, again, she has changed completely. She has said it was a bit of a wake up call… she had talked about performing ever since she was younger, and [this has given her hope].”

Another cast member, “Shane MacDonald who plays Simon, the Aboriginal character, was so shy. He’d come into class and sit in the corner and not say a word. The first time I asked him to appear in this film, he said ‘No way, Khoa, no way I’m doing it…’ But over the weeks, we convinced Shane to appear in it, and he’s fantastic on screen, he’s got such a likeable, lovely presence. Since then, I’ve spoken to his parents and they’re really thankful for just Shane having done something which they’re proud of… and he’s proud of.”

For Shane, it was one of the three best things he’s done in his life: the other two were getting his first girlfriend, and getting his driver’s licence.

Do wanted to really concentrate on “the truth of the subject matter. The story had to be true, the characters had to be true, and the situations and events have to be 'true' in that it may happen, or has happened. The final script was a combination of scripted dialogue, improvisation and collaboration. During the development of the script, the youths constantly mentioned that: Neighbours' and Home and Away is just crap. People don't behave and talk like that in real life. Hence, I wanted to ensure that we maintained real dialogue in the script and never reverted to cliches.”

"to look through the eyes of a Cabramatta 'street-kid'"

In his Director’s Statement, Khoa Do (who arrived from Vietnam with his parents at the age of two), explains what he wanted to achieve: “Ultimately, in directing The Finished People, my primary focus was to find a style which would allow an audience to look through the eyes of a Cabramatta 'street-kid' for a while, feel what they're feeling and see what they're seeing. For this reason, I concentrated specifically on two factors: truth and expression. The characters' truth in their particular situations was absolutely crucial in every scene, and it didn't matter if the actors didn't hit the mark, if the framing wasn't perfect or the actors mumbled their lines. What was important was that they were truthful, and never overdramatised. Everything had to be 'real'.

Secondly, this film is an expression and a 'voice' from Cabramatta. Improvisation was encouraged, and all ideas were incorporated to eventually make The Finished People what it is -a voice from a small section of the community that has never been seen or heard before.”

Published October 30, 2003

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