Leanne Tonkes and Emma Freeman.

Growing up in a remote town in South Australia in the 1950s, Emma Freeman’s mother often heard the circus troupe which camped in fields nearby.

Fascinated by this unusual group of people, like many young girls she contemplated running away and joining the circus, but did not do so.

That became the inspiration for The Circus, a passion project for writer-director Freeman, which she is developing with her long-time collaborator, producer Leanne Tonkes.

It’s among six Australian projects selected for Attagirl, the feature film development lab for female and non-binary creative teams.

Set in rural 1950s Australia, the narrative follows a beautiful, feisty circus performer who meets a lonely and determined female farmer, forcing them to decide to conform or follow their hearts.

“The story isn’t about a girl running away but more about two people from very different backgrounds finding each other and transforming each other’s future,” says Tonkes, who runs Sense & Centsability, a production company focused on creating brave and entertaining female-driven films.

“It is that idea of beginning again and changing your destiny which we felt was particularly appealing. The film very much captures that idea of ‘can I do this, can I take this chance and break with what is expected of me?’

“This particularly applies to women. Hopefully audiences will walk away being braver to take those chances; the rewards will be greater for those that do.”

Freeman, whose recent credits include Stateless and Glitch and is attached to direct Werner Film Productions’ six-part drama The Newsreader for the ABC, says: “I’m excited by the goals of the Attagirl program and am looking forward to the opportunity to work with accomplished mentors to bring a new take on the story to the marketplace.”

Scripted by Alice Bell, The Circus has received development support from Screen Australia, Film Victoria and South Australian Film Corporation.

Tonkes first started working with Freeman after the director’s short Lamb won the first prize and Best Screenplay and Best Original Score awards at Tropfest in 2002.

They have collaborated on short films including Mittens for Fox Searchlab and music videos such as Child Bride for Coco Rosie.

Noting the increasingly challenging independent film financing landscape, Tonkes concludes: “The Attagirl initiative seemed to be the perfect way of testing the story and exploring all the possibilities that might attract finance and cast to the project. Emma and I and want to ensure the film reaches a global audience.”

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