'Gardens of War'.

The impact of COVID-19 and the impending removal of the Gallipoli clause from the Producer Offset have been a double blow for Australian productions aiming to film overseas across the past 18 months.

Add in a cyclone season and the process becomes even harder to navigate.

Such is the scenario for Jo-Anne Brechin’s Gardens of War, an Australian production to be filmed in Vanuatu, now at the mercy of government leniency after more than a year in development limbo.

The story follows a TV producer who leads her film crew into a remote mountain valley to discover the story of her father’s disappearance 30 years before, only to disturb his ghost and unleash havoc on the valley and her crew.

Sydney-based producer Bill Leimbach (Beneath Hill 60) penned the script with Brechin and Reg Cribb (Last Cab to Darwin), and is also producing with Bill Mulham and Ashley Burgess.

Financing was to be split between the countries and come entirely from the private sector.

The $6 million production was initially on track to benefit from the Gallipoli clause, which would have allowed it to claim offshore expenditure under the Producer Offset.

However, the travel restrictions meant the schedule had to be pushed back, with cameras unlikely to start rolling before the clause is repealed as part of the Federal Government’s media reforms on June 30.

The team is also in a race against time to begin filming before the end of August, so the four-month shoot does not overlap with Vanuatu’s cyclone season, which runs from November to April.

After appealing unsuccessfully to Screen Australia for a one-year extension to the clause, the production team is in discussions with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Treasury about flying crew over in a private plane in August for 12 weeks, at which point the same plane will fly them back to Australia.

Leimbach said while there had been efforts to develop the project as a Vanuatu production, COVID remained an obstacle.

“We’ve been trying to round up the money to get it done, but now we can’t leave the country, nor get back in.

“It’s a bit of a sad story; we’ve come close with no cigar.”

Bill Leimbach and Bill Mulham.

The Vanuatu production team has been led by Mulham, who has garnered support for the project from the country’s government – including Prime Minister Bob Loughman Wiebur – as well as the Australian High Commissioner in Vanuatu, and the Ministry of Health in Vanuatu.

As many as 400 Ni-Vanuatu are expected to be employed for the production, which the producers say could, in turn, benefit up to 8,000 people.

There is also plans to use the process to further film education via a relationship with Griffith Film School. Each department would include a third-year student from the school that would also mentor a Ni-Vanuatu.

Leimbach said the production aimed to build on the success of films such as Martin Butler and Bentley Dean’s Tanna, which was the first film to be shot entirely on location in Vanuatu and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2017 Academy Awards.

“While creating this film, we were building the foundation of ongoing film culture in Port Vila – in spirit and enthusiasm at least,” he said.

“Especially the youth of Vanuatu, who love the attention drawn to their country by Tanna, and have embraced Gardens of War as their own.”

While Vanuatu has been among the Pacific Island nations to escape the ravages of COVID on the ground, the closed borders have weakened the tourism revenues that the country depends upon.

Leimbach said investment for Gardens of War had come from those who want to see Vanuatu “continue to survive”.

“Where else are you going to get a project like this financed so quickly and so easily?” he said.

“It’s because people want to see it done.

“The financing came through a consortium of investors over there, who are connected to Vanuatu in a big way.

“They want to see that country stay alive, simple as that.”

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