Toomelah: from the outback to Cannes

18 June, 2012 by Fay Al Janabi

Ivan Sen was drawn to his mother’s hometown, Toomelah, even before he became a filmmaker.

As a young photography student, Sen would visit the Aboriginal mission with a camera and take photographs, but it was only after releasing his low-budget, self-made 2009 film Dreamland that he realised the potential to create a film about the place.


“I didn’t really know how to shoot there… I knew if I went in with a film crew that the locals would be too shy and self conscious,” Sen says. He decided to enter the former mission on the NSW-Queensland border alone with just his camera and an undeveloped script, building mutual trust with Toomelah’s inhabitants, allowing their stories to unfold.

The mission was Sen’s only direct experience of Aboriginal Australia and he became fascinated with the way children adapted to an environment characterised by drug addiction, violence, and child abuse.

“The children there will have already developed ways of surviving at a young age and their best defence is to be offensive and attack first,” he says.
A group of foul-mouthed small boys is not an uncommon sight in Toomelah – in fact, that’s how Sen came to meet the film’s lead actor, Daniel Connors.

“When I met him he was attacking this group of teenagers three times the size of him,” Sen remembers. “I thought he had an amazing presence and he wasn’t shy – definitely not shy.”

It was then that Toomelah began to grow as a drama with the script branching out from Connor’s life and the community’s experiences. Toomelah’s story centres on Daniel as he turns to local drug dealer and gang leader Linden (Chris Edwards) to escape the neglect he feels at home. As Daniel engages in increasingly troubling behaviour, his estranged auntie returns to Toomelah just as rival gang leader Bruce (Dean Daley-Jones) is released from prison, prompting a turf war.

Employing non-actors and moulding a film from their real-life experiences has been a method successfully employed on a number of recent Australian films including Mad Bastards, Snowtown and Hail.

The local, inexperienced actors in Toomelah represented its strength but also its greatest challenge. The people live in the moment – a lifestyle which means accepting any invitation without considering previous commitments. “You’d turn up and nobody would be there, they’d be fishing or playing football,” Sen recalls.

Despite those challenges, the actors sustained a deep interest in the film. “If some drunk person walked past and annoyed them, they would go crazy shouting ‘can’t you see we’re trying to make a movie here!’”

Education is major theme of the movie and reflected in the actors’ reading difficulties. Memorising the screenplay proved near-impossible and, short on time, Sen had to resort to a more blunt method to elicit performances: calling out lines to the actors. Despite that, arguments over who had the most lines were ongoing, with the actors constantly determining who was Toomelah’s biggest star.

“Chris and Daniel would argue over whose film it is: Chris had more lines… but Daniel was in it for longer!”

Once the arduous filming process was complete, Sen spent seven months in post-production, working on the sound and edit.

The film was only just finished in time for its world premiere at the Cannes International Film Festival, where it was selected to screen in the Un Certain Regard program, which is reserved for films that express a personal vision, with an emphasis on special cultural expression and cinematic innovation. (Sen’s 2005 documentary Yellow Fella was shown in the same category in 2005. Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes was also selected in 2006 and Warwick Thornton's Samson and Delilah in 2009.)

Growing up in a small Aboriginal mission, those involved in the making of Toomelah had never entertained the notion of acting in a film, let alone attending Cannes. The response to Toomelah was overwhelming, with the audience gripped in silence before a standing ovation.

The reception prompted Daniel’s father Michael, who also plays his father in Toomelah, to burst into tears, along with the remaining cast members.
“I couldn’t imagine how Daniel and the others felt,” Sen says. “Because when you’re young growing up in that environment… if you’re not in jail you’re doing well. So Michael, he was so proud he just burst into tears and made his son cry… and then we all cried and huddled together.”

Sen’s next project is a thriller based on his experimental Dreamland feature. The black and white film was shot over six weeks on the edge of the notorious Area 51 in the US, and featured a main character who doesn’t utter any words.

The companion film will follow an FBI agent investigating the disappearance of Dan Freeman (otherwise known as the obsessive UFO hunter from Dreamland) and explore similar themes in a more commercial manner. Sen is also working on a murder mystery set in the town of Moree, following an Aboriginal detective working on a young girl’s murder case. The film is intended to highlight the struggles that people go through in a town like Moree, and will continue to explore the cultural perspective of the local indigenous community.

Toomelah was released in cinemas by Curious Films on November 24 and is currently available on DVD.

This article was originally published in IF Magazine #144 (Dec 2011 – Jan 2012).