Arts / Return of the ‘Sand’ man

Roger Pulvers’ film “Star Sand”… seen in cinemas across Japan.

PLAYWRIGHT, novelist, essayist, broadcaster and linguistic polymath, Roger Pulvers still calls Canberra home, and he’ll be here next week with the Australian premiere of his first feature film to prove it.

“Star Sand”, set in the Japanese region of Okinawa, is claimed by the Canberra International Film Festival as “ours”, joining Kim Beamish’s Merimbula-set documentary “Oyster” in the line-up of full-length “local” films.

Director of the Canberra International Film Festival, Andrew Pike and contemporary programmer, Alice Taylor, are balancing retro with contemporary titles on a 50-50 basis this year, with the spotlight falling on director Jacques Tourneur, actress Googie Withers, the contemporary Cannes-winning comedy “The Square” and the Hungarian Golden Bear-winner “On Body and Soul”.

But Pike’s heart is in Asian film, as the name of his company Ronin Films indicates, and the inclusion of “Star Sand” is part of a drive to make “our” film festival unique.

The film has been seen in cinemas across Japan.

In the film, 16-year-old Hiromi is seen on the beach of an Okinawan island hunting for “star sand” (star-shaped shells) in 1945, when she finds a Japanese army deserter and an American soldier hiding in a cave. Jumping forward to 1958, a diary is found in the cave along with the remains of three people, but it isn’t until 2016 that a female student in Tokyo uncovers the mystery.

Playwright Roger Pulvers… “I don’t feel at home in Sydney the way I do in Canberra.”

The play is based on Pulvers’ best-selling novel of the same name, translated by himself into English. It was entirely shot in Japan, but it’s the culmination of an extraordinary career that centres on the formative eight years he spent in the ACT.

Born in Brooklyn then trained in Japanese language and literature in Japan, Pulvers came to the ANU as a lecturer in Japanese during August 1972, moved into the Northbourne Flats and found a city in celebratory mode preparing for the election of Gough Whitlam as prime minister and thought, “this is amazing”.

Even now, living in Sydney after many years spent in Japan, he says: “I don’t feel at home in Sydney the way I do in Canberra.”

Plunging into the cultural whirlpool of the time, he immersed himself in Canberra’s theatre scene, joined legendary director Ralph Wilson in staging play after play, mounted the “Fill the Shell” movement to transform the ANU Arts Centre into a going concern and became an Australian citizen, celebrating with Vegemite on toast.

In 1979 Pulvers was offered a gig as playwright-in-residence at Playbox Theatre in Melbourne, took it, and threw himself into full-time playwriting. But the lure of Japan was too strong, so when celebrated film director Nagisa Oshima invited him to become his assistant on the film “Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence” he headed north once more.

It was a revelation. Pulvers slaved from 4.30am until late doing everything conceivable and travelling as far as Rarotonga, where the film, starring David Bowie, was shot.

“I watched very carefully and learnt the basics,” he says. He considers “Star Sand” a “little sister” to Oshima’s classic.

But 35 years elapsed before he made the movie, a plan repeatedly thwarted by the financial doldrums in Japan. Living with his family in Tokyo he immersed himself in the cultural world, publishing more than 50 books, winning prizes as a translator and writing a column for “The Japan Times” while dashing back to direct plays such as his production of Strindberg’s play “Dance of Death” for Bell Shakespeare.

“Star Sand” posits the idea that the truly brave people are those who refuse to fight. It’s an ever-contentious argument in Japan but it’s one that Pulvers, who nowadays appears on Phillip Adams’s ABC radio program “Late Night Live” talking about the aftermath of Fukushima, vehemently upholds.

He praises the Japanese production company that supported him and his cast with whom he would like to work on another film.

Roger Pulvers will talk about “Star Sand” at the Arc Cinema, 6pm, Sunday, October 29. Canberra International Film Festival, October 26-November 5. Bookings to ciff.com.au

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