IN 2014, Canberra publicist Coralie Wood staged a riotous launch of a film entirely made in Wagga Wagga and directed by comedian Mark Grentell, familiar to Canberrans as a host at the CAT Awards.
The 2014 low-budget comedy, “Backyard Ashes”, told of a cricket match between two antagonistic neighbours after the accidental incineration of a prize cat.
It went on to be the fifth highest-grossing film ever released in Wagga.
Producer Anne Robinson was on the ground from the start with the original creators, Grentell and comedian/actor/writer Damian Callinan and tells “CityNews” that the film, done on “a couple of hundred grand”, had been a risky game.
Now the same team is back with a new movie, “The Merger”, shot in Wagga Wagga and surrounding shires, and it’s just enjoyed its world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival. It opens in Canberra and cinemas around the country on August 30.
Based on a stage show of the same name by Callinan, “The Merger” looks at the growing phenomenon of refugees settling in country Australia.
It tells the story of former professional football player Troy Carrington, who has returned home to the fictional clapped-out town of Bodgy Creek. He is persuaded to coach the hapless local footy team, the Roosters, where he sees an opportunity to recruit refugees from the Regional Support Centre to turn the team’s fate around.
Robinson, a seasoned operator in the film industry, says it’s been shot with the support of Screen Australia, Create NSW, and the City of Wagga Wagga.
She says “The Merger” ticked a lot of boxes. With the world facing the worst humanitarian, refugee crisis since World War II, she says the film is timely, placing the larger global tragedy into the smaller context of Australian rural life in what she calls “a beautiful, Aussie, innocent way”.
According to Robinson refugees speaking 120 different languages have settled in Wagga Wagga, where there are 60 Iranian families alone. “Regional Australia is changing, but a lot of people aren’t wanting that change, that’s what the film deals with,” she says.
“We give those refugees a voice in the film, which will be quite a shock to some ordinary Australians unfamiliar with the kinds of experiences most refugees have undergone.”
The film was shot in 30 locations around the Wagga Wagga region, with lots of support from the town and happily, she reports, there actually is a Boggy Creek in the district, so they only had to change one letter in the sign.
While there are famous actors in the film, such as Callinan, who plays the coach, John Howard, Kate Mulvany, Penny Cook and Nick Cody, with Fayssal Bazzi taking on the more complex role of Sayyid, the multicultural message required depth in the casting and it’s the supporting cast that really tells the story.
Director of photography Tony Luu was born on a boat as his family fled Vietnam, David Bridie’s film score includes refugee musicians, including Burundi ex-child soldier Farhad Bandesh. Many local refugees became extras, including Yazidi refugee Khato Izzeldin, who self-named “Iraqi Kev”, plays one of the Bodgy Creek Roosters team.
Robinson worked with Callinan on the concept for four and half years before the project got up and says that next time she wants a $6 million budget and some international named actors to make it easier.
“Away from the rat race you don’t get paid as much as in the city and Mark, Damian and I have invested a lot into this film, it’s for the love, it’s almost a drug,” Robinson says.
But there are no regrets. With “The Merger” they found themselves sitting on an important world issue, so that the story behind the film became bigger than the film itself.
“Making a feature on this subject is part of a new movement worldwide,” she says..
“The most extraordinary people have come on board, like Amnesty International and the AFL, who are allowing trailers to be shown on the big screen at half time and handing out flyers.
“It’s a bit overwhelming – it’s a movement, everybody wants to be involved in change.”
“The Merger”, at Dendy, Civic, from August 30.