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Canberra Today 19°/22° | Monday, December 6, 2021 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Bush fable gets a fantasy film festival screening

A still shot from “Nest”… an isolated father is haunted by his child’s cries of hunger.

SINCE being given a video camera as a boy, Canberra filmmaker James Hunter has been obsessed with cinema.

 A familiar face around the film traps in Canberra for years, he started out with short films such as “School Daze”, which won Best National Film at the Reelife Short Film Festival; “Struggle”, named National Youth Winner at the Canberra Short Film Festival; “Tinman”, selected for the Brisbane International Film Festival and Tropfest, and “The Archive”, a scary film about the famously haunted National Film and Sound Archive. 

Now, following its official selection into the Melbourne International Film Festival, his short film, “Nest”, made during lockdown, will have its international premiere in the “Noves Visions” section of the Sitges Film Festival in Spain this month.

Filmmaker James Hunter… “I can’t believe the timing.”

“Noves Visions” focuses on films committed to experimentation, but the overall festival is famous for fantasy and horror, and since “Nest” is an Aussie bush story featuring a lyrebird, I wondered how it fitted it in.

I spoke to Hunter by phone to his home in Melbourne, where he and his partner, the film’s producer Faith Guoga, are basking in the joy of making it into a big international festival while lamenting the fact that they won’t be able to get to Spain.

“Sitges specialises in the fantasy genre and it’s a bush fable with a moral message, a bit of a bushfire yarn – that’s what appealed to the festival,” he says. 

“I can’t believe the timing,” he says, “but still we are very excited because Sitges is right up there for filmmakers and we are hoping to get something out of it.”

Hunter and Guoga also have a supernatural feature film, “Unseen”, in the pipeline and the festival will put them in touch with distributors and sales agents.

“It’s supposed to be a great event for mixing and mingling,” he says, “and from a financial standpoint, we could get a return on our investment.”

“’Unseen’ has been a big focus for the last five years as we developed a story and came up with a 90-page, 90-minute supernatural horror film, like a story you might tell sitting around the family dinner table or around a campfire.”

Hunter is very much a product of Canberra and remembers the support he got here from individuals and through events such as “Lights Canberra Action.”

He even thinks Melbourne is a bit like Canberra, “full of very grounded people with a love of the arts”.

After leaving the ACT, he first went to Sydney’s now-defunct Metro Screen Film School, located within the Chauvel cinema in Paddington, where students were able to exhibit their films, before moving to Melbourne to make short films and develop features.

It wasn’t easy; one planned feature based on a mystery novel got seed funding from the then ScreenACT and he worked with a script developer in Los Angeles, but it didn’t eventuate probably because it was too ambitious.

His latest feature will be more grounded. 

As for “Nest”, scripted by Steve Anthopoulos, it shows an isolated father haunted by his child’s cries of hunger, who takes up work as a timber feller only to be stopped by an alarm ringing from deep in the woods and meets a lone lyrebird. It turns out that the lyrebird can cry like a baby, too. 

The father in the film, named with the idea that humans are fouling their own nest, is partly responsible for the destruction of the lyrebird’s nest and he looks at the environment and the commercialisation of the forest industry around him.

It pleases Hunter that recent news features have appeared about the Australian lyrebird’s extraordinary abilities to mimic and that a silhouette of a male lyrebird is the logo of the Australian Film Commission.

Maybe, he thinks, it was the bird itself that appealed to Sitges.

“Some people have asked us whether we were stretching a point in having it located in the fantasy films thing, but Steve [Anthopoulos] and I had been thinking about some of the other great Australian myths and legends and then Steve found this information about the lyrebird and we thought, awesome,” he says. 

“It’s in black-and-white and is a 16mm analogue film. I wanted to give it that feeling of something timeless and black-and-white is so beautiful and opens up the more abstract element.” 

Sitges may have liked that black-and-white, too.

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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