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What do you get when a bunch of Aussie filmmakers roll their cameras in Ukraine amidst a cavalcade of cultural difference and civil unrest?
The unlikely and utterly fascinating black comedy A Family.
“I never imagined when writing our script that less than a year later, I would be calling action on a cold beach in Ukraine, while a grown man with a blonde wig who spoke no English tossed a Frisbee,” says writer, director and producer Jayden Stevens.
The stark, broken down, bitterly cold but often fascinating environs of Ukraine are indeed a long, long way from Melbourne, but that’s exactly the lengthy journey that Jayden Stevens and his nearly-all-Aussie crew made to complete the feature film A Family, which has wowed audiences at the Melbourne International Film Festival, Revelation Perth International Film Festival and Slamdance, and will soon be playing at the Ukrainian Film Festival in Geelong.
A wonderfully absurdist black comedy, A Family is the story of Emerson, a man living in lonely isolation who seeks emotional refuge in the organising and documenting of family moments using low-grade impersonators. But when his fake sister becomes inspired to follow his method, their relationship struggles between the forged and the genuine.
“A Family was originally inspired by the US website Craigslist, where people place ads attempting to recruit others into strange situations behind closed doors,” explains Jayden Stevens.
“The exchanges and interactions between characters are seemingly illogical and absurd. As we got deeper into the script, the idea that the film could be made in Australia became more distant. I imagined a landscape where the characters and their location were unidentifiable, their world and their way of communicating foreign to us.”
That landscape ended up being Ukraine in Eastern Europe, where Stevens and his crew (including his regular collaborator, co-writer, producer and cinematographer Thomas Swinburn) instantly became strangers in a strange land.
Cast with largely non-professional Ukraine actors, and shot at a time when the region was on the brink of political calamity and all-out war, it’s a near miracle that A Family was not only completed, but also that the film is so damn good.
“Throughout the filming process, we had this surreal backdrop,” says Thomas Swinburn. “We never knew if the threats of civil unrest were genuine frustrations from locals or hired actors from Russia spouting fake indignations and neither did the bus loads of heavily armed guards waiting patiently. All that said, it certainly informed the absurdity seen in the film.”
An antecedent of the work of Aki Kaurismaki and Yorgos Lanthimos, and the most original film you will see coming from Australia, A Family has already scored rave reviews (“A triumph,” wrote The Australian Arts Review) and picked up awards (including the inaugural Damian Hill Award for Independent Filmmaking at MIFF 2019) ahead of its long awaited theatrical release.
“We’re so excited to be getting A Family in front of local audiences,” says Pivot Pictures co-founder and director Dov Kornits.
“The film has been an absolute labour of love for its makers, and it doesn’t look or feel like any other Australian film that you’ve ever seen. It’s funny, weird and wise in the best possible way.”
A Family will open at Dendy Newtown in Sydney, Dendy Canberra, Lido Cinemas in Melbourne, Dendy Coorparoo in Brisbane, State Cinema Hobart and The Pivotonian in Geelong from June 17, 2021