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I have watched the director Alena Lodkina’s very fine, very memorable debut feature Strange Colours twice and can’t decide whether this film is more interested in people or more interested in a place. It is certainly intensely curious about both, in a way that goes beyond “documentary-esque” into a kind of anthropological cinema, aspiring to package a study of humans and whereabouts into a rewarding narrative experience.
Shot over 21 days in the outback New South Wales opal mining town of Lightning Ridge, Lodkina’s film (which she co-wrote with Isaac Wall) is about nothing if not community. It follows a young woman as she navigates a network of hard-yakka older blokes who are attracted to her like moths to a flame – sometimes sexually, but mostly in the context of lonely and isolated people partial to a chinwag.
Psychology student Milena (a restrained yet powerful Kate Cheel) is similar enough to fit in – she is hardly a prissy bluenose from the burbs – but different enough to stand out. Like John Cho’s character, Jin, in the contemplative walk-and-talk US drama Columbus (one of the best films of 2017), Milena is in town because of a sick parent. Her father (Daniel P Jones, so good in the 2011 Australian film Hail) is ill and the relationship between them complicated, with unresolved grievances on both sides.
Strange Colours (which premiered at last year’s Venice film festival and subsequently screened at festivals in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth) belongs to a long line of films that contemplate remote Australian locations and the people who inhabit them – from The Back of Beyond to Wake in Fright and the Mystery Road series. The protagonist stays in a shabby place with a python slithering around on the floor and a frog in the toilet; it has “the world’s worst Airbnb review” written all over it.
With only a small amount of focus devoted to Milena’s relationship with her father, a choice that suggests their relationship is viewed as no more or less important than any other, Milena encounters a range of characters one is naturally inclined to describe as “colourful”. That description is accurate in the sense these people – including a pigeon breeder, a taciturn love interest and the obligatory singlet-clad pub patrons – are distinctive personalities, rather than quirky Welcome to Woop Woop types.
Instead of making big statements or pretending she has opened a window to peer inside the human condition, Lodkina’s approach is modest, resolving to listen and contemplate. In that sense, her film is less about her directorial voice than the voices of others.
It’s no surprise that Lodkina’s investigation into Lightning Ridge began as a documentary (2016’s Lightning Ridge: The Land of Black Opals) from which Strange Colours extends, just as Kogonada – the director of Columbus – previously constructed video essays before branching out into fiction. Lodkina’s thoughtful consideration of her subjects is enhanced by the handsome, and even lyrical, but not distracting cinematography of Michael Latham, who shot Kitty Green’s brilliant quasi-documentary Casting JonBenet.
Lodkina’s approach is limited when it comes to storyline and plot; it is tantalising to consider what the director might come up with working with a more pronounced narrative. But subsequent films made in the style of Strange Colours are also an exciting proposition.
What about a drama, for example, based in another location famous for opals: the South Australian underground town of Coober Pedy, where homes and hotels are dugouts and all sorts of interesting characters no doubt congregate beneath the earth’s surface? I would love to see what Lodkina made of that place and its people. If her focus remains on those two things – people and places – the possibilities are endless.
• Strange Colours is now showing in Australian cinemas
Source: The Guardian
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