Two young women, Melbourne-based, Russian-born director Alena Lodkina and Australian actress Kate Cheel, stand outside in the balmy Venetian air as the audience of their film, Strange Colours, spills out onto the courtyard. They both wear black evening dresses and opal rings from their time shooting the film in Lightning Ridge, and now are thrilled to present their world premiere. Strange Colours is one of three films chosen for the Biennale College programme and the first Australian entry ever.
“It’s surreal, beautiful,” says Cheel. “I feel like I’m floating. I think tomorrow I’ll realise I’m in Venice.”
Lodkina adds, with a chuckle, “We’ve probably had too many spritzes today,” referring to the popular bright orange alcoholic beverage that is so fashionable on the Lido.
Strange Colours follows Cheel's character, Milena, a young woman who comes to the opal-mining town to meet her estranged, ailing father (Daniel P Jones) and encounters some other pretty feral-looking fellows (played by non-actors) who are eking out a meagre living through their opal mining claims. With craggy features and sporting bushy beards, they are freedom-loving types from a particular and beloved Australian bush culture that is rapidly disappearing.
Are you a trained actor?
KC: Yes, I studied for a Bachelor of Arts in acting in Adelaide. I was the only trained actor in the film. It was just the community of Lightning Ridge.
AL: The demarcation between actor and non-actor is not so simple.
In this kind of film particularly. Your observations of Australia are astute. How long have you been there?
AL: 15 years.
The majority of Australians never come across these kinds of people. How did you find them?
AL: I love those guys. I spent four years coming and going from Lightning Ridge, so I spent a lot of time with them and really got to know them. I now consider them friends. It was a pleasure to work with them. The way that they’re reflected in the film is quite truthful to me. They’re complex, beautiful individuals with very particular ideals, I guess certain romantic ideals that I find really fascinating.
What was it like for two young women to be in this very male environment?
AL: It was hilarious.
KC: I had the gentle introduction because Alena had established a really good rapport with the community, so I was immediately welcomed. Alena and Kate Laurie, our producer, did a lot of heavy lifting in terms of pushing through that culture clash. It is a hyper-masculine world that was very foreign to me and my urban-dwelling life. But they were charming, immediately warm and cheeky – very cheeky is the way to put it. After the four weeks we spent there, I would say I feel more cautious or threatened by city-dwelling men.
The experience changed your assumptions?
KC: Yeah, I guess you could go there and presume it's a male-heavy town. They’re a lot older. It was quite a novelty for them to have a lot of young women in town.
AL: They were surprisingly liberal and quite wise. They were very crass at times!
You didn’t censor, allowing the C and F words to make it into the movie.
AL: That’s all there, that’s all there. I made a short documentary before making this film and it screened at a film festival in Saint Petersburg. I had Russian people say to me that they’re like our peasant/country people. They felt an affinity with them and I think I felt it as well. They’re people who live on the land and are also heavy drinkers. There’s a lot of heavy drinking in Russia, too, I know that much!
Can you explain the rules of the Biennale College cinema?
AL: We had to apply to the programme with a treatment that was very raw and were selected this time last year. We had a month to develop the idea and a month to write the script.
You had the idea beforehand?
AL: I had the idea for a while because I was researching the documentary and then I decided to turn it into a fiction film. I submitted the script and they picked three films they would fund. We found out we had the funding in early December last year so we had from December till August to rewrite the script, cast the film, shoot and edit. So it was less than nine months. Very fast.
Your co-writer, Isaac Wall, is your other producer and Amiel Courtin-Wilson is also an executive producer on the film...
AL: I’ve worked with Amiel for a number of years, as an intern first, then I was doing a range of things. I edited his most recent feature, The Silent Eye, that just screened at MIFF. Daniel P Jones, who couldn't be here with us today, acted in Amiel’s film Hail.
Hail screened in Venice, too, so the festival is supporting these kinds of films.
KC: This sort of documentary/fiction hybrid. I’d never worked in this way before and it’s such an extraordinary process. Out of what could have been chaos, something quite spectacular has emerged. I just had to put my faith in Alena, and I absolutely did.
What have you done before?
KC: I’d been in one film, One Eyed Girl, and before that mostly theatre in Adelaide and Sydney. I’d never done a role of this size. It was baptism by fire.
Was it great to have each other on the set?
AL: It was great to have a lot of women on the film. It was about 50/50.
Have you screened it for the old guys?
AL: Not yet. We’re taking it to Lighting Ridge once were back.