Kriv Stenders – Blacktown
Australian filmmaker KRIV STENDERS betters his higher-budgeted The Illustrated Family Doctor with BLACKTOWN, a raw, urgent love story straight from the heart. BY FILMINK'S JULIAN SHAW
“It was a crazy dare that I made to myself which got out of control.” That's Kriv Stenders' take on Blacktown. The film was borne out of frustration – ten years out of film school and with no feature to his name, Stenders decided to snap his losing streak. Ironically, he was making ground at the time on what would become his underrated and sadly under-seen The Illustrated Family Doctor, but in Christmas of 2001, the light at the end of the tunnel was still a pin-prick.
“In terms of The Illustrated Family Doctor, we were just trying to navigate a way forward through all the usual financing channels like sales agents, distributors and film offices. That's why after two years I ultimately got so anxious and frustrated that I decided to just go out and make Blacktown with my own resources, rather than waiting for all these other elements to 'perhaps' line up. Put it this way: I wasn't prepared to wait for another ten years.”
If it sounds like a romantic process, don't be fooled. “I was shooting on Mini DV with no lighting; I was using the camera's on-board microphone; I didn't have a script; and I was spending a lot of my own money without any idea if I was ever going to make it back.”
The result, however, is a film of striking spirit and blunt-force immediacy, which pinched the Audience Sidebar Award at The Sydney Film Festival. “This film represents what filmmaking should be – hands on,” Stenders says. But it's more than that. Early in Blacktown, there is a moment where a character peels back a weepy bandage to reveal a raw wound. This is tantamount to what Stenders does here with his love story built around a downbeat young professional (Nikki Owen) and her falling for a charismatic, recovered alcoholic (Tony Ryan).
The fizz of their chemistry, and in particular Ryan's hypnotic work, means that the ultra lo-fi pedigree of the project left audiences unfazed, or, bizarrely, drawn in. “I shot Blacktown in 2002 before there were any HD 'pro-sumer' cameras on the market, so at that time there really wasn't a choice,” Stenders relates of his super low-end optics. “I actually ended up falling in love with that raw, interlaced, compressed look. To me it's not video and it's not film – it's digital and it has its own unique patina. I'm sure that in the near future, people are going to get nostalgic for that kind of crude Mini DV look.”
Clearly it's already happening, with celluloid maestro David Lynch having shot his epic Inland Empire on the same unit. The resulting critically lauded picture proves that it's the person behind the camera which means everything. Ditto for Blacktown. “It' so inspiring that someone as accomplished as David Lynch has embraced the format so fully,” says Stenders. “It's really exciting now that we have so much choice out there, and so many other ways to make films without actually having to shoot on film.”
The filmmaker actually appears in the film's ensemble, though he stresses that it was out of necessity. “I acted in the film more for practical, budgetary and logistical reasons, so it's not like I'm a frustrated actor by any means,” Stenders says. “Because the film was so low-budget, it was a bit of a mind fuck and not much fun, especially as I was trying to direct myself, remain objective, and make sure that the crew's takeaway dinner had been ordered.”
Stenders also bares it all in the film, quite literally dropping his dacks for a spot of hearty rumpy-pumpy. It's hard to tell if he now regrets or takes pleasure in this bout of exhibitionism. “I don't know…maybe all that nudity is the Northern European in me coming out,” laughs the director. “But I guess being a director and wanting to make films is a form of exhibitionism anyway – it's all the same, naked or not. As a filmmaker, you're always 'exposing' yourself in one way or another.”
With David Lynch now publicly stressing that he never wants to return to the medium of film, does Stenders care to make a similar pronouncement? “Well, making Blacktown has been a wonderfully educational experience,” he replies. “So I don't think I can ever really go back to shooting on film, with a big crew, lots of trucks and a budget, which only a small portion of gets on screen.”
So why not work again in his favourite format – documentary? “I would love to make another documentary, like my first film Motherland, but I'm also really excited by the idea of fusing drama and documentary together and getting the best of both worlds.”