Aaron Wilson wanted his feature film debut, Canopy, to be a very intimate story about an Australian World War II pilot shot down over Singapore.
16 Apr 2014 - 1:22 PM  UPDATED 16 Apr 2014 - 2:09 PM

Canopy director Aaron Wilson says there are a lot of films about war, but they usually concentrate on big battles and epic events.

For his feature film debut, the Australian director wanted to make the opposite.

Canopy is the very intimate story of an Australian WWII fighter pilot (played by Khan Chittenden) who is shot down in Singapore and finds himself trying to survive in a jungle teeming with Japanese forces.

Wilson says it was a story he wanted to tell after speaking with servicemen from Australia, Singapore and Japan.

"They stopped talking about the big battles and they all started talking about all the personal moments that have stayed with them for the past 60, 70 years," he says.

"(Those) very intimate moments when they were by themselves and there were no battles going on.

"They were the moments they found very fearful because they could think about the predicament they were in."

When a group of Australian war veterans watched Canopy, which was filmed in the jungles of Singapore, they said it was so much more than they expected.

"They thought they'd just see a war romp or a story, but it wasn't that for them, it was something very real and very connected to what they felt," Wilson says.

"I guess for a lot of them it felt very haunting, that it took them back to the space they were in."

Wilson thinks that Canopy might also help the families of servicemen and women understand what was was like.

"Their families, who had never experienced war like me, could then maybe try to understand, wow that's how intense it must have been at time and overwhelming.

"You can try to glean and understand how those sorts of experiences would stay with them for the rest of their life."

Wilson hails from Tocumwal, a town of 1400 in the NSW Riverina that was on the "Brisbane Line" in World War II - a last defence in the event of a Japanese invasion. The town's size and history meant war stories were always around Wilson when he was growing up - his grandfather had several brothers that went away to war, and there were always tales of returned servicemen.

Wilson has always carried that personal connection, but he came up with the idea for the film when he was living in Singapore in 2006, making the short film WIND (FENG).

During that time he met lots of Singaporean families who were still living with the legacy of World War II. Through them, and through interviews with Australians, he discovered there was a long and lasting relationship between our country and Singapore.

"There's a strong connection that's endured since that war but we don't really talk about it," he says.

"There are a lot of servicemen that will talk about their connection with Singapore Chinese or locals in Malaysia or Singapore, and how they fought together or how they helped them in Changi by slipping them supplies," he says.

The Australian pilot in Canopy finds an ally in a Chinese freedom fighter (Taiwanese actor Mo Tzu-Yi), with whom he has both nothing in common in terms of language and culture, yet everything in common at their core.

"That sense of mateship's very Australian, but something quite universal," Wilson says.

"Once you strip away language, background and even gender, you're left two people that are connecting."

* Canopy releases in select Australian cinemas in Victoria, NSW, ACT, Queensland and South Australia on April 24.