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Dancing on the Volcano: Alena Lodkina Discusses “Strange Colours”

The Russian-born Australian director talks about her feature debut, a melancholic study of dreamers and drifters in remote rural Australia.
I met Alena Lodkina two years ago, when she bounded up to a stall I was staffing at a book fair in Melbourne. She’d heard the film magazine I publish would be dedicating an issue to Pedro Costa, and so we got to chatting—about Costa, and particularly about Casa de Lava (1995), a film which famously birthed Costa’s Fontainhas trilogy, after he was asked to pass on gifts from people in Cape Verde to their families and friends in Lisbon. She ended up penning an essay for that issue of Fireflies, kicking off a friendship anchored upon a reciprocal love of cinema that comes full circle now with the release of her debut feature, Strange Colours.
Developing from her earlier documentary Lightning Ridge: The Land of Black Opals (2016), Strange Colours is, like Casa de Lava, a melancholic fiction rooted firmly in a study of place. Apart from the three leads, the cast is entirely made up of locals from the remote township of Lightning Ridge, in northern New South Wales. Lodkina gained the trust of the opal miners. In turn, they opened up their homes and mine pits, appearing before her camera alongside the dramatic red-dust landscapes.
Developed through the Venice Biennale College in 2017, Strange Colours spins an ancient tale of shitty fathers and idle youth with fresh vision. Like a young Agnès Varda, Lodkina seamlessly inserts ethnographic slices-of-life inside a fictional framework, as a young woman named Milena (Kate Cheel) travels to ‘the Ridge’ to visit her ailing, estranged father (Hail’s Daniel P. Jones) and finds herself temporarily seduced by the locals’ carefree way of life. Lodkina imbues this barely-there drama with a magnetic and moody poetry, making rich use of the film’s indelible open spaces. ‘The Ridge’ becomes a melting pot of broken dreams, latent violence, and irresistible beauty, which simmers lyrically.
Since its Venice premiere, the film’s festival run has seen it steadily gather awards, acclaim, and increasing recognition as one of the most startling antipodean debuts this side of the millennium. Shot in 21 days on a micro-budget, and using the scarce resources available in a challenging location, it heralds a bold new tide of Australian cinema from filmmakers who are finding alternative avenues to get their work made and seen. I sat down with Lodkina to talk about the film—and, as always, Pedro Costa—on the eve of its hometown premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

NOTEBOOK: Lightning Ridge is the heart of your film, but even in Australia few people have heard of the town. It’s at least an 8-hour drive from any capital city, and lies way off the tourist trail. How did you first come across it?
ALENA LODKINA: So I do have a story. It’s to do with my mum and dad: I re-tell it in interviews quite a bit, but now they’ve started making fun of me; “Mum and Dad! Mum and Dad!” They’re like, ‘How old are you?!’ [Laughs.] But the story does start with Mum and Dad, because around 2011 they did a road-trip through New South Wales. They’re photographers, so afterwards when they were telling me about the places they visited, they said, ‘The most interesting place is Lightning Ridge; you’ve got to go there, it is really cinematic.’ And then there were all these facts: it’s a massive area with a little township, where people live off the grid, mining opals—it’s the opal mining place—and there’s opal fever, people get completely obsessed. There’s all these eccentrics living in the community, like one guy who built a castle out of sandstone he found while mining. He lives there, you can go in. Mum and Dad were so taken with it. When I heard all their stories, I thought, ‘That sounds amazing.’ I was drawn to the idea that Lightning Ridge is a conglomerate of all these different peoples, who happen to be misfits and castaways, who found hope in the fact they can go and start mining for nothing and maybe strike it rich. And then I saw the photographs, and the landscapes were just surreal. So a few years later, I was at a kind of transition part of my life and I wanted to get away. I took my camera, got on a bus in Sydney and I went there—it’s a daytrip, like twelve hours—you take the train, change at Dubbo, then the bus, and of course there’s just one bus running... I camped out in a caravan park, and I met this guy, Grant, who ended up being such a sweet man. He took me around—he was like my fixer—because, beyond the tourist-y part of town, it’s hard to get to know people. Some live about two hours’ drive from the township on remote dirt roads; we got lost so many times. But through Grant, I met this community, and I fell in with one clique and started filming.
NOTEBOOK: Were they as curious about you as you were about them?
LODKINA: One thing I adored about them was that they were curious, they were sniffing me out like curious animals, but then very quickly they weren’t—they were very accepting: ‘Oh, that's just another girl hanging about.’ They were happy to tell their stories. It was very relaxed; people there don’t really care that much about anything. There’s dramas, of course, but the general vibe is ‘ah, that’s all good, just have another beer.’
NOTEBOOK: How long did you stay during that first visit? Did you film much? 
LODKINA: I was there ten days. As a documentary filmmaker I found it quite interesting because when you go into a community and you don’t know anyone, and when you’re a young woman in a male community, the camera becomes a kind of protective thing. Because you've got a purpose. If you don’t have anything to say, you can just sit there filming… This whole project really taps into what I love about filmmaking and what filmmaking has become for me. More than just thinking in movies, you see the world, you relate to people through this medium, and then you actually record them in time. It’s a strange proof that you exist and that other people exist.
NOTEBOOK: How much was this narrative of an itinerant young woman shaped by your own experience? For example, the protagonist, Milena, almost shares your name.
LODKINA: [Laughs.] So when we started filming, a number of crew asked, “Why is she called your name?” but until that point I had not made the association. I just thought they’re such different names—also because in Russian they sound so different. I wanted her to have a vaguely Eastern European name—in the script she was going to be Polish because there’s a lot of Eastern Europeans in Lightning Ridge, and of course I can access that. We did some scenes, there were all these jokes about her mother being a Pole, but it just didn’t make it into the cut.
NOTEBOOK: That identity makes sense, though, because it feeds into Milena’s sense of being an outsider, alien to this community.
LODKINA: Yeah, and I liked that. A lot of people in Australia have vaguely foreign backgrounds—they might’ve been born here, or come here when they were very little, but their parents come from somewhere else. The film explores that uncertainty. And I love the image of these camps; I fell in love with that lifestyle as an image, because the people are exploiting the land for money—I mean, it’s mining—but at the same time there’s something so transitory about their existence, which I think says a lot about White Australia’s relationship with land. Apart from First Nations people, a lot of Australians don’t have that. I know it’s hard for me to make that judgement because I didn’t grow up here—I only came to Australia when I was thirteen—but I feel Russians, for instance, have a very close relationship with the Russian forests and Russian land. Whereas there’s something uneasy about the way White Australia relates to the land. The community in Lightning Ridge evokes that in an un-patronising, un-didactic way.
NOTEBOOK: That uneasiness about the relationship to the land runs through canonical Australian cinema.
LODKINA: Oh yeah. There’s that bit in Wake in Fright [1971] when he first comes to the Yabba and he tells the cab driver he's only staying one night, and the driver says, “Ya wanna see a bit more of the Yabba than that! Best place in Australia!” It’s a cliché that a little community will be really proud of itself in a very menacing way, but it is really classic.
NOTEBOOK: Whenever one of the men in Lightning Ridge says to Milena, ‘Oh, you’re going to love it in the Ridge!’, it feels like a cheeky reference to Kotcheff’s film.
LODKINA: But they do constantly say how great the Ridge is! [Laughs.] And I decided to just take it for what it is in its complexity, because of course there’s a strange, dark irony about it because it’s, uh, also a shithole; it’s a dusty shithole. And they’re living unhealthy lives and not much happens and it’s so far from everything—but at the same time, it’s like paradise. I think that irony is so lyrical.
NOTEBOOK: As a filmmaker, do you think you’re drawn to Lightning Ridge as a subject because it complicates, or even negates some of these tropes? For example, the gothic portrayal of landscape as a site of displaced violence, which can be seen in Wake in Fright to Wolf Creek [2005].
LODKINA: Yeah, absolutely. We have these stereotypes of lurid, violent, grotesque men—the Australian larrikin, drinking beer all day—but what I saw at Lightning Ridge was melancholy. And that’s what really drew me back to the place; it’s something which I don’t feel has been explored very much. By that, I mean there was so much melancholy to the people—a lot of them have stories about terrible things in their past, really sad stories they openly told me. It would’ve been easy to do a Cunnamalla [2000]-type thing, which was this ‘exposé’ on the Cunnamalla community, which is not that far from Lightning Ridge. That documentary was a point of reference at one point, but in a negative sense—me saying, ‘I’m not going to do that’—because [O’Rourke] targeted these people and their stories. It is exploitative, one hundred per cent; there’s Aboriginal women in it whom he interviews about their sex lives, which came back to bite them hard. The town eventually turned against him and said, ‘You used our stories.’
NOTEBOOK: One of the welcome qualities of Strange Colours is that it’s a study of place, and yet it restrains from passing judgement. It doesn’t assume to speak for the place.
LODKINA: When we were developing the script, a lot of consultants would say, “There’s just not enough in the script. What are the dark things about the place that you could put in there?”—but I just didn't want to do that. I have faith that just looking at the place, the images of the land and the faces of people, says more than any words. We don’t need to know specifics of the stories that haunt these individuals to feel them. And that comes back to the psycho-geography of a place—there is something in the air, the colors, the sky, and this rugged, lined landscape. I wanted to recreate the feeling that I had going there, for the film to be a record of that. There’s also the curious juxtaposition between this rugged, masculine community and the fragile nature of opals—it’s not a stable mineral like a diamond, it’s got water in it, and it has this really strange nature. There’s this beautiful installation at MONA [The Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart] where someone took a slice of opal and projected it onto a wall. The idea’s that because an opal is unstable it changes over time, but the change is so slow that it’s imperceptible to the human eye. It’s meant to be a meditation on the warp of time. So I was putting these kinds of contradictory ideas together. I saw so much genuine beauty and melancholy in the place, and then these men who have nothing, whom you don’t expect such things from. I learned that a film should have a provocation inside it, but it shouldn’t figure things out. It should be a process of figuring out, but not an answer.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve also mentioned Rossellini’s Stromboli [1950] as an influence. I’m imagining you as you were writing the script in Elba, haunted by the volcanic landscapes. It’s perhaps this materialist sensitivity which takes the story, which is hyper-specific, and gives it that existential dimension.
LODKINA: Yes. Two volcano movies were actually points of reference—Stromboli and Pedro Costa’s Casa de Lava [1995].Not because they’re volcanoes, but because of the evocative way the landscape is used. And there’s obviously also the young woman in a village, the fish out of water; an outsider in a very masculine environment.
NOTEBOOK: And, of course, the documentary element—for example, that astonishing scene in Stromboli where the fishermen bring in the tuna. Whereas in Strange Colours you show us the men at work, down in the mines and cutting the opals.
LODKINA: Yeah, I looked at both films quite practically because I was grappling with how to combine these neo-realist, non-professional actors within a fictional narrative. I looked to these films because mine was born out of this interest in a place, its geography, and the ways people live. My primary objective was to record how people live. How they set up their camps, how they make up their life, the pigeons they care for, how they dress, what they drink, when they drink...  And then the script was basically constructed around settings: we need a scene at Brett’s camp, we need a scene at the mines. It was a strange puzzle in which the pieces kept being rearranged. Like Stromboli and like Casa de Lava, the film is a mosaic of these faces and places. I was guided by mood and atmosphere, and that’s probably my strongest thing—I get confused with narratives and script, it doesn’t come naturally to me, but the Venice Biennale College was really helpful because it got me and Isaac [Wall] to kind of respect the narrative, to think about what tension is in film and how it works. I know Strange Colours isn’t classic tension in the sense it doesn’t really go anywhere, but there’s the feeling of tension.
NOTEBOOK: Oh, definitely. Milena’s discomfort is palpable from the moment she arrives in ‘the Ridge’, as is the unresolved nature of her relationship with her father.
LODKINA: There’s the classic thing about building a narrative, that a character needs to want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. Thinking about what characters want made me realise that tension on-screen is always about unresolved desire. So it’s not just, ‘Okay, what does a character want?’ but, ‘What are the desires that have led them to this place?’ All these people wanting something but never really arriving—that’s what drives films. I started thinking about how every film is this unresolved desire, and how sad that is! But also beautiful. And we keep watching because we relate.
NOTEBOOK: I love that aspect of the father-daughter relationship; on the surface his affectionate overtures might suggest he wants to reconnect—but really he just wants to possess her, to feel less guilty about being a shitty dad.
LODKINA: He’s a classic narcissist. [Laughs.]
NOTEBOOK: The scene where he pulls out the jar with her baby-teeth that he says he’s been carrying around his entire life and shoves it in her face—that destroys me. But that complication of desire is what energizes their interactions.
LODKINA: Yeah, the mismatch of desires. None of the characters need each other; they can’t deliver what the other needs. That’s the next layer of the film. It’s just these characters floating around, unable to satisfy those desires. The father and daughter don’t resolve their relationship; nobody finds money; no one falls in love… And I know that’s kind of sad—and yeah, anti-narrative—but somehow there’s still hope. Or I hope there is! But it’s not onscreen, it’s outside of the screen; a gentle, overarching feeling of hope of some kind. Do you think it’s a depressing film?
NOTEBOOK: No, but there is sadness when the typical arc of the hero’s journey is frustrated. When she realizes ‘the Ridge’ is not going to solve any of her problems.
LODKINA: I’m a very unsentimental person in general, and I guess there’s also this fear as a female of being judged as being overly sentimental. But I didn’t want to be sentimental, because I don’t believe life resolves itself like that. Films tend to give a lot of false hope and that’s not very courageous. I think hope is often, in fact, the stalemate. So I guess I’m trying to find an acceptance of that. Life, relationships, feeling stuck—it’s hard. It’s not going to transform and become anything else. I think the film’s so much about just being there with these people in their complex situations. For me, the world is really fucked and it’s not about to get better. I really like Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game [1939], for example, because it’s these indulgent aristocrats having a party, but it’s really happening just before WW2 begins, the most horrific wound is being opened up. It’s got this tragic ending where everything’s left hanging, and Renoir says they’re dancing on the volcano. I loved that he never confronts that, it’s just this feeling of something about to explode. I find that kind of indirect depiction very truthful.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of indirect methods, do you agree with the rising chorus of people who say there’s a particular energy in Australia right now coming from filmmakers, like yourself, who are working outside of traditional funding models?
LODKINA: It does feel like there’s a lot of people who are tired of what’s expected of Australian cinema. In my view, the industry’s a bit stuck in a kind of cycle of funding bodies having certain expectations on what will be a safe choice and bring in a return at the box office. Writers pitch those kinds of films knowing what will get funded, and then scripts get over-workshopped—and there’s just so much fear driving those decisions. Of course, the issue’s complex and far larger, and governments tighten funding every year, but ultimately it feels like there’s an endless cycle of fear and boredom. And so people now are reacting against that. There’s a rising sense of filmmakers in Australia who want to breathe some excitement back into our cinema, and being inventive with funding—be it through art bodies (like Soda_Jerk), self-funding (like Ted Wilson and James Vaughan), or looking outside of Australia. What's inspiring is resisting pressures of markets and fighting to do things our own way.

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