James Vaughan's Friends and Strangers is showing exclusively on MUBI in many countries starting November 10, 2021 in the series Debuts.
I’ve been writing this in the days immediately after the hometown premiere of Friends and Strangers at the Sydney Film Festival. It’s an event that stirred up a lot of emotion for me, as many of the faces in the audience were people whose influence from near or far had directly shaped a project very much about the mysterious, almost self-steering drift both toward and away from acquaintances and friends in the period of early adulthood.
It was emotional for other reasons too, in that this was a film about something more than just some of the individuals from a certain layer of Sydney—but about their relationship with Sydney itself, and Australia too. Not the celebrated Australia of post-WWII migrant success stories, but the ruthlessly extractive and genocidal colonial Australia that still lurks beneath, controlled by and for the petty commercial interests of a rather dull, predominantly white ruling class with no project or vision beyond endless self-enrichment—much the same as when it began in 1788.
Friends and Strangers does not confront these issues directly, and that is because Australians so rarely confront these issues directly ourselves. It was important for me to assemble a film that was true to my own experience in Sydney, where the stunning physical landscapes, beautiful weather and flurry of work, trade, shallow entertainment and alcohol-saturated social events (not to mention “getaways” beyond the city itself) provide a near limitless distraction from any of these nagging questions about who we are and where we are all going with this.
And so it is a film whose narrative and aesthetic structure is oblique, interrupted and avoidant by design. Difficult subjects are skated around. Some characters’ journeys start and disappear suddenly, while others splutter and change course according to the banal dictates of chance. There is a great passivity, and yet I wanted it to feel as though something bigger was at work, structuring what seemed like a directionless and meaningless menagerie of pestering tasks, misunderstandings and half-formed or poorly-articulated desires. The decision to have a stationary, fixed point of view from the camera, and very steady and deliberate editing rhythm was a way I felt of evoking this feeling of invisible influence.
And yet at the same time I found it important not to observe this world only with a cold and detached gaze. From the beginning I wanted the film to have something of the intimacy, thrill, and vivacity that comes with the experience of living in (passive or active) pursuit of some of those aforementioned distractions. Life in Australia can be genuinely fun, funny, and beautiful, and I hoped that by writing parts in the film specifically for some of those wonderful, larger-than-life people one meets along the path, and by placing them in a dynamic, orbiting relationship with the more inert main characters, that the film would carry some of the sparkle of the everyday.
In that way, the film is also about a state-of-mind, about how we manage different perspectival modes in our ordinary experience of reality. Again, that slightly unstable sense of perspective is helped along by the flimsiness of the protagonist, and the constant doubt over whether he too may entirely disappear in the vortex of his own existential inertia and indecision. It was something I also wanted to bring in the sound design, where atmospheric sounds and occasionally music spill over between and beyond places where they belong. In this way, the sound has a more interior quality, echoing the tendency of our (recurring) thoughts to float above and around the physical spaces we travel through.
The way anyone makes sense of their own place in the world is a contingent and unstable process that changes as we change. I wanted to make a film that reflected these shifting interior and exterior states, and expressed them in a style and structure that is true to their essential mystery. This makes Friends and Strangers a film with plenty of blanks for people to fill (or leave unfilled). I’m still unsure what my own relationship is to the place where I grew up, and what role making films has in clarifying it. And perhaps this is why the recent Sydney Film Festival premiere was an emotional one for me—it wasn’t just the exhibition of a jangled assemblage of feelings, worries and hopes, but a nervous and uncertain offering to begin a conversation we—I—often find so difficult to have.