The Finished People: a digital, political vision

Dan Edwards

Joe Lee, The Finished People

Joe Lee, The Finished People

Joe Lee, The Finished People

Khoa Do’s ultra low-budget digital feature The Finished People is everything that most contemporary Australian cinema is not: politically charged, socially engaged and stylistically brazen. It has one foot in the traditions of Italian Neo-Realism and the other in the kitchen-sink dramas of British directors like Ken Loach.

It’s often said that the digital revolution in filmmaking will democratise the image and allow previously unseen stories to burst onto the screen, but so far in Australia we have seen little evidence of this. Although digital tape formats have allowed several genre films of the sort normally disdained by government funding bodies to be made and released, until now nothing produced locally has matched the stylistic and thematic audaciousness of Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten, or the Dogma films of Denmark. It has taken a young first-time filmmaker like Do, working outside the usual funding structures, to produce a local feature that responds to this pioneering trend.

In RealTime 58 (p19), I described the lack of a concrete sense of place and cultural specificity that plagues most recent Australian films. In contrast, Do’s direct and unrelenting engagement with the harsh environment of Sydney’s Cabramatta is striking. Disdaining the glossy cinematography that characterises most local product, cinematographers Oliver Lawrence and Murray Lui capture Cabramatta’s flat, concrete landscape in a washed-out image that highlights the grey glare of Sydney’s south west suburbs. The film’s prosaic appearance, produced by a semi-professional mini-DV camera, allows the lives of the protagonists to be mirrored in the very texture of the images on screen.

The use of a small, lightweight digital camera allowed Do to capture the performers moving through the streets of Cabramatta as the life of the suburb went on uninterrupted around them. The impression of life caught “on the fly” as it played out around the drama greatly enhances the powerful sense of a very specific time and place that permeates the film.

The potent sense of a particular milieu is also intensified by the presence of the performers. Much has been made of Do’s use of ‘real’ street kids, and it’s true that the performers are all untrained actors who met the director while he was teaching a film course at Cabramatta’s Open Family Welfare Centre. But it’s an oversimplification to say these people are just playing themselves. Do generated the film’s script with the performers during workshops in which the cast drew upon incidents and stories from their own lives and those of their acquaintances and friends. Rather than being autobiographical, the stories in the film are an amalgam of the cast’s collective experiences.

In bringing these stories to the screen, Do sails against the prevailing wind in Australian film acting and employs a resolutely non-naturalistic mode of performance, tapping into a rich tradition of filmic performance that stretches back at least as far as the Italian Neo-Realist films of the 1940s. At one level we regard Do’s cast as characters in a fiction, but their rough-hewn performances also constantly remind us of another reality informing the drama and shadowing the bodies on screen. We never forget that these kids and young adults are playing parts, enacting a distillation of their lives and experiences drawn from the environment around them. They don’t use their lives to neatly inform their portrayals the way a method actor seamlessly incorporates his or her emotional memories into a role. These actors’ personalities, emotions and experiences are unconsciously inscribed into their every movement and gesture, and Do harnesses their lack of formal training to allow these traces of their off-screen lives to constantly encroach on their acting. During Tommy’s (Jason McGoldrick) conversations with Sara (Mylinh Dinh) for example, we can see a lifetime of hurt and repressed emotion expressed in his nervous stance and constantly shifting gaze. Joe Lee as Van moves through the environs of Cabramatta with the ease of someone who has spent a lot of time on the street. And when Simon (Shane MacDonald) flatly tells his friend Des (Rodney Anderson) that he has no dreams, we can hear the resigned fatalism of someone who knows that for some Australians having hope implies unrealistic expectations about the future.

The result is an unpredictable and fascinating set of performances, informing a film that resonates with more emotional and social truth than any other recent Australian feature. Not because it depicts “reality” in any unmediated, transparent or naive sense, but because it shows a group of young Australians in their everyday surrounds, self-consciously enacting a representation of their own reality. Do’s approach means that we never forget there are real people behind these characters, and the story doesn’t end for them when the lights come up. The Finished People may be a fiction, but it is a fiction entwined with a reality much of Cabramatta’s youth lives every day.

Australian feature films seem determined to avoid any kind of engagement with the rapidly widening fault lines running through Australia’s social landscape. For those who have been waiting for a film that not only speaks of our contemporary context but responds to the potential offered by digital video technology, Khoa Do’s The Finished People may be the harbinger of the revolution we’ve been waiting for.

The Finished People, director-producer Khoa Do, cinematographers Oliver Lawrence, Murray Lui; actors Rodney Anderson, Joe Le, Jason McGoldrick, Shane MacDonald, Daniela Italiano, Mylinh Dinh, Sarah Vongmany; distributor Dendy Cinemas.

RealTime issue #59 Feb-March 2004 pg. 16

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2004