VCA Digital Archive: Justin Kurzel, Adam Elliot, Ariel Kleiman

Still from Deeper than Yesterday (2010) by Ariel Kleiman.
Still from Deeper than Yesterday (2010) by Ariel Kleiman.

The VCA Digital Archive is a living audiovisual record of student films that date back to 1966. The articles in this series respond thematically to the depth and breadth of the collection, which will be available for research from mid-2019. Enjoy!

By Duncan Caillard

When looking back across a filmmaker’s career, patterns emerge, mature and change over time, accumulating into a signature style, and although some will be more recognisable than others, every work inevitably carries with it the signature of its creators.

With the release of the VCA Digital Archive, it’s now possible to see some of the earliest works from filmmakers who have gone on to become important figures in the Australian film scene. Although all these early films are impressive on their own terms, they carry special significance when viewed as part of a greater whole – an ongoing conversation between works, spoken in the voice of a single artist.

For film students, reviewing the early films of other directors provides invaluable insights into how some of them worked with limited budgets and crews, picked their influences and, most importantly, how their filmmaking has improved over time. A director’s early films can provide useful insights into our own understanding about filmmaking by learning from the masters before they were masters.

I’ve selected three VCA graduate films by directors who have gone on to do remarkable things on the international film scene: Adam Elliot, Justin Kurzel, and Ariel Kleiman.

So, where to begin?

Uncle (1996) dir. Adam Elliot

Animator Adam Elliot is one of the most original animation directors working in the world today. Known internationally for his claymation character studies Harvie Krumpet (2004) and Mary and Max (2009), Elliot gloriously blends comedy and tragedy as he narrates the unique details of the everyday lives hidden behind the wooden fences and clothes lines of Australian suburbia.

Uncle. Adam Elliot. 1996. Animation.

Even in his graduating film Uncle, Elliot showcases a mature vision and distinctive style typical of directors deep in their careers. His trademark character design – defined by exaggerated facial features and stylised silhouettes – is replicated across his later works.

His narratives gravitate to the life stories of one or two characters, tableaus of everyday events woven together by the voice of a male narrator (later performed by Geoffrey Rush and Barry Humphries). This generates a consistency in Elliot’s style – a “showing off” of character subjects and the animation itself.

Yet in combination, these simple narratives and stylised character design serve a seemingly contradictory purpose: to create a complex and authentic portrait of a human being.

Although Uncle’s facial expressions are warped beyond the shape of a normal human face, we can still sense in the movement of his eyes or the tilt of a lower lip, pangs of too-human loneliness. In the list-like story of his life, we sense the directionless flow of events and the mundane gestures (like a morning cup of tea) that give his life meaning.

When Elliot won an Academy Award for his short film Harvie Krumpet a few years later, his speech was similarly simple: he thanked his collaborators back home, the Australian Film Institute and his boyfriend, and announced on US national TV that the film would soon be screened back home on SBS, an Aussie everydayness that contrasted with the glitz of the ceremony as a whole.

Simple, yet profound.

Blue Tongue (2004) dir. Justin Kurzel

Next up, the moody and surprisingly-diverse films of director Justin Kurzel, whose current directorial project, True History of the Kelly Gang, will be in cinemas this year.

Reeling from the international critical success of his debut feature Snowtown (2011), Kurzel contributed to the omnibus adaptation of Tim Winton’s The Turning (2013) before helming international blockbusters Macbeth (2015) and Assassin’s Creed (2016).

Blue Tongue. Justin Kurzel. 2004. Drama

Like his contemporaries David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, 2010) and Ben Young (Hounds of Love,2017), Kurzel’s early work exhibits an intense interest in the darker facets of Australian suburban life and the violent unpredictability of toxic masculinity, themes first encountered in his VCA graduating film Blue Tongue.

Set amongst the half-constructed remnants of a housing estate on an urban fringe, Blue Tonguefollows two teenagers straying from the boredom of everyday life. Electricity pylons buzz overhead, mingling with the sound of planes flying as lines of ants crawl across concrete, leaving an overriding mood of apathy and decay. As with Snowtown, Blue Tongue mingles the malaise of suburbia with the bored anxiety of adolescence, feelings underpinned by the constant threat of violence.

Shot largely in close-up with a shallow depth of field, Kurzel grounds the action squarely in its subjects’ perception of their immediate surroundings, foregrounding touch and the sharp objects (barbed wire, broken glass) that populate the space.

Kurzel structures the narrative of Snowtown in a similar way, grounding its events on the subjectivity of 16-year-old Jamie and his confused, partial participation in the famous murders.

A subtle interest in colour underpins much of his visual style. Blue Tongue’s colour palette is oversaturated, leaving blue sky, green grass and pink skin almost fluorescent.

Snowtown, by contrast, is oppressively desaturated, its characters adrift in a grey suburban wasteland of corrugated iron and dry grass. Pushed to the opposite extreme, the climax of Macbeth is wrought in near-monochromatic orange, a high-dramatic contrast to the bleak realism of his earlier work.

Noticeably absent from Blue Tongue, however, is the involvement of Kurzel’s brother and regular collaborator Jed Kurzel, whose pulsating scores can be heard in The Babadook (2014) and Alien Covenant (2017).

In place of music, Kurzel draws upon the ambient sounds of the space, leaving room for the unpleasant silences shared by its central characters. The lack of action in the score reflects the inaction of its characters, and heightens our sense of discomfort as spectators.

Discomfort sits at the heart of Kurzel’s filmmaking, even at this early stage of his career. Prioritising mood and place over action or spectacle, Blue Tongue marks a sophisticated (and quietly-disturbing) overture to an impressive career.

Deeper Than Yesterday (2010) dir. Ariel Kleiman

Our final short film is also the most recent, and arguably the most technically ambitious. Submitted as Ariel Kleiman’s graduating film, Deeper Than Yesterday was awarded the Kodak Discovery Award and Petit Rail d’Or at Cannes in 2010, and the Sundance Jury Prize in International Short Filmmaking in 2011, building upon the success of his previous student film Young Love (2009).

Deeper than Yesterday. Ariel Kleiman. 2009. Drama.

After the film’s tremendous critical reception overseas, Kleiman directed and co-wrote Partisan(2015) starring Vincent Cassel (Black Swan, 2010), before serving as Jane Campion’s co-pilot on the BBC limited series Top of the Lake: China Girl (where he directed the majority of the episodes).

Kleiman’s filmmaking is marked by a striking ambition almost unthinkable within the space of independent filmmaking, much of which comes down to his intelligent leveraging of the resources available to him.

Young Love. Ariel Kleiman. 2008. Experimental.

Kleiman’s use of deep focus makes the most of the extraordinary space of a non-operational submarine (recalling the mise-en-scène of Andrei Tarkovsky’s rundown space station in Solaris), which he interplays with a mixture of low-key lighting and shallow depth of field to show the confinement of its crew.

Although as viewers we can’t help but marvel at the extraordinary setting of the submarine, Kleiman avoids giving us more than glimpses of it. The spectacle of the submarine supports the story and psychology of its characters, rather than subverting them.

Kleiman’s work is also characterised by the deft use of foreign language dialogue. By all accounts,Young Love is an extraordinarily simple film: it takes place in one setting, with only two characters and with minimal editing.

But with unsubtitled foreign language dialogue, kitsch costuming and the absurd inclusion of a herd of alpacas, Kleiman’s film takes on a quirky mystique that maintains our interest across its duration.

The collision of these disparate elements means that, although the film was produced entirely within Australia as a student film, the exact place and time remains obscure.

His use of Russian language in Deeper Than Yesterday inverts this. Rather than distancing us from the place and time of its characters, the Russian dialogue of the submarine crew deeply embed us within the space, psyche and world of its characters.

It is therefore disappointing (but entirely understandable) that Partisan does not use language in the same way. Working with an international ensemble of actors – including many children – and seeking a wider domestic audience, speaking in a regional language would have posed unnecessary obstacles in production.

But there is a sense of place lost in translation, its action unmoored from the realities of everyday life.

Film critic Andrew Sarris once noted that: “The reason foreign directors are almost invariably given more credit for creativity is that the local critic is never aware of all the influences operating in a foreign environment,” a sentiment Kleiman leverages to great critical effect in his filmmaking. But to reduce his talents to a foreign exoticism fundamentally mischaracterises his talents as a director.

Of course, collaborating with someone of Jane Campion’s stature in Top of the Lakemeans having a singular directorial vision isn’t enough, as there are demands of working with a cinematic titan within the confines of broadcast television.

Sitting beneath Kleiman’s quirky originality is deep technical competency and understanding of the cinematic medium, evident even in the earliest stages of his career.

Ariel Kleiman’s other short films can be accessed on Vimeo, while Partisan can be accessed through Kanopy.

The works of Elliot, Kurzel and Kleiman are only a start, representing only a fraction of the extraordinary talents who have passed through the doors of the VCA over the past 50-plus years.

Duncan Caillard is a PhD candidate in Screen and Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne. His doctoral research addresses emptiness in the works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, concentrating on the intersections of space, inactivity and silence in contemporary art cinema.

The VCA Digital Archive series of articles was commissioned as part of a grant from the University of Melbourne, Student Services Amenities Fee. University of Melbourne staff and students and some industry people dipped into the FTV archive and watched films based on themes. The idea was to use the archive as stimulus to curate and create. Some responses are completely creative, others are reviews, others are word art pieces.

The full collection will be available for research from mid-2019. In the meantime you can find a selection of more than 100 films live on our YouTube page. To find out more, visit the VCA Digital Archive Project Page.