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Beamafilm talks to Sarah Jayne Portelli, the director of award-winning short “Daughter”, about the challenges and joys of making the film.
What inspired you to make your film?
Unfortunately what inspired me to write the screenplay for “Daughter” was all the gendered violence cases reported in the media at the time and the victim blaming that arises from the reporting of these cases. There were two cases in particular I wanted to highlight – the deaths of Jill Meagher in Brunswick and Tracy Connelly in St Kilda – and I started writing when Jill was reported missing. I was interested in these two cases because of the opposing way the media went about broadcasting not just the murders, but also the lives of the two female victims, who equally deserved respect but didn’t receive it. Due to Tracy working as a sex worker at the time of her death, the newspaper headlines were focused only on her occupation, leaving her name out and any other details of importance. When Jill went missing, presumed dead, the general public knew she worked at the ABC and the media released personal details about Jill that made her feel human. The dehumanization of Tracy due to her occupation angered me, so I wanted to bring awareness to victim blaming in the media and in society: reduce the stigma associated with sex work, show what life is like for women when they venture out at night, and the double standards women face and the judgment from men as well as other women. I wanted to show gendered violence from the eyes of three different women, through their experiences, without judgement – and I wanted the audience to question which character they thought was more deserving of empathy. My own experiences as a woman also inspired some some of the scenes in the film.
What is your favourite scene in the film and why?
My favorite scene is the one where Jemma and Richard are meeting briefly at the back of Jackson Street to eat kebabs together. There are two reasons for this: firstly because it shows a loving and caring side to Richard, who we see is not just her pimp but her long term partner in life; and we also see a different side to Jemma. I think that is very important for her character to have this scene in the film. Secondly, it is my favorite because the chemistry between the actors was just beautiful to watch and was so believable. I always get sad when I see Jemma turn that corner and give him that look. There was also a fun and short scene between Jemma and a younger sex worker called Stacy, which was actually cut from the film. I liked that scene because again, it showed a competitive side to Jemma that we had not seen in the film already, and it was also a bit lighter than the other Jemma scenes which were heavy and dark.
What was it like working with the film cast, and how did you get them interested in the project?
The cast were great to work with, but I won’t lie and say it was all roses. Like most film sets there is sometimes a clash between the actors and the director. It is particularly hard when you are a new director trying to bring out the best from your script and work to your vision but you get challenged by an actor. But it all worked out in the end for the film. To cast our main characters with the most dialogue and bigger parts, including of course the three female leads, we held auditions. We invited applicants who applied to attend the auditions and it had to be the actors that we thought had the right look as well as the right experience. From the auditions we gauged the actors’ interest in the film concept and the film’s topics through general discussion. I also wanted to hire people who had some passion for the issues the film covers, so we did ask actors about how they felt on the topics. Some actors were super passionate about telling the story and had some connection to violence in some way, be it direct or from witnessing a loved one struggle. One of our supports is actually a journalist who did some work about Jill’s case. I wanted my actors to actually understand and care about what they were a part of. Some smaller bit parts were also filled by acquaintances we knew from the scene, without an audition. Scarlett, played by Katherine Langford, was actually cast after I saw her self tape, as she was from Western Australia and could not get down for the audition. I went home disappointed after two days of auditions as I had not found my Scarlett. I had a few people say they would send tapes. Half of them never did, but Katherine did, and I knew she was Scarlett as soon as she started speaking. She nailed it, and she had a star quality about her and I wanted that. She had hardly any experience and I took a chance and she was perfect.
Do you have any standout behind-the-scenes stories from the making of the film?
So many – and most of them happened while we were filming on the streets of St Kilda, where the film was completely set. We had a box of fruit and snacks on the footpath on the last day of filming and we had homeless people walk past and help themselves to the snacks. That same day we had our police officers mistaken for real police officers and we had a few concerned locals asking what happened. On Grey Street during a take we had an elderly man walk up to our lead Aisha, who plays Jemma, and ask her for a cigarette. That same day our sound guy Glenn was propositioned by a sex worker on one of the corners off Grey Street. The only other stuff we encountered were a few locals running onto set mumbling phrases and talking to actors, one of them did have something on him he offered to our actor Aisha. She stayed in character and they had a nice chat. We also had sex workers and support houses getting upset that we had actors on the corners and in the alleys acting as sex workers for our montage scenes. We also attracted attention outside the Gatehouse and got yelled at by sex workers. While filming inside the Gatehouse we stupidly left the OPEN sign on the door and we had a distressed woman run in. The most bizarre was our Assistant Director, Jemma, losing her folder on the second day of filming while on location. The folder had her notes and script, everything she needed for her job, and on the last day a strange man walked up to her and handed her the folder and told her she had lost it. We have no idea who this guy was and how he knew Jemma had lost her folder, or if he knew what we were doing. Perhaps he had been watching us.
How have audiences been responding to your film? Can you share any of the conversations you had with audience members?
Before we started filming, when I was still in the writing stage and the Facebook page was set up, I received a lot of messages of encouragement from strangers because I was writing a blog of sorts about my experience co-producing the film. Through that page I also received some messages from victims of violence who wanted to share their first hand experiences, and also the experiences they had gone through watching a loved one cope with rape and assault. But from the actual film, after screenings there has been more positive than negative come out from the discussions I have had with audience members. Some that I recall and stuck with me were at a school screening for students and teachers for a Justice course class, one of the male students said that he did not know that it was so bad for women when they head out in public until he watched the film. At a church screening in Queenscliff, the woman who ran the screening brought up that her son actually walks on the other side of the road when he sees a woman walking alone at night because he does not want to scare her. I found that interesting and she found that to be a positive, but I challenged her and brought up that women shouldn’t have to fear a man walking behind her, he shouldn’t have to move and change his part if he has no intention to harm, but women do because they have a reason to. I have been criticized by former sex workers at the same screenings saying that Jemma was a little naive. I had people take away the wrong message – that women should fear going out at night. I have had people say they can relate to at least one of the characters and that the young girls spoke just as women today do. We have also been praised on capturing the heart and feel of St Kilda, and making it feel like the audience was walking with each character.
Are you currently working on any new projects you can tell us about?
Over New Years Eve, my production company, Nexus Production Group shot a feature film in one long crazy night called “Friends, Foes & Fireworks”. The feature film is in Mumblecore style and was completely improvised, with no script and no shot list. We are just finishing that one off in post production before we move to Europe and we will visit the American Film Market with it during November. We recently started filming another improv feature called “In Corpore” which deals with love, relationships and monogamy. The Australian section is complete, but now we shoot the next part in Malta, followed by Amsterdam and wrapping up in New York. It is an interesting way to make a film and we enjoy the relaxed and challenging nature of this genre – it keeps us on our toes.
Thanks Sarah Jayne!