To Tarneit and Beyond: An interview with John Sheedy

John Sheedy’s new short film Tarneit is set in the growing suburb of Tarneit, west of Melbourne. It follows 15-year-old Tyrone (Calvin Black) who lives with his distressed mother (Nicci Wilks) and pick-of-the-month boyfriend Pommy (Nicolas Coghlan), a lowlife opportunist who despises immigrants and homosexuals. Tyrone’s best friend Clinton (Antanhe Zewdu), a refugee, lives with his absentee mother and older brother Shaker (John Mashar), in the same fast-developing housing trust crammed together for a disenfranchised society.

Tyrone and Clinton’s friendship is viewed with racism, bigotry, and malice, but despite these obstacles, the pair are deeply bonded. Partly because they’re both Deaf, partly through a shared sense of neglect, but mostly because they share a dream of one day escaping the harsh violence and hopelessness that swirl around them.

Adam Ross spoke with John before the film’s Australian premiere at Flickerfest in Bondi, Sydney on Friday 20th of January 2023.

First things first, what do you have against the suburb of Tarneit?

“That’s a great opening question (laughs). That’s a very challenging one. And straight up, I don’t have anything against Tarneit, I really don’t. But there are a lot of suburbs I have things against (laughs). But what I see with Tarneit…… is it is a knock-up suburb for the disenfranchised, and it’s a place that I feel has a bit of false hope attached to it.”

Tarneit really is fertile ground to explore a multitude of themes, some of them quintessentially Australian, and a lot are also universal.

“That was really important for me and for the rest of the team to also ground it in Australia, but also allow it to extend universally and connect to a global audience, which is what I strive to do with everything I make. Tarneit felt like the perfect landscape to have this story play out. I would get the train quite regularly down from Melbourne to Geelong, and so you go through Tarneit and I kept seeing this suburb being built and vacant paddocks and then houses and more houses and young people. I spent all day going around there just observing places and parks and streets.”

Was that the genesis of this story?

“Yeah, I remember one day being on the train and looking out and just seeing these two teenage boys walking across this vacuous, empty, dusty landscape with half-built houses. And I went, ‘What is that space? What does it offer them? And how do they navigate that, and who are they?’ It played out in my mind for a good year, and over a year I watched Tarneit being built up and it was just quite fascinating. Also, the producer, Andy (Lima), works with a lot of people that live in Tarneit and I know a few people, a community from Tarneit, and there’s the old world of Tarneit and there’s the new world of Tarneit. It’s a bit like what happens when the two meet and what does that offer for refugees, or for the disenfranchised – and whilst you get a house and a backyard and all of these things, there’s not much more. It felt like a bit of a false promise to me.”

You have a lot of themes running under the hood in this film, and most of them are uncompromising. You cover so much; gang crime, domestic violence, racism, ableism, and yet you manage to make them all co-exist. Were you ever worried that you had too much to cover in your short run time?

“Yeah, absolutely. Elizabeth Packett, the writer, and I, we’re long-time collaborators and we worked really hard on the script. She crafted something beautiful and minimal, but poignant to be able to land all of those themes and topics, but not gild the lily too much, or be like ‘We’re trying to be too clever and cover everything at once’. We wanted to try and stay with our two leading heroes and keep the innocence of those two young boys. We always had those two boys and their emotional journey through this landscape and each other’s households in mind. Everything else was dressed around it.”

Speaking of which, both boys – Calvin Black and Antanhe Zewou – are astonishing. How did you discover them?

“We reached out to the Victorian deaf community, the Sunshine School for the Deaf. We held a lot of auditions over multiple weekends, with profoundly deaf teenage boys, and we eventually culled it down and paired them up. The thing with Calvin and Antanhe, they were at the same school and whilst they weren’t in the same year, they knew each other and had a friendship.

“We did a lot of improvisation. The two of them were so authentic and so genuine in their performances, and neither of them had picked up a script or been in front of a camera. That was really important for me, to have it be as real as possible. You get young people in, and some of them deliver it beautifully, but then some come in and just have a light inside them and Calvin and Antanhe did. We just knew that they were our boys, and they brought their own unique experiences, challenges, humour, and cheekiness to the whole thing. That’s what was really important to me.”

The film is deeply cinematic, with beautiful cinematography by Sky Davies. Some of the most striking images are of wild safari animals appearing in Tarneit. How did you realise the animals and integrate them into the production?

“Sky and I are also long-time collaborators. We did my first short, Mrs McCutcheon, together. I loved the idea of a very naturalistic, harsh world, but one with magical realism. That combination really, really excited me. Sandbox Productions did a lot of the CGI on my first feature H is for Happiness, and I pitched this film to them, and they said, ‘We love this, and we’d love to be a part of it’. They were instrumental in creating the magical realism of Tarneit – the baboon in the bedroom, the zebras at the skate park, the animals running through the fields at the end – there was always only going to be three elements of it.

“I really loved the idea that you start with the innocence of this young teenager, and then his world just gets crashed through by his mother’s boyfriend, and then, all of a sudden, there’s a baboon scuttling up the cupboard and sitting there – that is what he sees. What I love is that his refugee friend has provided him with a visual world of escapism. Whenever something violent happens, he has a coping mechanism, and I really love that that’s what he offers him and vice versa. I think that’s what makes that relationship so beautiful and pure and innocent and heartbreaking and lovely.”

Your film has been playing fantastically overseas and has already picked up numerous international awards. How excited are you for local audiences to experience it at Flickerfest?

“We’re absolutely thrilled that it’s going to be having its Australian premiere at Flickerfest and that we are the opening film. It’s such a great honour. Flickerfest is a fantastic festival and the quality of the films they show has inspired us. We’re really thrilled.”

Also, Flickerfest has Academy Award qualification and BAFTA recognition. Do you believe that’s the next step for your film?

“That would be lovely, wouldn’t it? Who wouldn’t like that? (laughs) I just love that it gets an audience and I love it that these two young boys who have worked so incredibly hard and were so brave, and generous with themselves, get an audience. One of the great things that has come from this is Calvin, in particular, has gone on to do advertisements, a music film clip, and to work for the ABC. This has provided an opportunity for both young deaf actors to have a platform and be able to get more work. This is what they’re passionate about. So, without rubbing brass on my halo, that’s the thing I’m really thrilled about, that they get this platform.

“And you know what? BAFTA, Oscar, if it happens, lovely, tickety-boo. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t, but the story is still out there, and hopefully, it’s connecting with people. I hope it really inspires a lot of young people and young filmmakers.”

Check out Flickerfest details here.

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