The 'Limbo' interview: Indigenous Australian film director Ivan Sen on his "desert noir" at Berlinale

Complete with an anti-conformist, against type performance by its leading man Simon Baker, the film delves into the everyday racism experienced by the indigenous community Down Under and Nagihan Haliloğlu caught up with filmmaker Ivan Sen for a quickfire round on his latest work, which screened in Competition in Berlin.
The 'Limbo' interview: Indigenous Australian film director Ivan Sen on his "desert noir" at Berlinale

The Berlinale synopsis for Limbo reads: "Detective Travis Hurley arrives in a small town in the Australian outback. The Hotel Limbo, which resembles a rocky grotto, proves to be perfect for his very own particular type of relaxation. But he has come here to investigate a case from 20 years ago for which the only evidence is a number of tape recordings: the unsolved murder of an Aboriginal girl named Charlotte Hayes. The residents are less than forthcoming regarding the provision of information; this is especially true of the victim’s fractured family. You do not talk to a cop, especially if he is white. But Hurley, in a stoic performance by Simon Baker, knows how to wend his way in his cool car through the labyrinthine landscape of the Opal Mountains and form a bond with the cave and caravan dwellers."

The film stars Simon Baker, familiar to TV audiences worldwide for his role as Patrick Jane in The Mentalist (2008-2015) along with Rob Collins, Natasha Wanganeen, Nicholas Hope and Mark Coe. The black and white "desert noir" has been hailed by Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian as "a terrific outback noir," and The Hollywood Reporter called Baker's performance "superb."

Esteemed writer and MIME contributor Nagihan Haliloğlu caught up with its filmmaker Ivan Sen, who also wrote the script and the music for Limbo, and shot as well as edited the film as well. It's a fast, cool and insightful interview that explains as must as it entices audiences to watch the latest work of the beloved Australian auteur.

Let’s start with the obvious, how did you decide to shoot Limbo in black and white?

Ivan Sen: Why not? In the area that we filmed, the landscape is naturally white. I feel that color, especially in Australia, distracts from the story. I have taken a very stripped down approach to this film.

How did you decide on the location?

Sen: I’d had my eye on this opal mining landscape for a while. I actually wanted to film a series there but then I changed my mind and decided on a feature film, checking all the while if someone else was filming there. I wanted it to be specific for this film. I had been wanting to write a story for this landscape since 2012.

What was it like to work with Simon Baker?

Sen: I wanted him to be unrecognizable in this film. He also wanted to reinvent himself as an actor. He is also a director and loves old French cinema. He grew into the role. I had written his cop character as a diabetic but when he took out the syringe box he said the man could be a drug addict and we went with that, as it tied in with the character’s drug cop past.

Indeed, he plays with such intensity and seems immersed in the story, I thought we were going to get a revelation about his connection to the place in the end.

Sen: But we don’t. We don’t need to. Some things just don’t need to be revealed in the end. In keeping with the minimalistic aesthetic of the film we leave certain things unsaid. I wanted the story to have an investigation plot, and incorporate the problems that people face in the area, merge the two themes.

Was there a specific real incident that inspired the film?

Sen: It is inspired by several stories I know, especially as a film maker who has already made documentaries about indigenous lives in the area. When aborigines are victims of crime, the police response is very slow. As I said, I have made documentaries about these issues but when you make a documentary, truth causes a lot of damage, people get into jail. So this time I wanted to get to the truth through a feature film. 

What were some of your influences when making the film? It seems to have a 1960s production design

Sen: I watched In the Heat of the Night again when filming. Also To Kill a Mockingbird was an inspiration.

What is the next project?

Sen: I actually work more on my music and photography. I am planning a book of portraits of Australian actors. I have also been developing a story set in the desert, of a soldier who has fought in Iraq.

Images courtesy of the Berlinale, used with permission.

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