Warning: This article contains images that some readers may find disturbing
By Libby Gandhi
Director Patrick Fileti has built his name on powerful, socially conscious filmmaking.
Driven by the belief that that images speak to the soul of the viewer, Fileti strives for intimacy, beauty, and humanity in his storytelling.
A career sprinkled with awards – his campaign for Coca Cola was awarded three Gold, two Silver and four Bronzes at the 2013 Cannes Advertising Awards – is testament to his success.
More recently, Fileti has turned his hand to short-film as scriptwriter, producer, and director of “Undercurrent”, made in partnership with the Refugee Council.
“Undercurrent” is a self-funded reflection on the global refugee crisis, shaped by Fileti’s own interviews with over 50 Australian refugees.
It follows the experience of a young Syrian girl forced to find hope when she is cast ashore after a dangerous sea crossing.
The film is currently playing at the prestigious Arte Art Prize Laguna in Venice, as well as festivals worldwide including the Mecal Pro International Film Festival in Barcelona, Flickerfest International Film Festival and the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival.
Patrick Fileti spoke with Crossing The Line about developing “Undercurrent”, socially conscious filmmaking, and what drives him as a filmmaker.
You’ve spoken in the past about your passion for creating powerful and emotionally charged content. What was it that turned your attention to the refugee crisis?
At the end of 2015, due to the war in Syria there was over a million Kurds fleeing Syria and crossing the Mediterranean to Greece and Turkey. I was following the story. It was something that really grabbed me, and as I started doing more research on it I found a few photographs that really hit me hard.
In one, the sun was setting and there were thousands of bright orange and red lifejackets all piled up as if refugees who had made it over the crossing had thrown them on the ground. Or they might have been piled up by humanitarian aid. It looked like an Ai WeiWei art installation.
Which is currently showing in the Sydney Biennale …
Yes he’s showing in Sydney. We both started doing refugee stuff at the same time.
Was it you who approached the Refugee Council about this piece of work?
Yes. It started when I began reaching out to Amnesty, UNICEF, and pretty much all the other NGOs in Australia because I didn’t just want to write a film about what I’d seen and what I’d heard – I wanted to interview actual refugees in Australia.
How did you reach out to people, then wrangle those interviews into a script?
Well most of the NGOs I spoke to said that they didn’t give out information on refugees due to privacy restrictions. I was actually going to fly over to Manus but they had just put in an embargo. I tried Nauru as well.
In the end I came across the Refugee Council who are the umbrella company of Australia although they’re much smaller than all the rest. They’re also actually the only NGO in Australia who helps Australian refugees, whereas the rest fundraise here for humanitarian aid elsewhere.
All of the Council’s funding goes to things like court cases. There are over 40, 000 refugees in Australia who still don’t have rights or haven’t been recognized as refugees as they came over by boat.
They couldn’t give me a list of people to talk to but they did put me through to a young refugee who had just starting doing filmmaking in Australia. Through him I met his family and community.
I also found an English language class for refugees at Sydney University funded by the Refugee Council called RLP. The woman who runs the classes was really helpful and encouraged me to speak to the students. So I went to three classes and she let me go on the podium to speak to them and help to tell their story.
Did you have much of an idea about what you wanted to create narratively before these interviews? Or was it very much informed by the discussions you had?
The idea came from an image of a young refugee boy, perhaps three years old, lying lifeless on the beach. That one hit me the strongest.
I knew I wanted to tell a story about a moment in time rather than a story that went over time. It had to be a moment, and that moment hit me the strongest.
So the story was about a young refugee girl from Syria who wakes up on the beach after her boat capsizes and what she does after that. It’s about somebody waking up in a foreign country that is completely daunting. Essentially, it’s about telling the story of that person alone in this vast landscape.
So that was the idea but it developed more after I spoke to over 50 refugees who shared their stories with me. It was heartbreaking but very powerful.
I recorded the interviews and took portraits of them, and eventually got permission to do a featured exhibition of as part of Head On Photo Festival. I invited all the refugees themselves and all the funds went to the Refugee Council because for me they were the ones who helped me the most.
So is it fair to say that between the artwork and the film this became an integrated campaign?
Well this project is entirely self-funded and I’m doing it for the Refugee Council. So for me, rather than giving $5 a month to a charity I’d rather just go and use my skills, my know-how, my means and my favors from people I can count on to tell stories and share the message than rather to just donate. And I think that’s the most powerful thing that people can do to use their own skills to help other people.
I mean not everybody can, but you know, if you can, do it.
So it’s not really a campaign in the sense that most of the NGOs I reached out to like Amnesty were concerned about if the project fitted with their brand line, whereas Refugees Council were like ‘yeah this is great’ and were all about just spreading the message and passionate stories.
The stories were just a development into the film but then they actually became a powerful thing in themselves.
On to the shoot … how long did the shoot last? Were there any logistical elements that proved challenging with such a dramatic piece?
For me it was describing a tale of this place that people arrived to. So the location was crucial as well as the casting – those were the two key elements of the shoot.
And where did you choose for the shoot?
We ended up shooting in New Zealand. I felt that the story was universal so I wanted a location that was nondescript but incredibly daunting for our character.
The year before I came across this beach called Karekare beach on the west coast of New Zealand, which has this volcanic black rock landscape. It had an otherworldly, ethereal, black and white aesthetic and it’s generally very cloudy and moody. I’d never been to somewhere that had grabbed me so powerfully before so I knew that had to be the location.
So with that came the challenges of it being a wildlife sanctuary. I had to get permission from not only the surf life club but also all of the community and the Royal Wildlife Society.
I had a lot of help from Screen Auckland, who kept telling me that I should have a backup location just in case but I was like no, if I’m not shooting it there I’m not shooting it anywhere!
Three days before the shoot I finally got the permission, but I’d already been there for two weeks before prepping.
Was it a smoother casting process?
It was a challenge. I didn’t just want to cast in New Zealand, as there isn’t a big Arabic community there, so I opened it to Australia too. It took over five months and we still couldn’t find the right girl. I wouldn’t start production until I found her, so I basically held everything back.
Eventually a 13 year old girl named Rebecca Eggersglusz who migrated just weeks before to New Zealand gave an audition and she had this powerful image that looked like the front cover of the Afghan girl on the front cover of National Geographic with the green eyes.
That’s what I thought as soon as I saw her!
Yeah she had that look. And she also had the persona – she was 12 or 13 but inside she acted like a 30 year old.
The only challenge was that Rebecca didn’t speak Arabic. There’s not much dialogue in the film but the dialogue that was in there had to be done right so not only Arabic, but also it had to be a Syrian dialect. It was hard to find anyone to teach her but I eventually found someone online in Damascus who could help for a couple of months.
Once she was on board I got on the phone and basically borrowed equipment, crew, underwater cameras, drones, everything!
I was shooting on beaches and had to look after crew in really bad weather. The shoot only lasted three days but everything needed to be done right. Safety was a huge concern and the cast was freezing half the time.
But that was exactly why I wanted to pick that beach in particular, because I wanted them to feel what it actually feels like to be in a foreign place. That part of the acting process was important to me.
Did you get very involved in directing the performances of your lead actress and the other cast members during this shoot?
Performance piece storytelling is really the kind of work I love doing. Especially topics we’re dealing with here – primal emotions of survival, grief, war and love. It was a new territory for me that I really wanted to push.
Do you think the project has taken you somewhere new in your filmmaking from your current body of work?
I’d say this doesn’t sway too far.
I work in quite an intuitive way that is real and raw so it’s important for me to maintain the thrill of expressing new kinds of feeling.
“Undercurrent” has a really powerful message so it felt like a natural progression for me.
That’s really interesting, because looking back through your filmography you’ve made a career of producing these very socially conscious pieces of film and advertising.
Are you excited about the fact that these ideas of responsible brands and emotional filmmaking and social change are gaining so much traction among big brands? Do you think it’s here to stay?
I definitely feel that there’s been a shift for brands to be socially conscious.
Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they don’t, but I feel like the most effective ads are emotional.
It’s not easy to get them right depending on what their topic is but I feel that as long as they feel real and touch your heart then really that’s the key to any story.
If a brand is pushing for a socially conscious ad you’re immediately coming off the back foot and it’s always going to have a certain disadvantage. But I think that if filmmakers are honest about their subjects, the story they’re telling and what they’re saying, then it can surpass any comedy or any ad out there.
Finally, is there any advice that you would offer to a young aspiring filmmaker?
For me, it was a long journey. I’ve worked in every department you can imagine from casting, to assistant directing, to camera assisting, runner… I even worked as an editor for years.
So by the time I finally started directing a few years ago I had realized that you can’t just wait for anyone to hand it to you – you’ve got to go for it, and you’ve got to be inspired. You can’t talk about dong the work, you’ve got to be about doing the work.
Make sure that you have support of people around you because that positivity is the key to making anything happen, and be mature about feedback, it’s the only way you’ll get better.
And hustle! Hustling is good! You’re going to have to produce your own work, you going to have to shoot your own work, so grab any camera and go out and tell stories.
“Undercurrent” is showing at the Golden Age Cinema tonight, 28th March, at 17:45
Watch the trailer here