Sydney Film School student Namratha Thomas talks us through the trials and tribulations of making her intriguing feature documentary, ‘Jemma’.
The upcoming 16th Sydney Film School Festival will present more than fifty short films, both drama and documentary, produced by the students to celebrate the completion of semester's productions. The two-day event will culminate with an Awards Night on July 12 featuring wise words and advice from keynote speaker Wayne Blair, whose debut feature film The Sapphires premiered to a very warm reception in Cannes this year and is due for release here in August.
The Sydney Film School's reputation as a leading private school of both creativity and practicality is one of the chief reasons student Namratha Thomas (pictured third from right) travelled from overseas to attend. Studying a Diploma of Screen and Media and specialising in documentary and cinematography, Thomas cites the hands-on aspect as the best part of the school. "They give you the freedom and the tools to do whatever you want, and that's what I love about it," she says.
Among the films shown at the festival will be Thomas' Jemma, a documentary on an Indigenous transgender prostitute well known in Kings Cross. Suffering from bipolar disorder as well as an addiction to methamphetamines, Jemma has not had an easy life. "I would always see her sitting on the corner of the road in Kings Cross, so I struck up a conversation with her and decided to make a movie about her," Thomas says. "Initially it was about me trying to figure out who she was and to normalise her life. She comes across as this crazy, eccentric person and I wanted to show a side of her that people don't get to see."
The biggest challenge for Thomas took place at the start of production, in gaining Jemma's trust; however once trust was developed, subduing her subject seemed to be Thomas's biggest task. "It's great that she's not camera shy at all, but when the camera is switched on she is always putting on an act," Thomas says. "I needed to spend an insane amount of hours with her to get her tired so she couldn't put it on anymore!"
Working on a small budget was also challenging, especially since Thomas is struggling with copyright issues for music she wants in Jemma, but making do with what she had "goes to show you can make something out of absolutely nothing."
Getting to meet Jemma's family was an eye-opening experience for Thomas in revealing the contrast between their lives. Jemma's 73-year-old mother has certainly not been accepting of her lifestyle. "She wants Jemma to be left in Sydney and only wants to see her son, Stephen. She's always known her as a man and it's hard for her to accept her son as a woman."
The best part of filming Jemma was the impact Thomas had on her subject's life. "It's so important to make a change in a person's life and give them some help. Jemma said she'd never had any friends before and she was so alone, so it was definitely the most rewarding part for me."
At this stage, Thomas has no plans for future works, focusing on completing the final stages of Jemma and then moving on to her thesis, which furthers her documentary work. "This has been the only film I've worked on where I've been absolutely sure this is exactly what I want to be doing."
The Sydney Film School Festival will take place July 11-12 at Paddington's Chauvel Cinema. The event is free and open to the public but reservations are required for the Awards Screening Night, which will take place on July 12 at 7pm. For more information, head here.