Opening night of the 2021 Flickerfest International Short Film Festival, its 30th anniversary, saw a bunch of well-known filmmakers – Warwick Thornton, David Michod, Nash Edgerton among them – record a message of support for the highly regarded annual event that takes place at Bondi Beach. We are certain that the next time the festival calls on its supporters that filmmaker Jasmin Tarasin will be a part of the mix.
“I love Flickerfest,” Tarasin tells us. “It’s always such a great time down at Bondi with such a high calibre of shorts. Very happy to be part of this year’s line up.”
Tarasin’s short is The Story of Lee Ping, which she made as a proof of concept for a feature. Based on Courtney Collins’ debut book The Burial, adapted by John Collee (Master and Commander, Hotel Mumbai), starring Jillian Nguyen and Mark Coles Smith, and with a number of high profile talents behind the camera, the stylised period piece’s selected at Flickerfest bodes well for its future production as a feature.
Can you tell us about your journey as a filmmaker to getting to this point of directing The Story of Lee Ping?
The Story of Lee Ping is a proof of concept short film for my upcoming feature which is an adaptation of the novel The Burial by Courtney Collins. I wanted to work with my production team and build a world and tone for the upcoming feature. It’s a wonderful way to test run everything you need to look at before taking the big leap of faith. Writer John Collee wrote a beautiful backstory about two of the minor characters in the film that mirrored thematically the feature film. It was so wonderful for me after many years of development to explore my vision and work with my hand picked very talented production team.
I have been working for many years as a documentary, commercial and art filmmaker so it’s beautiful for me to step into the world of drama.
What appealed to you about The Burial?
I fell in love with this story as soon as I heard it. It was an important story for me to hear as the story is about a true-to-life famous female circus star, and later outlaw, who existed in the Hunter Valley close to where I grew up in Newcastle.
It’s so important for me as an Australian woman and mother to a young girl that Australian history incorporates stories of independent and successful women. This education was not a part of my upbringing and I am passionate about making it integral to the next generation.
I have already made a documentary about the history of Women’s Rights in Australia for the ABC entitled Utopia Girls. The main character, Jessie, is a spirited strong and capable woman and it’s an inspiring world to be a part of. The lyrical and poetic writings of Courtney Collins in the novel also aligned with my visual aesthetic so I felt it was a perfect match.
When making a proof of concept short, does it have to stand on its own as a short film?
Yes! Absolutely, it’s actually much harder than it sounds. The storytelling in the feature needs to translate. It’s a very fine line with proof of concept as you are working with limited resources to present an idea much larger than what you have the resources that you have to work with. I deliberately didn’t make this a trailer of the feature or incorporate any of the main characters, as I didn’t want to preview this without the whole production in place. We took a side story and created a world and story around this.
How do you feel about representation, in that this is a story about Asian and Aboriginal characters, and I presume that you are neither?
I have Polish heritage with grandparents that came out after the 2nd World War from labour camps to live in tents outside Newcastle. I worked very closely with Jillian Nguyen and Mark Coles Smith to accurately represent each of these characters.
Jillian was born as Huyen Dieu at Sungai Besi refugee camp in Malaysia. Both her parents are Vietnamese, with Chinese heritage on her mother’s side. She immigrated to Australia when she was 14 months old. Jillian and I worked together on developing the character of Lee Ping and researched a lot of history about the relationship between the Chinese and Indigenous communities during this period in history. It was wonderful for Jillian and Mark to unfold some of this history and represent it in this film. Mark Coles Smith is a proud Nyikina man and we worked with our indigenous consultant Dr Ray Kelly with Mark’s character. Jack and Ray formed a back-story and history to his character that was unique to this part of the world and time in history. It was wonderful for me to entrench myself into this history and culture of both of these characters and create a world that could have existed in this time in Australian history. As a documentary maker, the research and development of each character is one of my favourite components to filmmaking. Creating layers and complexity to each character is essential.
What films, or otherwise, influenced the direction you took with the film?
There are different films that have influenced different components of the film. For example, the main character in Debra Ganik’s film Winter’s Bone is a big influence to the feature’s main character Jessie. Australian films including Picnic at Hanging Rock, Bliss, The Piano and The Proposition have all been influences in creating the world of the film. Also, Far from Men is a beautiful reference.
How did you secure Cat Power for the music in the film?
This is my favourite story. I have from day one always felt the song ‘Cross Bones Style’ by Cat Power embodies exactly the feeling and theme of the whole film and I have always imagined this as the theme song. I sent an edit to Chan Marshall to ask if I can use it and she agreed immediately, and we are looking to discuss collaboration on the feature. Couldn’t be happier.
You also have a gun team behind the scenes. Are they all secured for the feature version?
I certainly do have a gun production team who are a dream and I am absolutely moving ahead with this team with the feature. I am in love with the work of Margot Wilson [The Nightingale] on costume – she is a true visionary. Chris Kennedy’s [production designer, Lion, The Proposition] vision and expertise is beyond my expectations, always. Zeljka Stanin [Top of the Lake] on make up is a true artist.
What can we expect from the feature version?
Watch out! Ha ha… I am looking to create a truly unique look at this time in history, I don’t know of any Australian films that have explored women’s stories during this time, especially in the Circus world. This is a unique and extraordinary time and I am loving creating this for the screen. Thematically, this film is about individuals who are looking to find freedom on their own terms and a search for family and belonging.