By Connor Dalton

She is an actress, photographer, model, and videographer. But don’t think that the list stops there. Wolfe is also an emerging writer and director, and her debut short, The Overthrow, is having its world premiere at this year’s Flickerfest.

The film follows two young girls rollerskating from Sydney to Parliament House in Canberra. Their goal is to get there in an emission-less fashion to demand further action be taken to prevent climate change.

On the surface, it looks like a charming little piece about two friends trying to do some good, but Wolfe packs a lot into the fourteen-minute runtime. The Overthrow is a thoughtful meditation on female friendship and the often complicated nature of activism. Wolfe is aware there are no easy answers when it comes to the climate crisis, but there’s no limit to how layered its effect can be.

Before the film’s first screening, Wolfe spoke with FilmInk about her involvement with climate awareness, the imperfect relationship between social media and activism, and developing the story while travelling through Nepal.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

For many, this film will serve as an introduction to Phoebe Wolfe. Could you tell us about your journey as a filmmaker leading up to this point? 

“Like most, I suppose filmmaking is both a pleasure and has been a form of escapism since childhood. Every summer, my sisters, cousins, and I would make movies. As they were all younger than me, I was instantly granted status as “the boss” and wielder of the iPhone. However, when it came to considering filmmaking as a career that I wanted to pursue, I think it took me a while. The first time I worked with a female director, I was 15. It was on a very low budget short, and perhaps the intimacy of the set felt a lot more within my reach than the huge TVC sets I’d experienced as a young actor. I made my first short film as a teenager fairly soon after and began to see how this could be a vocation that not only utilised every part of my brain but made life feel the most understandable.”

Where did the idea for The Overthrow come from? 

“A few days after my 19th birthday, I was trekking in Nepal with one of my eventual producers, Ben Wastie-Pero. I’d recently completed my first year of uni and was reflecting on the activism I’d engaged in that year — in particular, the Strike for Climate movement. With the clarity of the mountain air coupled with the act of a rigorous physical journey, I found myself writing a story of teenage girls skating across the Australian outback to raise awareness about climate change. A journey like this sounded wild to me, but in the context I was in, totally possible. At first, I thought such a protest would be incredibly powerful, with the potential to incite change on a political level. Yet, when I returned to the idea a couple of years later, in the aftermath of the pandemic lockdowns, my perspective had become more cynical, and I found myself questioning the extent to which such activism can be performative and inconsequential despite passion and determination.”

Is climate awareness something you’re involved in? 

“My involvement with climate awareness is complicated, imperfect, and perhaps contradictory at times. I still believe that awareness through education on the science of climate change and activism through pressure on government policy and corporate responsibility, continues to be crucial for combatting this global crisis. But I think it’s also important to wonder when wanting to raise awareness can become paradoxical and even conceal ulterior motives. In a digital age of algorithms and echo chambers, questioning my engagement with climate awareness is really interesting to me.”

The film deals with a lot of big topics. Did that make for a difficult writing process, or did it come together quite naturally? 

“It’s strange, even though you could say this is a film about climate change, I rarely felt that that subject was the lens for a viewer to only reinforce a simple message. I think this was a consequence of focusing on a few narrow ideas within this enormous conversation — those being performative activism, moral purity, and female friendship. A huge amount of research really helped to formulate and evidence these questions and ideas, which I find incredibly important to my writing process. From there, I was fortunate enough to unpack my research in conversation with the intelligent writer/director George-Alex Nagle and translate more complex layers to these characters and their journey.”

This is your directorial debut. How did you find the role?

“I was surprised by how natural it felt to take on directing. I feel like the role of the director is so elusive. You can listen to as many interviews, observe as many sets, and ponder as many hypotheticals, but until you’re sitting before a collaborator or calling the shots on a set, you have no idea what your fight or flight response will reveal. In the moment, I felt as if I’d unlocked a supernatural sense of calmness and optimism, that despite whatever obstacle was thrown our way, this film, this story could overcome it. I cannot articulate how much I learnt about directing during this process, and I am so grateful that the experience has only given me more courage and belief in pursuing further opportunities and ideas in the future.”

Your sister, Annabel Wolfe [above], plays one of the leads in the film. Was she always in your mind for this project? 

“From the early stages of writing, Annabel was always in mind to play Cleo, one of the two teenage skaters. I’m really fortunate to have had talent like hers to draw upon for this film. She has incredible emotional access — which I knew the role demanded — and was clever enough to translate theoretical ideas into her emotional journey. Many scenes, particularly towards the end of the film, rest heavily on subtle physical performance. It was breathtaking and so relieving to watch my sister perfectly translate what was in my mind into the film.”

How was the dynamic on set between the two of you? 

“Sibling partnerships are really interesting to me. You’ve grown up together, which means having an established shared language that artistic collaborators are always striving to achieve. Annabel and I have been making home movies together since we were children, eventually graduating to directing each other’s self-tapes. So, it felt really natural to work together, not only as actor and director but as moral supporters as well.”

Regarding your other lead, Miah Madden [above left], how did she get on your radar? 

“I was incredibly fortunate in that Miah is Annabel’s best friend in real life. She’s been a good friend for years, and I’m a huge admirer of her work. She’s a very intelligent and talented actor with an emotional understanding well beyond her years. In our first conversations about the project, I was really impressed by not only her passion for climate justice but the depth in which she could unpack every layer of the film and her character with ease. Her character was a direct embodiment of my questioning of performativity and moral purism. To personify such abstract ideas is not an easy feat, and Miah was so generous in our collaborative development of her character. I was very lucky to work with her on my first film and her enthusiastic participation and support to this project.”

Writer/Director Phoebe Wolfe

What were some of your biggest challenges in making this film? 

“The memory that comes to mind is sitting at a coffee shop with one of my producers, Lilly Bader, and asking if she knew if it would be possible to film on a highway. I remember her looking as if she’d seen a ghost and yet, at the same time, utterly determined. There were many moments like this throughout the course of development and production that we faced head-on with sheer passion and optimism. If an actor cancelled at 3am, mere hours before we began shooting, no problem. As I remained pragmatic and confident, there was a hefty amount of logistics and problem-solving that I am forever grateful to Lilly and Ben for navigating, as well as other crew members Darwin Schulze and Rosie Byrne for remaining eternally positive.”

What are some of your fondest memories from the shoot? 

“It was truly beautiful to be shooting in the heart of the Wiradjuri nation. I must acknowledge the Wiradjuri people, who are the traditional custodians of the land upon which we filmed, and respect their continuing culture, traditions, and connection to Country. A film set always tends to feel like a bubble of reality, and there was something so special about being on Country with such a small group of passionate filmmakers that filled me with a tenacity I’ll never forget.”

One of your characters is a very abrasive activist. She’s quick to typecast people as villains and takes a very aggressive attitude towards her cause. What is your position on people who take that type of stance? 

“There’s an interesting tension between those that believe that a systematic overthrow is the only way for substantial change to occur and those that say such radical acts only lead to further polarisation. I find my perspective intertwining with both stances, as there’s merit and downfalls to both schools of thought. Annabel and I really enjoyed playing into Cleo’s aggression, as such behaviour tends to be discouraged in young women and rarely ever presented onscreen. A show that played with these boundaries really well is Foxtel’s Upright — notably Milly Alcock’s refreshing portrayal of the belligerent and dynamic Meg. Cleo is definitely more complex and layered than merely a stereotype of the “angry activist”, however, audiences are encouraged to characterise her as such. In a conversation of polarity, I was intrigued by the dramatic effect of juxtaposing Cleo’s assertiveness with her vulnerability by the end. Even though the activism of my generation may seem outspoken and aggressive, often beneath the surface lies innocence, anxiety, and a fear for the future.”

That same character later gets called out for a vain social media post. What made you want to delve into the more performative elements of activism? 

“It’s wild how quickly the modern climate movement has been able to globalise so rapidly with the use of social media. At first, I thought it was incredible, but then I began to fear how quickly such activism could become a mode of self-aggrandisement as opposed to an impactful endeavour. Social media tends to emphasise this binary between right and wrong, which can be harmful for a conversation as complex as climate change. My emphasis on performativity is less of a cast of judgment but rather an opening of the consideration of paradoxes, inconsistencies, and overlaps.”

How does it feel to be selected for Flickerfest? 

“Absolutely surreal! It’s a festival I’ve been supporting since I was a teenager, so to think back to that 15-year-old girl in the audience makes me so warm with gratitude.”

We’re certain that Flickerfest will be the first stop in a lengthy festival tour. What excites you about potentially showing this film around the world?

“What excites me the most is hearing different perspectives. I’m really interested [in] local stories with global ramifications, so the possibility of being able to engage with international audiences would be majorly fascinating and beneficial for future films.”

What sort of stories are you hoping to tell next? 

“I hope to create stories that meditate on political ideas in contradictory and relatable ways. I want to fuse cinema as a medium with my background in global political studies and history to harness an audience’s empathy for political change and consensus outcomes.”

The Overthrow is screening alongside Australian shorts at Flickerfest on the 23rd of January. Tickets can be purchased here.