What power does the past have over us? Only that which we afford it, or is there often some other factor to consider? What if our past is also part of another’s past and the two versions become so entangled that one truth is not possible.
In Ben Lawrence’s carefully constructed drama, the power of testimony and the dangers of documentation are held up to the light. It is set in present day Sydney and centres on the life of feted war photographer Ben Fisher (Hugo Weaving in fine form). He is back from yet another mission and is at the stage of his career where he can have a major retrospective. His wife Josie (Hayley McElhinney) has always backed his work but that loyalty has not been without cost. She tells Dan that they are going to have a child, expecting him to see it as a reason to slow down at last. She is taken aback when Dan reacts angrily and asks accusingly whether she thinks he should have had a say in this decision.
At the same time, Sebastian (Andrew Luri), a refugee from South Sudan approaches Dan to photograph his charming amateur choir made up of men from many African countries. Dan befriends the choir and forms a bond with Sebastian. Both men have significant PTSD and memories that have seeped into their hearts and bones. They recognise that in each other.
Eventually, Sebastian pleads with Dan not to show a photo that he took of a massacre in Sebastian’s village some years ago. Dan is then torn between a form of self-censorship, which goes against his whole raison d’etre, and respecting the wishes of his new friend.
Ben Lawrence (son of Lantana director Ray Lawrence) made the remarkable documentary Ghosthunter in 2018, and here makes his narrative feature debut, and it is an impressive start. The film’s strands – let’s not call them plot twists – are carefully overlaid so that everyone’s motivations and reasons are both plausible and given respect. Equally important, the film (which played to acclaim in competition at last year’s Sydney Film Festival) doesn’t just praise or sentimentalise refugees, which gives it a bold moral complexity. Non-professional actor Luri is particularly impressive as Sebastian, a man desperate to start again at all costs. Weaving is generous in the way he works with him and it gives the central relationship a solid mandate from which to examine the film’s complex and delicate issues.