Screenability at SFF

June 2, 2020
We review 3 highly affecting short films playing at the Virtual Sydney Film Festival 2020.

“Six months and I was beginning to think you’d never invite me,” says Cheryl (Susan Prior) to widower Gary (John Batchelor) at the start of Emily Dash’s Groundhog Night, one of three Screenability films made with the assistance of Create NSW, selected for the Virtual Sydney Film Festival 2020. The possible reason for Gary’s tardy invitation is revealed by the buzz of an alarm and a request from his daughter, Jess (Emily Dash), to be ‘rolled over’ – a process she needs assistance with through the night due to her disability.

Awkward introductions are made the following morning when Cheryl meets Gary’s daughters, Jess and Isabelle (Genevieve Clay-Smith), made worse with the surprise arrival of Gary’s pretentious and judgmental in-laws Rose (Robyn Nevin) and Ralph (Chris Haywood). Tensions run high as Rose and Ralph decide to stay ‘for a night or two’ leading to some very funny moments as family secrets are revealed and shock announcements made, not least being Isabelle’s new online business.

Multi-talented Dash has written an evocative script breaking down stereotypes. You get the feeling that Dash has heard a lot of these comments before. “It’s really good that the universities are taking people like you now,” says Rose to Jess during the evening meal, a comment deservedly greeted by…crickets.

The action comes to a head when a half-asleep Gary accidentally rolls a shocked Rose over during the night after mistaking her for Jess, leading to a surprise revelation (subtly revealed by Nevin’s Rose).

Groundhog Night is co-directed by Genevieve Clay-Smith and Rawley Reynolds, expertly revealing the challenges faced when caring for a physically disabled sibling.

Diving in the second Screenability film written, co-directed with Nina Oyama, and starring actor, comedian and Paralympic Champion Adam Bowes is an ebullient caper about friendship and conquering self-doubt.

Swimmer, Alex [Bowes], has a crush on Jen (Isaro Kayitesi). But when at the local pool Jen asks what he’s up to that night and he says that he’ll be visiting his grandmother, Jen, unimpressed, saunters away. A crestfallen Alex consults his mates Sam (Belinda Jombwe), Tom (Crawford Lees) and Rhiannon (Rhiana Shakirra Head-Toussaint) for counsel. Alex’s buddies decide to play a prank on him, stealing his phone to concoct a message to send to Jen, signed off by Alex ‘The Sex Machine’. The chase is on as a horrified Alex tries to stop Jen seeing the message.

Cinematographer Carina Bourke skilfully shoots Alex’s journey to protect his dignity, along the way revealing his parkour skills – hopping, rolling and cartwheeling with urgency, made more impressive with Alex’s condition as a double above-the-knee amputee. At one point, Alex has to get through a gate back into the pool area and requests the help of a slightly condescending lady (great work from Wendy Strehlow) to open the pool’s gate for him. As he races through, she quips ‘what a brave soldier’, a reference to the half soldier in Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly perhaps?

Underwater camera work intensifies Alex’s struggle, as pool toys drop down from above like depth charges.

Madeleine Stewart as Emma the pool attendant rounds out the ensemble.

Diving In is an enjoyable, fast-paced romp with engaging performances, notably from Kayitesi as Jen.

Safety Net from award-winning theatre director Anthea Williams is the final film in the trilogy. Ms Williams has been living with a disability since she was two years old and states that ‘the way disability is understood by the broader public affects me every day of my life.’ With first-hand knowledge, she has crafted a compelling film.

Teenager Terry (William Best) also lives with a disability. He’s holed up in a dingy motel with a stranger, Chris (Nikki Shiels), who has the job of being his ‘guardian’ before visiting his mother the following night, the last meeting before she goes to jail. It’s Chris’s first time working as a guardian, but we get the feeling Terry’s been through this many times before.

Terry’s a precocious, rambunctious kid reminiscent of Ricky Baker from Taiki Waititi’s masterpiece Hunt for the Wilderpeople. He gets by through being a smart arse and builds up a connection with Chris with wisecracks like ‘this bed seems crap, riddled with nits, it’s got blood and cum and shit all through the sheets’, ‘you’re probably right’ Chris agrees. Chris warms to Terry in the brief time they’re together and suggests he writes his dreams and ideas in a notebook, ‘people would read that shit?’ replies Terry.

The next morning Terry wakes up to a new guardian, Brian (Steve Rodgers) with far less patience and tolerance for Terry’s cheeky repartee. Brian’s been in the job too long (or should be in another) and gives Terry warnings about his colourful language, culminating in Terry being bullied into quiet submission. He spends the rest of the day hiding from Brian in the bathroom. With Terry’s boisterous nature subdued, we see his vulnerability and feel his pain.

Redemption arrives when Chris returns late for her shift, cranky Brian remarks ‘I’m now late for another poor bloody kid in a shitty motel’. As Brian walks away Terry can finally be himself again – ‘Fuck you, Brian!’ Terry and Chris share a laugh and cement a connection, one that will sadly, more than likely, end here.

Written by Julian Larnach, with cinematography by Tania Lambert, Safety Net is an important film and should be a training tool for anyone choosing to be a paid carer.

With films like these, ‘Screenability’ at the Virtual Sydney Film Festival is well worth the price of admission. Screen NSW should be commended for funding well spent.

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