By © Jane Freebury

With digs as far as the eye can see, the remote mining town of Coober Pedy has attracted the attention of many filmmakers, from Australia and overseas. The landscape pitted with holes alongside mounds of excavated rock has an extraordinary strangeness that was irresistible to Ivan Sen, a celebrated Indigenous filmmaker who invests much in the look of his work.

His latest film, Limbo, is every bit as striking to look at as his previous work from Beneath Clouds, to Mystery Road to Goldstone to Loveland, set in a futuristic Hong Kong. The stark, atmospheric outback noir was invited to screen at the Berlin film festival, and has received some rapturous reviews overseas.

For someone with an eye for landscape like Sen, the opal mining centre offered something different on this occasion. It creates “a powerfully visual contradiction – with the vast destruction of the environment, but at the same time creating an unnatural beauty.”

During the shoot, Sen opted to sleep underground. “I felt very safe being there. There was only one entrance and I could …light a fire and keep the wild dogs at bay!”

In Coober Pedy, half the population live underground to escape the sun’s intense heat. “People live in interesting houses and stay in incredible underground accommodation, hotels and backpackers. It’s the sort of thing that I don’t think I’ve seen in a film before. It comes up in documentaries, but not in narrative.”

Simon Baker and the Dodge in Limbo. Image courtesy Bunya Productions

Limbo is the story of a jaded detective, Travis Hurley, sent to Umoona, the Indigenous name for Coober Pedy, to investigate the murder of an Aboriginal girl 20 years prior. It’s a place where even the cratered vistas seem to underline the alienation, desperation and loss that encompasses all the characters, white and Indigenous.

Initially, Sen, who was also cinematographer, was shooting in colour on 35 mm, but wasn’t happy with the results. “So I started experimenting with photos I had taken in pre-pre-production, a lot of those I shot on stills film. As I started converting that to black-and-white, it was obvious that Coober Pedy translated beautifully. Probably more so than anywhere else in Australia because you’ve got the great contrast of the white ground and the dark shadows in the caverns underground as well.”

“I think black-and-white also helps you to focus in on the story and characters. Without that warmth, that red warmth to keep you feeling good.”

As the detective Hurley (played by international star Simon Baker) begins to ask questions of the murdered girl’s family, he uncovers fractured relationships and a kind of stasis that reflects the emotional paralysis of his own life, having lost connection with his son. The stark monochrome look accentuates the inter-personal alienation and hints at something else. “These people are living in a memory. It could have been yesterday for them, they can’t move on,” with the police and justice system often failing the Indigenous communities in cases like this, Sen observes.

“I’ve always been attracted to the shadows more than the light”

It is still early days, but the term ‘outback noir’ has been bandied about a lot recently. An occasional film since the 1970s has represented inland and remote Australia as dangerous, unknowable and in need of repair, but the idea has really caught on in the novels of Jane Harper, and the work of Ivan Sen. The spin-off from his outback noir, the Mystery Road television series with Aaron Pedersen as Indigenous detective Jay Swan in a white akubra, has been a significant success with critics and audiences here and overseas.

How did we get from Jay Swan to Travis Hurley? “Jay Swan is this Indigenous detective who straddles two worlds and I didn’t want to take that on again. I was more interested in looking at the interaction at that cross-section where the Indigenous experience intersects with the white justice system, and all the conflict and emotion and intricate character traits that connect with that.”

Simon Baker and Natasha Wanganeen in Limbo. Image courtesy Bunya Productions

Sen is accompanied by his lead actor, Simon Baker, in our interview on zoom. Baker has a long-standing international career with television series like The Mentalist, he directed and co-wrote the film Breath, and was recently the lead in the critically acclaimed local film, High Ground. He was happy to work in black-and-white. “It’s sort of like a different performance. You can be more subtle. You can see the ‘drama’ clearer in black-and-white. I was really happy when Ivan made that choice from a dramatic standpoint because it gave me more space to inhabit my character in a non-verbal way.”

So, one director directing another worked well? “Ivan has such a clear view of what he’s doing and such a command of his craft that I can let go.”

“I had a lot of freedom too,” says Sen. “I’ve often had to work with a lot of non-actors or actors that you need to massage a bit, but Simon didn’t need that and it freed me up to be more creative as well.”

Limbo is light on dialogue and a lot of the characterisation is gestural. With a stoop, a slightly hunted or haunted look, Baker is hard to recognise. How did he get into character for this burned-out, isolated character?

“My uncle who actually lives in Coober Pedy has a particular way of standing. I kinda stole that. He’s got this weird thing where his pelvis is tilted in some way. I don’t know…”

“The real blessing here is that there’s space in the film for this. A lot of films are wall-to-wall plot and try to jam hundreds of laughs in. There’s not that many films with room for actors to actually inhabit their characters. Characters you come to as an audience rather than characters that jump out and beat you over the head because they are rushed for space and time. That was the privilege of this job. Ivan’s approach gave room for the characters to exist.”

Was Ivan working off some of the same family experiences that surfaced in his remarkable film Toomelah, where a lot of the people were his family playing themselves? “Different setting, different characters, different environment, but those family influences or connections find their way into Limbo too. I live the themes of my work and express those, because of my background.”

When I get round to asking Sen for his views on the outback noir, the genre on which he has had so much influence, he is too modest.

“Well, I’m not sure what to think about it. I just create the type of films that excite me, and I’ve always been attracted to the shadows more than the light.”

First published in the Canberra Times on 20 May 2023. Jane’s film reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes