TWO weeks ago filmmaker Amiel Courtin-Wilson found himself marooned on the East Timorese island of Atauro, staying in an abandoned colonial hotel and watching a group of theatremakers wrestle their way through the development of a project called Doku Rai. If Courtin-Wilson first felt like an interloper, walking in to ''this anarchic artist colony in hyperdrive in some kind of wild Shangri-La'', he soon found his feet.
By day two he was commandeering fishing boats and sailing them to the furthest corners of the island's reef, devising how best to simulate a levitation scene in a nearby forest and chasing sunsets with a motley array of cameras. There were 12-hour brainstorming sessions, visits from a local choir and moonshine-laced jams with villagers that exhausted even the hotel's trusty electricity generator.
The making of Doku Rai dates back to the filming of Robert Connolly's Balibo in 2008 - it was in Dili that Thomas Wright, who played Balibo Five journalist Brian Peters, met Timorese artists Osme Goncalves, Melchior Fernandes and Etson da Costa Caminha. Wright, who co-directs the Black Lung Theatre, found an easy rapport with the Timorese men. He was taken by their charisma and gravitas; the way they'd chosen art as a way of responding to the violence that had decimated their homeland.
Wright formed an alliance with Major Michael Stone, the president's chief military adviser, who facilitated numerous trips to Dili for Wright to develop his understanding of Timorese culture and history. His plan was to return to the island to devise a collaborative work that pooled his skills with those of his new-found friends.
Four years later - two months ago - Wright returned to Timor-Leste with an Australian crew of 12 artists, creatives and production people and the funding to keep them, and a Timorese contingent of four, busy on script development and rehearsals for nine weeks.
Courtin-Wilson arrived the day of the first run-through and was struck by the ''particular kind of brotherhood, respect and support'' the group had forged. His job was ''two-pronged: to create a short, experimental video piece to appear within the context of the show'', while also recording a film that can travel overseas and lure international arts bodies into touring the work. In two weeks, Doku Rai will premiere at the Darwin Arts Festival. Melbourne shows will follow.
Courtin-Wilson has worked in theatre before, even if he's best known for his films: Chasing Buddha (2000) told the story of his aunt, Tibetan Buddhist nun Robina Courtin, and her work with inmates at Kentucky State Penitentiary; Bastardy (2008) followed the life of ''addict, homosexual, cat burglar, actor, Aboriginal Jack Charles''; Ben Lee: Catch My Disease (2010); and now Hail, which screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival tomorrow. On the way, he's collected a slew of awards - no mean feat for a 33-year-old who won his first gong as a 17-year-old Footscray City Secondary College student with a short titled Charlie's Toy Meets Madeline Moritz.
Hail grew out of a project with Plan-B, a theatre group for former prison inmates. Courtin-Wilson was hired to shoot footage for a production and met Daniel Jones in workshops. He was struck by his intensity and volatility - ''initially he f---ing terrified me'' - and a friendship formed between the two. Courtin-Wilson, who had already spent years traipsing after Jack Charles, began shadowing Jones on his daily exploits, meeting former inmates and friends. When Jones' father and brother later died in quick succession, he moved into his flat to ''see him through a rough patch''. He found Jones ''a mercurial, exciting guy to be around. During the time I slept on his couch he'd pace for six or seven hours just telling me stories. I've never heard him repeat [one].''
It was after this spell that Jones began to see theirs ''wasn't just a transaction that would produce a film. It was a real friendship.''
Soon after, Jones appeared in Cicada, a short film that took its maker to the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. It depicts Jones recounting an experience from his childhood: one day, running to collect darts in his parents' pub, a bloke came in with a sawn-off shotgun and blew the dart player's head off. While the short featured Jones playing himself, Hail, Courtin-Wilson stresses, is a fiction that, while based loosely on Jones' life, should be watched as a movie, not a documentary.
That line blurs frequently throughout the film, however. Jones wears the face of a man who has seen everything his character has; his lover in the film is played by his real-life partner Leanne Letch. Their love story forms the heart of the film, feverish in its intensity and the madness it provokes. Most characters are Jones' friends, others were recruited from the streets of Richmond, Footscray and Preston.
Filmmaker and actor developed a father-son rapport: ''He was very protective of me. I was 26 and naively optimistic about human nature. There were certain people I wanted to meet [serious criminals] … but he always had my back.''
During casting sessions, Courtin-Wilson's North Fitzroy warehouse was overrun with former inmates and junkies, with Jones and Letch assuming the role of in-house security guards. ''There'd be people walking out the back trying to steal computer monitors. Someone stole all our coffee mugs. Dan [Jones] would be like: 'This guy's on the jerry for your laptop. Get that bloke out of here.'''
Courtin-Wilson was seduced by Jones' street smarts: ''He has this acute perception of the person standing in front of him. He sees five times as much as most people see.'' He and Letch proved ''intoxicating'' to be around: ''They're like a couple of teenagers … they have this hyper-present way of living in the world.''
The timing of Hail's screening at the festival is serendipitous: Jones recently returned from the US, where he's played the lead role in ''a black comedy set in southern states''. The film's director saw Cicada at Cannes and emailed two years later to ask Courtin-Wilson of his whereabouts. ''He'd written a lead role for him and didn't even want him to audition.'' It's been a validation for Jones, Courtin-Wilson says, because in his previous work ''people think Dan's just been playing himself, which is misleading because [he's also given] amazing performances''.
Courtin-Wilson has several projects on the boil, one a feature film that was shot in Cambodia with Michael Cody and unfurls as ''an ill-fated love story between two people living in harrowing circumstances who escape and travel up the Mekong. A metaphysical love-story road movie,'' he says with a wry smile. He's also developing a feature titled Blue Heaven, a creation-myth film he hopes to shoot in Scandinavia. He's drawn to the idea of casting children to create ''a cinema that's predicated on pure sensation, not overwhelmed by the tyranny of the cause-and-effect narrative [but governed by a sense] of perpetual immediacy''.
It's a through-line connecting each of his works - a sense of being absolutely present and here in the moment. One gleans that's a world where he feels most himself.
■ Doku Rai runs at Arts House from August 29 to September 2.
■ Hail screens at ACMI 2 tomorrow.
■ The Age is a festival sponsor.