An unlikely project

Filmmaker, cyclist

Success can be magical, a transforming experience after years of struggle. But it can also be overwhelming for the ill-prepared.

For Cate Shortland, who emerged as a filmmaker of great sensitivity and visual style with Somersault in 2004, it brought enough angst to have her quit filmmaking.

''After Somersault, I really felt I didn't want to make films any more,'' the Sydney writer-director says over coffee in a Marrickville cafe, her bike parked outside. ''I think I was just totally overwhelmed by the attention.''

She pauses. ''I just didn't want the attention.''

Eight years ago, Somersault, Shortland's first film, made a strong debut at the Cannes Film Festival. The tender drama, about a vulnerable teenage girl searching for love in a ski-resort town, went on to win warm reviews and appreciative audiences in Australia, launched Abbie Cornish's Hollywood career and won virtually every Australian film award, including a clean-sweep 13 out of 13 at the AFIs.

But as much as Shortland enjoyed making the film, she discovered how much she disliked appearing on television and having her photograph taken. It was as though the sensitivity required to tell the story was at odds with the job as the public face of it. ''I'm interested in ideas and storytelling, not in getting my photo taken,'' she says. ''How would you like to have your photo taken every time you talked to someone?''

Also troubling was an industry backlash against the film that included one attendee wearing a ''Somersault sucks'' shirt to an awards ceremony.

And when Shortland was reduced to tears at another public event - she won't reveal the comments that upset her - she wanted out.

''You don't make films to go to awards ceremonies or critics' dinners,'' she says. ''You also have to have a thick skin and just continue living your life and enjoying the world and not reading what people write about you …

''I just had to get over that and I did. I went into a whole different way of living my life.''

And a very different way it was. After making the TV movie The Silence, starring Richard Roxburgh and Essie Davis, Shortland and her filmmaker husband, Tony Krawitz, moved to South Africa, where he was working on a script, and volunteered in a distressed township, helping sufferers of HIV and tuberculosis.

They also adopted a South African son, Jonathan, now 17, and later a daughter, Rosie, 4.

It was only after an extended break that Shortland was inspired to return to filmmaking when she read Rachel Seiffert's Booker Prize shortlisted novel, The Dark Room, which features three stories that delve into Germany's loss of innocence during World War II.

Instead of accepting offers to direct in the US or Britain, she took on the challenge of making a German-language film in Germany, the drama Lore, which is based on one of the stories.

It centres on a teenage girl, Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), who leads her younger siblings across the carnage of Europe at the end of World War II, meeting a Jewish youth, Thomas (Kai-Peter Malina), and struggling to understand her parents' Nazi past.

It was an unlikely project for any Australian filmmaker, especially one who doesn't speak German.

Shortland was the youngest of three daughters. Her father drove and repaired trucks and was passionate about military history. Her mother loved literature. Growing up in a red-brick suburb in Canberra, Shortland discovered a love for film via the Electric Shadows cinema.

''My elder sister, from when I was about 13, used to take me to Andy Warhol retrospectives and French New Wave and German expressionist [films],'' Shortland says. ''That was a huge part of thinking that film was a way out, a different world.''

Later in Sydney, she studied fine arts and history at university, worked with Liz Watts - the producer of Lore many years later - in a cafe outside the Valhalla cinema and made short films while applying four times before getting into the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. She also fell in with a Darlinghurst clique of musicians, artists and photographers.

Since meeting Krawitz at a Chippendale party, bonding over a shared interest in history, they have been a filmmaking couple, supporting and collaborating on each other's work. The duo were the two Australian representatives in the Sydney Film Festival competition this year.

Krawitz, whose Christos Tsiolkas adaptation, Dead Europe, will be in cinemas in November, describes Shortland as ''an incredibly visual filmmaker but, at the heart of it, she's got a great honesty and insight into people''.

It was difficult to see his partner struggle after Somersault's success.

''Even getting acclaim can be overwhelming,'' Krawitz says. ''You hear about that with a lot of filmmakers and actors. But with Lore and other projects she's developing, it's just really exciting to see her work coming out again.''

Shortland says The Dark Room is a beautiful book. ''It's really visual but it's also filled with really rich ideas,'' she says. ''And it's such a different way of looking at history and looking at the perpetrators.''

The novel felt personal given Shortland has converted to Judaism and is close to Krawitz's 96-year-old German-Jewish mother, who lived through the war.

''What I love about it is we could have set it in 1945 or we could have set it in 2011,'' she says about adapting the book. ''[Lore] has one set of social mores that she operates in and that's what she believes the world to be.

''Then when the war ends and she's thrown into the real world and meets all types of real human beings, that system doesn't work any more. So it could have been about a girl in a cult or a girl that was in the GDR and went to West Germany or a girl from North Korea.''

Given Shortland's two films centre on sexually vulnerable girls, it seems reasonable to assume she is drawing on her own teenage years. But raising the subject brings another admission: Lore is not the story Shortland wanted to tell from The Dark Room.

''I fought with [producer Paul Welsh] to make the last one, which is about a man, who's about 35, and his Turkish wife who live in Berlin. We ended up making the middle one.

''So it wasn't through me desperately wanting to make another story about a teenage girl. I was actually saying, 'Come on, the last one has a little bit of a redemptive ending. Let's go with that.'

''But Paul was great. He said, 'No, the middle one is much harder. It's much more ambiguous. The audience is going to really have to struggle with this girl. The politics in it are so difficult.' He just said, 'We have to do this one.'''

Although she was won over, Shortland was terrified by the ambiguity.

''Because we're dealing with issues around perpetrators, it's not like The Good German, where you know who you like and you know who you don't like.

''In our film, you don't know who the good guy or the bad guy is. Rachel says in the book about Thomas, 'he was neither good nor bad or black or white' … That was part of our whole rationale for making the film: the audience would have to really think about themselves.''

Shortland, who relied on translators and the luminous Rosendahl to communicate with the rest of the cast, says many more Australian directors will make films overseas.

''Our population is so diverse,'' she says. ''Marrickville is 60 per cent non-English-speaking backgrounds. So the whole idea of white Anglo filmmakers is not relevant any more in this country.

''To our great joy, it's indigenous filmmakers that are proving to be such beautiful storytellers. But I think it's also going to happen with Vietnamese filmmakers, Chinese filmmakers, African-Australian filmmakers, in the same way it's happened in America with the whole wave of Mexican filmmakers.''

Shortland says only the advertising industry continues to believe Australia is a white country.

''I just wish they'd wake up and walk outside and look at actually what's in the real community. Television has exactly the same problem. Why isn't there a Chinese-Australian family in a soap opera? Why isn't there a Greek-Australian or a Portuguese or a Fijian family?

''Look at this neighbourhood, look at western Sydney. Parramatta is the centre of it, it's not St Ives.

''When I worked in advertising and I'd try and cast wider, they'd always have an excuse why they wouldn't cast the girl with the dark skin. I don't think anybody cares.

''It's a big apartheid in this country and nobody says a word about it because nobody gives a shit. It's comforting for people because they want to think that's what Australia still is.''

Sensitive she might be but Cate Shortland is definitely back.

Team reuniting

Cate Shortland drew a career-best performance from Sam Worthington as a troubled farmer's son in Somersault.

They are teaming up again for a Foxtel mini-series about the journalists who covered the Gallipoli landing, including Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, Keith Murdoch and C.E.W. Bean. Worthington, who has described it as ''a different insight into the campaign from Egypt through to the evacuation'', will produce the drama with Penny Chapman, though is yet to decide whether he will play a role.

The mini-series adds to television's renewed interest in Gallipoli before the conflict's centenary in 2015, which includes a major drama for the Nine Network.

Shortland is also working on a new film with producer Jan Chapman, which she describes as a contemporary story about a family living overseas.

Lore opens on September 20.

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