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Australians at Sundance

Lynette Wallworth’s Collisions, screening as part of this year’s Sundance film festival, provides a visceral look at a uniquely Australian story.

Australian talent was never far from view at this year’s Sundance. Hugh Jackman made a surprise appearance at a secret screening of the British feel-good comedy caper, Eddie the Eagle. Rachel Griffiths, also on her first trip to the festival, arrived in support of the gritty Irish drama, Mammal. Further up on Main Street, at the festival’s lo-fi edgy cousin, Slamdance, emerging filmmakers Bryan Moses and Daniel Miller were also present, screening their larrikin comedy The Tail Job, alongside fellow Aussie Platon Theodoris’s feature Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites.

Crucially, though, the 2016 Sundance film festival focused on virtual reality (VR). Marking the 10th edition of its New Frontier strand, Sundance founder Robert Redford – fresh from his first-ever trip to Australia last year, to shoot the dramatic feature Truth opposite Cate Blanchett – continued his vocal advocacy of emerging voices and new technology, with the presence of VR noticeably ramped up. A new work from Lynette Wallworth, one of Australia’s most respected new media artists, which was developed with the Sundance Institute and the Adelaide Film Festival, sat very comfortably in the program.

The Sydney based, AACTA-winning filmmaker and artist previously screened at Sundance, held each year in the snow-capped town of Park City in Utah, in 2013 with Coral: Rekindling Venus – and in 2008, with Evolution of Fearlessness, about female prisoners of war. En route to this year’s festival, Collisions played at the World Economic Forum in Davos Klosters, in Switzerland. It was, she admits, a strategic move.

“I pitched this work outside of Australia – its first audience was at Davos,” Wallworth says. “That’s not an accident. These people [the Martu people of Western Australia] have something to say, and they’re not listened to in their own country. If they’re listened to elsewhere, people will take notice at home. That’s a sad truth, but I think it is a truth. I would love it if we would start to value what they have to say – because it is intrinsically valuable, not because someone in another [country] decides it is.”

Collisions tells the story of Nyarri Nyarri Morgan, a Martu man who witnessed the atomic tests by the British in Maralinga in the South Australian desert in 1956. Wallworth, who has worked with the Martu people on three separate occasions since 2002, was introduced to Morgan by his wife Nola. VR seemed the most appropriate way of relaying his story – which he’d kept largely to himself for 60 years – to an international audience.

“Really, that’s why this film exists,” Wallworth says. “So he can share what he saw, what he thought, and how it impacted him. There’s universal aspects to this story: the way technology that we develop in a silo, separated from culture, impacts. The Martu are wanting to say something about stewardship and how you look after something for a really long time. These things are really relevant. It’s not just a story of the past – it’s about what we do now. I think there’s going to be a lot of people who are going to want to watch it.”

Wallworth emphasises that at the core of the piece, which she hopes will ultimately be available via iTunes (it’s currently on US platform Jaunt Player), lies an uncomfortable truth about native title rights, unbeknown to many Australians, which she hopes will also be addressed in the near future.

“They [the Martu] get to negotiate with a mining company, but they don’t get to say ‘no’ to a mining company. That’s something I didn’t know – and I think most Australians don’t know that,” she says. “It’s at the base of this work. Beneath that, if you’ve been in a place a really long time, you should have the right to say ‘This is ok, but that other thing is not’.”

Ed Gibbs is a senior journalist turned producer. He writes for publications including The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, Empire and Rolling Stone. He has also produced the Crystal Bear-nominated Let’s Dance: Bowie Down Under, a rare documentary short about David Bowie in Australia, which premiered at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival and screened at the BFI London Film Festival, as well as key festivals in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. It will next screen at the 2016 Glasgow Film Festival, in Scotland, next month.