Simon Baker and Rob Collins in Limbo

IN 2003, IVAN SEN made a promise to himself: one day, he was going to work with Simon Baker. Sen, an Australian filmmaker who was gaining recognition following the success of his 2002 film Beneath Clouds, was intrigued by Baker, who, having just appeared in Red Planet alongside Val Kilmer, was staging his own Hollywood ascent. “I just felt he had this wonderful non-verbal performing ability,” Sen explains. “Even in some of his TV shows from the early 2000s. I didn’t really like the shows, but I liked watching Simon. I liked watching his gaze.”

Twenty years later and that unmistakable gaze is at the centre of Sen’s newest film, Limbo. When I speak to the director, he and Baker are a week away from embarking on a press tour for the film’s theatrical rollout across Australia. The production is generating plenty of buzz, both on home soil and overseas. In February, Limbo premiered at the Berlin International Film festival, where it was nominated for a coveted Golden Bear. But unless you’re particularly tapped into the world of arthouse film, you might not even know that Simon Baker has a new role, or that critics are labelling Sen an “audacious” force. This is because despite the international acclaim of films like Limbo, there’s something else dominating the headlines in our local film industry.

“Hollywood heads down under,” hollered Deadline in February 2021. And head down under Hollywood did: since then, who among us hasn’t experienced a reduction, of at least a couple of degrees, in our separation from Tinseltown’s stars? Friends and acquaintances have added Marvel films to their CVs, sent texts about seeing “that guy from Normal People” at the pub and watched A-listers take over our local monuments to shoot their blockbusters (Sydney Sweeney at the Sydney Opera House; Ryan Gosling on Sydney Harbour Bridge).

Robert P. Downie and Nathalie Morris in Petrol | Photo by Jane Zhang

The Hollywood invasion of Australian shores has created something of an undertow for local films, which find themselves up against the big boys when it comes to hiring local production teams. Often, they are quickly outpriced. In this climate, it would make sense for smaller independent productions to be dragged under or even sink. Incredibly, the opposite is happening. In the shadow of productions like Thor: Love and Thunder and The Fall Guy, independent filmmakers have been quietly leading a local cinematic rebirth, not unlike that which defined the original Australian New Wave era of the 1970s and ’80s, when the likes of My Brilliant Career, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout became cult hits at home and abroad.

Often running on little more than the fumes of passion and creativity, with experimental tendencies and newfound agility, homegrown creatives are telling Australian stories that are striking chords on the international stage.

Sen is riding the wave. It’s hard to put him in a box – he’s a screenwriter, director and cinematographer, though his penchant for a DIY approach has seen him take on editing, music and even visual effects roles, too, as he did for Limbo, in which Baker – and his gaze – shine in the starring role as a world-weary detective. Part character study, part outback noir, part murder mystery, Limbo is “this Indigenous experience of the justice system,” Sen tells me. “It’s just about these damaged people who are drawn to each other within this incredible backdrop of a black-and-white underground Coober Pedy . . . you go looking or something to connect with and so you jump onto the characters.”

Sophie Wilde in Talk to Me | Photo by Matthew Thorne

Sen describes himself as “a bit of a recluse”, but he’s still felt the change brewing. “For too long, the film industry’s been controlled by such a small amount of people,” he says. “I think it’s probably just the beginning of a kind of a renaissance of – not just in Australia, but internationally – people getting their stories and making them at a level that’s on par with the old guys, but at a fraction of the cost.”

Among the “old guys” Sen is referring to are Gillian Armstrong and Peter Weir, Phillip Noyce and George Miller. He’s not the only one inspired by these pioneering auteurs. “That filmmaking era was so exciting and had a particular flavour,” says Leningrad-born, Melbourne-based independent filmmaker Alena Lodkina. Her film Petrol recently screened in the New Directors/New Films festival at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where The New Yorker hailed it as a “standout”. A coming-of-age film blending a jarringly accurate depiction of contemporary young creatives with a hint of magical realism, Petrol turns an often-tongue-in-cheek lens on privilege, art and the ways we lose (and find) ourselves in our relationships with others. “[The New Wave] was this huge … flood of ideas, activity and fun,” Lodkina tells me over Zoom. “Those filmmakers played with genre and stereotypes of Australian identity.” Today’s local filmmakers, like herself, “probably grew up on a wide introduction to cinema through the internet,” she theorists. “People have absorbed it in interesting ways. So [now] I think you see a lot of different flavours.”

They might be new and experimental, but those flavours are pretty appealing – especially to overseas critics, who have embraced the originality coming from our shores. Limbo and Petrol aren’t the only local indies to have made such an impression in recent months: Warwick Thornton’s 1940s drama The New Boy, starring Cate Blanchett and Deborah Mailman, recently premiered at Cannes, where it was selected for the festival’s influential Un Certain Regard program, which has a long history of spotlighting the most exciting new talents in film. In February, Rolf de Heer’s outback drama The Survival of Kindness competed alongside Limbo as a nominee for the Golden Bear at the Berlinale. And in January, a fierce post-Sundance bidding war saw the séance horror Talk To Me, which was directed by Australian brothers Danny and Michael Philippou, acquired by American studio A24, the arthouse phenomenon behind global sensations Midsommar and Uncut Gems.

Elias Anton in Of an Age | Photo by Thuy Vy

Like Sen, Lodkina is preparing for the local theatrical release of Petrol, which has come, rather pointedly, after its success overseas. Call it tall poppy syndrome, or an ongoing fascination with the prestige of international cinematic epicentres like Hollywood and Cannes, but it does seem as though Australian productions still require an international co-sign before they can get the exposure they deserve at home. “I think it always is our kind of Australian burden,” says Lodkina. “Until you get recognised overseas, it’s hard to get traction here.”

Sen knows that burden too, having completed a few laps around the international circuits with his previous work. “Australian people back home, they see these responses from critics, from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter and so it becomes validated.”

Aswan Reid in The New Boy | Photo by Ben King

Lodkina and Sen aren’t fazed by the lower budgets and exposure inherent to indie filmmaking – they’re busy seeking something more impactful. “I think the thing that binds independent filmmakers in Australia is a certain degree of idealism and a pursuit, I suppose, of artistic conversation on the international arena,” Lodkina says. “People like that have a certain degree of, like, craziness,” she laughs. Does she count herself among that crowd? “Yeah. I think you have to be kind of crazy, because you basically have to be prepared that you’re not going to be putting a down payment on a mortgage anytime soon. You’re very precarious, and [living] for your work.”

Sen knows this too, though he’s now finding himself at a crossroads, having reached a level of acclaim wherein he’s being offered a seat at the table of commercial players rather than being left to solely inhabit the indie corner of the filmmaking universe. “I think you can kind of straddle both worlds – and in a way you need to, to survive as a filmmaker, or you do some other job to keep your art going. I don’t think it’s a new thing, but I think the playing field is new though, where we can do it,” he says. “There’s an art in everything and there’s an art in capturing wider audiences without selling your soul, too.”

Capturing those wider audiences isn’t a challenge exclusive to indies, though generally speaking, the instantly-gratifying formulaic plots and recognisable casts typical of big-budget blockbusters tend to appeal more to your average cinemagoer. “I think that people can feel unprepared for artistic films because they go in with an attitude of, I don’t get that stuff, that’s not for me,” says Lodkina. “But I think . . . [you can] let yourself go and realise that maybe it’s not something to get, it’s just something to experience. Enjoy the aesthetic and sensual pleasures of being in a cinema and being confused and surprised and mystified . . . lingering on the experience the next day and the day after and wondering what happened? What was that?”

Sen is more forthright: “Look, it’s just not the same crap,” he tells me. “Because the budgets are low, [indie filmmakers aren’t] walking that tightrope that the bigger budgets do. So it doesn’t matter if you fall because you didn’t spend much money anyway.

Natasha Wanganeen, Alexis Lennon and Tiana Hartwig in Limbo

“You don’t have this studio behind you who are making you tick all the boxes – and once you tick all the boxes, you have something that’s not unique anymore because it’s been constructed by boxes that have to be ticked. Independent films, they play outside that field. Sometimes it’s a good thing,” he laughs, “and sometimes it’s a bad thing.”

That freedom from the constraints of studio support is far from a walk in the park – it means you’re free from the safety nets they provide, too. But if the successes of Limbo, Petrol, Talk to Me and The New Boy are anything to go by, such freedom has led to a groundswell of creativity and the onset of a new era of local indie filmmaking, one that might be celebrated as a new turning point in our cinematic history some 30 years down the track, just like the Australian New Wave is now.

Lodkina and Sen both concede that the Australian film market and industry are unpredictable, so they’re hesitant to make any firm guesses about exactly how things will pan out. But they’re still committed to the idealism of the indie filmmaker. “One thing is for sure,” says Sen. “You have that ability to do something that’s different and actually has a better chance of being truthful, I think.”

This article originally appeared in issue 01 of Esquire Australia. Get your copy here.