Sydney based director Kerinne Jenkins joins us on Close-up Culture to talk about the personal meaning behind her latest short film, Cattle.
Q: I understand the inspiration for ‘Cattle’ came from an article about cattle mutilation, but also contains deep personal meaning too. Can you share that with us?
A: So the article about cattle mutilation is what made me think about the idea of a teenage girl having an alien encounter, but when I was really trying to work out why aliens, it kind of all linked back to my own teenage experiences.
When I was about twelve we found out that my mother had a brain tumour, and while the doctors were pretty harsh about how bad it might be and the prescribed treatments, my mum was convinced that their treatments couldn’t be the only answer. So she decided to do her own research, she tried out all kinds of alternative medicine and for about ten years… we didn’t really know how she was.
It weighed really heavily on me, but we didn’t talk about it. It was just this silence in the room. But my mum was incredibly lucky (and strong and resilient) and she fought it off. She is now 79 and still proving the doctors wrong.
I think what that experience led me to understand was – it’s really hard as a teenager to cope with your fears when you feel so completely powerless and that the fear can often create isolation. However, when you question and can show doubt and can look for answers, it can be a hard and lonely road, but it’s the one worth taking. I guess it’s the way which we hang on to what’s important that I want to be examining through this film.
Q: Was this film useful to you in confronting and understanding your feelings growing up?
A: I think it helped me to understand a lot of what was buried, and how much that period had shaped me as a person, but it also led me to have conversations with my family that I didn’t expect.
I’ll never forget this one really small but important moment with my dad. He’d just watched the film at the cast and crew screening, and he’s a pretty quiet person. But he just said simply, ‘that line’ – and then we just stopped talking about it… ‘I really felt that.’ And he just gave this nod, like he was playing the line again in his head…
We’d never talked about what our ‘worry’ felt like before and him pulling out that specific line just seemed to sum up the weight of it all. We didn’t need to say anything more, we just stood quietly for a moment and remembered it together and that meant everything to me.
Q: It is rare to see a story with no male characters…
A: It was definitely a choice to focus on the female characters and I definitely don’t mean to be glib, but I think some of it’s because this is still a question that gets asked. Some of it’s because it took me until I was thirty to realise that the scripts I was writing were all about men…. and they were rubbish! I wasn’t writing what I knew, I was writing versions of what I’d seen in films.
So the real answer is because these are the relationships that I know and I don’t feel like I’ve seen enough of them. I don’t feel like I’ve seen enough stories where women are given the chance to question and doubt the world around them, and stories where their physical safety is isn’t the only prize or achievement. Escaping violence or death or worse shouldn’t be the only outcome that a woman gets to dream of.
I should say though, I really don’t feel like our binary language is enough for our experiences and how we exist, but until we’ve seen more experiences on screens that expand our understanding of what it means to be seen as something other… I don’t think we’ll get past these binary terms. (Also… this is such a huge topic that I am very, very much over-simplifying but hopefully that speaks to a small element of it!)
Q: This is an incredibly mature and nuanced performance from Ella Picker. What was it like working with her through this process? Did she change your understanding of the character in any way?
A: I remember the conversation I had with Ella at the audition really clearly. I explained how the story was about the weight I’d felt as a teenager and she immediately connected it with her own family’s experience of living through a drought for the first thirteen years of her life.
It’s funny, as I’m not from the country and probably have a very romanticised notion of it, but Ella brought a real grounding to the character. Her experience and my own would look nothing alike on paper, but she knew exactly what it was like to watch and worry for your parents and wanting to do something to help but feeling powerless in the face of it all.
She just took anything I talked about and effortlessly pulled her own life experiences out to make a connection with the material. It’s funny how simple our conversations got on set because we did all this talking about our own lives in the lead up.
I think also – there’s one particular moment where Ella’s kind of grounding came out in full force. A lot of people had argued that if you saw a cow on fire in real life, you’d be more scared, surely she’d be terrified etc. But I think I knew deep down the tone I was going for, and the real purpose of the moment just wasn’t about fear.
But I did have some doubts on the day and when it came time to film Ella’s reaction – I asked what she would do if she saw a cow on fire. Her response was ‘I’d go put it out’. It was that simple for her. She’d told me stories about seeing bush fires close up while working with her dad on the farm, so it was a really honest answer and understanding.
Q: This is a visually striking short film. The landscape feels somewhat closers to that in ‘God’s Own Country’ than the Australia we are used to seeing on film. What did you feel this location could bring to the film?
A: It’s an area of Aus that I’ve been in love with for a long time and I definitely had the feeling that I hadn’t seen it on screens too often before. There’s so many different facets to the Australian bush, but I think something about this area also harked back to Picnic At Hanging Rock for me. It just felt right for creating a tone that had an element of mystery to it. It’s wild and expansive and beautiful and I think moves away from more quaint versions of a rural area.
But although I had the region in mind, to get the spefiicspots and access – we had to go on a huge number of scouting missions to find it. I was helped out by our producer, dop, friends and even my composer who came down and stayed in the area in the lead up. In the end though, the bulk of the film was shot on one property – and I owe a huge debt to Trudi and Gordon, who opened up their world to us and also allowed us to film their cattle.
Q: What would you want to delve into further in a feature version of ‘Cattle’?
A: The feature that I’m developing goes much further into exploring an idea of what it would look like if a teenage girl had an encounter with something alien. We’ve actually moved away from the alien taking on a human physical form and moving into a space that feels more defined by science fiction tropes.
The themes of struggling with adult responsibility, fear for your parents well-being and how isolated we become in these struggles are all still grounding the project – but it’s definitely moving away from the short in a healthy way I think!
Q: I’d be fascinated to hear more about ‘Precipice’ – the narrative podcast series you made for Virgin Airlines…
A: I think what was really the most exciting part for me was the challenges of the format and limitations that were chosen for us. We were working with binaural microphones to record with, creating 3d sound – and the way it gives you a sensation of movement and atmosphere is incredible. It really takes you far away from the experience of a radio play and makes you feel like you’re there in the moment.
We also chose to write a story that plays out without a narrator and without using traditional narration devices, like news reports and the like…. which was bloody hard! But I think the medium is an incredible space to work in, working with actors, and writing specifically for sound. I’m currently developing a sci-fi dystopian series where AI and ethics are at the core of the idea and it feels perfect for a podcast space.
Q: Can you tell us about your time spent in the British film industry? Any fun tales from your time over here?
A: I spent five and a half years working in London and I would struggle to explain just how important it was for me. I got to work with so many incredible filmmakers who shaped my love and understanding of what this industry is all about and how amazing it can be.
I got very lucky and feel like I got to grow up around this amazing family of creatives. They also got to see me from day one, way out of my depth (I may have blagged my CV…. a lot), learning constantly, falling over… sometimes literally… but always getting back up again. I think they could tell how hard I would work and how much I cared so that got me through some of the times when I seriously didn’t know what was going on around me.
The first proper job I had was as the production co-ordinator on the indie film London to Brighton – and when they offered me that role, I didn’t even know what it was. I’d never heard the title before – but thankfully it turned out ok as I worked with everyone on projects after that as well. (A huge shout out to Paul Andrew Williams, Ken Marshall, Rachel Robey, Al Clark and also Rachel Dargavel for all the things).
As for fun tales… this is probably more fun for me, but I’ll never forget this one experience. I was running on a film called The Cottage, doing night shoots and crawl backs and all of us were losing our minds a little and I needed to get something from the unit base.
The drivers were all busy and so I thought, I’ll just walk through this field of sheep. I think I was carrying a plastic bag and the sun was starting to set and they must have thought I was bringing food or something because as I walked through every single sheep decided to freeze… and then Baaaa’d at me in unison. I did wonder for a moment… ‘do sheep attack?. And it is still one of the creepiest random moments that I’ve had!
Q: What is next for you? Any future projects or ambitions to share with us?
A: So there’s a load of things in the works. I’m writing away like a crazy person but I’m hoping that the next project will be a little sci-fi feature that I’ve written, called Clone.
It’s about two teenage girls who are struggling to get out of the abusive home they’ve been brought up in and very much a story about having to fight to claim your own independence. It’s told from point of view of a girl with a vision impairment, and the conversations I’ve been having with specialists in that field have been really great. There will also definitely be more narrative podcasts and long form work!