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Ivan Sen | Renaissance Man

In Conversation with the Filmmaker and Limbo Director

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In Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical pic The Fabelmans, John Ford (played by David Lynch) famously says to the young Sammy, Spielberg’s cinematic alter ego, “Now, remember this. When the horizon's at the bottom, it's interesting. When the horizon's at the top, it's interesting. When the horizon's in the middle, it's boring as shit! Now, good luck to you…” One could argue that Indigenous Australian filmmaker Ivan Sen has been instinctively following that mantra all his cinematic life.

Landscape and identity are two leitmotifs at the center of Sen’s work. Ever since his award winning 2002 film Beneath Clouds, Sen has been redirecting our views onto his own special view of the horizon, which also includes problematic characters who don’t act as society would like them to behave.

In his latest, Limbo, which opens in NYC and LA on March 22nd, Sen enlists the help of fellow Australian Simon Baker, whom US audiences know best for his turn as Patrick Jane in TV’s long running series The Mentalist. Yet in Sen’s Limbo, Baker plays against type, as Travis Hurley, a junkie detective who comes to the Australian Outback to investigate reopening the case of a missing Indigenous girl, who disappeared 20 years prior. Shot in haunting B&W and transforming the opal-mining desert landscapes of Coober Pedy into a character of its own, complete with the ability to change our perception of what we are witnessing on screen, Limbo is the kind of work of the seventh art that takes hold of the viewer and refuses to let go. The cinematography alone, by the multi-talented Sen, is breathtaking.

Along with writing, directing, shooting and co-producing Limbo, Sen also edited, cast and scored the film. He is credited as the visual effects supervisor as well on Limbo, thus gaining him the well deserved title of “Renaissance Man” from this writer, but also “what you’d call a pure auteur,” from Baker himself, whom the director credits with planting in him the seed of the idea for the film back in 2002. “We actually spoke about a different project,” Sen admits, during our chat in a courtyard of La Mamounia Hotel in Marrakech, “which didn’t happen, that fell through, but he’s always been in the back of my mind, and we met a couple of times.” Sen confirms that when an actor is like Baker, “he stays with you,” in one’s thoughts as a filmmaker, “and the timing finally worked out for this film to be the next one.” Their collaboration is magical, as Baker is transformed by Sen — almost unrecognizable, sporting a crew cut, tattoos and a heroine addiction — except for that iconic sparkle in his eye, which the actor cleverly covers up with tinted glasses in real life.

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It’s surprising to hear Sen say that he “didn’t write the role with Simon in mind, which is unusual for me,” although once Baker came on board, “it became very finely tuned to him as an actor.” Sen says his method of working is indeed to rewrite the script once someone comes on board to play a specific role, “focusing on the actor, and this wasn’t done in rehearsal but rather, we just talked — I don’t do a lot of rehearsals.” Sen confesses that once he has spoken in depth with his actors, he’ll bring them out to the location and shoot. When asked whether there is a part of Sen in the role of Travis, he quickly chimes back, “there is always a part of me in a character! I tend to write about characters who, on the outside, are loners, and are looking for some kind of connection — with a certain place, as well as certain people.” He chuckles, before concluding, “with the next few projects, I’m trying to extract myself from there, consciously.”

Sen, who is the director and co-founder of Bunya Productions, along with producer David Jowsey, was born in the early 70’s in Nambour, Queensland. His mom belongs to the Gamilaroi nation of northern New South Wales and his father was born in Croatia, hence the name Ivan. His childhood proved turbulent and with his mother, the family moved around quite a bit, which caused Sen to retreat into painting and photography. After taking a photography course at Griffith University in Brisbane, Sen then enrolled in film school at to the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney. That was followed by a stint working in television through the late 90’s. Then Sen was then commissioned by Jowsey, his co-producing partner, to make his semi-autobiographical debut Beneath Clouds, which won him acclaim and awards, including the Premiere First Movie Award at the 2002 Berlinale, where it screened in Competition.

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Sen then turned to documentaries, one of which, the 2005 Yellow Fella, screened in Un Certain Regard in Cannes, and when he returned to narrative filmmaking, his 2011 title Toomelah was picked up to screen in the line up of the prestigious French film festival taking place on the Croisette as well. Sen is also the executive producer of the Australian ABC TV production of Mystery Road, a six-part series based on characters featured on his 2013 movie by the same title, which starred several well-known Australian actors, including Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, and Jack Thompson.

“The power of a place is very important for me,” Sen confesses, “to feel connected with the universe, really.” It’s impossible to watch Limbo without being affected by its desert-noir landscape, which Sen captures in all its solitude and stillness. But also framed by how its inhabitants, and the stranger in town played by Baker, connect with it. During the recording of our interview with the soft spoken and quietly handsome filmmaker, there are chirping birds in the background, courtesy of the Marrakech International Film Festival, which featured the film as part of their Gala Screenings. Limbo world premiered earlier in 2023 at the Berlinale.

“There are a few reasons why I chose black and white,” Sen explains, “I found that the landscape lent itself to it, and the ground out there is very white, but also the mines,” remnants of Colonialist rule in the region “are very dark, and also I felt like these people are living in a limbo, in a memory and the black and white could be the future or could be their past.” He continues that because “the landscape is so striking in colors, when you strip the color away, you go looking for a sense of connection with the characters and the story."

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About filming on what is First Nation land, Sen admits he took the steps to connect early on. “It’s something really important to do,” he says, “to connect with our Indigenous communities, when you go to film on their land, and that process happened really early for me.” With three overlapping Indigenous communities in Coober Pedy, Sen describes the process at “difficult to negotiate.” This required what Sen calls “spreading yourself around, not giving favor to one group and engaging fully with everyone in the area.” The successful look and feel of Limbo is due to that balance, as well as the various Indigenous actors also featured in the film who are both spellbinding and talented.

There is personal experience in Limbo, which makes the story so moving, even haunting at times. “I’ve experienced in my own family, women being murdered and the police response has been very poor, to the point where they actually engage with the victim’s family and try to make them suspects,” which Sen highlights in his film. He confirmed that “all of these details come from my own personal experience, but it’s a story repeated all over Australia — it’s hard to find an Indigenous family not touched by violent trauma, and the follow up by the police — these are symbols of a bigger picture in Australia.” Of course, the universality of the story in Limbo is what makes the film so poignant, all over the world. Substitute the Black community in the US with the Indigenous people in Australia and it’s an unfortunate yet obvious match.

The famous last words of this interview belong to Sen himself: “Film gives people the opportunity to walk in other people’s shoes and to feel empathy for other people, which is actually why I do what I do.”

Limbo opens in Los Angeles and New York on March 22nd, with more cities to come.

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Ivan Sen, Limbo, E. Nina Rothe, Flaunt Magazine, Film
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