Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road, which opens this year’s Sydney Film Festival, is many things. It’s a murder mystery and a thriller, but it’s also a film about the meeting point of white and indigenous Australia. In the film, Aaron Pedersen plays detective Jay Swan, who returns to his remote outback town to investigate the murder of a young girl. Inspired by a real life murder case, it tells the story of the investigation, as it explores tension between the black and white communities in the town. It’s a mainstream film that explores and uncovers some difficult social truths, and Pederson says that it was the role of a lifetime. In fact, writer and director Ivan Sen wrote the part specifically for him.

“A few years ago, he mentioned that he had a project in mind for me,” Pedersen says. “We had a brief discussion about it, and I said oh yeah, we can talk about that later. Quite a long time went by, and out of the blue, I got an email from him asking if I was ready to talk about that project.” It turned out that Sen had written the script for Mystery Road. “I told him to send it my way, and immediately, I was blown away by the beauty of the words and the poignant story,” Pedersen says. “We jumped right in, and within a year, we’d shot it, and now it’s opening the Sydney Film Festival. Ivan’s a very hard worker – he knew the story he wanted to tell and the actor he wanted to use, and he went for it.”

Ivan Sen first made his mark with the 2002 feature Beneath Clouds, and since then, has grown into a word-class filmmaker. Pedersen has nothing but praise for him and his methods. “I’d say Ivan’s like the Dalai Lama,” he laughs. “He’s always calm and never lets anything get to him. He wrote, shot, directed and edited the film, and he composed the music – and he carried himself really beautifully and professionally throughout. He didn’t lose control once. It was such a beautiful thing to see, especially as he was under so much pressure.” If Sen was feeling stressed out, you’d never have known, says Pedersen. “I’ve never worked with anyone like him, to be honest,” he continues. “I’d always say ‘g’day Dalai Lama, how’s it going?’ when I saw him in the morning, and he laughed, but that’s what it was like.”

Pedersen himself started out in film in the early ’90s, but his recent roles have seen him more towards television – playing detectives, as it happens, in shows like City Homicide and Jack Irish. For him, making the jump back to film didn’t feel like a great deal of a stretch. “It’s the same process when you come down to it,” he says, “it’s just that one takes a lot longer to make. Television is shot at a faster pace, so it skills you up a lot quicker than film. Film is slower – you have a little bit more time to develop the ideas. There’s a little more detail in film,” he continues, “but really, they’re the same animal for me. It’s all about storytelling. You have to be definitive about your moments and your emotions.”

Alongside Pedersen, Mystery Road features a stellar cast – the likes of Jack Thompson, Hugo Weaving and Ryan Kwanten all feature. Pedersen himself was thrilled to work with such a cast. “They’re all great storytellers,” he says. “It felt right. Ivan’s idea was to make a film that spoke about Australia. He set out to put together a strong story, and I was just very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with a cast like that. I’ve worked with a lot of great actors on TV. It was a delight. Hugo is a very humble man with a great heart, and he’s genuinely sincere. Everyone came to this project with a really good attitude. For me, it was a step in the right direction to work with Hugo!”

People speak about the rise of indigenous filmmaking in Australia, but I’m curious to ask Pedersen what he thinks about that term in light of Mystery Road. Does he embrace it, or feel boxed in by it? “At the end of the day, this film was driven by indigenous people, and it has indigenous content,” he says. “We’re out to entertain people and tell a story, but we want to send people away with a message. The film has a really strong plot – it’s a crime story, a genre film – but there’s also a really strong political undercurrent. It’s all about the relationships between white and indigenous people in this country. You’ve got to understand that how we see Australia is different from how white Australia sees it. We want to tell that story to the world.”

I ask Pedersen whether he hopes to collaborate with Ivan Sen on another film, and he says he would jump at the chance. “I’ve been bugging him lately, asking him what’s next,” he says. “I don’t know if it will happen, though. He’s moving up the ladder and I’m sure he’ll be making films around the world before too long.” Pedersen remains touched that the role of Jay Swan was written for him. “That says a lot about what Ivan thinks of me,” he says, “and I’m very privileged to bring his work to life and walk through the world that he wanted to create. From the cast and the crew’s point of view, we made something special. I’m not sure if we’ll ever get to work on a project like this again. Everyone worked with a smile, and with genuine love and respect for the project. If I never did anything else again, I’d be happy with this.”

Mystery Road will open the Sydney Film Festival, but the filmmakers are hoping that it will make its mark internationally. Pedersen says that the purity of Ivan Sen’s story, and his passion for filmmaking, will shine through. “The bottom line with Mystery Road is that Ivan got to make exactly the film he wanted, with no compromises,” he says “He could barely believe it, but that’s what he got to do. I think he’ll be moving up in the world – he’s going to make films all over the world. He has an international sensibility. We made this film for the world – we want people in Australia to see it, but we want to share it with everybody.”

“We’ve already started to get audience reactions, and people like it,” he continues. “I’m glad that Australia can make a film on this level. All I want to say is that this film represents our point of view, and that everybody should come along and see it.”


What: Mystery Road for Official Competition

Director: Ivan Sen

Country: Australia

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