“I don’t know shit about you.” Uttered almost 80 minutes into the 93 minute-long debut feature from Kasimir Burgess, this line perfectly captures the remoteness and intense insular focus of recent Australian film Fell (Felix Media, 2014). Fell follows the story of two men whose lives irreversibly intersect over the tragic hit-and-run death of a child. While on a camping trip in the Victorian bushland, city businessman Thomas (Matt Nabel) witnesses the death of his young daughter Lara, who is killed in a hit-and-run accident with a logging truck driven by Luke (Daniel Henshall). In the wake of this tragedy, Thomas abandons his life (and wife) in Melbourne, trading his Land Rover for a battered Holden Kingwood ute, his suits for flannel shirts, and returns to the same bushland that was the setting for his daughter’s death. Integrating himself into a local logging crew, Thomas changes his name to Chris and immerses himself in the environment and lifestyle of a worker in the very logging industry that was indirectly responsible for his personal tragedy. Concurrent to Thomas’ transformation, Luke serves out a five-year prison sentence for his involvement in the hit-and-run accident, becoming a father himself during his time locked away from the trees and community that had previously defined his life.
The film hits its stride as the lives of these two characters intersect anew in the wake of the accident. Returning to the logging town after his release from prison, Luke re-joins the crew in which Thomas/Chris is now fixture and takes up the role as sole carer for his young daughter. Struggling to return to his interrupted life, Luke is faced with increasing hostility from the other members of the crew for his past crime and is eventually partnered with Chris to complete dangerously high tree-logging work away from the main activities of the loggers. While Luke remains unaware of Chris’ true identity, Chris is given increasing power over the life and wellbeing of his daughter’s killer, literally holding Luke’s life in his hands as he belays the climbing rope supporting Luke in his work high up in the canopy. Yet, eschewing standard revenge fantasies, Fell does not indulge in the opportunities it creates for acts of vengeance or physical violence. Instead this film becomes a study in human impulses, psychology and endurance.
Thematically and stylistically, Fell plays on the expression of great distances and incredibly close scrutiny – the film is both too close and too distant in its construction of characters and situations, as well as in its cinematography and sound design. While the film focuses intimately on the lives of Luke and Thomas/Chris, the audience is nevertheless held at a distance from these characters. Fell utilises dialogue only sparingly, with the characters’ actions and expressions providing the key source of insights into their respective personalities, motivations and reactions throughout the film. Thus, when, an hour and twenty minutes into the film, Luke observes to Chris, “You know, I don’t know shit about you. Where you’re from, when you came to town, if you’ve got a missus. Fuck, I don’t even know what footy team you back,” the audience can relate.
Beyond what we have seen occur on screen we know little else about Chris, or indeed Luke. Despite a close concentration on these characters’ experiences in the wake of the accident, we know almost nothing of their lives prior to Lara’s death. Even in relation to the events explored throughout the film, the audience merely remains an outside, if still privileged, observer. Indeed, while we are granted the opportunity to observe Thomas/Chris’ intense and private grieving, as well as to witness Luke’s anguish at being confined away from the bush he loves, we are nonetheless given little direct access to the inner workings of these characters’ minds. There is no internal monologue or expansive dialogue that clarifies what each character feels in any given situation, leaving the audience to interpret gesture, expression and overt action for itself.
What is created through this distancing of the characters in Fell is an intensely human experience. The lack of dialogue and the intimate focus on the unknowable inner struggles of two men dealing with events in their past produces an emotionally rich experience, yet one that the film holds back from completely controlling, instead allowing audiences to respond in their own way to the situation they see unfolding before them. It is left to the audience to interpret to what extent forgiveness, remorse, vengeance, hatred, understanding, compassion, guilt, pity or bitterness exists within the two men.
The distinctive distancing of the characters in Fell is reiterated in the film’s cinematography. Capitalising on the film’s setting among the towering Mountain Ash forests near Warburton and the Yarra Ranges in Victoria, Fell uses a combination of extreme long shots and close-ups to respectively capture the great height of the trees and the natural distance within the forests, as well as to intrude on the small movements of insect life and undergrowth that exist within these spaces. Similarly in the film’s depiction of the human characters, medium long shots are mixed with close-ups of hands, expressions and other body parts to create the sense of intimate observation while also maintaining an emotional distance. The height of the trees comes to symbolise a utopian space within the film, a place above the concerns of the world and the regrets and emotional turmoil that exist at lower altitudes and on the ground. Luke finds peace as he hangs above the world in the canopies, while for Thomas/Chris, the sight of the treetops calls to him, promising an opportunity to rise above his grief, a state that the film’s final image suggests he eventually achieves.
As with the cinematography, Fell’s expert sound design plays on the natural setting of the film and the activities of the logging industry within these spaces. The sounds of the logging work, trees falling and saws wiring create the texture of the film. The volume of these activities grate and shock as they intrude on the peace of the bush in which birdlife, wind and rushing water provide an aural counterpoint to the noise of industry. The sound design plays with volume and silence, privileging certain sounds above others and enhancing the sense of distance and closeness that is the film’s signature. For a film that barely has a word to say, eschewing dialogue for other forms of communication, sound is by far the most notable feature of Fell. It provides dynamism and movement within what is otherwise a slow and considered narrative, irresistibly drawing the audience into the world of the film.
Given Fell’s particular use of cinematography and sound, it is somewhat surprising that this feature has been released simultaneously in theatres and online via a video-on-demand service. For a film that is ideally suited to the big screen and surround sound format of traditional cinema exhibition, the decision to offer it on the small screen somewhat undermines the best qualities of this feature. Yet there is also a fair amount of logic in the producer John Maynard’s decision to opt for a less traditional releasing pattern. Fell received its world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2014. Screening to audiences at the State Theatre on 13 June, the film was immediately launched for a limited 50 hour VOD run through the Sydney and Adelaide Film Festival websites. This initial special festival VOD access was only available to audiences in NSW, Queensland, ACT, South Australia and Northern Territory. Subsequently, Fell sold out two sessions at the Melbourne International Film Festival before beginning its current run at ACMI (21 August to 27 September) and back on VOD via fellfilm.com. The logic behind this releasing pattern is the recognition that Australian films regularly struggle to capitalise on positive film festival buzz to produce strong cinema attendance. By providing VOD access to the film, Maynard hopes to get Fell to audiences more directly and to enable the film to more easily capitalise on audience interest. Coupling the VOD access with a more traditional run at ACMI (with the discounted ticket price of $10, the same as its cost on VOD) the film maintains its ability to draw audiences looking for the more traditional cinema experience.
While there is merit in this approach, and already there are reports of Fell’s success in utilising it, the film nevertheless suffers when watched without the apparatus of the cinema – big screen, surround sound speakers, communal setting, lack of external distractions. For the important role that sound plays within this film, in particular, there is a great difference between hearing Fell through the speakers in the ACMI theatre and listening to the film via headphones, where volume control is too easily in reach to soften the sometimes jarring noises of saws and felled trees.
Despite questions of whether Fell is best suited to benefit from the VOD format, the decision to try something new in terms of distribution for the film is a welcome change for Australian cinema. A film that is deserving of a wide audience for its sensual and intelligent treatment of its subject matter, Fell is well worth seeing – in any way you can.
About the Author
Kirsten Stevens is a Melbourne based film writer, academic and circus performer. Her writing on cinema and film festivals has appeared in a book on Australian and New Zealand cinema as well as in various print and digital publications, including Studies in Australasian Cinema, Screening the Past and Slayage. She has achieved a PhD in Film and Television Studies and sustained only minor injuries from her years on the flying trapeze.