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Warwick Thornton's The Darkside at ACMI

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by Leona (Devaz) Fensome (subscribe)
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Ghost stories with a difference
the darkside
The Darkside

When I sat down in the movie theatre and a huge white glowing circle appeared on the screen, I knew this would be a film with a difference. Sitting in the pitch blackness (well, near on), watching this radiant ebb pulse like a heartbeat, I wondered what the heck was about to happen.

Then splashed across the screen, I was asked to download The Darkside app and point my mobile at the screen. What, really? Fumbling in my bag, I retrieved my mobile and proceeded to download it. Part of me was wondering if a ghost was going to jump out of the screen, and the other part was thinking, wow, very cool interactive experience.

the darkside
The Darkside

Unfortunately (or fortunately) I missed the chance and Casper the friendly white glow disappeared. This was my introduction to The Darkside , quirky, original and intriguing. Director Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah) certainly had me engrossed in this heartfelt documentary based on real-life ghost stories.

It may seem odd for the words 'heartfelt' and 'ghost' to be in the same sentence, but this is the paradox Thornton was presented with when he did his initial call out for true tales. In April 2012, Thornton requested people come forward with indigenous ghost stories. He wanted to encapsulate first-hand accounts into a film, based on the storytellers experiences (these can be listened to at

"...we were hoping for the spinning head in the cupboard kind of concept – but what, the through line we noticed was that they were much more about family, and connection and they were about love. You know, they were stories, not about being afraid, but embracing ghosts, in a sense."

Thornton and producer Kate Shelper have lined up a strong Australian cast to re-enact the storytelling: Lynette Narkle, Sacha Horler, Deborah Mailman, Claudia Karvan, Aaron Pedersen, Shari Sebbens and Bryan Brown – all feature as narrators of the selected ghost stories.

the darkside
The Darkside

Initially this was a tricky process for Thornton, citing that he'd always had a bit of a phobia towards actors. "... I needed the best in Australia to act, and my little phobia towards these people being you know, not really knowing how to direct them – I had to grow up and get over that. And I had to rise about me in a sense and become a real director (laughs). So it was gorgeous – it was fun and they looked after me and it was worth it!"

The film itself has been beautifully shot, with great care taken to select locations. Thornton describes finding old anamorphic lenses (35mm) from the 60's and then creating the style of the film around that. The backgrounds, details and design is simple yet the aesthetic has been crafted incredibly well.

The actor's monologues are riveting and powerful, elegantly composed and portraying the real sentiment from the original storyteller. Peppered with moments of deep reflection, poignancy and humour for lovers of documentary style films, Thornton delivers.

Stand out performances for me were Aaron Pedersen recounting as 'Steven', a very jumpy night-time tale complete with Pedersen convinced he can hear noises, Shari Sebbens highly emotional 'Naomi' – this is a scene to watch as there's a clever little addition for those sharp-eyed viewers and Claudia Karvan's 'Karen' – presenting an uninhibited dance, which is mesmerising. And quite far removed from her more recent TV characters.

the darkside, aaron pedersen
The Darkside

There's one scene where the narration is followed by a visual of a young artist painting. The climax of this particular tale and the completion of the artwork, was really palpable for me. It's quite invoking and very cleverly pieced together to create this impact.

All actors deliver on Thornton's vision of sharing emotional stories. "Indigenous people and non-indigenous people have a great connection. This is something that's not about culture or who's been around longer, or who owns the land - it's a shared experience. Because they are firsthand stories, they are stories from people who are around today, you know, it's not people who have actually passed on… it's a collective experience that the whole of Australia and the whole of the world owns."

The Darkside is showing at ACMI until the 16th of February.
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*Leona (Devaz) Fensome was invited as a guest
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Phone: (03) 8663 2583
Where: ACMI, Federation Square, Melbourne
Cost: $16
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