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Thirty-year-old director Ariel Kleiman’s turns the Mornington Peninsula into Eastern Europe. By James Douglas.

Partisan director Ariel Kleiman’s brave new worlds

Credit: BEN KING

It takes a special kind of compulsion to revive the aura of a half-imagined European homeland in the scrub of the Mornington Peninsula. But this is precisely the drive that has characterised the career of Australian director Ariel Kleiman.

Though Partisan is his only feature to date, Kleiman has built up a promisingly consistent body of work. Animated by his own distinct emotional sensibility, the 30-year-old’s short films have recast southern Victoria into a medley of the countries stretching between the Baltic and Caspian seas.

Co-written with his regular collaborator and girlfriend, Sarah Cyngler, Partisan is the most sophisticated expression yet of this obsession. Kleiman filmed exterior scenes for one week in Georgia, but the rest of the shoot took place at a winery in Mount Eliza, where his crew transformed a former home for delinquent boys into the labyrinthine compound in the unnamed Eastern European country where the film takes place. 

Partisan is a film with much on its mind, and a disinclination to say it out loud. This confidence is partly what drew the film’s star, French actor Vincent Cassel, to Melbourne to work with Kleiman on the project. Cassel recalls how he once sounded out Kleiman for more backstory for his character, Gregori, and was politely rebuffed.

“Let the scars, the gun, the money tell you that Gregori was running away from something, that he suffered. He didn’t want to say more about it,” Cassel says. “I think that’s pretty daring. Ariel manages to create a world without saying much. To see that kind of creativity in such a young director is surprising.”

Russian family

In person, Kleiman is tall and slender, with a thick black moustache capping an easy grin. On other men of Kleiman’s generation this might register as an affectation, but it sits naturally on his long face. The effect is more eastern prole than coddled inner-urban youth.

Cassel is right about the film’s opacity. Although it has some genre trappings, Partisan is really an extended mood piece. Its world is established carefully, its rules accreting slowly: Gregori controls a harem of forgotten women; he schools their children, raises them as his own; the outside world is shut off, although it is there that these children will be put to work as assassins. Kleiman says the style comes naturally.

“I like to make films from a place of instinct, and a place of gut,” he says, “rather than being too cerebral about it. Tone and atmosphere is a really guttural thing. It’s that thing you can’t talk about. You can only feel.”

Kleiman’s work may be oblique, but it’s not cold. His characters are filled with an excess of passion. Gregori is no demonic Svengali: he’s sentimental, rewarding his kids with karaoke nights and weeping while they duet.

“I grew up in a Russian family,” Kleiman says, “and I’ve always been attracted to big, bold, semi-melodramatic stories. There’s something very Russian about them. Sweeping tragedies: they do it better than anyone. The second we started thinking about this film it felt like a tragedy – that this boy can’t see that all his parent’s shit is being passed down to him.”

As Kleiman recalls, it was this initial sense of the emotional dimensions of the story that drew him and Cyngler to conceive the film’s European feel. “We wanted to set it in this nowhere land that existed in these fables we read growing up – a middle Europe.”

Elements of this middle Europe have swirled throughout his work for many years. It’s visible in the first pieces he produced with Cyngler and their former co-producer Benjamin Gilovitz – the three had a production company named Stool Pigeon – and in the brace of shorts he made at the Victorian College of the Arts, where he studied from 2007-2009.

Two of his student projects went on to receive worldwide acclaim, including his graduating film Deeper Than Yesterday – a 20-minute psychodrama set on a Russian submarine, and filmed in the decommissioned HMAS Otama, which sits off the coast of Hastings, Victoria.

Yesterday had been intended as Kleiman’s second-year effort, but when the Otama’s owner became ill, the submarine became inaccessible, and Kleiman whipped up a substitute called Young Love. This bloody, absurdist sketch – in which a fiery quarrel between two young lovers is calmed by the attention of a herd of alpacas – was accepted into Sundance Film Festival in 2010. It won an honourable mention in short filmmaking there, as well as the attention of producers Sarah Shaw and Anna McLeish of Warp Films Australia.

The duo – who produced Snowtown for VCA graduate Justin Kurzel – approached Kleiman for a show reel, and contracted him to develop a feature. Shaw recalls that they were immediately impressed by his work. “He’s got a very interesting perspective on the world, and a different way of telling stories that made us desperately want to meet him.”

When Shaw and McLeish came calling, Kleiman and Cyngler had recently absorbed an article in The New York Times on Colombian child assassins, known as sicarios. They pitched a feature around that concept and struck a development deal with Warp, even before Kleiman’s next short made waves on the international circuit.

When Deeper Than Yesterday emerged in 2010, Kleiman took it to the Cannes Critics’ Week, where it received the Petit Rail d’Or for best short film, and the Kodak Discovery Award. It picked up best short film awards at the Australian, Sydney and Chicago film festivals, and in 2011 Kleiman returned to Sundance, where he received the jury prize in international short filmmaking.

It’s difficult to credit Yesterday as the work of a student. The film takes the cramped confines of the naval submarine and uses it as the staging ground for a tensely escalated drama of machismo, in which the atmosphere of testosterone among the all-male crew has reached dangerously suffocating levels.

What’s notable about the film is its tonal precision. The Russianness of it all feels hard earned, not mere play-acting. Even if it were in English, the film would resonate with an authentically foreign sensibility.

Making a film Australian

The resourcefulness with which Kleiman has developed this sensibility is notable. Even those short films that are shot on location in Victoria don’t quite feel Australian. Part of the fun of watching his early work now is to see whether the natural character of the landscape will ever betray him.

Call it cultural cringe, but the intangible Australianness of a local film can sometimes inhibit audiences from accepting its merits. It must always be an “Australian film” – an occasionally helpful distinction that sometimes becomes a means of dismissal.

One solution is to embrace the distinction and seek to renovate its confines. David Michôd, another VCA graduate, found success with 2010’s Animal Kingdom, in which he melded the familiarly grimy urban Australian crime drama with a grand sweep loaned from mafia sagas. In 2014’s The Rover, he delivered a nihilistic king hit to the post-Mad Max image of the outback as heroic frontier.

But the decision to engage in dialogue with Australian genre cannot be to all tastes. It’s not surprising that some filmmakers might strive to deliver a product of a more continental style.

Kleiman seems amused at the implication that his work is somehow “un-Australian”. He sees his particular aesthetic as a consequence of the kinds of narratives that interest him. “When I think about a film, they are always big, emotional stories where the characters emote in very over-the-top ways. I couldn’t picture Deeper Than Yesterday with Aussies in it, because Australian men don’t emote that way. The film had to be Russian, because it had to be poetic, it had to be grand. The dialogue I was writing was very natural in Russian, but an Aussie submariner would never talk like that.”

This impulse has its problems, of course. “It’s hard because the Australian sun is unique. It’s very harsh. The second you shoot something in Australia, it’s got a look. Australian actors ham up the accent – when you speak to an Australian actor off screen, they’re less Australian. When you pair that accent with the look, it becomes a uniquely Australian sensibility. Which is good, I think. But it doesn’t suit every story.”

The solution lies in a precisely curated production. “Faces, costumes and light are the main ones, for me,” he says. “The European light is just totally different. You’ve got to try to shoot on overcast days.”

The faces require careful casting – the submariners in Deeper Than Yesterday were sourced from local Russian theatre groups, and from security guard organisations. Costuming comes from nearer home. More specifically, Kleiman’s partner.

Working partnership

A close look at Kleiman’s career suggests that Cyngler’s contribution is key to his distinctive sensibility. The couple has been together since Kleiman first ventured into filmmaking. Cyngler has co-writing credit on many of his films, and she always undertakes production design and costuming duties. Shaw believes that they are an “essential creative force to one another”.

Part of the benefit of their working together is that the texture of the film is developed in tandem with the script, meaning that intangibles such as tone and mood are immediately communicated.

“I guess we’re in a unique position,” Kleiman says of his work with Cyngler. “As we’re writing, we’re conceptualising the design. That was a big deal for Partisan, because the whole world of the film is created by Gregori. Atmosphere and dread is something that is very hard to write about, but we wanted to give a sense of it in the script, because that’s what drives the film.”

Cassel seems to have swiftly cottoned on to Cyngler’s influence, and seems a little grateful that the division of labour between the two made his job that much easier.

“Even though Sarah is very discreet in everything, all the ideas have to go through her. I noticed that very early on. And I would always look at her, too,” he says. “She was taking care of all the set design, the styling, the clothes, everything. It was wonderful because I didn’t have much to do. When you work with people who aren’t very good, and don’t really know what they want, you have to work much more.”

Violent themes

The middle Europe that Kleiman and Cyngler keep returning to is not a fairytale land. It’s a realm of ambient violence. There’s a dark fatalism saturating their work, a sense that the world is an inherently brutal place. This nihilism walks hand in hand with a bleak sense of humour.

One short called A Little Off the Top is a darkly amusing wartime sketch in which a morose-looking soldier has his head carefully shaved by the blade of an axe, while the report of distant guns heralds the grim fate awaiting him beyond the horizon. Kleiman’s films have a bone-deep sorrow in them that is only leavened by a sense of the absurdity of existence.

Given all these strands running throughout his work, it’s possible to see his career as an extended response to the paroxysms of violence that swept over Europe throughout the 20th century. That long period of chaos represents a legacy of which his emigrant family must have intimate knowledge.

But Kleiman is mostly nonplussed by efforts to tease out the threads that knit his films together. He’s too amiable to view his work as anything so portentous, but he does concede to a recurring interest in man’s beastlier urges.

“I love making a film from scratch – creating a different tone and world every time. I hope each film is unique in its own way, but there are things that I’m drawn to or interested in. It’s usually to do with stripping away society as much as possible, and trying to narrow in on human’s more animalistic tendencies,” he says.

“Humans are capable of doing incredibly cruel things to each other, and it’s a very dramatic and fertile ground to write about. I live a very comfortable and happy life. Maybe that’s why I’m interested in the darker side of humanity.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 6, 2015 as "Brave new worlds". Subscribe here.

James Douglas
is a Melbourne-based writer and critic.