Yolanda Ramke’s auteur layers
It’s an unseasonably cold spring evening in Manhattan and the Tribeca Film Festival theatre is over-capacity for the international premiere of Cargo, the Australian zombie movie starring British actor Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, The Office). Cargo is the biggest genre film at this year’s festival and its basic premise – zombies roaming the Australian outback – has piqued the interest both of industry heavyweights and New York movie geeks. Tickets to the premiere disappeared quickly.
As the end credits roll, audience members are momentarily dumbstruck. They have just discovered Cargo is not really a monster movie after all: the zombie story is actually a Trojan horse for familial, environmental and racial themes. The post-film Q&A with Freeman, writer-co-director Yolanda Ramke and several other cast and crew members takes on the vibe of a group therapy session. “I was not expecting that,” says one American journalist before trailing off and handing back the mic. Other audience members ask Freeman about the parent–child relationships – biological and otherwise – that propel the film emotionally.
For me – one of the few Australians in attendance – the Cargo viewing experience is a gut punch. Going in to the screening, I was aware that Ramke and her co-director Ben Howling intended their film to be more cerebral than horrific. And, like my fellow audience members, I’m moved by the interpersonal relationships I see. But it’s Cargo’s depiction of the Australian landscape and our First Nations peoples – both impacted by European settlement – that affects me most.
I’m not attending the Tribeca Film Festival in a professional capacity, but that night I decide I want to learn more about the making of Cargo and to write about it. After the Q&A, I introduce myself to Ramke and arrange to catch up the following day for coffee.
We meet in the sunny courtyard of a posh hotel in SoHo where many of the festival attendees are staying. Ramke, whom I suspect is in her late 20s, is warm and chatty, buoyed by the early reception the film has received and buzzing with the city’s energy. (When I check her Instagram account I see pictures of NYC landmarks and enthusiastic commentary about promoting her debut feature in New York, of all places.)
In a first for an Australian-scripted feature, Netflix bought the international distribution rights to Cargo when the film was in the very early stages of post-production. That motivated Ramke and Howling to edit the film to suit both domestic and international audiences – in such a way that the Australia-specific themes did not confuse or distract overseas viewers. When I tell Ramke that the film seemed to resonate with me differently than it did the New Yorkers at the screening, she seems pleased.
“We did try to find a middle ground,” she says. “The challenge for us was: how do you communicate culturally specific elements in a way that an international audience can understand? And how can you communicate those things without making it too didactic?”
The directing duo decided to keep much of the Australian commentary subtextual. As Freeman’s character, Andy, traverses South Australia with his wife (played by Susie Porter) and their infant daughter in an attempt to outrun the zombie outbreak, they encounter Aboriginal communities that have used their connection with country to remain resilient in the face of the epidemic while nearby settler communities have succumbed. One section of the film is set near a fracking site and features an odious miner, but the words “mining” and “fracking” are barely used.
Ramke also wanted to remain true to the short-film version of Cargo, which she and Howling entered in Tropfest in 2013 and which subsequently went viral online. It has since been viewed more than 14 million times. In that seven-minute version, the key image is of a father carrying an infant on his back through a dystopian landscape and making a sacrifice for her. Ramke also acts in the short.
“Ultimately, this is a story about parents and children,” Ramke tells me, “and about what we’ll do to protect and preserve those we love. Without meaning to sound naff, that is universal. That is something that people from every culture can understand.”
Growing up, Ramke and her two younger sisters lived in a succession of regional and remote Australian communities. Their father worked in the mining industry and often had to relocate at short notice; their mother worked as a hairdresser and, later, as a medical-office manager.
Cinema visits were rare treats. “I don’t think we lived in a town where there was a cinema any closer than 30 kilometres until I was a teenager,” Ramke says, “although I do have a very clear image of going to see Jurassic Park at the cinema when I was a kid. That sticks in my head because it was such an isolated event.”
What Ramke and her siblings did have in each new hometown was a video-rental store. “We’d rent movies then re-enact them in the backyard,” she says. “That fuelled my overactive imagination. Growing up in an environment where you had to make your own fun was actually the best possible training ground for what I’m doing now.”
At school, Ramke was most enthusiastic about English, and soon decided she would like to write screenplays. “Then the acting bug took over, and for a time I really thought that acting was what I wanted to focus on,” she says. “Once I understood that there was someone behind the curtain pulling the strings, it occurred to me that I could try directing as well. I don’t think one of those things ever quite felt like enough.”
She met Howling at Griffith University and the pair were soon helping each other with film projects. Although Ramke and Howling devised the Cargo short together, Ramke came to embody the project: she wrote, co-directed, co-produced and acted in it.
“Ben and I do bring differing sensibilities to the table, but I think genre storytelling is where we really coalesce,” she says. “Our collaboration is loose – we don’t formally delineate responsibilities. Given Ben’s background as a shooter-editor he is occasionally more technically hands-on, and because I have studied acting and work as a writer, I tend to favour story and performance, but it’s very much a meeting of two minds. We are constantly conferring.”
Back in Australia, I phone Susie Porter to find out more about working with Ramke and Howling. “It was a challenging shoot, but they coped with it amazingly well, the two of them together, under an incredible amount of pressure,” she says.
Although neither Ramke nor Howling had directed a feature before, the strength of Ramke’s script – and a team of veteran producers including Samantha Jennings and Kristina Ceyton – gave Porter the confidence to sign on. She is evidently impressed by Ramke, who she points out is one of just a few female screen auteurs to have emerged so far in Australia. “There have been multi-tasking women before,” she notes: “Claudia Karvan pioneered it with Love My Way, becoming an actor and producer, and Rebecca Gibney does it on Wanted. But Yolanda writes, directs and acts. That amazes me.”
Ramke bears none of the hallmarks of the traditional auteur – she’s self-effacing and collaborative, and she tends to downplay the ambition evident in her work. She is at pains to point out that Howling is her equal and deserves just as much credit for Cargo as she does. But when we meet for the second time, back in Sydney, it becomes clear that the film’s themes are deeply rooted in her personal experience and that Cargo articulates some of her feelings about being Australian.
The film’s depiction of miners and mining communities is one example. “It’s a complex thing for me,” she says. “I have certain feelings personally about what we could be doing in order to make cleaner and more effective choices about resources in this country, but I’m also very grateful for the fact that the industry put food on the table for my family when I was a kid. And there’s a loss taking place in the bush that I understand, having grown up in those towns where there was such a sense of community that no longer really exists because of fly-in fly-out mining.”
A bumper sticker on the villainous miner’s car echoes her ambivalence. “Don’t Like Fracking?” it reads. “Get Out And Walk.”
Cargo’s Indigenous cast includes David Gulpilil, Natasha Wanganeen (Rabbit-Proof Fence) and young Simone Landers. Landers plays Thoomi, a girl who comes to Andy’s aid after her own father is zombified. Landers has the most screen time aside from Freeman and is arguably the film’s heart. She is one of several Aboriginal characters to demonstrate strength, wisdom and compassion for Andy and his family’s plight.
Ramke and Howling knew that incorporating Indigenous characters and themes was a task they could not complete alone, so they worked with Indigenous writer Jon Bell (Redfern Now, Cleverman) in a script-consultation capacity during pre-production. “Once we knew we’d be shooting in a certain part of the Flinders Ranges, we also spoke to Adnyamathanha elders, showed them the script and sought permission to use that language in the film,” Ramke says.
Bell tells me: “Yolanda and Ben are pretty authentic, pretty real kind of people. To put it bluntly, a lot of times whitefellas try to put black characters into things hoping they can get black money, or in order to jump on a bit of a bandwagon. But Ben and Yolanda actually wanted to do something real with these characters. I enjoyed working with them. I didn’t think I was going to enjoy that sort of consultation, but there was an authentic cultural exchange.”
Cargo’s most confronting sequence involves Landers’ and Gulpilil’s characters being held captive in cages by the miner. When I saw the film at Tribeca, the juxtaposition of Indigenous characters acting heroically and then being entrapped had a profound impact on me. “We understood that it would be an incredibly loaded image and we were wary of it at first,” says Ramke. “It’s uncomfortable viewing, and I think that’s largely due to the fact that it evokes a chapter of our nation’s history that is all too often swept under the rug.”
She continues: “[The miner’s] general need to own things, and his dependence on exploitation – be it people, or the land itself – inherently put him at odds with the Indigenous characters in our story, who are taking a more community-oriented approach to survival and instead rely upon a custodial relationship to the land. That felt to us like a compelling background conflict. But it also meant that the logical next step was that we would see Indigenous characters placed in these cages.”
Bell believes the sequence has significant value and that it marks out Ramke and Howling as Australian filmmakers to be taken seriously. “If Peter Weir did this, people would say, ‘Ooh, black people in cages, wow – that’s saying a lot.’ But if Yolanda and Ben do it in a genre film, there’s a risk that it won’t quite have the same impact. But statements like these are important, even if they are in genre films. Stolen wages, stolen generations, theft of land... All of those things are weighted in those images.”
Cargo is by no means a perfect film. The thematic density of Ramke’s script can at times interfere with the flow of the story, and several action scenes feel ragged. But there is also a great deal to savour, including a gripping premise, uniformly strong performances and masterful cinematography from Geoffrey Simpson (Shine, Oscar and Lucinda). Above all, Cargo promises to spark new ideas and offers fresh ways of viewing contemporary Australia – both figuratively and literally.
Says Ramke: “We did our first reccy in the Flinders about nine months before shooting, and it was very dry and almost Mad Max-y. When we showed up for second scouting and pre[-production], they’d had their wettest winter in 70 years. There was all this flora we hadn’t seen previously. Some of our crew, who’d lived in that area for 50 or 60 years, were telling us they’d never seen the Flinders look like this.
“Initially that threw us a little bit, because we had in our minds this more traditionally dystopian barrenness that the area is known for. But once we wrapped our heads around the idea that we could depict this landscape in a way that it hasn’t been shown before in Australian cinema, that became really exciting.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 2, 2018 as "Auteur layers". Subscribe here.