Profile

In Hearts and Bones, director Ben Lawrence explores masculinity and trauma through the story of a war photographer befriending a South Sudanese refugee. He speaks here about how his experience of parenthood has influenced his work, and the parallels between himself and his father, director Ray Lawrence. “Through the period of writing Hearts and Bones and being involved in Ghosthunter, the idea of being a father, what it means to raise a young boy in this era, all became fascinating to me.” By Steve Dow.

Hearts and Bones director Ben Lawrence

Ben Lawrence.
Credit: Sally Flegg

Masculinity, fatherhood and trauma are Sydney filmmaker Ben Lawrence’s patch. He makes documentaries, such as the gripping Ghosthunter, released to critical acclaim in 2018, which told the story of a Western Sydney security guard with an interest in the paranormal and dark mysteries to solve in his own past.

His debut feature, Hearts and Bones, is an authentic fiction, starring Hugo Weaving and first-time actor Andrew Luri, a South Sudanese-born refugee. Also shot in Sydney’s west, it was a labour of love, written and directed by Lawrence.

The film was lauded by critics after its premiere at last year’s Sydney Film Festival, and had a similar reception at Melbourne International Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival before garnering AACTA nominations for best lead actor, best supporting actor and best supporting actress.

Finally, it was set to come to cinemas this month.

“I was aware that I’d have to wait a little while … The wait for Ghosthunter was longer,” says Lawrence. “The journey of Hearts and Bones through various festivals has been very rewarding, sharing it with international audiences. I probably would have liked to have gone with an earlier release, but there were other films being released.

“Australian films, smaller films, [usually] only have two moments to release theatrically – before and after summer; you don’t want to compete with very big films – and we’ve missed those. The typical journey of a small Australian film has such a small window. Now, as the years go by, that model is being challenged.”

The model was flipped again with the closure of cinemas during this current period of social isolation, leaving Lawrence to rethink everything about the film’s long-planned theatrical release. Now, as with so many other things, Hearts and Bones has had to switch to a digital release, on May 6.

Speaking on Skype from his home office in Lilyfield, in Sydney’s inner west, Lawrence is philosophical about the path the film must now take. But he must be frustrated by the change of plan, I ask, having waited all this time for a national release?

“Yes and no,” he replies. “I’m comfortable with the release now, and I feel kind of excited about it, because it has the awareness an online release wouldn’t normally have. It’s not been dumped there; it’s been presented in a way that we’re rushing it out of cinemas.

“There are some reviewers who won’t review films that go straight online,” he says. “But things like that are starting to change.”

Lean and bespectacled, Lawrence, who turns 47 this year, looks much like his father – the English-born Australian director Ray Lawrence, of Lantana and Jindabyne – did at the same age. There are touches of his father’s natural approach in the younger Lawrence’s humanist approach, too – of social realism as a means of societal critique.

But just as his father’s filmmaking skills lent a guiding hand in his career, Lawrence is equally inspired by his mother, Nonie, a social worker, and his maternal grandfather, who was a psychoanalyst. “Mum and all her siblings became very interested in that world,” he says. “I do remember my grandfather’s clients being around the house when I was younger, and him forming very strong relationships with them, as psychoanalysts do.”

Growing up in the family home at Hunters Hill on Sydney’s lower north shore, though, Lawrence felt isolated, having been born in London but brought with his elder sister to Australia before he turned one.

“I didn’t feel connected to the rest of the world, and I think that’s a common thing for many people growing up in Australia,” he says. “I grew up under the flight path, and I often thought about these stories coming in and what they were bringing to society and how they were enriching Australia.”

For all those feelings of being apart, the family was in agreement that Australia in the mid-1970s – with its climate and its opportunities for work – was a better place to be than Britain. Lawrence’s filmic résumé to date is testament to that gratitude, while subtly critiquing cultural life here.

Lawrence says his relationship with his father has never been competitive. Indeed, the title Hearts and Bones was suggested by Ray, a Paul Simon fan, after the Simon song of the same title.

In the film, Weaving plays war photographer Daniel Fisher, a photojournalist who is suffering panic attacks, memory loss and blackouts due to post-traumatic stress and lingering head injuries from improvised exploding devices, grenades and small artillery fire in the war zones he’s documented. He’s too enamoured with his camera to pay much attention to his impending fatherhood with his pregnant partner, Josie (Hayley McElhinney).

Taxi driver Sebastian Aman (Luri) befriends Fisher and invites him to shake off the shame of his PTSD by meeting a community choir of male musicians, many of whom are also affected by the traumas of conflict. The choir, assembled for the film, is made up of members from Syria, South Africa, Guinea, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia – all refugees who’ve sought safety in Australia. Aman, however, hides a secret from his own trauma in South Sudan.

 

Lawrence recalls his father sharing with him the library of movies that he loved, such as those by Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. “That’s sort of translated to me loving directors like Michael Winterbottom, who’s a more contemporary version carrying that tradition,” he says.

“Watching all those filmmakers’ films as one block, you can see a strong thread. To achieve something like they achieved and trying to create that atmosphere on set and capture those performances has always been a goal.”

Like his father, Lawrence was very interested in taking and collecting photographs. “Seeing images on the wall and questioning why they were so engaging – nightmare images or Cartier-Bresson street images – it informed my taste and what I continued to question, and ask about, how artists work.”

Initially interested in becoming a cinematographer, in his teen years Lawrence decided he would become a director, although he continues to take photographs.

The initial inspiration for Hearts and Bones was a photograph taken by a French photojournalist in Côte d’Ivoire in the early 2000s of a group of soldiers surrounding a man down on his knees, with a gun pointed at his head. The man had a look of sheer terror, says Lawrence, who saw the image at a World Press Photo exhibition in Sydney and began thinking about creating a photojournalist character for a screenplay.

Further inspiration came during Lawrence’s time creating a television campaign for Amnesty International after the Tampa crisis of 2001, when the Howard government refused to allow refugees onshore. His brief was to elevate the voice of refugees and trigger debate about fair treatment. Sent out to portray refugees in everyday life in Western Sydney, he encountered the Bosnian Women’s Choir, which met in a hall in Auburn each week.

“They were from mixed backgrounds, so they had Muslim and Christian women, and they would get together and sing non-religious songs,” Lawrence recalls. “John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ was one that they sang.

“When I first met them, they went around the room and said what their name was and where they were from. We got about halfway through and they just stopped, because one of the women started weeping, and the other women comforted her. Their names and where they came from created such power in the room. That was a moment that just stayed with me.”

But Hugo Weaving was not convinced when first approached to play the photographer. Having been sent an early draft of the script, he passed on the role. Lawrence was persistent and worked to improve the script. Deng Adut, a Western Sydney lawyer and South Sudanese refugee who had been a child soldier and written of his experiences in the memoir Songs of a War Boy, was engaged as a consultant.

“Deng was very helpful and came on prior to filming, and was very astute, coming with a fully annotated script back to us. He said some moments were very triggering and challenging to read,” says Lawrence. “He wanted me to bring to the fore things such as relationships between soldiers and civilians and the blurring of those lines, and the lack of value placed on life during that period.”

At the time of auditions, Andrew Luri, who had migrated from South Sudan on a humanitarian visa in the early 2000s, was driving a garbage truck in Melbourne. He had fled South Sudan during each of the two Sudanese civil wars, taking his family with him to Egypt the second time. He had never acted before.

“We had an open callout for Sydney and Melbourne that we did on Facebook, and we tried to reach as far overseas as possible,” says Lawrence. “We’d set up in a community hall at Sunshine, west of Melbourne, and we had groups of South Sudanese men come in and we’d interview them. That day, Andrew was working 60 kilometres away, and he’d finished late.

“He rang up the casting agent and said, ‘I’m not going to come in, I’m too tired.’ He’s got lots of kids and leads a very full life. The casting agent convinced him to come in. I knew, and I hoped, it would be him [to play Sebastian Aman]. He loved music, had a rich history of preaching and was very involved in the community.

“I had a strong sense he could pull it off. Andrew has a real stillness to him anyway, and that’s his natural default in all of the scenes. You tend to want to listen to what he’s saying. I also wanted the chemistry of a non-actor with someone of Hugo’s calibre.” Weaving adjusted his own acting tone to meet Luri’s “gentle, natural” approach, says Lawrence.

Hearts and Bones and Ghosthunter – as well as the ABC docuseries on male depression and suicide, Man Up, which Lawrence was brought in to direct – deal with masculinity and fatherhood, abiding and ongoing thematic interests for Lawrence. He tends to move slowly, thoughtfully, on projects.

He spent seven years making Ghosthunter, following the life of Jason King as he uncovered his personal demons – a brother killed in a car crash and an abusive father. King had an upbringing of broken teeth and bones that his memory had mostly expunged.

Lawrence still speaks to King each week, and says he’s doing well and has since married his girlfriend. The documentary led to a podcast series, and Lawrence is now writing a spinoff Ghosthunter television series, still in its early stages. The experience of making the documentary piqued his interest in trauma and where else it might be present, such as among photojournalists.

“In a contemporary sense, there is a fascination around men’s roles in society,” says Lawrence, who dedicated Hearts and Bones to his two children, daughter Helena and son Moses. “My children are 10 and 12 now, and through the period of writing Hearts and Bones and being involved in Ghosthunter, the idea of being a father, what it means to raise a young boy in this era, all became fascinating to me.

“It was very formative for me, having children, and obviously for a lot of people; it informed the fear of Daniel [Weaving’s character] having lost his child.

“Having seen other people go through instances like that, and the fears around that when I had children, all of that was playing on my mind in trying to bring those little touchpoints to society – to suburban viewers, like I am.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 25, 2020 as "Father rigour".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley Arts Journalism award recipient.