The Influence

For broadcaster Marc Fennell, the cult hit Donnie Darko opened up the dark ambiguities of ordinary life. By Neha Kale.

Marc Fennell

Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular character in Donnie Darko, and Marc Fennell (below).
Jake Gyllenhaal as the titular character in Donnie Darko, and Marc Fennell (below).
Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Marc Fennell was just 19 when he became a presenter on SBS’s The Movie Show. The journalist and documentary-maker, who has also worked with FBi Radio and triple j, would go on to win a Walkley Award, New York Festivals TV and Radio Awards and a James Beard Foundation Award. His documentaries and podcasts – which shine new light on old stories – include ABC’s The School That Tried to End Racism, the 2021 art-heist series Framed and the hit podcast and TV show Stuff the British Stole.

This month, Fennell confronts his past relationship with Pentecostal religion in The Kingdom, which screens on SBS and SBS On Demand from June 8. The documentary grapples with the ways in which Australia gave rise to the controversial megachurch Hillsong. He credits his obsession with layered narratives to Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, the cult 2001 film that he once reviewed as a teenager.

Very broadly speaking, Donnie Darko follows a teenage boy called Donnie who is struggling with mental illness. His world changes when he befriends a rabbit named Frank. How did it first affect you?

I graduated from a tiny community Christian school in Hurstville and went to school with massive music fans. It was very tribal. I could not compete, so I based my personality entirely around movies. On Friday, we would go to youth group and then to Blockbuster. One of my friends clocked it. He said, “Marc, you would love this film.” We would have pressed play at midnight. I reckon a lot of other people fell asleep or got bored but I was, like, I don’t know what is going on, but this is amazing. It has given me enough to hook me but not so much that I have a clear beat of what is going to happen. I love documentaries and podcasts that operate first and foremost as mysteries. I can draw a straight line from that experience and a lot of the stuff that I do now.

One of the things I realised about Donnie Darko when I went back to watch it multiple times is that I thought that it was about something else. It is very rare for a film to do that. Is it really about time travel or is it really about mental health? Does it really reveal something new each time? It’s got enough space within its ideas that you can find some other part of yourself in it.

Donnie Darko failed at Sundance but became a cult hit largely because of word-of-mouth at video stores. Unbelievably, it was also Richard Kelly’s first film.

The thing I love about Donnie Darko is it gives you space [in] your own mind for what you think it is saying. As someone who makes things for a living, that is a really courageous and scary thing to do. Your instinct as a storyteller is to always give the audience an answer. To have a scene where you explain what the whole thing is about. Or if you are clever, drip-feeding enough information that they will work it out. I think there is something really ballsy [about] saying, let them find their own meaning.

There are two interpretations to this. One is that Kelly was a creative genius and knows exactly what he is doing. The other is that he has just fluked it. The passage of time would support the latter, but a fluke is still a win. If you can have one major culturally defining hit, that’s more than most people get.

Donnie Darko was released a few weeks after 9/11 and the film grapples with the strange currents that underpin American suburbia as well as how quickly a climate can shift. How do you think it works as an artefact of a particular time for older Millennials?

I was in year 11 when 9/11 happened. I remember it really vividly. The way it changed the culture and how we viewed each other with suspicion and paranoia. I am half-Indian, half-Irish. I don’t look like anything and sound like anything – I am ambiguously ethnic. I grew up around a lot of different ethnicities. You felt a nervousness that didn’t exist before. Donnie Darko landed during the first time we were having a significant conversation about mental health.

Donnie Darko is set in such a WASPy town and there is the girl, Cherita, and her main experience in the film is to be abused by Seth Rogen. That alone is a thing that you couldn’t get away with in this day and age. But it is an examination of WASPy middle-class communities. The fact Donnie Darko doesn’t have material hardships is what allows his story to happen.

It really feels to me that it is about what happens under the surface of ordinary middle-class life.

I’ve always been fascinated by those kinds of stories. American Beauty. Lantana. There was a golden period for re-examining suburban life, and if you grew up as a kid in suburban life, that was something you could understand.

I guess the interesting thing about the timing is that it was made during an era that explores the darkness underneath the normal, but [when it was released] after 9/11, everything changes. The world no longer feels normal, it no longer feels safe. We were emerging from the ’90s. America as a superpower is comfortable. Donnie Darko exists in this Reaganomics era of America. When everything is functionally okay, it exposes the unsolved traumas that sit underneath the surface.

Part of you wanted to imagine that if Donnie had been around in 2001 and 2002, would his life have ended up better or worse? In the wake of 9/11, we saw this massive resurgence of zombie movies. The remake of Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead. We need a way of expressing our trauma and fear, that something is wrong.

Donnie Darko is about the liminal space of being a teenager. Your new documentary, The Kingdom, follows the rise of Pentecostal megachurches. It explores your own involvement with Hillsong when you were young. How did you approach it?

In my 20s I had a lot of opinions on things. I was convinced that I had a lot of answers. As I have moved into journalism, I like to make work in which people assume that I have an opinion but [that] creates a space where other people can joust over ideas. When people make documentaries knowing they have the answer, it will end badly. With The Kingdom, I don’t know how people are going to react.

There will be a whole bunch of people that believe Pentecostal Christians are all crazy people. I want to walk the line and say to both of those cohorts, I hear you and see you, and now can you listen to the other side? Because somewhere in the gap we get to understand things better. In The Kingdom, people say a lot of critical things about what happened in the church. But it’s never an attack on their faith.

I don’t love to make myself the story. When I was a teenager, I literally just ran away. There was a moment where I looked around me and just didn’t feel it. I thought, I can’t do it any more, I’m a fraud. Usually when people are talking about their experiences in a church, they say that a bad thing happened and then I left. Those stories are important. But The Kingdom is about trying to find the contours of that story in a way that is more complicated.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2023 as "Marc Fennell".

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