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“Oh, man that's fucked”: director Matt Richards on his MIFF short The Disappearance of Willie Bingham

The Melbourne International Film Festival affords viewers the rare ability to see something weird on the big screen. The festival uniquely embraces the far-out, absurd, mystifying and unusual films we usually don’t see in cinemas throughout the calendar year.

That’s why whenever I attend MIFF I make it my mission to try and see the weirdest of the weird. Thankfully, it’s usually rather easy to find these bizarre features. On their website, MIFF separate their films with tags such as “absurdist”, “head trip”, “psychedelic” and “experimental.” This makes it easy to find that hidden far-out gem few of your friends are talking about.

The MIFF shorts packages are usually the easiest way for thrill-seeking cineastes to get a healthy dose of the fucked up. These packages are the same price as a normal MIFF ticket and collectively run for the same length of time as your average feature. This year, there are over half a dozen shorts packages, each package specializing in something different: documentary, experimental, Australian, psychedelic, international, WTF.

The WTF Shorts package is the one I look forward to most. This is a place for the strange, terrifying or just plain WTF, for oddity films that simply don’t belong anywhere else.

This year, there are eight films featured in the WTF package, from all over the world. Some are animated, others are black and white, some are scary and most are funny. It really is a cinematic lucky dip.

At this year’s festival the brave WTF Shorts film-goers were treated to something special. In attendance at the screening was Matt Richards, the director of the only Australian film featured in the WTF package – The Disappearance of Willie Bingham, a twelve-minute film that premiered at this year’s festival. Based on the short story The Wilbur Bledsoe Amputations by Michael L. Fawcett, the story paints the portrait of a horrific future ruled increasingly by the state.

In 2014, Matt Richards was the recipient of $70,000 from Screen Australia’s Hot Shots shorts funding program. The extra budget allowed the director to tackle a more difficult subject and to make a short film with the production qualities of some of the best features.

The Disappearance of Willie Bingham is a gripping horror set in a not-too-distant Australian future. In this future, convicted murderer Willie Bingham (Kevin Dee) is the first man to undergo a new form of punishment under the Government’s revised justice program, in which amputations replace incarceration and the death penalty. The family of the woman Bingham murdered is given the ability to systematically decide which body parts he must have surgically removed, and in what order. A supervisor (played with nuanced perfection by Gregory J. Fryer) is appointed to Bingham to ensure he remains alive and healthy throughout this “treatment”. The increasingly limbless Bingham is then wheeled out to schools throughout the country to be made an example of. This is the Government’s attempt to curb students away from illegal behaviour, for fear of ending up like Bingham.

The film is increasingly gruesome and shocking but the political message embedded into the story prevents this film from being classed as mindless torture porn. At its crux, The Disappearance of Willie Bingham is a clever film that encourages its audience to question our relationship with the state and to challenge the disagreeable systems put in place to supposedly protect us.

Though horror fans will certainly enjoy this film, The Disappearance of Willie Bingham is more political drama satire than anything overtly representing genre cinema. The characters are intensely detailed, specifically the family of the murdered woman, who seem to grow increasingly disillusioned as Bingham’s limbs are taken from him. Bingham’s supervisor, who is Aboriginal, seems challenged and confronted by watching this white man slowly stripped of his dignity.

The Disappearance of Willie Bingham is a subtle and wonderful short indicative or a shift toward grittiness that’s noticeable in the best Australian cinema of recent years.

Ash Beks: Congratulations on creating a great short film, and for winning the $70,000 grant through Screen Australia's Hot Shots program. How has the extra cash helped or hindered you with the creation of your latest film? 

Matt Richards: Thanks! The funding allowed us to create The Disappearance of Willie Bingham with much higher production values than we could have done independently. We got to do the first 5.1 audio mix I’ve done on a film yet and finished it in 4K with 13 VFX shots. It allowed us to pay our crew an award wage and attract actors and locations that may otherwise have turned us down without any money.

Is it easy to get short films into production? How does that compare to working on features? Are they even comparable?

It’s always really tough to get films into production, as there are so many variables. But the first thing to do is just lock your dates and then everything else has something to move towards. Some things don’t happen ‘til the very last minute, but without dates they will never happen.

Features are another whole ball game that I am yet to play. At the lowest budget end they function largely the same, but the more money you need the more people are involved in signing off on that money as it never just comes from one place. Everyone has a vested interest in the production. Money is the hardest thing; sometimes you just need to make something though so you throw in your own money just to get things started. Once its shot you can show it to people and try and raise more money to get it finished, to get a good editor and sound design. If you can do any of those things yourself you will also save time and cash.

What are your thoughts on the current landscape of Australian cinema and are there any ways it can be changed or bettered?

I have a lot of faith in Australian film at the moment. It feels like we are finally catching up to the intelligence of what’s happening around the globe and adding to it in our own unique voice. Films like Hail, SnowtownThe Rover and Another Country are all exploring some interesting and often challenging terrain.

The most exciting new prospect as far as I’m concerned is Australian/Mexican filmmaker Michael Rowe, whose devastatingly honest Canadian co-production Early Winter premieres at MIFF 2015. Michael says that we should make films about the things we are afraid to tell anyone about, films that explore our Achilles heel. I agree. I don’t subscribe to ticking all the marketing boxes with a film either. I think that if you make something personal it will become universal. When you try to make something that everyone will like you often end up making something that people think is just OK, and not something anyone will truly love. Also, remember that audiences are much smarter than we think they are. We don’t have to explain everything; cinema should be an engaging experience, not a passive one.

The short story that The Disappearance of Willie Bingham is based on seems to confront some pretty heavy political ideologies. Were you attracted to the story because you felt it could be easily translated into an Australian setting? What was it about this narrative attracted you to the story?

I loved the bureaucratic tone when I first read The Wilbur Bledsoe Amputations. The way we create systems to distance us from quite horrific processes as a way of trying to keep our morality intact. We changed a few things, originally the inmate was an African-American but I thought it might be more interesting to flip the race roles around and have the supervisor as an Aboriginal man. This adds so many more layers to his backstory as to how he ended up working in the prison system in the first place.

This is also the first time I’ve used voice-over, and that meant I a lot more freedom to jump around in time and try to create contrast between what we are seeing and what we are being told. I also feel very strongly about “fairness” and liked the idea of exploring the imbalance of power between people and large faceless corporations.

To be perfectly honest there are so many terrible things going on in this country right now that I thought it might be nice to try and comment on them in a less obvious way and hopefully one that isn’t just depressing.

What do you enjoy most about MIFF? Is there something particularly pleasant about experiencing the WTF Shorts packages? Do you have any particular favourites you've seen at the festival this season?

I love seeing films at the Forum. I look forward to it every year and try to book all my films there. I love the all the premieres and that you can talk to any stranger in a line or in the seat next to you about film and they are open to it. I love seeing films that I won’t get to see on a big screen for some time or in some cases ever again.

Regarding WTF Shorts, I kind of feel like my film is less WTF and more “oh, man that’s fucked”. I do find the films challenging but they also allow us to suspend our morality for a moment to see things differently. My favourite in the package was MANOMAN (directed by Simon Cartwright). It’s just completely wrong, but so good. Outside of WTF Shorts I’d recommend you go and see The Club (Pablo Larraín) and Toto and His Sisters (Alexandre Nanau).

The MIFF WTF Shorts will be showing at ACMI on Friday August 14th at 11:30pm. Tickets available at www.miff.com.au.

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