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Arts + CultureMoviesIvan Sen's 'Limbo' confronts crimes against Australia's Aboriginal women

Ivan Sen’s ‘Limbo’ confronts crimes against Australia’s Aboriginal women

In a town so hot its buildings are underground, the noir's detective seeks justice.

You may be familiar with Coober Pedy, a small, singular Australian opal mining town. It was a location for Wim Wenders’ 1991 road movie Until the End of the World and Stephan Elliott’s glorious 1994 road comedy The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Its lunar landscapes make it an apt location for dystopian drama and sci-fi and as a result, the town had figured in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), Pitch Black (2000), and Red Planet (2000).

In his striking noir Limbo, Aboriginal director Ivan Sen leans into the otherworldliness of the place, as well as the unique architecture of its homes, hotels, and even churches, which are built underground in defense against the region’s punishing heat. The film, which opens Fri/3 at the Roxie, stars a barely recognizable Simon Baker—best known to American audiences from his TV series The Mentalist, as well as movies like Margin Call and The Devil Wears Prada—as Travis, a big-city detective who comes to the town to follow-up on a 20-year-old cold case.

Sen previously wrote and directed two movies starring an Indigenous detective, Mystery Road and Goldstone, but opted this time to depict a white sleuth’s interactions with what in Australia has become an everyday injustice. It’s a tragedy familiar to Indigenous people in the United States and Canada as well: missing and/or murdered women whose fates are barely investigated and largely ignored.

It’s personal for Sen.

“A cousin, my mother’s cousin, and another relative of mine were all murdered and the police didn’t do much about it,” Sen said in conversation at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Limbo had its North American premiere.

“It just carried on for years without any kind of real focus from the police. Those three cases form the basis of this story. And Travis—he is based on a kind of famous detective in Australia, a white detective. He came up to my hometown and he wanted to do something. He was actually recently sacked from the police for trying too hard.”

In Limbo’s rendering, Travis is clearly a burnout, a drug addict barely holding it together. He’s been sent on a hopeless errand to look into the 20-year-old case of an Aboriginal teenage girl missing and presumed dead. As he gets to know her brother Charlie (Rob Collins) and sister Emma (Natasha Wanganeen) and sees how the tragedy has marked their lives, his empathy awakens. He becomes invested in the case and begins a real investigation, despite long odds against solving the mystery.

Sen met Baker years ago and had long wanted to work with him, not for his charisma or other movie-star qualities, but something else he noticed in the actor’s work.

“I always noticed what he was doing in the background or when he wasn’t talking in a scene,” Sen says. “I wanted to explore that, cinematically.”

What Baker recognized in the character was his humanity, seeing Travis as someone beaten down by life and by a job marked by too much tragedy and violence, which has left him isolated and withdrawn.

“When you have been through an element of pain and suffering, there is a lack of attachment,” Baker says. “As you go about things, you try not to get close. You see Travis doing that. You also see the [victim’s] family doing that.

“When this cop comes to town to talk about their sister, they don’t want to go through that cycle of pain again of getting their hopes up,” he adds. “It’s just human nature. They end up getting close, and it’s almost despite the fact that they’re pushing away from each other. But the harder you push away, the more the cracks show and the vulnerability shows. There’s an unspoken connection between the family and Travis’ broken existence.”

Sen’s scriptwriting began with his location. One of Limbo’s producers suggested that the filmmaker might want to change the film’s location, since Coober Pedy recently provided the setting for an Australian TV series. But Sen knew he wanted to feature aspects of the town that other productions missed, those underground spaces, the hotels, bars, churches. It was an incredible location.


“I wrote this for Coober Pedy,” Sen says. “I felt the location would draw the fabric of the story together in a way that put a lot of weight on the drama of the situation and less on the procedural elements, which was very restrictive consciously and realistically. I mean, the chances of a cop going out 20 years later to a small town and actually solving the case… Really, this is about these damaged people, and that location was super important.”

Sen acts as his own cinematographer and he initially meant to shoot Limbo in color, but in looking at black-and-white photographs, he was struck by the contrast. Baker, too, was excited by the idea. The cinematography emphasizes the alien nature of the place. And Sen could play with the contrasts of the white powder that coats everything, especially Travis’ black rental car.

“That’s the white gypsum that’s like a white sand that they make there,” says Baker. “It’s drywall. In Australia, they call it cheap rock, but it’s just white powder. And it makes the ground lighter than the sky.”

The cinematography also aided Sen in depicting characters that are stranded in their memories.

“The black and white helps with that feeling, and there’s no distraction of color to sway your emotions,” he says. “So, you go searching for other things in trying to get close to the characters and the story because you don’t have that wonderful payoff, the rainbow.”

Sen acknowledges that he could have made a third film featuring an Indigenous policeman, but he felt it was important that the detective be a white cop that would come to know this Aboriginal family.

“This is a film about the justice system intersecting with this Indigenous family that has gone through trauma and had to deal with the apathetic attitude,” he says. “This was important to me, to put this story on film, where you have this intersection and sense of hope that empathy can arise at some point—maybe not at the moment, as things are happening in Australia. I don’t blame cops for their apathy. I just think it’s an extension of Australian society. The apathy is riddled throughout. Like a cancer.”

LIMBO opens Fri/3. Roxie Theater, SF. Tickets and more info here.

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