Interview: James Vaughan on Friends and Strangers
This article appeared in the February 17, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Friends and Strangers (James Vaughan, 2021)
In May 1787, a fleet of 11 ships sailed from England to Australia to establish the British Crown’s first settlement on the continent—a penal colony made up of convicts, military men, and free settlers. Among them was William Bradley, an officer of the Royal Navy charged with establishing relations with the land’s Indigenous peoples. In practice, this meant abduction. Bradley participated in the violent capture of Colebee and Bennelong in 1789, two members of the Eora, a people endemic to what is now Port Jackson. He described the mission as “most unpleasant,” but nevertheless painted a placid watercolor to commemorate the detention of the two men.
Bradley’s anthropological watercolors of Australia’s early colonial years—including Taking of Colebee and Bennelong—accompany the opening credits of James Vaughan’s Friends and Strangers, a film which, on the surface, has little to do with the country’s imperialist history. Bouncing between Sydney and Brisbane, the story is loosely centered on Ray (Fergus Wilson), a wayward twentysomething aspiring filmmaker still recovering from a not-so-recent breakup. The film plays mostly like an off-kilter comedy. Ray is awkward, and his interactions with would-be lovers, old friends, philosophizing boomers, and kooky outdoorsmen always leave him at a distance. Vaughan’s elliptical narrative and editing style create a sense of unease that seeps into free-flowing scenes of bone-dry absurdity.
Amid all the funny business and narrative meandering, gestures to Australia’s past—like Bradley’s watercolors—persist. There is a vague reference to some nearby cave paintings at a campsite that Ray and his friend Alice (Emma Diaz) visit, but they leave without seeing them. There is also a montage of municipal statues of colonizers midway through the film, and a land acknowledgment at its close. One of the last lines in the film comes from a tourist: “What about the Aborigines, are they around here or what?” Before the tour guide can answer, she’s pulled away. It’s a pointed absence, and one that defines the structure of Vaughan’s film—his engagement with Australia’s past and present—in a subtle yet clarifying way.
The film draws from the people you were growing up around, but also from this deeper sense of Australia’s past—its Indigenous history, its colonial history. In the film, that history is formulated as a kind of potent absence. Why did you choose that approach?
It’s a hard one to answer because it’s the accumulation of my whole life, which for me comes back to the Lower North Shore in Sydney where I grew up, which is an extremely white, middle-class place. I don’t think this is unusual, but I didn’t have any connection to First Nations people until I was about 23. Then I co-directed this documentary project which never got released, about what was called a Freedom Flotilla. The group was made up of First Nations and West Papuan sovereignty activists who were drawing attention to the parallel anti-colonial struggles of Australia and Indonesia. The idea, in some ways inspired by the Palestinian Freedom Flotilla, was to take some ships illegally from the Australian maritime territory into Indonesia. I was on that project for two months, and it was a revelatory experience—meeting people who really didn’t see Australia as a legitimate country. I began to see that as a potential perspective. When I returned to normal urban life in cities like Melbourne and Sydney, there was a strangeness to everything—I was thinking about cities as constructs, countries as constructs. That totally seeped into the writing of the script of Friends and Strangers.
On an official level, there’s a real emphasis on First Nations perspectives and stories and diversity, not just in Australia but everywhere. I knew that was a double-edged sword because, as a white filmmaker, you’re not really encouraged to engage with these ideas, or you’re encouraged to make yourself disappear while foregrounding other people. But I felt like that would be dishonest. I needed to do it in a way that I understood, which meant speaking from a white social environment and looking at that absence you mentioned directly, without trying to pretend that it was anything else. I hadn’t really seen that done in Australia, so I had faith that even though it might make it impossible to get funding, there was merit to this approach. So self-funding became the strategy early on, and that meant knowing that it would take five years.
You’ve mentioned the Australian anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner, who wrote about “the Great Australian Silence” and a “cult of disremembering.” Do you think that “absence” is a more truthful way of representing Australian history, and the nation’s willingness to look away from the past, or is it merely that you’re hindered, as a white filmmaker, in terms of representing those stories?
I think it worked in both ways. I felt like: what better way to talk about how whiteness reproduces itself and displaces and dominates other identities? I live in Darwin now, and the interface between white Australia and Indigenous Australia is different here—but still, you can’t help but notice how much white systems, white governance, and white laws present themselves as the only legitimate way of thinking and being and doing. I wanted to make a film that was true to that sense of dominance, which is so total in many ways: we don’t learn Indigenous languages, and most white people here have no idea what Indigenous cultures are about—I would put myself in that category. We know more about French culture or Italian culture than we do about any Indigenous nation here.
Everything is rigged to reproduce and perpetuate that. I wanted to take a look at that, because a lot of it is unconscious and “innocent” in that it’s not people trying to consciously make this happen, but it is happening, and it is real. So how do you talk about something that feels automatic on a cultural level? How to be aware of something that is an absence central to the film, and even the characters aren’t aware of it—or they are on one level, but they’re attuned to tuning out those frequencies. There’s no one to easily point a finger at with this, and that’s often part of the problem.
Early on, it feels like Alice is going to be central to the narrative—perhaps even the main character—and then she sort of disappears. Other characters come and go as well.
Before I knew what was going to happen in the film, I knew I wanted the various narrative parts to have an unstable and unpredictable relationship with each other—sometimes there is continuity, while at other times plot threads are randomly severed. I felt this was true to life. People often enter or exit suddenly, and in ways that rarely resemble traditional narrative arcs. I knew this was going to alienate some viewers, but it was the kind of thing I’d enjoy if I was watching a film, and given that I was funding it myself, I didn’t have any industry goons to answer to.
You also edited the film. It has a really unique style and rhythm, relentless in some ways but subtle in others, and the audience gets swept along as these people come and go. Where did that sensibility come from?
I really love the work of people like Kiarostami or Apichatpong or Ozu—filmmakers who have their own peculiar sense of pace that seems to be making up its own rules. They kind of reinvent filmmaking in such a way that it’s hard to systematize or pinpoint what works about it. But you still get a sense that there is a system there, even if you don’t quite understand it.
For this film, with its subject matter, the rhythm was particularly important. The film is ostensibly about nothing, and if there wasn’t an artificial propulsion, it wouldn’t work. I hope the film cultivates a strange sense of anticipation about what is going to come next, a sense of indeterminate foreboding. There are thematic reasons for that—the film is, among other things, about our country’s tendency to look away from the genocidal parts of our past and present in the hope that one day they will just magically disappear. As [Ray’s friend] Miles says in the car, attempts to run away from these things “never end up good.”
I’ve also always been attracted to films and filmmakers that create the sense that editing and writing are in conversation with one another, and that relationship is dynamic. This is what I meant by the editing having a really assertive role in carrying the experience of watching the film forward, rather than relying on twists in the plot or big performances.
You mentioned Kiarostami, whom I hadn’t initially thought of while watching the film, but I do think Friends and Strangers has similar rhythms to The Wind Will Carry Us—the way a life is both banal and strange, and unfolds so nonchalantly.
With Kiarostami, films like The Wind Will Carry Us and Through the Olive Trees create a sense of liveliness and anticipation, even if what’s happening isn’t particularly gripping in story terms. He’s constantly blurring what has been set up for the shoot in advance and what has been improvised. It makes the film feel like it exists in an enlarged space, or in multiple dimensions, and makes you as a viewer free to move around and between them. And I think this unlocks something essential to cinema—its ambivalent relationship with a reality it both pursues and invents.
James Wham is a writer based in London. His work has appeared in The Baffler, The New Left Review, and Reverse Shot.