Alena Lodkina’s Surreal New Film Petrol Invites the Audience to Be a Creative Viewer

Petrol is currently screening around Australia with Q&A screenings. Visit for more information.

Alena Lodkina’s second feature Petrol is a film that has been referred to by critics and film festivals as a riff on the work of Jacques Rivette to ‘the lovechild of Round the Twist and David Lynch’, both of which would suggest that the film is at once a homage or a pastiche, instead of being its own fully formed idea. Yet, the allusions to these existing artists are at the core of Petrol itself as Lodkina playfully tells the story of film student Eva (Nathalie Morris) and the enigmatic Melbourne artist Mia (Hannah Lynch). By chance and accident, the two swirl into each other’s orbit; Eva is capturing ambient noise by the ocean when she stumbles upon Mia made up as a vampire, looming over her prey, laughing. One is performing, the other is absorbing the art of the world around her, letting it enrich her mind and sway her creative path forward.

It’s not just Celine and Julie Go Boating or the comic timing of Bronson Twist that hovers in the air of Petrol as its influences stretch towards the literary in the form of Dostoevsky. Eva’s family is from Russia, and when she’s not setting the foundations for her filmic journey, she’s assisting her mother with familial duties. The two blend in the bones of Eva’s experimental documentary which conjures a vision of an older Russian woman (Becky Voskoboinik) and leads her university lecturer to ponder whether her film is less about the older woman and more of a personal piece.

Eva’s creative life is pulled into the realm of Mia’s distanced demeanour when she has a chance sighting of Mia walking in the back streets of Melbourne. Eva notices Mia drop a necklace, and like Alice and the intrigue of the white rabbit, she tumbles into Mia’s wonderland as she embarks on returning the necklace. The throb of an open door apartment party invites Eva in, leading her to Mia and into a conversation and then friendship that permeates the rest of the narrative. Mia soon offers up a spare room in her apartment for Eva to live in, giving fertile soil for Eva’s profound curiosity and often one-sided passion for the friendship to flourish.

Aspects of magical realism appear throughout Petrol, with doppelgangers and ghosts appearing alongside other mystical elements. As Eva and Mia get to know each other on a beach walk, Mia laughs and smiles, then winks a full picnic spread into existence on the beach. Initially, Petrol feels like it will sway into thriller territory as Mia’s interest in Eva’s presence and companionship sways from apathetic ambivalence to playful enthusiasm, but Lodkina strikes a tonal balance of levity and playfulness that enriches the experience rather than adhering to any expected genre-stylings.

To this viewer, Petrol is a film full of wandering narrative threads that fray and overlap one another, offering untethered endings to the viewer to hold onto so they can tease out their own meaning of what they’re viewing. Petrol is a self-reflective film and it’s one that frequently calls attention to its surrealism; as Eva is editing her film, a fellow student appears, mentioning that they had watched Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, to which Eva notes that she’d had a dream about Leonardo DiCaprio the night before.

Within many of the emerging filmmakers in Melbourne and Sydney, such as Friends of Mine director Andréas Giannopoulos (briefly appearing as a partygoer in the film), there is a tendency to craft films that skew towards the European, and as such, they are often labeled as ‘intellectual’, and therefore not audience friendly. In conversation with Alena, I raised the notion that Petrol actively encourages audiences to engage with intellectual art in a way that Australian audiences have often been perceived as rejecting outright. I note that outside of film enthusiast circles, ‘intellectual’ cinema is incorrectly seen as one of the ‘snobbier’ stylings of cinema, as if you need a philosophy degree to understand the basic context of a narrative.

Alena notes, “Even in the writing and developing of the film, I was aware that having two protagonists who are young women and who are aspiring artists, [or] aspiring intellectuals you might say, is going to be a tricky sell. And many people will see it as – probably the word you’re looking for – pretentious. And it’s something I had to grapple with, because nobody wants to be as pretentious or snobbish, but I also think it’s really important to see young characters with these aspirations.”

In that regard, Petrol is a repudiation of the ‘turn off your brain’ mindset that has permeated throughout cinema history as a way for audiences to engage with the films they’re watching. There is, at times, an inferred distinction between what we call ‘entertainment’ and ‘art’, as if the two must be kept separate and cannot be one and the same thing. Just because a film can provoke a marathon of thoughts and ideas in the viewer’s mind does not mean that it is cordoned off from also being entertaining. A late high tea sequence in Petrol is a notably atypical entertaining moment, full of a brightness that helps usher in the films close with a light energy that amplifies that encouragingly intellectual vibe that Lodkina has created.

Alena continues, “My way of dealing with it in my film was being playful. [These are] people who feel really strongly about something, they have these ambitions, they have pretentiousness as well, and sometimes they sound ridiculous and sometimes they don’t know what they’re talking about; but the crux is in their desire and their pursuit of something.”

It’s at this point that I should note to the readers out there that I’m yet to stumble into the world of Jacques Rivette’s films, nor have I engaged with the work of Éric Rohmer, another European filmmaker whose work has so distinctly influenced many of the east coast filmmakers in Australia. Just like the many countries that get thrust under the banner of ‘European cinema’, Australian filmmakers and filmgoers are not one homogenous entity. We react to what is made available to us, and as such, the film scenes within Sydney and Melbourne are frequently catered for with retrospective screenings of these titans of European cinema. Additionally, for the students who attend films schools such as AFTRS, the films they are taught and raised on predominantly skew towards the European.

The impact of this kind of filmic education and just how readily available these kinds of films are to audiences shows on screen in the output of Australia’s east coast filmmakers and in the audience turnout for these retrospective screenings. In these parts of Australia, an appreciation of film culture and language is not only fostered and nurtured, but one that is encouraged and celebrated through frequent retrospective screenings at venues like ACMI or the Astor. This is not to discount the other cities in Australia, where varied flourishing film appreciation movements and festivals have made way for work that has been influenced by American or Asian cinema. Instead, I mention this to highlight that the availability of films for audiences to engage with, and the manner that they’re able to openly discuss the works without being perceived as pretentious individuals is an important avenue in allowing a film culture to grow and persist.

Alena talks about how Petrol isn’t “a story about someone making it as a filmmaker or self-eventuating,” but rather “someone on a search [for the self].” Alena points to a scene where Eva is at her computer writing as one of the themes within Petrol, “It’s about being in the process [of writing or making art] and getting lost in a world of ideas, a world of imagination and inner exploration. That is what are really is.”

Yet, within Australia, the manner that films, and by extension, art is made is often one that comes from a world of privilege or financial security. While the ‘starving artist’ is a figure that still exists in society, the mere concept of making a film in Australia is one that most artists need to put serious consideration into. Can they actually afford to make a film without stifling their financial future? Petrol isn’t a film that covers that discussion, given a major element of the story focuses on film students who often have access to equipment and the support of fellow filmmakers to create films and a reduced financial commitment, but it is a notion that hangs in Alena’s mind: “It’s really unfortunate that conversations about class and pretension come in. Unfortunately, I think it is a bit of an issue in Australia, that ‘tall poppy’ thing and dismissing things that are cultural as pretentious and European, ‘it’s not us.’ We all kind of pretend that we’re ‘battlers’ who are beyond all these pretentious things, but the reality of it is, this is a highly wealthy country that is in search of a dialogue about its identity, and culture and art are so important in this respect.”

I previously interviewed Alena about Petrol when the film played at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) in 2022, and my questions were pointedly about how Melbourne was portrayed on screen, as well as how the city was captured sonically by sound designer Chris Bond. In conversation with ABC film critic Jason Di Rosso, Alena notes the difference between audience reception around the world, saying: “Overseas, I think that people don’t ask as many questions about the portrayal of Melbourne and shooting in Melbourne and the practical challenges that come with that, they’re more interested in the story and the characters and the stylistic choices, the inspirations for the film and things like that. [There] people watch the film at a remove, whereas here, everyone is relating it to themselves, maybe.”

Petrol – Trailer from Arenamedia on Vimeo.

While Australia is a broad country, with a land size that would cover many of the European countries that make up the cinematic identity known as ‘European cinema’ (a nomenclature that belies just how varied and diverse that grouping of cinema truly is), it’s also a country that is yet to truly reconcile with just how cultural diverse we are as a nation. I’m not just talking about its multicultural population or the tens of thousands of years of First Nations culture that exists in and on this land, but rather how different each city is from one another on a purely basic level.

We may speak with a similar accent, but the truth is that we are a culturally divided nation looking for something to adhere ourselves to. To get completely reductive for a moment, if a Perthian were to go to Melbourne and order a ‘long mac topped up’, they’d likely be met with a strange look and laughed out of the café. Additionally, the social pressures of day-to-day life in Sydney and Melbourne are vastly different than that of Perth; a reality that was made abundantly clear as Melbourne endured months in COVID lockdown while Perth remained socially free. But it’s not just about how we drink our coffee, or what we call a potato cake, it’s about having a respect and appreciation for art and artists, and that’s something that I fear that Australia as a whole has not truly come to grips with.

When COVID shut down music venues, cinemas, and art galleries, the level of antagonism directed towards artists who were asking for support was deafening. As a nation, we proudly consume and engage with films and TV on a mass level, yet for some reason we fail to see the career of being an artist or a filmmaker as a genuine possibility. The word ‘hobby’ is thrown around a lot, a term that’s morphed into the hyper-capitalistic phrase ‘side-gig’, both of which suggest a lack of respect for artists and their art.

Smothering that creative drive can be a toxic and painful experience, sometimes leading to destructive behaviour or cause mental anguish. In a pivotal scene midway through Petrol, Mia presents her performance art to a crowd full of seemingly disinterested people. She hangs from the ceiling on her back, staring at the crowd as they peer back at her. At the bar, Mia is despondent, talking to Eva about how “Two women said it was self-indulgent or narcissicistic.” Eva, ever wanting to be a good friend, says “They don’t know what they’re talking about.” It’s clear from what we see of Mia’s performance art that she goes to a place in her mind while it’s happening that she can only reach through engaging with her art, and that’s a state of mind that is driven by passion for her art.

Alena talked about the decision to make Petrol in relation to that conversation dialogue about Australia’s identity, “I was like ‘fuck it,’ I’m gonna make a film about these artists, and everyone’s going to say that it’s pretentious, but I don’t care because I feel really passionate about this.”

But Petrol is not a film that Alena has made exclusively for herself, with the film carrying that invitational tone that aims to include audiences, rather than making them feel out of depth by the themes or narrative machinations. “Maybe not everyone has read Dostoevsky, but everyone has thought about expression and imagination. Everyone was once a child and played games and imagined things. It’s in all of us, that’s all part of our lives. I see art as this arena of play and discovery, more than anything else,” Alena said.

For Alena, it was important that audiences didn’t feel excluded by the film, “Because we’re so used to watching films that offer us a resolution, I think that watching a film that is extremely open ended can provoke feelings of discomfort and frustration and [being] shut out. And I very much empathise with that kind of experience. As a filmmaker, I was grappling with how to make a film that’s open ended but doesn’t alienate audiences or make them feel silly or stupid or like they don’t understand something. Because in truth, there’s nothing to understand.

“If somebody feels with Petrol, ‘Oh I didn’t quite understand the film,’ I think it’s kind of the point. The themes are not the things that you can really understand completely, because the film is about things that are mysterious and will not be resolved in our lifetime. Mysterious connections between people and trying to understand yourself and others, things that don’t have easy conclusions; so it is just throwing ideas on the table and it is what you make of it. I guess it asks you in a way to be a creative viewer.

“And that may be unpleasant for some, but hopefully, it can also empower others to feel part of the process and come on a journey a little bit. That’s a choice you make, not to tell people but to think but offer them ideas that they might respond to in their own way.”

I imagine this is where many some are pulling that David Lynch comparison for Petrol from, this notion of no answers, just ideas. But for me, outside of a karaoke scene later in the film where Mia sings to an audience, the notion of Petrol being Lynchian is unfounded. For me, I found myself thinking of the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a filmmaker who is fascinated by sleep, saying, “It’s a place where you can just be in this state or narrative, and that’s when you open up to all kinds of connections and possibilities.” Weerasethakul is a filmmaker who extends an invitation to his audience and asks them to take a journey in the shape of the ideas and imagery that linger in their mind after the film is long over.

It’s a kind and considerate mindset for a filmmaker to have when they engage with their audience, extending an invitation to hold onto an idea and roll it over in their mind as they discover the personal connection with it. Additionally, it’s comforting to see a filmmaker eagerly engage with the conversation about art and the artists who bring it to life in their own work in the way that Alena has done with Petrol. And even though the comparisons to Rivette or Lynch may be apt for this work, it’s clear that there is a distinct vision from Lodkina going forward, making her one of the most vital Australian filmmakers working right now.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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