A still from The Moogai by Jon Bell, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Sundance Interview – The Moogai Cinematographer Sean Ryan Talks About Crafting Tension on Screen for this Aboriginal Horror Film

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Jon Bell’s unsettling 2021 short film, The Moogai, receives the feature film treatment with his 2024 horror of the same name. Making its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, The Moogai follows in the steps of other Australian horror films (Talk to Me, Relic, You Won’t Be Alone) to have left their mark at the fest.

It follows the story of Indigenous couple Sarah (Shari Sebbens) and Fergus (Meyne Wyatt) as they welcome their new child into the world. However, Sarah’s birth is a traumatic one, with her dying on the table, leading her to be revived in a horrifying manner. Back at home and still rattled from her birthing experience, Sarah endures another torturous event in the guise of a malevolent spirit that wants to take her baby: the moogai.

Jon Bell explores the traumatic history of the Stolen Generation in The Moogai, layering in Aboriginal myths and legends, alongside the complexity that comes with Aboriginal kids being raised by white parents, as we see with the character of Sarah. Her culture has been pushed out of her, replaced with a level of sceptisism and distrust towards her Aboriginal heritage. When her birth mother Ruth (a powerful and riveting performance from Tessa Rose) tries to help ward off the spirit with ochre and snake skins, Sarah outwardly rejects her, allowing the spirit to further take hold of her life.

The Moogai is frequently tense and unnerving, which is thanks in part to the work of cinematographer Sean Ryan. Sean worked with Jon on the short film, and in doing so, the two have crafted a visual style that amplifies the haunting aspects of the Australian landscape. In the following interview with Sean, recorded while he attends the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, Sean talks about creating that tension on screen, about how he chose to present the Australian landscape, and while skirting spoilers, talking about how he shot the fiery climax of the film which sees characters surrounded by a circle of flames as smoke encompasses them in the darkness of the night. It is a memorable finale.

While The Moogai does not have a release date as of yet, it will not doubt reach Australian audiences sometime during 2024.

Read the interview with Jon Bell here.

We will be bringing you more coverage from the Sundance Film Festival over the end of January. All of the work at The Curb is independently produced and relies on the support of our brilliant community over at Patreon. To help keep The Curb independent, visit Patreon.com/TheCurbAU, and make sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram.

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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