Warrawong… the windy place on the hill Director Simon Target Talks Filming Isolation, Capturing the Stillness of Remote Australia and More in This Interview

Director Simon Target heads to the country with his latest film, Warrawong… the windy place on the hill, and explores the notion of what life on a farm is like in modern Australia. Following Sue and Brian, a couple in their 70s living in the remote town of Tooraweenah in NSW, this is a documentary that tackles deep themes of isolation, loss, and the notion of downsizing a farm. Ultimately, Warrawongthe windy place on the hill is a profound slice of slow cinema, all in the space of 29 minutes.

Simon caught up with Andrew to discuss the film from all the way in Krakow, Poland, where Warrawong… the windy place on the hill the film received an Academy Award qualifying screening. Warrawong… the windy place on the hill screens at the Sydney Film Festival in the Documentary Australia Award Trio alongside Jessica Barclay Lawton’s excellent The Sweetness, and Maya Newell’s collaborative film The Dreamlife of Georgie Stone.

This interview has been edited for clarity.


Content Warning: This interview contains discussions of suicide, mental illness, and isolation.

[This is] such a striking film. The visual style of it was just lovely. I’ve been watching a fair few films for Sydney Film Festival, and then you sit down and you watch something like this, [and] even though it’s only a half an hour long, it forces you to sit there and be quiet and be patient. That’s my kind of thing.

Simon Target: That’s kind of you. Thank you. It’s interesting because I asked Brian, the farmer who’s in the film, about cows and I said, “Are they stupid?” Because you know, people talk about dumb cows or slow animals, and he said, “Oh no, no, Simon. They’re very clever. They’re very observant.” He said, “All they do is watch all the time. That’s what they do. They watch me if I leave a gate open. If I’m wearing a different coat, they notice from hundreds of metres away.”

I went out before dawn each day and stood and tried to be like a cow and kind of watch and see the story of the dawn. How one bunch of birds start singing and another group follow, they’ve all got their order of who makes the noise when. And, you know, this is a very old landscape, the Warrambungles. I don’t know when the volcanic eruption that created them happened but it was millions of years ago. And you really feel that as a human being. Personally, I feel very, very temporary. Brian and Sue are going to die and I’m going to die one day, but this place will be here forever.

It’s what our country does to us, doesn’t it? And I’m sure other countries do.

ST: It does, you’re right. No, I think Australia is particularly like that. You have a real sense of being temporary. I remember coming to Australia when I was a teenager, and just driving from Sydney to Melbourne and thinking if I walked off this road into the bush for a few hundred metres, no one would ever find me. I could just lie down and in the sleepy dazey afternoon and go to sleep, and that would be it. In England where I grew up, you walk for 500 metres, you come to a post office or a pub. There’s not that sense that we are really just recent visitors. First the dinosaurs, now us.

I think it’s Brian who was talking about the trees that are on the property and he says, “They’ve been here for hundreds of years and there’ll be here for much longer.” That was one of the things which I found so fascinating: we look at a rock and we go “Well, that’s been around for a very, very long time.” It is an inert solid thing that is just going to stay there. But then we look at a tree and think, “Well, that’s a living thing that we can cut down.” And it was really nice to hear him recognise that no, a lot of these trees that we have in Australia are old and they’ve been around a long time.

ST: You’re so right. The obvious thing for him to do would be to cut them all down so he could get his header through and take his crop off. And instead, these header drivers have to go round and round in circles around the trees. He wouldn’t dream of cutting them down because he loves them. He said, “The cattle can get shade under them, they can eat them, there’s mistletoe in them, they’ve been there for a hundred years.”

I feel watching these old people age – there’s no such thing as aging in nature. It just keeps regenerating, you know, like the coronavirus. I feel in this war of man versus nature in a man is always going to lose. And that’s what’s truly humbling. You feel the power, but you’re right, the trees will be there forever. Not that particular tree perhaps, but another tree will grow from its seeds.

Sue and Brian

How did you meet Sue and Brian?

ST: Well, they invited us to talk at a CWA [Country Women’s Association] thing. CWA is an incredible organisation of women trying to stop each other going bonkers when they live in great isolation in the bush. It’s an amazing kind of group therapy organisation. Every year, they study a different country as a project. They make contact with women wherever and they share recipes and knitting patterns and they visit the countries.

One year they were doing Poland and my wife is Polish. That’s why I’ve got such a strong connection here. My wife had written a book about Poland and they invited us to present at some events. I sat next to [Brian] after I told them all about Poland, which they knew already because they’d already been to Poland. And then they started telling me about their lives, and that was so interesting to me.

They had just been through three years of terrible drought, as you’d know. Farmers were killing themselves, they were suiciding. The poor policeman from Tooraweenah said he’d had to go out to farms and dismantle these suicide machines where farmers too frightened to put a gun to their head – they had invented some weird machine that would kill them after a certain amount of time. Unimaginable horror that we don’t hear about, all because they couldn’t grow a crop, because they had to shoot their cattle. Brian had to kill his herd four years ago. Couldn’t feed them.

To support themselves, the CWA put on a feed at the pub in Tooraweenah every Saturday night. It was cheap, ten bucks or something for dinner. And every Saturday night, a hundred people would sit down and eat together. The population of Tooraweenah is one hundred so literally, the whole town was eating together every Saturday.

I live in Glebe [in Sydney] and I’m very pleased that my neighbours sometimes come over for a cup of tea or a drink. But there’s nothing like that cohesion in the country. And that’s what got me interested. I went out there. Sue invited me and she said, “Come and stay, and I’ll show you around.” And I come and stayed and they let me just live with them and film them which was fantastic. I could film them in their pyjamas, I could film in my pyjamas, just get straight out of bed, walk out into the field in my pyjamas in the dark. It was fantastic to do that.

How do you see your role in documenting this, as an observer or somebody who is curating the history of this town and the people that live there?

ST: I think we’re all documentary makers, now, Andrew, because we’ve all got an iPhone in our pocket. There’s no difference between it. Every time we take a phone out and start filming, we’re documenting what we see. I don’t see my work as any different from that, to be honest. I just spend longer and I use a more expensive camera and a bigger lens.

I really enjoy the kind of non-narrative films which have no voiceover or captions. They’re not telling you what it’s about. You get to hopefully sit and observe up close someone’s life, someone you don’t know about, and understand a bit what their life is like. Those kinds of films are kind of killed by television. Now everyone’s sort of not watching television or watching streamers. And as I say, it’s so much easier to make a film yourself.

There’s a whole new world of those kinds of firms. They end up in festivals which I really enjoy, and particularly in middle Europe, lots of those kind of films being made, fantastic movies made by people. Some guy with a GoPro living in a yurt in the middle of a tundra in Siberia for six months, and you get to see stuff in 4k on a huge screen which you’d never dream of seeing.

I find it too much. There’s too many pixels for me. I want to slow it all down. You know when you watch Fauda or something, one of these Netflix dramas, and there’s a wide shot of Ramallah. I just want to say to them, “Stop, stop, stop, freeze it, just let me wait. I can wait for the story. I just want to look at Ramallah from the air for just a few more seconds.” I’m probably old, that’s why.

I love the drone. Everyone’s got a drone now and it’s like another dimension on the world. Ten years ago, we never saw the world from above, and now every single film has that angle which is lovely.

With the drone shots in my movie, I made a rule that I wasn’t going to move the camera, I was going to park it in the sky like it was on top of an enormous tripod. Rather than swoop and move around which is what everyone does. Because you can and because the swoopy shot is so exciting, to go storming above the ground. But if you just stop and hold the camera up stationary and look down, you get this whole new view of the landscape, which I personally find fascinating. I could look at it for hours.

Well, there were moments where I wasn’t sure whether my stream had frozen or not. Some of the shots are so still.

ST: The two of them, Brian and Sue, live so isolated. In COVID, we were told to stay two metres apart. They are sixty kilometres from the nearest neighbour. And yet they’re together but they’re silent. They don’t talk to each other much. They just move around quietly. And he doesn’t talk to the animals, there’s none of this [herding calls]. They follow him quietly, intuitively around, he’s got this kind of wordless communication.

It is very quiet and all you hear is the wind blowing which blows all the time. Sue said to me, “Why did you call it the windy place on the hill? And I said, “Well, you know, haven’t you noticed the wind blows twenty-four hours?” And she said, “No, I hadn’t.” And she wrote me an email just the other day saying, “Look, you’re right, you’re right. I just noticed that the wind blows all the time.” They hadn’t noticed. (laughs)

It really does, it feels like you’re on a ship at sea. And I’ve kept worrying that little house would blow off on its stump. So it’s got this incredibly sort of constant, howling wind and stasis really. I suppose a static world, as you say.

It’s interesting you talking about the camera work and just sitting there and being patient and not moving, because it feels like so many filmmakers nowadays are afraid of just being static, of just being quiet. They’ve always got to be moving, they’ve always got to be cutting to something else. It’s really comforting to see a film that is just about sitting there and observing because it reflects the life that you’re documenting. It makes it such a powerful experience.

ST: You know, because the cameras are so good now. They’re so high resolution, and the audio’s so fantastic. I hope you really sit in the cinema and you feel you’re there. And if you are there and there is all that detail, you can stop and look at it.

You’re absolutely right. The rule is keep the camera moving, keep cutting, keep it busy, keep people’s attention. But it’s like putting too much sugar on your cereal. You reach a limit where it doesn’t work anymore. And I think if you go back the other way, at first it’s a bit jarring perhaps and you feel it’s a bit boring, what is this all about? If you start to look at this thing more as a series of moving paintings, I think it becomes hopefully very immersive. I just love it. I love looking at the world that way.

When you’re capturing these images, when do you know that you’ve got a shot that you want to use?

ST: (laughs) Well, I’m not sure. Not till later. Not till you’re in the cutting room, I think and then you can see. Hopefully it’s in focus and you haven’t stuffed up. Because that’s the other thing. The gear is so good, but it’s so unforgiving, because if it’s slightly out of focus, the shot is unusable. Especially this kind of filming static, you could argue that if you’re following someone who’s leaping off a cliff, then you’re allowed to lose focus for a second. But not if you’re staring at a huge wide landscape. It’s got to be sharp.

You can’t really see on location, because my vision is not that good anyway, I’m struggling to check. So you know, a lot of stuff gets wasted. But there’s an instinct, I think, as any filmmaker can tell you, if you look through the cameras and think, “Oh this is working, this feels good.”

Even when Sue reaches up to get something out of the letterbox – she’s got a letterbox behind the post office in Tooraweenah, and she’s sort of stretching up and she’s a bit short and fat and she’s struggling to get into this [box]. I’m thinking as I’m watching, “This is good, because it shows you that if you live here, you have to have a letterbox, no one’s going to deliver to your door.” And also it shows she’s got the top letterbox, she should have the bottom one. How did that happen? It’s just yet another tiny hardship to add to the list of hardships that this woman has to suffer. And she wants to.

The other thing about the film is that these are people who could sell the farm tomorrow and move to Sydney. They’ve got kids here who would gladly put them up, they could have a nice apartment looking at the sea somewhere. They really don’t want to. They want to stay. They love the farm, they want to stay there. Even though they got major health problems and having to sell bits of farm and bits of stock all the time. They want to die standing in their boots, and that’s really, really interests me. Because it’s not a choice of comfort at all.

It’s their life as well. It’s what they know, it’s the place they know.

ST: It’s what their parents did and their grandparents.

So often we hear these stories that when you get old, you come to the city and live in an apartment. And I don’t think that people fully appreciate the mental strength [you need] to do that. It’s hard to go from your neighbour being sixty kilometres away to hearing them through the door.

ST: Yes, all day long. And you might enjoy that. I think they would enjoy the presence of others. But on the other hand, it’s the natural world as well. Brian is constantly watching the weather, he showed me stuff I’d never noticed, because they live next to a mountain. That’s why the wind blows because of the convection currents going upside of this mountain. He would point to the weather and say, “Look, there’s a rainstorm, it’ll be here in about forty-five minutes.” And sure enough, it would be.

We look at our phones for weather forecasts, he looks at the sky. The Coonabarabran observatory is just up the road, this is a perfect place for looking at the sky. It’s high and not very humid. So you get a sense of the closeness of the cosmos, to be honest. That’s why I like it and looking up at the jet trails because you’re always close to the sky. If you came to the city, you’d give all that up and they don’t want to.

But the problem is they are old, he is sick, he needs a doctor. You get to a certain age in life, you need a doctor. And that doctor is 150 kilometres away. And to get there, they have to go through the driving rain, freezing rain because they can’t get off the farm in a normal car. So they arrive at the doctor’s soaked to the skin. You can’t keep doing that in your seventies and your eighties, you know?

Brian

I mean, it’s a question of can you but-

ST: What’s the alternative?

What’s the alternative? Exactly. I loved seeing how they’ve become part of nature. They’re not just people living on the land, they are people living with the land. Obviously the mouse problem is a huge problem, [but I love seeing the shot of] Sue just turf this bucket of dead mice over the fence and then watching the magpies come along and tear them apart.

ST: (laughs) Breakfast. Nice, thank you. Yeah, she’s amazing. And you know, there’s more. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to film but the wooden floor’s got holes in it and snakes regularly come through. They were telling me some story about a brown snake that had got into the house and it got into a chest full of kewpie dolls that she had been making. And the snake was freaking out and moving around and the dolls were starting to move and the snake thought the dolls were alive and started biting the dolls. Can you imagine? So they came in, there was this huge brown snake with his mouth wide open on the top of a doll, and Brian had to bludgeon it to death.

I’d love to have shot that but unfortunately, you know, snakes are very, very hard to film. And that’s normal and they were telling me this story. I was in my room. “Are you afraid of snakes?” “Yes, I am afraid of snakes. I hate the bastards.” “Oh, interesting because [there was one] last week in your room.” (laughs) “Thanks for telling me that, I’ll be sleeping really well tonight.” The mice is absolutely part of life, and anyone else would be revolted. They wouldn’t be able to eat their breakfast when there were fifteen dead mice on the floor, but it’s not a problem for them.

That’s how matter of fact it is. That’s what I love about that moment where the CWA are sitting there and I think one of the women say, “Oh, there’s a snake outside.” (laughs) “Why didn’t you kill it?”

ST: (laughs) Yeah, duh. I’ll be right. House slippers thrown at it.

When was this filmed? Was it in 2021?

ST: I think I started in December 2020. And then I filmed all last year, and the last bit I filmed in February or March actually this year, so it’s been shot over eighteen months. But right throughout COVID, it was a great COVID project for me, because no one could travel, but you could travel out west. I mean, it took eight hours to get there from Sydney. But then you stood on top of the hill and looked west, and you realise you’re still only a third of the way across New South Wales, like two-thirds to go, and it’s empty space, there’s no one there.

This feels like the kind of story that reinforces the importance of community. It’s a lucky thing, as terrible as the pandemic has been, that we get to see these kinds of stories of a community coming together. Would you have gone if we didn’t have this kind of restriction?

ST: Well, no, no. I mean, you know, the whole concept of isolation is something we’ve all been learning about in the cities through COVID, the idea of putting yourself on your own for a bit. And these people have been isolating themselves for years as part of their lives. So it’s something we’re thinking about more.

What I love about it is even despite the fact that in theory they’re safe from COVID, for example, they respect nature. They vaccinate themselves, they vaccinate their cows, you see that in the film. Brian knows very well who’s boss out there, and it’s not him. He’s the servant of the natural world around him. And I love that about him. I could talk to him forever about farming, he’s very interesting.

They’re both very strong characters. And I think what I love is that humanity with one another, where there is that moment where Sue forgets Brian’s birthday, and she’s devastated. But going back to what we were saying about the age of trees and rocks, it just reinforces that time becomes almost irrelevant.

ST: When they set up the CWA in the 1920s, New South Wales was the first state to do this. One of the first things they did was a radio schedule. So farmers had radios, and they would all come online at six o’clock at night and have a chat, or the women would have a chat. These are people who never spoke to other people, totally isolated. So it’s a great moment to talk.

And one couple rang in and said, “We’ve just got one question. Can you settle an argument we’re having?” And the radio operator said “Sure.” And they said, “Can you tell us is it Thursday or Friday? Because my husband thinks it’s Thursday? I’m sure it’s Friday. We don’t get the paper till the weekend. Would you please tell us?” That was a hundred years ago. But I think that sense of time having a different weight is very much alive today.

Very much so. And that comes down to the edit as well. Did you edit this film yourself?

ST: I did. I’ve been sort of recently sort of doing all my films myself, but I have other proper editors who have cut my films in the past who come in and have a look and give me advice. That’s the way I work now. So I cut it and then they say, “Oh, hang on, have you thought of moving that scene a bit later or not opening with that?” And then I recut. I sort of do a series of screenings to wise friends to help do that. But yeah, otherwise, I’m a shot by shot, I do it myself.

This is the kind of film that I love losing myself in. Because it makes you feel at peace, even though we’re watching something that’s actually quite sad. We’re seeing two people age and be pushed out of their lives because of time.

ST: Yes, you’re absolutely right. You get it, Andrew, you get it. I think it’s not sad because they’re not sad. They’re quite cool about that, you know. “We’re going to die soon, the kids are going to spread the ashes at the top. If they can get up there, that’ll be fine.” You know? I think they’re together and that sort of insulates them against any sadness.

So obviously you’re screening at Sydney Film Festival, you’re screening over there in Poland. Have you had the screening yet in Poland? Or is that tonight?

ST: It’s actually tonight in a few hours. So it gets screened, like at Sydney with a few other short films, really good films. And there’s a Q&A tonight.

Is that the first screening in the world?

ST: Yeah, this is the world premiere. It’ll be interesting to see what they think, especially in Poland. Australia is a very long way away, they’ve got this image of Australia as being very exotic. And by comparison to Europe, it is totally empty. And Poland is not. We’re sitting on the main square of Krakow, it’s full of people 24/7, shouting, singing, drinking, ringing bells. It’s just like a parade of noise and exciting. It’s been like this for 500 years in Krakow. It’s exciting to watch and be part of.

This is a film which I love to see come out of Australia because it kind of challenges the notion of what Australian culture is or what Australian cinema could be. Is that your intention as an Australian filmmaker telling these stories to readdress what Australian culture is?

ST: We have had four years of dreadful cultural leadership from Scott Morrison which is thankfully over but, you know, I think art in Australia, filming in Australia is low on our priorities of what we think about. And I think the reality of our country is it’s very unusual and very different. And the differences do lie in the country really, not in the cities, which are perhaps more similar to other cities around the world.

But that landscape Brian and Sue live in is extraordinary. It’s original and the animals are unique, and the age of it is unique. Even the Indigenous life which is invisible in my film is unique too, [these] old, old people we have in Australia somewhere out there. And we don’t know anything about it. We don’t see it. So yes, I’d love to see more of that. I really would. I think we haven’t even started to represent Australia properly.

But you know, the idea of selling Australia as [a] beach basically is so, so boring, which is what Scott Morrison [did]. The Where The Bloody Hell Are You ads that Scott Morrison came up with – apart from being crass and potentially offensive is just so dumb and unimaginative. Like, truly, I think people would love to come to Australia to find Indigenous culture, to find [the] outback, to find true Australianness of the pioneers in Australia in a way that completely isn’t represented in our marketing of how we sell Australia. That’s tragic. That’s commerce, not art, but it’s tragically cack-handed, I think. The Australia you and I love is just not sold properly to people overseas at all.

Warrawong… the windy place on the hill is currently screening as part of the Sydney Film Festival.

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