By Jenny Paola Ortega Castillo.

There’s a lot of secrets to all the land in Australia, especially since colonization…. And sometimes the land gives those secrets up if you listen to it. And so this incredible landscape was the inspiration for the characters who are very similar to this damaged land.”

Ivan Sen’s Limbo (2023), a remarkably beautiful outback noir that dives deep into the complexities of culture and identity, captures the outback’s isolation and magnificent vastness, while also exploring the characters’ intimate emotions. The cinematography is filled with breathtaking shots that brilliantly capture the harsh beauty of the landscape. One of its most striking aspects is its exploration of Indigenous culture and spirituality. Sen treats these themes with respect and reverence.

I talked to Ivan Sen about his new film, now playing at New York’s Film Forum.  

I’m very interested in the visual approach to the movie, because I think it’s completely stunning. I was wondering about your choice of black and white and of using aerial glides over a big, vast environment, which seems magnificent. 

Well, I think everything I do, there’s basically some sense of meaning below it. But I think that meaning is transferred as a feeling to me, if that makes sense. I don’t try to start from an intellectual base. It’s a creative process that happens from when I’m starting to write, which involves finding a location. And with Limbo, the location is Coober Pedy in South Australia, which is an extraordinary landscape. It’s a very damaged landscape. It’s full of all of these mining shafts. There’s literally 2 million holes dotted in the landscape. And that felt like a very good place to start a story like this. Because the people are damaged, just like the land. And also the land has many secrets. There’s a lot of secrets to all the land in Australia, especially since colonization. There’s a lot of secrets that lie beneath the surface in Australia, and indeed in other countries around the world. And sometimes the land gives those secrets up if you listen to it. And so yeah, this incredible landscape was the inspiration for the characters who are very similar to this damaged land. And so usually I will start with a location when I’m writing a story, and then the characters will grow from that. And in this case, it was no different. The black and white was a part of that, it’s these damaged people, stuck in a limbo, can’t move forward. And they’re stuck in a memory really, from when this crime happened. And the police officer is stuck in his own personal limbo as well. And so the black and white felt like it could frame this living in a memory type of feeling. And also the landscape has a very strong contrast, and it lends itself, I guess, aesthetically, and technically to black and white. So in the end, it just felt right. And black and white came quite early as I was writing the story, I just started to see it in black and white. Really, I think, like, it does seem to me that the best quality of the environment against maybe how little the characters looked in such a big shot, it seemed to me a little bit, like, it was telling me that someone was lonely, that someone was feeling that small, actually, in terms of the story, in terms of the narrative. So I don’t know, maybe you can tell me a little bit about that. Yeah, well, the characters are all very alienated, even our police officer who arrives in the town, and he begins to have a relationship with old Joseph, the suspect, the main suspect, as well as the victim’s brother and sister. And they all live in an alienated way, where they are separated from the town’s people, and which is largely to do with this crime that has happened with the three characters who live in the town. And so that space, and the characters within that space, I think, represents that loneliness by the landscape almost swallowing up the characters and showing how small they are within this big frame. 

Well, now that you are talking about the characters, I wanted to talk about the main character and how he communicates a little bit of desperation, of exhaustion. Can you discuss your rationale for creating him?

Well, I think from an early point, when I was writing the script, I was interested in this intersection of the white justice system and Indigenous Australians. And there is a disconnect there. And I think it was important for our main character, our detective, to have a sense of disconnection with everything really around him. And so that allowed, I guess, a connection to develop between him and the Indigenous characters, the family of the missing child. And so that allows that connection to happen within the fabric of the story. So it was important for Travis and I to have this disconnection. So the story had somewhere to go. And as he starts to slowly connect with these Indigenous people, in a way that he hasn’t really connected with anyone for some time. 

Now that you mention it, I wanted to talk about the relationship between the characters, because it seems to me that trust is a big issue that is explored throughout the whole movie. And with such betrayal for many years, by state, by police, by their own fellow community, how do they develop trust with someone that is basically a strange man, and a white man? So how do you see that relationship? 

Well, in terms of the story, it was something that takes time. And I think that, like many, many elements of the story, it’s a realistic approach where, in reality, you get anyone from a government department heading into an Indigenous community to do some work, there’s always a level of mistrust because of the way Indigenous people are being treated from the very beginning by the government. And so this trust is just something that I think is just step by step. And I think, initially, in the story, there is no trust at all, when this police officer comes in, and they don’t want to talk to him. But slowly, the characters actually see this man as a possible way forward out of this limbo. And so they start to open up. So it’s because they’ve been living for so long with this, the shadows of this crime, and this splintered family. And so I think it’s an opportunity there for the characters. And apart from that, also, the children in the story play an important role in this aspect as well, because the children have less issues with trust as the adults. And so they’re a little bit more open, and the children actually help this connection, I think, happen. But yeah, they completely make it happen, which would be very difficult if they weren’t there.

I think there needs to be a conversation on a wider scale between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. So this trauma can be put out and dealt with in a more honest and direct way.”

It seems interesting to analyze how that memory works, and how what they wanted as characters was to bury everything, like it didn’t happen. They just don’t talk about it as if it was a secret because it’s better to leave it there. How do you think that translates to the actual racial violence that Indigenous people live day to day? 

Well, I think over the years, Indigenous people have kind of taught themselves to be silent. And kind of, if they don’t talk about something, then it doesn’t exist, to a degree. But at some point, that pressure is going to come out. And in a certain way, whether it be, some young guys, rubbing a petrol station or stealing something and, or beating up someone on the street, or taking drugs, substance abuse, all that kind of thing. So for me, that’s kind of a release of not being able to deal with the trauma of the past for Indigenous people. And I think Limbo does offer an alternative to that where people start to wake up and talk. I think there needs to be a conversation on a wider scale between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. So this trauma can be put out and dealt with in a more honest and direct way. Otherwise, we’re going to have all these social issues continuing to affect Indigenous people, and then in turn affecting everyone else in Australia, as well. 

Well, really, I think that takes us to another theme. I was thinking about that during the whole movie, about the context here, in my country of Columbia. Because here there is a great amount of Indigenous people that have suffered violence, and they have been taken off their lands. And they have to live here in the city against their will. They have been subjected to many crimes, actually, horrendous crimes. And I was thinking about the acknowledgement that this case, particularly, would have received more attention if it was a white girl’s disappearance. How does that resonate with the movie? Because I think that it really encloses reality. 

I think it’s central to the theme of the film. I’ve had family members who have been murdered, and have had no response, or very little response from the police to investigate it. And this is something that’s a common theme throughout Australia. And that’s actually why it’s central in the film as well, because it’s a part of my own personal history. And, as humans, I think, there’s a percentage of us who are empathetic, who have empathy for others. But there’s à lot of humans out there who struggle to identify with and have empathy for those who they see as the ‘other’. And I think that’s the core and it may not even really be race, it can be to do with your, your political thinking, your religion, your religious thinking. And I think that’s probably the core of us being humans, and I think that’s the beauty of cinema, because I think over the years, it has taught humans to be more empathetic and to walk in the shoes of the other. And I think the main objective of cinema is that, if you’re looking at bringing to change in the world is to allow people to walk into a cinema and step in the shoes of someone else for that, that time they’re in the dark room, and then walk out with a sense of empathy towards their fellow human. And when you see reports of a young white girl going missing, and all of the media that follows that, the media follows it because the majority are actually interested in what happens to this little white girl with blue eyes. And the media will follow that. So they’re just looking for ratings. So it’s like this vicious cycle. So the ratings come because the majority are looking for that. So it’s the financial element that actually keeps it turning. Completely. I think, yeah, it’s the whole system, which, like I told you, it was like I was watching the whole history in reality. Then in the neighborhood, aside, I think it’s very important that this movie makes us reflect about those issues, because I think there isn’t enough empathy in the world. Certainly not here. And I think it’s around the world.

Jenny Paola Ortega Castillo is an English philologist and has a master’s degree in cultural studies from the National University of Colombia. She is a literature, writing and reading teacher from Minuto de Dios University in Bogotá, Colombia. Her main research interests are in literature, visual research, television studies and cultural studies.

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