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Afghan Cameleers in the Australian desert and a love story – Serenades is a glimpse into a little known aspect of Australia’s history, reports Andrew L. Urban, photographed by the renowned Russell Boyd.

It's been almost a decade since acclaimed cinematographer Russell Boyd shot an Australian film, and when producer Sandra Levy first thought of asking him to work on Serenades, she dismissed it as wishful thinking. "But I finally summoned the courage to ask," she says, "and he very graciously said yes!"

One of Australia's first (new) crop of great cinematographers, Boyd (Doctor Dolittle, Liar Liar, Tin Cup, White Men Can't Jump) had shot Levy's 1988 production of High Tide, which starred Judy Davis - the same year he shot Crocodile Dundee II. In the 70s and 80s, Boyd shot many Australian milestone features including The Last Wave, Crocodile Dundee, Gallipoli, Picnic at Hanging Rock, among others. Levy admires his talent, but also his "wonderful temperament on set. He's utterly unruffled and everything is possible." For making a film with a limited budget but unlimited ambitions and a first time writer/director - isolated in the desert of northern South Australia - Boyd's temperament was a critical factor. Dust and wind made shooting challenging, as did working with non-professional actors - which includes the pivotal female lead role of Jila, played by musical performer, Alice Haines.

"...the allure of a leading lady"

"We had a very clear idea of who we were looking for," says writer/director Mojgan (Mosh-gan) Khadem, who was born in Iran and raised in Spain and Australia. "She had to be a part Aboriginal part Afghan girl with emerald green eyes and the allure of a leading lady. We found all that in Alice. And she is a music performer, so she does understand emotion…." Khadem also found several key support characters in the outback community, who had the right look, but the wrong experience. "It was difficult….you're drawing on life experience, not knowledge of performance."

Serenades is a glimpse into a little-known aspect of Australian history, when Afghan cameleers were brought to the country to help supply communities in outback Australia. The desert people and their camels were perfectly suited to the harsh environment. The film is set in northern South Australia some 110 years ago, in an area settled by German Lutheran missionaries who attempted to bring Christianity to Aboriginal people.

“I heard about the cameleers who came from Afghanistan in the 1860’s and started my research by looking up the word 'camel’ at the Mitchell Library in Sydney,” says Khadem.

"mix elements from the three communities"

“I got six or eight books from the vault, but the one I couldn’t put down was Tin Mosques And Ghantowns by Christine Stevens and that told me a lot about interaction between the Afghan cameleers and Aboriginal women.

“Then I stumbled across Christine’s other book, White Man’s Dreaming, about the Lutheran Missionaries, took it home and read it from cover to cover, which made me realise that I wanted to mix elements from the three communities – the German missionaries, the aboriginal community and the Afghans."

Khadem's script was originally an exploration of these themes, which gradually took shape as a structured story with Levy's guidance. Jila (Haines) is born to an Aboriginal mother and an Afghan father (who wins the sexual favour in bartering with the young woman's father) and spends her childhood influenced by both traditional tribal life and by her association with the Lutheran mission. When her mother dies, the child is reared by her father (Sinisa Copic) in strict Muslim tradition. When he wants to arrange her marriage to a Mullah, she rebels, and clings to the hope of being rescued by Johann (Aden Young), the young German her own age, with whom she went to mission school.

"her heart will beat to her own tune"

"The title Serenades," says Khadem, "may seem abstract to some, but this refers to the heartbeat of each individual which is like a song or piece of music that can be happy or sad. Jila's journey is about that and when she decides that her heart will beat to her own tune - it's the harmony of letting each individual be that individual. . . .it's an abstract element I can't help but spend hours mulling over," she adds with a laugh.

Levy believes that the film is marketable "on its surprise elements . . . its exotic elements, and that it is based on a little known aspect of Australian history, with an unexpected spin. We were going to finance it internationally," she adds, "but we chose the lower budget path, so we could respect the creative elements it needed - and to have the writer direct it."

Published May 31, 2001

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