When the creative minds of Tanya Babic and Jason Sukadana AKA VERSUS, whose directorial work we’ve frequently celebrated here on DN, decided to launch Subversus – a new creative studio dedicated to creating positive cultural subversions – the output was bound to be impressive. Working in collaboration with the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, VERSUS present Latitudes. Conceived with the objective of celebrating the diversity and often overlooked talents of Western Sydney which has historically been underrepresented both culturally and artistically, while also giving voice to the flourishing creative scene traversing movement, music and art. Through 18 months of work, 9 artists, 100 collaborators and 15 Western Sydney locations the duo surmounted several challenges along the way to bring to life a trio of films. Whilst these films each exhibit their own unique originally crafted voice, approach and theme, there is a fluid cohesion across the films which is testament to the already well-established voices of Babic and Sukadana. Latitudes, consisting of Sometimes to One Hundred, 151ºE and Window demonstrates the authentic storytelling we have come to expect from VERSUS as the films take us through a journey of identity, perspectives and noise. Following their premiere as part of Sydney Festival 2023, we spoke to them about finding the common themes and latitudes within their nine artists’ work and their growth as filmmakers having produced a project of this breadth and immense variety.
What was the actual spark for this incredible collaborative and exploratory trilogy?
We have been conceptualising and creating work outside of the traditional commercial space for a while via our creative studio Subversus. An idea kind of like Latitudes is something that we always wanted to do. We are really interested in exploring new pathways of interdisciplinary collaboration. We had previously worked with Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum on a few projects, including a film J.H Maiden – Curator, 1882, and had a great working relationship with the team there. Powerhouse is building a new site in Western Sydney so we jumped on board to help establish the new museum in the community before its physical opening. That’s how we came up with the idea for Latitudes which is a three part film series weaving the stories and voices of Western Sydney. Nine artistic commissions from A.Girl, BLESSED, Claire Cao, Eda Gunaydin, Gillian Kayrooz, Mo Aung, Nerdie (1300), Sela Vai, Serwah Attafuah explore themes of distance, noise, and perspective. It’s a celebration of the melding, and collision of mediums and artistic practice.
How did you go about selecting artists for the project and what were the loose parameters you gave them as a brief?
All of the artists were on our radar as people we really wanted to work with or had worked with directly or indirectly in the past. Artists that were breaking new ground in their respective mediums, and that we felt represented the world class level of talent coming out of Western Sydney whilst also representing a diversity of practice and perspective. When we commissioned the artists we grouped them into threes. Writer, musician and visual artist. In some cases we chose a musician in the role of writer, or an animator or choreographer in the role of visual artist. We developed core themes for each film for the artists to build off so there was some synergy between them, but at the same time kept them broad enough so that they had as much freedom of expression as possible. The artists knew who they were grouped with, but none of them were ever privy to the other artist’s work (except for the musicians who had to refine their score to pictures). It made for very exciting screenings at the end of the project!
It’s a celebration of the melding and collision of mediums and artistic practice.
We briefed the artists individually, tasking them to create a work that we could translate into film form, anchored in their experience growing up in Western Sydney and in response to any museum objects that resonated with them. The museum has an incredible collection of over half a million objects that the artists were able to explore and be inspired by.
How much material did you ultimately have to work through to find the right fitting pieces?
There wasn’t too much left on the proverbial cutting room floor with this one. We took a great deal of time and care in briefing the artists to ensure their responses were fitting in scale. Some of the written works had to be reduced to keep the runtimes down, which was very tough. But overall, most of what the artists shared with us is in there. We went through a number of stages of pre-production, working with the artists to develop their works for screen so that each artwork remained true to their vision and worked in synergy with the other works they sat alongside.
Were there so-called latitudes that came out that you weren’t immediately sure you’d be able to draw parallels from?
That’s a tricky one to answer. Yes and no. Yes, there were times we were worried we wouldn’t find parallels, but we always did. Western Sydney stories are often tied to the migrant experience, the working class experience, and the marginalised experience so the connections were often born out of these commonalities.
Their rich experiences and stories exist within the very fabric of their artistic responses.
The entire project was creatively challenging. Tying nine completely different artworks together into a film series was difficult, but it wasn’t supposed to be easy. Finding, understanding and respecting the creative and thematic latitudes that were present in the works required us to employ every creative facility we had available to the two of us as well as a great deal of heart and emotion! We grew quite close with most of the artists because the nature of the work is that it’s all really personal.
How did you then decide on the final trilogy of Sometimes to One Hundred, 151ºE and Window and the merging of the artists within these pieces and the themes within?
We requested the written works back first. From there, we constructed a loose narrative, list of locations and sequence of pictures for each film, which we then refined upon receiving the visual artists’ works. And we just didn’t stop refining right up until the shoot! The themes and resulting narratives for each film kind of revealed themselves in the artists’ works. Their rich experiences and stories exist within the very fabric of their artistic responses. It was our job to maintain the integrity of the work and themes the artists explored in the most memorable and affecting way possible. In many ways, it was an exercise in restraint as directors. It was the greatest and most exciting challenge we have ever had to face as filmmakers and creatives.
It was our job to maintain the integrity of the work and themes the artists explored in the most memorable and affecting way possible.
I feel that despite being self-contained pieces in their own right the three films all seem to share a similar aesthetic.
It’s funny because despite having different DOPs, artists, themes and approaches for each film, quite a few people have remarked on how cohesive the series is visually. We guess this comes down to the fact that we directed all three films and that’s just our style coming through. It’s not something we necessarily intended, especially because we worked so hard to make sure the artists’ voices were coming through loud and clear – but we do think our own artistic sensibilities are all over these films. We put so much heart and so much of ourselves into the work, it makes sense that people can see that.
Latitudes is about communicating new artistic perspectives and highlighting a traditionally underrepresented and under-resourced creative community in Western Sydney.
What were the most surprising convergences or collaborations of this project for you as directors?
It was actually ALL surprising! We have never done anything like this before and we’re not sure we will ever be lucky enough to do something like this again. Every step of this collaboration and experimental creative process was a huge learning curve for us. Filmmaking as we all know is a very collaborative medium but the many layers of this project put filmmaking in the back seat. Latitudes is about communicating new artistic perspectives and highlighting a traditionally underrepresented and under-resourced creative community in Western Sydney. The artists used the creative tools that they were gifted with to share their experiences. Similarly, we employed the tools available to us, not just as filmmakers, but also curators, team-builders, and community-flag bearers to bring this multi-tiered project to life. At the end of the day, the strength of this project resides in the lived experience of the nine Western Sydney artists. Western Sydney and its rich, diverse and thriving culture is the ultimate collaborator and creative instigator.
How long did the series take and what would you say the biggest challenges of this mammoth feat were?
The project took about a year and a half from inception to delivery. One of the main drivers for the prolonged timeline was actually budget. Which was without a doubt the greatest challenge on this project. We had to space the production out between commercial projects that helped us pay the bills, coming back to this mostly in our downtime. We had to be extremely creative with our production approach and rely on the generosity of our tireless crew and suppliers to make the limited production budget work.
You two are phenomenal in your diversity and creativity, what can we expect next?
That is extremely kind of you to say. We are working on an exciting project with an Australian author which sees her groundbreaking work come to life in a multi-director, multi-screen output. And as always, working on some fun stuff in the music and commercial space. Hopefully more stuff we can share here!