‘Here Out West’ Is Redefining The Australian Story

"This isn't the only Western Sydney story. It's a city of a million stories."

Here Out West

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Most of the stories told in Here Out West were pitched the day the film’s eight writers met for the very first time.

“It was probably one of the only projects I’ve ever worked on that invited us to come to the table as we are,” said Vonne Patiag, who wrote one of Here Out West’s standout chapters ‘The Long Shift’. “We were all encouraged to just bring ideas that we were interested by.”

Similar to Babel, Magnolia, or Love, Actually, Here Out West is a ‘hyperlink’ drama of eight separate but intertwining chapters set across a single day in Western Sydney. Spanning nine languages, eight writers, and five directors, the sprawling project kept key roles to one person — such as director of photography, customer designer, production designer, editor, composer, and sound designer — to keep a sense of cohesion.

The film, which premiers at Sydney Film Festival 2021’s opening night ahead of a later theatrical release, follows one central plot line wherein Nancy steals her newborn granddaughter from a local hospital, as social services plan to take her away from her daughter. Some stories within the film are more intertwined than others, such as when Nancy’s reckless driving interrupts a fight between three friends. Here Out West is less a butterfly effect film than a portrait of an underrepresented metropolis that’s home to some 2.1 million people.

Developed through arts foundation Co-Curious, Here Out West began in 2018 with a relative carte blanche for the eight writers chosen through a competitive application process, who range from established screenwriters like Patiag or Arka Das, to newcomers such as film critic Claire Cao. The directors, who worked closely with and were approved by the writers, span Australian TV, web series, and features, and mostly grew up in Western Sydney. The film’s directors are Fadia Abboud, Lucy Gaffy, Julie Kalceff, Ana Kokkinos, and Leah Purcell, whose debut feature The Drovers Wife: The Legend Of Molly Johnson is also playing at this year’s Sydney Film Festival.

Everyday Stories From An Unseen Australia

While the film spans many migrant communities, voices, and languages, including Tagalog, Kurdish, Spanish, and Cantonese, it was never intended to be the definitive text of Western Sydney.

“We’re only eight people — in no way were we trying to represent our cultures as a be-all-end-all representation,” Patiag told Junkee. “I think my purest hope is that people feel inspired to tell their own stories [and to] overturn those ideas of what migrant stories can be as well. Sometimes they appear very steeped in trauma or drama, but there’s a lot of laughter and a lot of lightness too…. These are all everyday stories that come from an unseen Australia.”

Here Out West

While the on- and off-screen diversity of Here Out West is a landmark, the film’s most striking feature is the vision of Western Sydney under a glossy cinematic lens. In The Guardian last year, writing about Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth, Katie Cunningham pinpointed how novel it still feels to see the everyday locations of Australian cities on-screen: “Many of the versions of Australia we get on screen – Crocodile Dundee, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, anything Tim Winton-esque – paint a rose-tinted version of this country often at odds with the real thing.”

“What I find really interesting is when I was growing up, there wasn’t really a sense of pride of being from the Western suburbs.”

The same delightful realism is there when watching Here Out West, which takes place across many suburbs, community hubs, and homes. There is something to be said for not just how distinct, but how cinematic each location feels, from the fading colours of the decades-old Chinese restaurant in Cao’s ‘Closing Night’, to Nancy’s cluttered home, to the opening overhead shots of the interweaving highways — an image that equates Western Sydney’s multiplicious nature to that of Los Angeles, whose highways have been ingrained in cinema as a signifier of sprawl. It was, in part, this chance to make Western Sydney ‘cinematic’ that appealed to director Julie Kalceff (First Day), who grew up in Fairfield and directed Patiag’s chapter.

“What I find really interesting is when I was growing up, there wasn’t really a sense of pride of being from the Western suburbs,” she told Junkee. “It was just where you grew up, and for some people, like my oldest sister, she was embarrassed that that’s where she grew up. And I noticed that with a lot of the scripts that there was this real sense of pride with being from the Western suburbs, which I thought was really beautiful.”

Honouring Resilience And Hope

Kalceff has mixed feelings about Western Sydney: she was closeted for her teenage years living in a fairly homophobic environment. Heading back “brings up a lot of emotions”, though not all negative. “When you go back to where you grew up, it’s difficult because it does bring up some of those really difficult times,” she said. “But I think too, it’s also nice to go, ‘I lived here, it shaped me as a person and it’s part of who I am’.”

While Kalceff’s experiences aren’t directly represented in ‘The Long Shift’, it was the one she was immediately drawn to. The short follows Roxane (Christine Milo, in a phenomenal debut), a Filipino nurse who takes a double shift to allow her exhausted fellow Filipino nurses to go home and rest.

“[The script] stood out to me straight away, I think it’s because that story, to me, is finding your tribe,” said Kalceff. “It’s about found family, and as a member of the LGBT community that’s really important to me. Roxane is away from her family, so she has to find her support in Australia. And so that’s what really stood out to me that the camaraderie and the sisterhood among those nurses.”

Patiag wrote ‘The Long Shift’ in part because of his mother, who worked as an ICU nurse for two decades, including living and working alone in Doha for seven years. Across the short, Filipino nurses call and message their family back home, keeping alive a sense of connection and warmth across timezones.

“I wanted to honour that resilience and honour that hope — and just that idea of one Filipino nurse really going through it in one day of her life.”

“Growing up, I would see how tired [my mum] was at the end of the day,” said Patiag. “She’d always talk about how [as a nurse] how much energy you have to give to your patients, but also to remember to be selfish and keep a bit of joy and happiness for yourself, so you can give it to your family. Obviously [as] a child, you’re like, ‘wow, that’s really beautiful mom…’,” he said with sarcasm. “The older I get, the more I start to understand this is tied to the migrant story, and the trauma of migrating.”

“I wanted to honour that resilience and honour that hope — and just that idea of one Filipino nurse really going through it in one day of her life. [But], you know, it’s a mundane day. It’s just another day in the hospital for Roxane, but [we] see how much she has to fight against and how much she has to survive.”

Survival takes many forms and degrees across Here Out West, from a Vietnamese real estate agent who has to adopt an ocker persona to get ahead in his career, to a lonely Spanish divorcee writing poetry about his ex-wife to kill the hours while working at the hospital’s car park. Some are life-and-death; others are mundane. Patiag just hopes these are eight of many more to come.

“I think this film redefines the Australian story. The curation and creation of the film was such a beautiful process, but I really do hope that we have some really powerful outcomes for Australian storytelling…. This isn’t the only Western Sydney story. It’s a city of a million stories.”

Here Out West is in cinemas across Australia on February 3. 

Jared Richards is Junkee’s Drag Race recapper and a freelancer who writes for The Guardian, NME, The Monthly and more. He’s on Twitter.