► Friends and Strangers is available to stream on MUBI

James Vaughan’s remarkable debut feature is on its surface an indie mumblecore-influenced comedy about intertwined young lives, set between Sydney and Brisbane. But its simplicity is deceptive, and it subtly twists into something altogether stranger, and more politically subversive.

Vaughan plays on an established Antipodean penchant for postcolonial Gothic – exemplified by Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) – that portrays the landscape as unknowable and treacherous. It becomes a source of unease and even vertigo to the white settlers who have claimed false sovereignty over it by the violent erasure of Indigenous cultures, so can find no peaceful sense of home. Friends and Strangers is ultimately a film about how we read a place, and the ways in which a shaky colonial illusion of power has been encoded in it.

“Your memory is like a big mansion with all these different doors, and when you lock off whole sections, that’s when things start to get real freaky,” a friend advises Ray (Fergus Wilson), a directionless twentysomething who can’t move past a former break-up. He may just as well be referring to official settler history, and the disenfranchisement of Aboriginal peoples, which is a taboo subject and haunts that history’s margins.

A closing title informs us that Friends and Strangers was filmed on the lands of the Eora and Ngunnawal peoples. In all that comes before, they are notable only by their absence. The opening credits are accompanied by watercolours of landscapes and nature by William Bradley, an 18th-century naval officer and cartographer who was in the First Fleet that took convicts to Australia, leading us into a place defined by its affluent white protagonists through the lens of settler definitions and representations.

Fergus Wilson as Ray, Friends and Strangers (2021)
Fergus Wilson as Ray, Friends and Strangers (2021)
© Courtesy of MUBI

“What about the Aborigines, are they around here or what?” an American tourist asks at the close of a tour conducted by a guide who has waxed lyrical on housing once owned by the shipping industry, but has seemingly stayed silent on the tens of thousands of years of culture in Australia prior to the arrival of the British. The guide has already been distracted, and the question goes unanswered.

In the first section of the film, Ray has bumped into Alice (Emma Diaz), an acquaintance who works as a corporate tax regulator (the corrupt hold of global finance in Australia is a running theme). He accompanies her home to Sydney, via a camping trip; but sexual tension and emotional baggage destroy any hope of a carefree getaway. Absorbed in their drama, the pair never see the ancient drawings nearby. Those are patronisingly referred to as “Aboriginal doodles” by a white local more concerned with whether they have permission to set up their tent on a lawn.

Unnerving details fly by, further unremarked, which point to parallel lives operating outside the film’s frame. “Did you see that woman giving birth on the side of the road?” Alice asks. Nods to the Crown are everywhere: royal mugs, Queen emblazoned currency, and, in the Royal Botanical Gardens with its imported plants, a statue of the first governor of New South Wales, Captain Arthur Phillip, towering above bronze plaques of unnamed Aboriginal people. There is the ubiquitous litter, too, of a land despoiled, and “a giant pile of shit in the street”, from Anzac Day parade police horses.

Events take a delirious turn and the offbeat humour amps up as Ray visits the home of a potential client for a meeting about shooting his first wedding video, in a former artists’ street now inhabited by financiers. Horror elements build as the friend who hooked him up with the job succumbs to nausea, and foreboding ambient music emanates from the house of a hostile neighbour embroiled in a legal construction dispute. Ray is given a tour of the cellar and its artworks, “all the freaky ones we just can’t hang upstairs” – including a portrait of a figure in a KKK hood.

The fragmentary narrative, with its jarring shifts, suggests a world barely staying coherent and intelligible, and as we watch the colour change in a painting of the Queen (a shift denied by the homeowner) the credibility of this entire filmic world is called into doubt. Cinema is an art of illusion, which can help dark histories remain hidden. Vaughan is wise to this game, and rather than play along, is eager to reveal its mechanisms.

Originally published: 30 December 2021