Perth filmmaker Alison James would have liked her lead actors to be walking the red carpet last week in Sydney. But Sonic, Snowy, Claudia, Ebony, Buddha, Wasim, Petra and Zara were happy to be home relaxing.
As writer/director of the short film Judas Collar, James was in Sydney for the Australian Academy Cinema Television Arts (AACTA) awards – the industry’s pinnacle event and a paparazzi scene for society celebs and politicians, but probably not for camels.
Praised for its cinematography, unique narrative and sound design – which is notable for an absence of dialogue – Judas Collar is James’s allegory about the human journey of self-realisation. Her film chronicles the journey of a wild camel captured and fitted with a culling device known as a Judas collar.
James – a graduate of Curtin’s program in Film and Television – first heard the term ‘Judas collar’ while in pre-production for a documentary series on helicopter pilots working in the Australian outback.
“I thought, what the hell is a Judas collar?” James says.
“It’s a tracking device that’s placed around the neck of a female camel. The camel then seeks a herd to join, and the device alerts hunters to the location. The herd is shot except for the female ‘Judas’, who then searches for another community – and the process starts again.”
“I was struck by the biblical reference, and I wondered how horrific it must be for that one animal to be continuously surrounded by death and experiencing loss.”
The film, which James admits was emotionally as well as logistically difficult, cleverly merges documentary and fiction forms.
“The concept that perhaps the Judas camel develops self-awareness, and begins walking alone to save the herds – it was a story I had to tell.
“I wrote four drafts with a human central character, but decided that keeping a camel as the protagonist would let the audience into this strange world, and connect with the Judas and her journey.”
While the story is a distinct exploration of self-realisation, it also foregrounds the wretchedness of self-deception. As James points out, the audience will realise the Judas is a danger to the community only as long as the collar’s battery lasts, but she’ll never know this.
“To live a life of loneliness and sacrifice I think is a story that is deeply and tragically human.”
Supported by Screenwest and produced Brooke Silcox (also a Curtin graduate), the film was shot mostly in regional Western Australia, in hot November conditions, with a cast of eight from the Calamunnda Camel Farm in Perth.
Adding minor complexity to the schedule, James was seven months’ pregnant when production wrapped.
The film premiered in June at the 2018 Sydney Film Festival, where James earned Special Mention in the Best Director category of the prestigious Dendy Awards. A few months later, James and Silcox were in Texas for the international premiere of Judas Collar at the Austin Film Festival.
“Judas Collar was one of 2,700 submissions for Best Short Narrative Fiction – and we won!”
With Austin being an Academy Accredited Festival, the win means that Judas Collar is eligible to be nominated for the 2020 Academy Awards.
As a Curtin student, James was able to choose an uncommon double major that was perfect for her interests: Film and Television, and Psychology.
“Exploring what it means to be human lies at the heart of both film and psychology, in different ways,” she points out.
“We use stories to try to understand ourselves more deeply; working in film is part of that investigative process.
Since graduating in 2005, James has built a successful career directing documentaries, although they’ve usually been people-centric exposés.
James has built a successful career directing documentaries, although they’ve usually been people-centric exposés.
With commissions from Discovery and The History Channel, as well as for the ABC and SBS, she’s been on set in locations as distinctive as Honduras, Ireland and Iceland. But with her current success in a fiction film, is her focus changing?
“My goals are always changing. I’ve been passionate about documentaries for many years and I’ve worked on amazing projects. But lately, I’ve been wanting to tell my own stories, which has led to some short films in the drama space.
“I’m actually inspired by films that mix documentary and drama elements.”
Although Judas Collar will be touring the Australian festival circuit during summer, James will spend a few months in New Mexico, ‘relaxing’ with her seven-month-old, Ryker, while her husband Zak (Hilditch – also a Curtin graduate!) completes his feature film for Netflix.
While James didn’t take home the AACTA title this year, the top-tier recognition is sure to impact her opportunities.
“I’m still busy researching and writing. My short-term goal is to write a feature screenplay that is gripping, surprising and emotionally satisfying.
And long term?
“To be a bold, original voice in Australian cinema, and to make films that connect deeply with a wide audience.”
Judas Collar is currently showing in Perth as part of the Lotterywest Films program.