Kalani Gacon’s far-flung filmmaking path

Kalani Gacon shooting film at sunset. Photo: kalanigacon.com.

Carefully constructing a collection of slow-moving but compelling human stories, young Australian filmmaker Kalani Gacon is at the vanguard of a new generation of indie directors. He spoke with youth editor Corin Shearston.

“It’s often not my choice, what inspires me,” says young Australian filmmaker Kalani Gacon. “Inspiration will come like a robber in the night and I have to confront it. So I often like getting inspiration from something that I really can’t put out of my head until I make a film. It’s almost like possession from a ghost or a demon. It drives me to make the film and I have to follow through to be at rest.”

Gacon’s cinematic style has developed in parallel to his life experiences, highlighting his ability as a modern purveyor of slow, evocative human stories. In an attempt to encapsulate the core themes of his work, Gacon’s website states that his films focus on “stories of dying cultures, people’s dreams and the frictions of life facing human beings in the changing world”. 

“People who are interested in slowly moving cinema, as opposed to fast paced stuff, will resonate with my work,” Gacon tells the Sentinel.

“Also, people who are interested in the art of cinema, and what can be done with it, along with people who are just generally curious about the state of humanity.” 

Having started his career in the artistic Blue Mountains town of Katoomba, the 26-year-old is currently staying in Thailand near the Myanmar border, from where he spoke with the Sentinel. Gacon now aims to travel to Cambodia. Later in the year, he plans on journeying to Bolivia, and he has a desire to visit Africa.

Travelling amidst the ravages of an increasingly uncertain global pandemic, Gacon surely has some difficult times ahead, but he appears optimistic and insightful during our 40-minute Zoom call.

Referencing the intense effort required to complete the paperwork for travelling overseas, Gacon describes the process as an “extreme test of patience” in which “only the most stubborn of people can make it”.

A frame from Gacon’s The Sound Of Dreaming, which is expected to premiere this year. Photo: Kalani Gacon/Facebook.

Gacon began making short films at the age of eight – and has gone on to work across four continents, making short films, documentaries, music videos and other screen projects.

After working for the ABC and on film sets in Canada, he spent six years amongst the landlocked mountainous terrain of Nepal, wedged between China and India. While in Nepal, he directed and produced four films set there, while being hired to direct and produce around a dozen other projects. The most recent of these is the short film The Sound Of Dreaming, which centres around a man and a woman who meet as strangers to discover they’re having the same dreams. 

The Sound Of Dreaming is completed,” Gacon reveals. “We’re just waiting to hear back [about] where we’re going to premiere it.”

Before this project began, Gacon completed his first full-length film, Journey to the Centre of the Heart, a feature-documentary which attempts to explain Nepal’s mass outward migration or diaspora.

The project required two full years of nonstop work, which Gacon calls “an obscene amount of labour”.

It was based on an untold true story of great importance, featuring a rich cast of real characters. 

As text from the trailer describes, “Every day, over 2,000 Nepalis leave their country. In search of a better life, most never return home. While the country faces an ‘outward migration crisis’ … Every day, people from around the world migrate to Nepal. In search of something.” 

Trailer for Journey to the Centre of the Heart. Video: kalani gacon/Vimeo.

Due to Nepal possessing eight of the ten highest mountains in the world (including the highest, Mount Everest) and because of its famous Hindu and Buddhist heritage, Nepal attracts around 1.2 million visitors per year (or did, pre-Covid).

Having been one of those travellers, Gacon – who has spent considerable time in Asia – offers thoughts on his fascination with Asian cultures.

“Generally, I’m drawn to parts of the world in which the ancient ways of life are not completely lost. These places still have a great sense of family values and daily responsibility.”

Although having a strong desire to travel, Gacon acknowledges that “it’s a complicated time to be a nomad”. 

In June 2020, he was imprisoned for four days in Nepal’s capital of Kathmandu after filming a demonstration against the government’s handling of Covid. This halted the production of a second feature length film that Gacon was working on, which remains unfinished. At the time, Nepali Immigration official Ramesh Kumar told The Kathmandu Post “foreigners cannot take part in any demonstrations organised on the internal issues of the country”. 

The reasons for the protests were clear, Gacon tells the Sentinel: “The lockdown was so extreme that people were getting arrested just for leaving their homes, no questions asked … The police [and] military were patrolling every street and they had this big contraption [they were] using to pick people up and put them in the police van.

“It was this extreme military style lockdown that we were confronted with for months, and I was desperate to make a film.”

The unusual short film created in Gacon’s room in Kathmandu during his time in lockdown now bears the title Winner Winner and proves his resourcefulness as a filmmaker. Telling the story of a ‘mad man’ who attempts to reanimate a dead chicken, Gacon set half of his room on fire in order to make smoke, (which concerned some of his neighbours), ‘rented’ a chicken from another neighbour and independently sourced all the props for the set. After being able to complete the work during this bizarre situation, Gacon knew he’d be able to handle any future filmmaking problems. 

Though choosing to work in a profession that requires people to solve many problems during any typical day, Gacon strives to display an intense focus and a calm composure with his colleagues. Attempting to explain the workings of a typical day on set, he says: “Days often begin with problem solving and there are often huge problems to solve, such as the location is cancelled, the actors got sick, transport to the location has broken down, or there’s a buffalo on the set … especially [common problems] in Nepal.” 

After these problems are solved, lighting, cameras and sets can be created, while Gacon sits with the actors to “be present with them”, making sure they know what they’ll be expected to do.

Gacon doesn’t adhere to the rules of a classical film director. Working in a style close to that of an auteur, he instead attempts to blend pure improvisation with key points that are clear from a shooting script, so that the dialogue is more about reactions rather than lines. His actors are usually filmed while reacting to sets of circumstances.

While the stories are very clear, the actors are invited to improvise in order to keep their reactions fresh and organic.

“We’re just sort of winging it as we go,” Gacon states.

Theatrical posters for two of Gacon’s films. Photos: kalanigacon.com.

The hard work, energy and emotion that goes into making Gacon’s films are on display on his website, where an online showreel can be found. Gacon has also had his works screened in multiple international film festivals.

Due to a mass cultural shift of viewers away from video stores to online platforms such as Netflix, Gacon isn’t planning to release hard copies of his films. In regards to getting his films onto these platforms, he explains, “It’s just not easy for me to have films that fit their tastes.”

Passionate about supporting independent Australian filmmaking, Gacon encourages cinema lovers to watch legally, visit reputable websites, join mailing lists and share their appreciation. “It’s always great to get feedback,” he says. 

Having already proved himself a prolific alternative filmmaker well before the age of 30, it’s going to be very interesting to see what Kalani Gacon will create in the future. 

Corin Shearston is the youth editor of the Sydney Sentinel.

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