An 8 year-old girl lives alone with her mother and dreams of a better life beyond the walls of their small and dingy apartment. Isolated and lonely, the girl’s only friend is her doll, Polly.
From her window she can see other children playing happily in the park and desperately wants her own mum to take her to the swings. But hopes for a normal childhood collide with the reality of her mother’s dark world.
Her mother works nights and sleeps by day, and despite best intentions, struggles to properly care for her daughter. As each day passes the girl is increasingly exposed to the destructive forces in her mother’s life.
When an invitation arrives to a family picnic in the park, it seems like the perfect chance to get out of the apartment and do something with her mum. Her mother promises to take her — but so far life has been a series of broken promises. Maybe this time things will be different.
POLLY AND ME is the story of one little girl who has fallen between the cracks, and reminds us that just because we don’t see her, it doesn’t mean she isn’t there.
For the last ten years I have been involved with a homeless shelter for street kids in Sydney. Over that time I have witnessed a side of Australia I thought no longer existed. How could the “lucky country” so readily sweep the problems associated with youth homelessness under the mat, and pretend the issue had disappeared?
As a documentary filmmakers we felt it was necessary to help raise awareness and try to put homelessness on the agenda through the production of a feature documentary, combined with a comprehensive independent report and study guide for schools.
Our award-winning documentary THE OASIS, focused on a group of street kids at an inner-city refuge in Sydney. We attempted to create a very real and confronting story about the lives of these damaged and troubled kids. Many had a mix of drug and alcohol related problems, many had been physically and sexually abused, many had mental health problems, and others had a long history of crime. In most instances at least one of their parents had themselves followed the same destructive path, having also been born into a life of poverty, drug abuse and neglect.
Over the course of the three-year documentary project we discovered that the problems associated with youth homelessness were far deeper and more complex than our cameras could ever capture. So much of the pain and suffering was created before these kids were even 10 years old, and much of the damage happened behind closed doors. So many of these kids fell through the cracks of society. They were forgotten children, out of the eye of the authorities, escaping the school system and the protection of the welfare agencies. By the time they were young teenagers their paths had been set, having already seen and experienced so much horror in their young lives. Their role models had let them down, and their future was determined by the survival instincts they would learn on the streets.
It is so hard to know what goes on behind closed doors, and to imagine how life started for so many of these kids — the innocent victims. I was especially moved by some of the stories of the girls at the homeless refuge, who told me about how life began for them, how they coped living with a single parent who was a junkie, a street worker or a violent alcoholic, how they had never had a proper home or regularly attended school, how they survived from a young age living on the streets, how they have never recovered from the sexual or physical abuse they experienced from those around them, and how their destiny was virtually set by the events surrounding them before they were even teenagers.
Every day I worry about the next generation of young kids — the innocent victims, who are also out of the eyes of the authorities. Who is looking out for them?
Following the release of THE OASIS the team at Shark Island Productions felt that these stories still needed to be told. Given that a documentary in this instance clearly wasn’t a possibility, we set about writing a script for a short fiction film, based on literally thousands of young kids lives, represented in the film by one eight year old girl.
This is the story of POLLY AND ME.
Writer and Director
During the three years of making THE OASIS, we became aware of many stories that we couldn’t tell in the documentary. Some of these stories had a lasting impact on us. My co-director, Sascha Ettinger Epstein, and I set about writing two separate scripts about stories or events that made a deep personal impression on us. This process resulted in the production of two short fiction films, which act as companion pieces to each other: POLLY AND ME and WALL BOY.
For me, POLLY AND ME was motivated by hearing the countless stories of many of the kids at the Oasis refuge during the first 10 years of their lives. I heard many accounts, especially those concerning the girls (some who are now social workers), about their early years of abuse and neglect, and the lasting scars this left. I wanted to get some of these uncomfortable issues out into the open.
POLLY AND ME is based on hundreds of true stories, woven together into the life of one 8 year old girl. We wanted to make a film that resonated with audiences (especially those who work in the sector), and hopefully we have succeeded.
Sascha’s story, WALL BOY, is about a young boy who found himself involved with heroin and street prostitution within a couple of weeks of running away from his home in a small country town. We couldn’t tell this story in a documentary.
What did you hope to achieve by making these films?
We wanted to raise awareness of one the most important social issues of our time. Australians are a deeply caring people, but, as is so often the case, they need to be made aware of important social issues before they decide to act. They also want to see solutions so that they might feel empowered, and to give them a sense of hope that something can be done.
Over the years many of Australia’s most important social issues have been swept under the carpet. Without any understanding or pressure from the community, governments have been able to ignore them for too long. The issue of youth homelessness, and its associated problems and causes has only got worse, far worse, over the last 20 years. As a country we have wasted two decades of prosperity in failing to address and deal with the problem. As a result of our collective neglect, the cost of effectively dealing with our homeless problem is now blowing out every year.
POLLY AND ME is part of our on-going strategy to focus attention on, and help deal with, the problems associated with youth homelessness. We have partnered with twelve organisations that we admire who all deal with aspects of childhood abuse and neglect in this initiative. Hopefully this strategic approach will help kickstart a national conversation and help address this important issue.
What is the education and outreach plan, and how will you measure the success of the film?
The Caledonia Foundation has funded the outreach and education component of the film. We will measure the success of the film as a social document not as a creative work. We hope the film will make a substantial social impact and that it will be used to great effect by a number of organisations who deal with poverty, child abuse and neglect in Australia.
Together we will be partnering with organisations such as ARACY, the Benevolent Society, CREATE Foundation, Families Australia, Good Beginnings Australia, Lou’s Place, Lighthouse Foundation, Mirabel Foundation, NAPCAN, Oasis Youth Refuge and The Salvation Army, and The Smith Family to host screenings around the country. This will do two things — it will raise awareness around the issues and also promote those organisations who work so tirelessly in trying to save these kids.
POLLY AND ME will be screened in many instances with WALL BOY, as a companion piece, and both will be a part of the on-going outreach and education campaign already created around youth homelessness. This began with the release of THE OASIS documentary.
What are the main issues that come out of the film?
The film deals with a number of complex and sensitive areas. In less than 25 minutes the film explores the consequences of drug addiction, domestic violence, neglect and physical, emotional and sexual abuse. All these issues are highly complex and require a variety of specific solutions.
One of the most effective strategies for dealing with youth homelessness is early intervention. One of the greatest challenges, however, in implementing these strategies is simply being made aware of the situation, as so much of the damage is occurring behind closed doors. POLLY AND ME is such a story, and in this instance highlights the difficulties of supporting a mother and her young daughter when they are totally out of sight of authorities, welfare agencies and the community at large.
Given the sensitivity of the material, how can you prepare the audience for such a film?
That is an important question. Over the last few months we’ve been meeting with a range of organisations who deal with abused children (and parents/guardians), to discuss how they can work with us to distribute the film, and how we can best present the material to a variety of different audiences. We have placed an explicit warning about the content at the start of the film. In addition we highlight the exact nature of the film in the synopsis and on the DVD and official web site.
This information is highlighted in greater detail on all of the educational material we are preparing, and we will be providing details of organisations that can be contacted if and when the film raises strong reactions. We are preparing an edited version of the film for schools.
What do you hope people will take away from the film?
This isn’t a feel good movie – but I hope it’s a movie that will stay with audiences long after the screening, and embolden them to ask tough questions, like – what happens to the little girl now? How did she slip through the net of the authorities? Why did all early intervention strategies with the mother fail? What can we do at a national level? I do hope that audiences are deeply moved, and perhaps frustrated and angry with the situation, but not too overwhelmed to stop them from taking some kind of action.
It is important to highlight that we do feel a sense of responsibility to all of our audience, knowing that it might be especially disturbing to some, especially those who have first-hand experience with any of these issues.
Have you had criticism that there isn’t enough hope in the film?
Yes, I have already been told the film is relentlessly bleak but I’m prepared to accept that. Quite deliberately we have NOT created a solution based film with a more positive conclusion.
We have all learnt to expect “Hollywood” endings from many of the films we see. I believe that it is important to recognise that for those experiencing abuse or neglect, in most cases there is no “Hollywood” ending. The scars often last a lifetime. In POLLY AND ME, we just don’t know what will happen to the little girl. If she’s lucky she’ll be taken into care and placed with a good foster family. But regardless of how good the family is, this girl will be emotionally damaged, possibly for life. She will require counselling, support and time to heal. Her teenage years will possibly be fraught with challenges.
The closing image in the film is quite obviously a statement about the attitudes of the community and how we have largely ignored these social issues for too long. We as a community are offering so little hope to girls like her, so it would be wrong to suggest otherwise for the sake of a nice resolution.
One person said to me after a screening that they did in fact feel there was great hope at the end of the film, as the girl was now out of the apartment, and that life could only look up from here. There is definitely an element of truth to this. It is also important to point out that we didn’t want the mother in the film to be viewed as a bad person. So many of the young mothers in these situations are good people who mean well. For a range of reasons they just can’t cope with parenting, especially when their addictions and squalid circumstances lead them into a downward spiral.
Why didn’t you tell the story as a documentary?
The art of making a great observational documentary is to capture life as it unfolds before you. This particular story was fictionalised because we felt we couldn’t do justice to the story as a documentary. Nor could we gain the type of access that is so crucial as these stories are typically played out behind closed doors.
It would have obviously been totally unacceptable to film many of these scenes in reality. In this instance the fictional route was the only way to proceed.
How does your documentary background influence the making of the film?
As a documentary filmmaker I guess I’ve indirectly been researching this story over the last 10 years. The stories, the characters, the events, the dialogue, and the locations are all elements that I’ve encountered or been made aware of during my time at the Oasis refuge over the last decade. I have a strong sense of the importance of keeping stories real. As mentioned this film is based on dozens of true stories. I know that every element of this story is all too real.
What was the most challenging part of the filmmaking process?
I think the sensitivity of the material meant that every phase of the filmmaking process had its own distinct challenges. For me, initially writing the script was an enormously challenging process. Having never written a film script, I realised how complex the process can be, even for a short story. But what was especially challenging was trying to deal sensitively, and with integrity, with all the dark elements contained in the story. Luckily I have a wonderful team at Shark, and a great script consultant in Joan Sauers.
During the actual production process on location and set, I think the greatest challenge was ensuring Madison (the 9 year old actress) was safe, physically and emotionally. She coped with the pressure magnificently, and in a totally professional way. Together with the NSW Office of Children, and her parents, we ensured that she was adequately nurtured every step of the way, well beyond the legal requirements. It was most important that we didn’t expose such a young actress to any elements or themes that she was unfamiliar with. Whilst she was fully aware that the story involved a young girl that lived in unfortunate circumstances, we were able to conceal from her during the entire process all elements involving sexual and physical abuse, domestic violence, prostitution and addiction. Our duty of care even ensured she was not even exposed to any cigarette smoke on set.
An additional challenge was time constraints placed on us due to Madison’s age, permitting us to only shoot with her for 8 hours a day (or between 5–6 shooting hours). This constraint, however, had several positive elements, ensuring the crew (and especially the director) were as efficient and economical as possible.
What surprised you most in the making of the film?
My first real surprise was how many people it took to make a fiction film. We have grown so accustomed to tiny crews on our documentary film shoots, ranging from one to three people at any given time. In this case we had about 25 people on set, and this took some getting used to.
I think we had a very thorough pre-production process, and were so well-prepared by the time filming commenced, that little surprised us on set. It was a great shoot. The set was calm and happy. The entire team worked well together. It reinforced to me how important the grips and gaffers are in the filmmaking process. They work so hard to make all of us (in front and behind the camera) look good. It also highlighted the dedication of a great line producer — with Mary Macrae being the first on set and the last to leave each day.
I was personally surprised by how emotional I became during one of the rehearsals. It brought home the truly desperate situations so many young kids find themselves in today.
How did you go about writing the script?
I wrote the first draft over the course of a week whilst away on a holiday last year. I wrote furiously and dumped virtually every story I could think of into the draft. This resulted in a bit of a train wreck, where the little girl was a victim at every step, and as a result there was little thread to really drive the story forward. But it was an important part of the process to put all of my original vision and intent onto the page.
The team at Shark Island (Sally, Mary and Susan) all provided great feedback to the initial drafts. We then took on board Joan Sauers as our script consultant, and from this point the story really started taking shape. Joan provided some excellent feedback about making the girl less of a victim and encouraged me to turn her into a survivor. Joan also provided some great suggestions for how we could simplify the ending.
What was missing in the initial draft was the notion that kids are pretty resilient at that age, despite the bleakness of their circumstance. Young kids will do whatever they can to get love and attention from their parents or guardians, and will more likely believe in themselves in a positive way. Unfortunately, from about the age of 10, this seems to slide away rapidly, and that’s when the real troubles begin.
By the time I got to Draft 10, with about 3 re-writes per draft, we had stripped back the story, changed the motivations of the girl, taken out significant lines of dialogue, and made the decision to basically never leave the apartment. The final version on the screen is remarkably similar to the final draft of the script, with only a few lines of dialogue removed along the way.
Can you describe the pre-production process?
Having never made a drama before (well not since 1972 with “Hooray, Hooray, The Holiday’s Start Today”!) the pre-production process initially seemed daunting. However, with our amazing production team at Shark, it was all hands on deck, and everything went surprisingly smoothly. Once we’d locked off the script we just put our heads down and went for it. We were well organised and with Mary Macrae leading the charge as our line producer, we seemed to avoid any potential disasters. Sally Fryer happily came out of the edit suite to be the perfect “Girl Friday” and Susan MacKinnon was able to take much of the producing pressure off me, which was a huge relief.
We took on board John Titley as 1st Assistant Director early in the process, and this was invaluable for a novice like me. I didn’t really know what a 1st AD did until embarking on this project, and naively assumed I could handle it all. But this would have been such a huge mistake and I learned so much from John along the way.
One of our biggest challenges was finding an appropriate location for the apartment, both inside and out. We scouted dozens of building and locations, and in the end decided on creating a set for the interior. Our Production Designer Nick McCallum was able to offer us one of his old sets which was still erected in a shed, one we could easily convert into a grungy apartment. His team did a great job. We matched this with a great building we found in Newtown for the outside scene, which luckily has a park across the road where we could readily assemble a set of swings and slides. Jo Briscoe worked wonders on finding the right costumes for all of the characters, ensuring everything felt credible and real.
I spent a week with our director of photography, Peter Holland. We story-boarded the entire piece and worked out how we were going to shoot the film in advance of the shoot. I know many directors like to feel it out on the day, but for me this preparation was invaluable, and in fact gave us greater flexibility to experiment on set. I even managed to spend time with our sound designer, Annie Breslin, enabling us to plan several sound elements into the body of the shoot.
We also spent several days with the actors in rehearsal, which was a huge luxury for a short film. But with the responsibility that came with young Madison, it was really important that all of the cast had a close connection, and a deep understanding of the material. As mentioned, it was most important that we didn’t expose such a young actress to any elements or themes that she was unfamiliar with. Whilst she was fully aware that the story involved a young girl that lived in unfortunate circumstances, we were able to conceal from her during the entire process all elements involving sexual and physical abuse, domestic violence, prostitution and addiction.
Terry Serio and Emma Palmer really made a huge contribution to ensuring Madison was really comfortable in her role when filming started. Their care and nurturing continued right through the shoot, and was crucial to the film process. It’s interesting to now reflect that the benefits from this time together with the actors in pre-production was actually apparent at many different moments on every day of the film shoot.
How did you prepare the actors for such an experience?
It was extremely useful being able to initially use THE OASIS documentary, and all of the material on the web site (www.theoasismovie.com.au) as a key reference point for all discussions about the story and the characters in the film. In addition, the actors brought some powerful life experiences to the table, which added greatly to the mix. Using my documentary background, I found it useful to film and interview Terry and Emma documentary style, to flesh out their character’s back-stories and give all of us a better understanding of how these characters found themselves to be in the situations that were presented in the film. We all sat around the table and had pretty extensive discussions about their characters and the many ways they could be played. For me this was one of the most enjoyable elements of the filmmaking process.
The rehearsal process for Madison was quite different. In working with her incredibly supportive parents, we spent a great deal of time talking about the circumstances that the unfortunate little girl found herself in and how we could appropriately discuss the issues with her. We established a set of internal guidelines for working with Madison, and with additional assistance from the NSW Office of Children, we worked up a set of rules that guided us through pre-production and on set. This enabled us to be as honest as possible about the content, without going into areas that were inappropriate to discuss. Once these guidelines were established, we found Madison was quickly able to grasp the key elements of her character.
We had a number of days in the rehearsal space all together where we immersed ourselves into the back story of the characters and the real meaning and intent of every word in the script. We spent quite a bit of time blocking the scenes. Given everything happens in the one apartment we tried to make the action as varied and interesting as possible. The fight scenes with Emma and Terry, and Emma and John were choreographed and then rehearsed extensively, and in all instances Madison’s safety and level of exposure to the violence was paramount in the choices we made. For example, when Madison was on set during the fight, the actors were playing a light hearted game above the table.
Where was the film shot and over how many days?
The entire film was shot over 7 days in Sydney. We had 6 days shooting on set in a big tin shed in Manly, and one day down a back lane in Newtown for the exteriors. Unlike our companion piece WALL BOY, which was totally shot outside and at night, POLLY was a pretty controlled day shoot.
What medium was used and what decisions did you make about the style of the shoot?
For some time we were tossing up between a RED ONE digital camera and 16mm. In the end we settled on the RED (version 17). With the brilliance of our DOP Peter Holland, we were able to capture a really beautiful set of images, which I feel worked so well in stark contrast to the horrors that were unfolding on screen. There was little joy inside the apartment, but the beauty typically came from rays of light and hope, which came into the apartment from the freedom of the outside world.
I was very keen not to make this film feel like a documentary, so we immediately ruled out too much of a faux documentary hand held approach. I felt it should be a literal and quite static “fly on the wall” approach, and much of it from the perspective of the young girl. I wanted us to feel as though we were passive observers in the apartment, and not be distracted by unnecessary camera moves. Peter presented some great ideas, and created a style that would enable the actors to walk in and out of the frames, making the apartment a key character in the film. We typically shot as wide and low as possible and chose a ratio of 2.4:1 to add a greater sense of claustrophobia in the apartment (as well as looking stunning on the big screen too!).
Peter raised the notion of using the tilt and shift lens for our “girl world” scenes. We described these scenes as “girl world”, and we used them to create the surreal world of escapism, and the sanctuary in the girl’s mind from her daily horrors. I needed lots of convincing, and I’m now so pleased that Peter persisted and won me over, as the results are quite stunning in the three scenes when we use it in the film. I was blown-away with the lens’ ability to create such a narrow point of focus in both extreme close ups and at a distance of over 50 metres.
It was a great creative learning experience for me to spend the week with Peter brainstorming every frame of the film.
Does the editing of fiction differ from documentary?
Sally and I have worked together on five documentaries now, and she did an amazing job with the editing of this short film. Whilst she has cut over 100 documentaries, she too found the experience of editing fiction to be quite a different challenge. We were both surprised with the way this fiction piece came together in comparison to our documentaries.
THE OASIS, for example, came together over the course of a pretty long year’s edit. With 250 hours of footage it took Sally, Sascha and I many months to determine both the story lines and ultimate characters. In rough terms I reckon it took about 90% of our time to get it to the first rough cut assembly stage, and then it fell into place pretty quickly from there. By comparison, I think we probably got to that same rough cut stage with POLLY AND ME in the first 10% of the process, in terms of editing time. What surprised us was how many weeks it then took to make the drama work and to get the piece humming.
What did you want to achieve with the sound and colour grade?
As with all elements of the film, our key objective was to keep it real. We didn’t want to make it too weird or stylised (apart from the additional sounds during the “girl world” scenes). Annie Breslin did a brilliant job with the sound design. She was able to create the feel of a credible inner city apartment, with so many elements that added to the tension and darkness at every step of the way. She also insisted on ensuring every line of dialogue was crisp and clean — something we are far less concerned with in the world of documentary.
The grade was very much in line with our intent with the design of the film and the way it was shot, to create a sense of beauty coming from outside, in comparison to the dark world of the apartment. Given most of the film takes place in the single apartment, we used light extensively (as we did with the sound) to give us a sense of time passing. This was an especially important element in the grade. We took out all of the planned fades to black in the edit, so relied heavily on the different shades of colour and light in the apartment to inform us of the time of day or night as one scene moved seamlessly into another.
What decisions were made about the music?
I had worked with Felicity Fox on THE OASIS and found that she had a great ability to really understand the intent of the film. She was able to create music that complimented the action, without telling the audience what to think. We wanted music that would sit comfortably with the sound design, as in parts it actually underscores some elements of the sound. I do think Felicity’s music in the film is extraordinary. It is deliberately spare in the initial stages of the film and slowly builds as the tension and complexity of the situation intensifies.
One of the most challenging elements was the final song. It could have been a disaster – cheesy and corny, but I’m really pleased with what was created. Felicity wrote the lyrics for I PROMISE out of the key words and messages in the film and designed it as a conversation between mothers and daughters over several generations. I wanted a voice that had the innocence of youth but wasn’t childlike or too developed. Jorden Leser, whose beautiful work I was familiar with, seemed the perfect choice. I still get emotional when I hear the final track and see the final image.
How was the film financed?
The Caledonia Foundation has provided funding for the Outreach and Education component of the project. In addition to funding from Shark Island Productions, a number of philanthropic partners have been involved with the initiative: David and Claire Paradice, Calvert-Jones Foundation, David Clarke AO and Jane Clarke, Eureka Benevolent Foundation, Goldman Sachs JBWere Foundation, Matana Foundation, Macquarie Group Foundation, Nelson Meers Foundation, Bob Rose AM and Margaret Rose AM, The Turnbull Foundation, The Wolanski Foundation, Hal Epstein and Geri Ettinger, Sydney Community Foundation. These partners all believed in the film’s potent social messages and the impact it could have.