How a Film About Grief Forged a Community in a Seemingly Disconnected World

By Alice Duthie
on 29 February 2024

In a world that often feels fragmented and isolated, Australian film ‘The Returned’ emerges as a poignant exploration of grief and community. Directed by Ben Pfeiffer, and an all female production crew, Josephine Croft, Ahalya Maharaj and Amanda LaBonté, this cinematic piece delves into the emotional landscape of a family grappling with the impending loss of their mother to a terminal illness.

Three adult children return home to come to terms with their shared grief, while facing unique experiences of grief of their own. Through its nuanced portrayal of this unifying human emotion, ‘The Returned’ not only holds a mirror to our own experiences, but also serves as a catalyst for greater connection and understanding in Australian society.

How a Film About Grief Forged a Community in a Seemingly Disconnected World

Visual Storytelling and the Intimacy of Grief

Through nuanced screenplay and performances, ‘The Returned’ succeeds in showcasing the complexity of grief on the big screen, uniting people through a shared sense of compassion. Producers Josephine Croft, Ahalya Maharaj and Amanda LaBonté believe the film’s power lies in the unique way it addresses the themes of grief through different perspectives, giving the audience a variety of emotions to attach to.

Maharaj describes the film’s unique approach to grief, highlighting the use of individualised camera techniques to express the varied experiences of the characters. “The audience is able to literally walk in the shoes of the characters, and ‘feel’ their emotions,” Maharaj explains.

“As humans, grief is processed in many ways. It’s an intricate emotion that often opens the doors to a wide array of human expression, whether it be through anger, melancholy, humour or dissonance”, says Maharaj.

Croft believes that the film shines a spotlight on the unspoken actions, quietly spoken words and acts of love that sometimes go unnoticed, creating a deep sense of resonance and impact.

LaBonté believes that it is these pure and open, intimate moments that allow the audience to attach to the character’s journey and see something of themselves in the on screen characters. “These are the moments that live with us. When we’ve shared the joy or the tragedy, and felt nothing but compassion for the characters” says LaBonté.

How a Film About Grief Forged a Community in a Seemingly Disconnected World

Fostering Community: The Impact of ‘The Returned’ Online and Offline

The film’s impact extends beyond the screen, fostering a sense of community both online and offline. Filming in regional Victoria, the production team worked closely with the local community, engaging local artists, crew members and facilities, involving them in the filmmaking process and creating a sense of belonging and pride.

Filming in Wannon provided the team a unique opportunity to build a sense of community in a small regional town.Producers, Josephine Croft and Amanda LaBonté reveal that the response to posting crew jobs online was overwhelmingly positive. “An online buzz was created months ago when we joined the local community group and introduced ourselves – this got media attention and many emails of welcome – many people putting their hands up offering assistance.”

Likewise Croft added, “The sense of the community there is so strong and we really felt supported by them…it’s so rewarding”, says LaBonté. This sense of community extended to production work in Melbourne, with the team being supported in with local catering, familial support and crew members’ homes being used for location shots. This engagement has not only enriched the film, but also strengthened bonds within local communities.

How a Film About Grief Forged a Community in a Seemingly Disconnected World

Cinema as Social Glue: Uniting People in a Disconnected Society

Art, especially cinema, plays a crucial role in bridging divides in a disconnected society. Cinema has an ability to comfort, inspire and educate. It is a medium humans use to escape, to search for resonance and to broaden our knowledge of the world around us. Producer Ahalya Maharaj believes through cinema, we become more aware of the intricacies of the human psyche and open up our hearts.

“Cinema is a powerful force of change… [It] effortlessly brings people together. From the film-set to the audience, the experience organically forges community”, says Maharaj.   “Art changes lives. As a society we need art in all its forms if we want to transform the essence of our world into one that is more loving, accepting, aware and compassionate”, she continues.

According to Maharaj, we are in a very important time in history for cinema, especially within the Australian film industry. “We have an emergence of courageous story tellers and magnificent talent who are fired up to create a legacy, make an impact and tell powerful stories that allow people to be seen”, says Maharaj.

She believes it is the responsibility of filmmakers to keep this at the forefront of their work, creating safe places for work, encouraging and supporting creativity and sharing this with audiences world-over, role modelling what an ideal workplace culture should be.

How a Film About Grief Forged a Community in a Seemingly Disconnected World

‘The Returned’ and Australia’s Cultural Landscape: Reflecting Societal Values and Challenges

‘The Returned’ reflects on the broader cultural landscape of Australia, reflecting current societal values and challenges. Producer Amanda LaBonté notes that in Australia, conversations around grief are still considered taboo. Grief isn’t discussed as much as it should be, nor is it fully understood. “People are expected to keep their “chin up” and get on with it, particularly once the funeral is over..[but] things are changing –  and art, cinema and theatre, had a lot to do with that”.

LaBonte believes exposing the raw pain of grief on screen allows people to identify with these universal human emotions, which opens up conversations, encourages deeper understanding and allows us to bond as a community.. This shift is indicative of art’s ability to influence societal norms and values, making it an essential element of cultural discourse.

This sentiment is echoed by the personal stories shared by the team, including Croft’s reflection on her own grief following her father’s passing and LaBonte’s poignant account of losing her child. Croft joined the project just weeks before her father passed from dementia, so the film took on a very personal meaning. She identified heavily with the characters in this film and realised that grief is multifaceted.

Likewise, LaBonte resonated with the film’s portrayal of grief, reflecting on the loss of her second child, who was stillborn. LaBonte experienced an all encompassing grief which distorted her sense of time and drove her to reckless behaviours, two elements of grief which are also explored within ‘The Returned’.

‘The Returned’ is more than just a film about grief; it is a reflection of cinema’s transformative power on individuals and communities. Through its engagement with Australian communities and exploration of universal human emotion, the film  showcases the power of art to bring people together in a seemingly disconnected world, forging connections, fostering greater understanding and inspiring real change.

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