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The Film With No Name

Written by on March 22, 2023

Bill Mousoulis
The Boat with No Name
(Australia, 2022, 95 mins, dir: Phil O’Brien & Jeffery Baxter)
“You know, people think money is the currency, but, time is the real currency, because you only get so much of it, and you gotta spend it wisely.” – dialogue in The Boat with No Name
The Boat with No Name is a unique and extraordinary Australian film. Firstly, its demographical status within the ecosystem of “Australian independent film” is unusual, and secondly, it’s just a damn good film, in terms of its moment-to-moment joys.Let’s look at the demographics. In “independent film”, here in Australia but also worldwide, there are several distinct levels: (1) the fully-funded film, but made by an auteur like David Lynch let’s say, his presence qualifying it as an “independent” film; (2) the modestly-funded features, or low-budget ones, that are made with less pressure on them to succeed commercially (usually by younger directors, allowing the directors to find their groove); (3) the completely un-funded features, made by all kinds of directors/producers, guaranteeing them full artistic freedom; and (4) all those features and shorts that are clearly un-funded but also experimental, or made for galleries.Within this ecosystem, the organisms at level (2) are shooting to go to level (1). Those at (3) to (2). And those at (4) are happy enough where they are.

The Boat with No Name
 comes from a different impulse, it’s from outer-space, or, more aptly, it’s from the earth and the sea, from grass-roots activity, from the community of Nhulunbuy directly (North-east Arnhem Land). It’s what people might pejoratively call an “amateur” film, made by people who are not employed by the film industry (or funded, let’s say). But, aren’t all the filmmakers at levels (3) and (4) also “amateur” filmmakers, i.e. they also don’t professionally make any money from their activity?Two things at play here: the prejudices within terminologies, and the pretensions within certain demographics of artists. Your average indie filmmaker who applies him/herself passionately yet has no funds would never consider her/himself an “amateur” filmmaker. In fact, in most cases, they would carry a pretentious self-importance that can be quite surreal to behold (I’ve met a few of these characters in my time). These indie filmmakers would look down condescendingly on people like Phil O’Brien (even just privately let’s say, not publicly).

O’Brien, however, is one of the most extraordinary artists I’ve ever come across. Firstly, on the subject of self-importance, even though he drove (or captained we should say) this Boat with No Name, he generously gave a co-directing credit to one of the community members, Jeffery Baxter, whose role was limited to looking after his daughter on set, the young co-star Bella Baxter, and also being the cameraman for a number of shots.Generally, O’Brien is like a multi-talented Renaissance artist: book author, songwriter and performer, and now filmmaker. As his bio says: “Reckless, Financially irresponsible, Prone to bad luck, Phil O’Brien has turned drifting around outback Australia into an art form.” Yes, you heard right, he’s a “drifter”. From a young adult age, living in Adelaide, he decided that the rat-race was not for him, so he went exploring through the land, discovering different places and meeting new people, and scraping a living together as best he could. Farming, crocodile-handling, campfire singing, and mixing and drinking with the locals wherever he found himself, he truly “broadened his horizons” in his life. In recent years, he has been up the top end, in North-east Arnhem Land, and as a burly white fella, he has mixed with the Indigenous people there with ease, and is truly living a life of community and artistic activity. He also knows the secret, he truly knows it. As the character in the film that he plays, Slate, says: “You know, people think money is the currency, but, time is the real currency, because you only get so much of it, and you gotta spend it wisely.” O’Brien is more “radical” (and politically empowered) than most of us could ever dream to be!

Watching The Boat with No Name is a joy from go to woe. It does not matter in the slightest that the actors are “non-actors”. That is a concept for pedants. The reality and magic of the cinema is around light, the human form, and the environment. It’s not whether anyone went to NIDA or not. The Boat with No Name opens with a wobbly camera, but it is looking at the sublime coast-line of Nhulunbuy, and guess which one of these two is more important? And the music hits our ears and it is beautiful, the film in fact is full of cracking songs by local artists.The film nominally is a comedy-adventure-drama, about a small community that has lost its school teacher and is seeking another. Slate (Phil O’Brien) has a bright idea to get another one in, and that starts propelling the narrative forward. The film alternates between a knock-about Aussie humour (dry, satirical) and a spiritual sweetness (the beauty of the land, and human connection, and community), balancing these two modes extremely successfully. It’s only towards the end, when the film tries for a more obvious “plot” (guns and all), that the film loses its mojo. But, it still ends beautifully, with the young girl Kid (Bella Baxter) now a grown woman and going forward in her life. This is truly a transcendental film about community and connection, with an innocence to it that is refreshing (innocence is rarely seen these days in the cinema).

The kind of humour on display is a throwback to the great Aussie comedy of Paul Hogan and films such as The Castle. Maybe one could say that there’s a bit of Fat Pizza in there too, but one thing’s for sure: this film bypasses all the clever and ironic humour in most films and TV shows these days. This is a dry, irreverent humour, and it does not consider itself above fart jokes or Benny Hill-style sexual innuendo. It’s also an off-beat and quirky humour, and quite surreal at times, harking back to Monty Python. Surrealism is something that is just not in favour anywhere at the moment, and most humour around these days is either knowing and ironic, or ostentatious and gruesome, with characters that are tense and self-conscious. The Boat with No Name truly offers something different, a relaxed and charming humour.

O’Brien struggled a little to make this film, but he juggled everything brilliantly. He was knocked back for funding, from government departments, even with a strong Indigenous content in the film. He did however receive some small amounts of money from community organisations, allowing the necessary costs to be met (even the most idealistic no-budget filmmaker knows that there are always costs, it’s pretty hard keeping any no-budget feature spending under the $10,000 mark). And lest I give the wrong impression here, The Boat with No Name is not a first-time effort from O’Brien – he has made some previous films, here and there.More power to him I say! And whilst film festivals have rejected the film, The Boat with No Name has found an audience in small screenings throughout Australia in recent months, and so O’Brien has connected with audiences directly and successfully.


Bill Mousoulis is a Greek-Australian independent filmmaker since 1982, and a programmer and critic. He is the editor of the Pure Shit: Australian Cinema website.

This article was sourced from Pure Shit: Australian Cinema Website
Bill Mousoulis

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