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We talked to the team behind the short film that won 'Best Director' at the Sydney Film Festival

Director Eliza Scanlen and producer China White talk film, the arts industry and emerging out of lockdown

Written by
Divya Venkataraman

Note: Since the publication of this interview, Mukbang has received valid criticisms over its depiction of violence against a black character, and of the broader culturally appropriative context of the film. See Michelle Law's critique of the film here, and an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald which addresses the controversy.

You might know Eliza Scanlen’s cherubic face from her portrayal of the kind yet doomed Beth in Greta Gerwig’s cinematic adaptation of Little Women. In a film that would more accurately be described as star-drenched than star-studded, Scanlen’s grace and quiet dignity as the sickliest March sister made an impression – an impression hinting that she had a lot more to say.  

Recently, Scanlen, along with a Sydney-based team including producer China White and cinematographer Lucca Barrone-Peters, directed a short film, Mukbang, that just won the Dendy Award for the Best Director in the 2020 Sydney Film Festival. It showcases a Sydney schoolgirl, played by captivatingly awkward ingenue Nadia Zwecker, as she begins a flirtation with the online food trend that began in South Korea. Mukbang, as we see in the film, is a digital pseudo-fetish which involves people eating copious amounts of food and broadcasting it online.

The intimate peculiarities of this online phenomenon offered an opportunity for Scanlan to explore a more personal experience. “The film was about my own relationship with social media”, says Scanlen. “It was my way of coming to terms with its positive and negative aspects.” Zwecker’s character observes the sexual budding of her classmates in more obvious ways `– pornography, slut-shaming – and begins to come to terms with her own sexuality by slipping into a vivacious, Technicolour persona that she’s observed online.

The team behind Mukbang is impressively young. All three – Scanlen, White and Barrone-Peters – are barely scraping the ceiling of 25. Not only are they young, but to be young and female in a still male-dominated industry is no mean feat.

Scanlen acknowledges that her path to directing was a result of being introduced to the film world – inoculated in a sense – in projects headed up by a wealth of top female talent. “You know the first big project I did was created by a woman and directed and produced by a woman... And I was lucky enough to be in that environment more than once”. She is speaking of course about working in Sharp Objects, then starring in Greta Gerwig’s widely lauded Little Women, and most recently, the Australian drama Babyteeth, directed by Shannon Murphy. “It also was the reason I started writing and directing,” she confesses. “If I had been thrust into a different environment where I didn’t witness as many women in heads of department, I don’t think I would have started this.” 

Mukbang's producer, China White, also credits the impact of influential women around her in her work. After graduating from AFTRS film school in Sydney, China would go on to start a production company with cinematographer, Lucca Barrone-Peters, whom she met there. Having grown up around parents who owned local businesses in regional NSW, doing her own thing seemed like a natural step. “I wanted to produce interesting, diverse films about women and the quickest way to get there was to start a company." 

But just because White has a company, it’s not all easy, especially in a climate as hostile to the arts as this one is. She puts it bluntly: “I don't think our government always makes the arts a priority.” Which, as they both point out, was even more blindingly obvious in a moment of crisis where ‘Netflix binging’ became the nation’s go-to hobby. “Now we see the value of the arts, and how  because you know, it’s the first thing people have turned to in times like this, “ says Scanlen. “We turn to film, we turn to TV  shows, we turn to theatre.” 

Scanlen herself is personally embedded in Sydney’s theatre scene, having starred in the 2019 Sydney Theatre Company production of Lord of the Flies, alongside an ensemble cast including Mia Wasikowska. She is hopeful the arts scene will emerge out of this stronger than ever. “I know there are a lot of residencies that are happening right now, people are using this time to develop work,” she says. "I do have a lot of hope," concurs White. "I've been seeing a lot of creatives exploring different ways to produce content, like, for example, a web series over FaceTime."

White continues, "I feel like people take art, music and film for granted... and don't realise how much work gets put into what they consume, and assume it will always be there. But without infrastructure and support, it will make it harder for these things to continue." To understand the extent that people rely on the film industry to find work, White urges audiences to stay in the cinema until the screen goes black. "It's only when you watch the credits at the end of a film that you see there are so many people making a living from that industry."

Want more? Watch our video interview with Eliza Scanlen over cocktails at Dulcie's

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