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Sydney Filmmakers #3: Sascha Ettinger Epstein

The Sydney Film Festival is one of FFL’s brightest stars, coming to the Australian city every June for a cinematic bonanza.

To celebrate, we’ve spoken with some of our filmmakers who were lucky enough to screen at the prestigious film festival.


Sascha Epstein has been one of Australia’s most incisive documentary directors over the last decade, winning the AFI Documentary Award for Documentary Direction twice and becoming a regular figure at the Sydney Film Festival. Films such as THE OASIS, an analysis of an inner city youth refuge, and PLAYING IN THE SHADOWS, about an after-dark basketball tournament on a youth estate, have tackled tough topics with human grace – finding, as Epstein puts it, the “beauty in darkness”. Now she has scooped up the Australia Foundation Award for Australian Documentary for her film THE PINK HOUSE at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. We found out more about the award-winning film, submitted via FFL, and her filmmaking journey in our interview with her below.

Sascha’s Current Title: The Pink House

The Pink House is the story of Kalgoorlie’s last original goldrush brothel, through the eyes of the whimsical Madam Carmel, (70) and its longest-serving lady of the night, BJ. Prostitution is technically illegal in Western Australia but this pink tin shed has been servicing the miners of Kal, a remote frontier town, since 1904 – on the same street as the police station!

The film touches on the fascinating and often scandalous history of Kalgoorlie which was internationally notorious for its sex industry, and looks at the social, cultural changes that have taken place in the business of selling sex. It also looks at the political stalemate in WA with politicians unwilling or unable to change prostitution legislation, leaving the openly-trading brothels operating in a grey area where they are obligated to pay tax but are still breaking the law!

Ultimately though, the film is an intimate portrait of two unusual women clinging to the past, facing an uncertain future and at the mercy of darker forces… In terms of other films which exerted an influence the producer Claire Haywood and I were actually keen to make a kind of ‘Grey Gardens’ homage with our two wonderful characters living together in a brothel in the middle of the desert!

Sascha’s Beginnings

I always wanted to be a writer. Since I found myself infinitely more fascinated by the weird and wonderful ‘real world’ than my own imagination, my compulsion was to write ‘gonzo style’ feature stories about strange characters and places I encountered. I would accompany these with crude photographs, and I realise in retrospect they were like mini-documentaries. Some of the features were published in upmarket arthouse magazines which I found encouraging.

While hanging around in a skid row lane researching one of these stories I met an eccentric street photographer with an old 1936 antique Rolleicord camera, who had been living rough and photographing in the city’s badlands amongst squatters, sex workers, addicts and street folk for over a decade. This man was so captivating I knew he couldn’t just be transcribed onto a page or captured in a still image. After many months of friendship I convinced this brilliant artist – the late Peter Darren Moyle – we should collaborate on a documentary project. A close friend had just started a business making wedding videos and recently invested in a fancy Canon XL1 so we all decided – with great glee and naivete – to make a guerilla doco! After 2.5 years and untold struggle, our film was released to widespread acclaim and I was en route to my prolonged love affair with making documentary films.

Sascha’s Inspiration

Wherever I am circulating in my life’s adventures, my radar is always attuned to seek out interesting people on the fringes.

I am primarily inspired by unusual people living lives outside the ordinary; people who dare to be different, or who embody complex contradictions. I love black humour and am constantly moved by human resilience in the face of extreme adversity. Wherever I am circulating in my life’s adventures, my radar is always attuned to seek out interesting people on the fringes. Having said that, anything can prove interesting if you look into it in enough detail…and in all honesty I love watching docos about any subject if they are well made and creatively told stories. I devour as many films as I can!

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Sascha’s Festival Strategy

Festival strategy is a difficult thing to qualify because the market and the volume of films is huge these days. Our aim is to target festivals that specifically focus on documentary and if possible, look favourably on more unusual, observational style films. As our film had a microbudget we don’t have the luxury of just submitting everywhere, so we have to be more targeted.

I think if possible, it’s always best to do what research you can (eg. check past listings of what films were played or won), and tailor your list of festivals to those where your film might fit best and has a bigger chance of selection.

Sascha’s Festival Experiences

Recently I went to a film festival in Taoyuan, a regional city in Taiwan and had a blast! I also went to a festival in Coffs Harbour called Screenwave in summer which was paradise. Seeing your film on the screen for the first time is extremely anxiety inducing but also wonderful because often you have sat in your bedroom for years editing and it’s surreal to see it played in a cinema with a cackling audience.

So far The Pink House has only screened at Sydney Film Festival – and honestly I could die happy after that! The festival flew over our charismatic character BJ for the Q&A and the audience loved meeting her in person after seeing her light up the screen. She’s a sex worker, so it was great to see her mingling with my mum’s conservative friends at the after party. I don’t think they had a boring night!

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Sascha’s Biggest Adversity

I’ve dealt with a lot of difficult subject matter in my documentary making career – mental illness, addiction, dispossession – which does take a toll on your psyche. (I always think – next film will be on still-life flower arrangements!) Consequently I do have quite a dark view of humanity but I am also constantly inspired by the triumph of the human spirit. I’ve also often wrestled with the ethics of filming with vulnerable people. Ultimately someone’s best day as well as their worst day is always great footage for the film so when do you stop rolling? It’s not technically an adversity, but having a child has made the type of documentary making I like much more difficult. Pre-kid I would find myself completely embedded in the world of my story to get the richest footage, but now I need to stay on planet earth to look after my little creation. When I find myself getting sucked into the vortex I have to remember my priorities! I also have mouths to feed so can’t follow every artistic compulsion anymore…

Sascha’s Future Plans

I’m currently working on a follow up to a film I made ten years ago about some chaotic young people at a youth refuge in inner-city Sydney. It’s fascinating from a longitudinal perspective, reconnecting with people ten years later… many interesting stories are emerging that I could never have predicted! Once again, the old adage is true, truth will always be stranger than fiction!

Andrew Wilkin

Andrew Wilkin is the Client and Community Support Coordinator at FFL. His editorial background has involved working at unlike. His film experience has included a position at moviepilot. Reach him at andrew@filmfestivallife.com

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