Somali-Australian writer and director Kulan Farah shoots short film Hakuumacaato on 35mm alongside cinematographer Daniel Tan – by Vanessa Abbott
Hakuumacaato is entirely based on a theoretical conversation that Somali-Australian writer and director Kulan Farah had with his Islamic father. “It was asking about his ideas on homosexuality and the response made me want to explore what or how our relationship could look like if I identified as LGBTIQ,” says Farah. “From there the character of Liban and Imran were born, fictional characters based loosely off my father and I, and thus the story of this film.”
In 2016, Farah had written and directed a short film called Seeker, a film set inside the Nauru offshore processing facility for refugees, off Papua New Guinea. “One of the darkest parts of this country we live in,” he says. “I had shot the film on super 16mm and fell in love with the process as well as the results.” Farah knew he had to shoot his projects for the foreseeable future on film. After they were able to raise adequate funding for the production, Farah along with cinematographer Daniel Tan knew the only way to authentically tell this story was to go all in and shoot it on 35mm.
“The decision came down to a few elements,” says Farah. “One being the mutual love for the films we grew up on. For people my age, most films we grew up on were shot on film, and a majority of those films on 35mm. The same goes for Tan who is older than me. We felt a certain nostalgic quality could help aid a story dealing with time, jumping back and forth between the 1990s in Somalia and modern day Melbourne, Australia.”
In terms of camera, Tan shot the film on an Aaton Penelope (2-perf) and an Arricam Lite (3-perf). “We knew that the aspect ratio of the film was going to be 2.39:1 based on the storyboards, so this was key in terms of picking what camera body we were going to use,” says Farah. Sometimes you just find a tool that works well for you and you run with it, that was the Penelope for Tan. It was lightweight which helped with all the fluid camera work which Tan pulled off by himself. “We had no problem using this beast of a body, and before I knew it Daniel was running-and-gunning with it despite the weight.”
The pair chose Zeiss Super Speeds MK II and Zeiss Ultra Primes based on aesthetic influences. “As the film was going to be jumping back and forth across multiple time periods, we knew we wanted a slightly more vintage look to the overall film,” explains Farah. “That instantly drew us back to the Zeiss superspeeds MKii’s for the majority of principle production.” They also used Zeiss CP2 lenses and Bausch & Lomb Super Baltars for selected sequences.
This opening desert sequence is the foundation of the entire film. Rough storyboards of the scene were the first thing Farah had brought to Tan even before a final script was written. “We spent two location scouts of the desert where Tan and I brought a 35mm stills camera and shot the entire sequence from start to finish to nail down our framing,” says Farah. Originally it was designed as one continuous shot but was eventually cut down in post-production. “It gave us the fluid, almost spiritual approach to the camera movement that we had hoped for, to most people’s surprise we didn’t use a Steadicam for any of those sequences. That’s all Tan’s operating with an Easyrig. The end result definitely puts you in the environment, especially on the big screen.”
In terms of finding frames within the interior locations, Farah and Tan first approached it by looking at a dinner conversation between father and son. “I knew that I wanted that scene to be a locked off wide and simply let the performance play out, almost like theatre,” says the director. “We used this frame as a reference and built outwards to decide the overall coverage and feel of every other interior scene within the house.”
From there, it was also a decision of what film stock and colour pallet evoked the right emotions. “We very much wanted this film to be immersive, so we made sure every location used its own ASA and colour pallet without making it look like a completely different film,” says Farah. “For this, I had to really put my directors hat on to make sure the supermarket and nightclub sequence didn’t feel like a completely different film compared to the desert and other interior sequences. I feel being consistent on camera movement and focal length helped immensely not to take the audience out of the story and sticking to a singular vision.”
The nightclub scene is where audiences witness Imran (played by Farah) get high on a dance floor with his partner. “We knew we wanted this to feel euphoric in elements but with a hint of melancholia due to the voiceover that was happening underneath from Imran’s father,” says Farah. “I wanted this scene to be shot entirely at 120fps, as this would immerse the audience and make them feel as though they are with my character in this circumstance. We shot the scene in a real, operating nightclub and hired a stack of background extras to be on the dance floor. A big part of it was using the available club strobe lighting that was built into the ceiling. We took it a step further by deciding we wanted blue and purple to be the two predominate colours of this sequence. It created quite a cool effect when at 120fps.”
In terms of coverage, Farah approached this film with a rigorous shortlist that he and Tan spent six months perfecting. The director then storyboarded the film, carefully choosing the colour pallet with his cinematographer. It was a very methodical approach within pre-production, but it gave the filmmakers freedom of being able to watch the film via storyboard before we filmed it.
There were of course other factors at play, for example this methodical approach in pre-production gave the filmmakers freedom to know what they could explore on set and if we needed to push or pull their shotlist. “There is a frame of the film that made the cut that I’m very proud of, which we got completely on the fly,” says Farah. “Within a montage sequence when we see Liban (played by Noray Neberay) praying in his lounge room as a voiceover of Imran talking is heard. We see a close up of Liban pointing directly into the lens. I saw the actor on set do this prayer, I asked him about it and it was essentially a point to Allah towards the end of the prayer. I knew we had to capture it, even if it never made the cut.”
The film was developed by Werner Winkleman at Neglab Sydney. “He’s the only one in the country I trust to develop my film and to my knowledge the only one who develops film at Kodak lab standards,” says Farah. “In terms of being involved in the photochemical process, the man has multiple decades of experience behind him, so it’s very much a send to him scenario and he does his magic. He’s developed all my projects over the years and he never misses. The man is a genius.”
Farah and Tan’s intention going into the grade was to work with colourist Nick Hower to bring to light as best we could what we had already filmed. “We tried to stay as faithful to our story as possible,” says Farah. “Hower had a lot of prior experience grading film to begin with, so it was an extremely easy and fun part of post-production.”
The director says he’s about 95% happy with the end result. “It took us three years from the writing process, through production and to post-production,” he says. “Only now, is the film starting to see the light of day within the festival circuit. I’m extremely happy and proud of Hakuumacaato, and I’d change very little about it!”
Kulan Farah is an Australian actor, writer and director known for ‘Shelter from the Storm’ (2019) and ‘If I Quit Now’ (2020).