A visual storyteller by descent

Melissa Anastasi talks about the prestigious Lexus Australia Short Film Fellowship she just received, and explains how her passion for storytelling is intimately connected with her Greek Cypriot heritage

Melissa Anastasi is among those selected for this year’s 2018 Lexus Australia Short Film Fellowship, the largest cash fellowship for short film nationwide, which recognises rising Australian talent and supports aspiring filmmakers to take their career to the next level.

Along with fellow recipients Sunday Emerson Gullifer, Jamieson Pearce, and duo Curtis Taylor and Nathan Mewett and their respective teams, Anastasi will receive a $50,000 grant to produce her short film Chlorine which will premiere at the 2019 Sydney Film Festival.

“It’s wonderful to be selected for this fellowship; both because it enables me to keep making films and doing what I am most passionate about, and because it is a great opportunity to develop a relationship with the Sydney Film Festival and with the industry at large,” she says adding that this platform is essential for the professional development of independent filmmakers.

“Opportunities to fund non-commercial work are becoming more and more rare, so fellowships that support filmmakers’ visions without interference are more vital than ever.”

The film project that won her the fellowship evolved as a standalone screenplay from her research on a feature film she is currently developing.

Chlorine tells the story of a young thief and her mother who live in a run-down housing estate, with the image of the main character having been drawn from the longer feature.

Anastasi describes it as “an exploration of blood ties, and the bond between family members under extremely difficult circumstances.”

The female characters are rich and complex and their stories intertwined with the themes of familial obligations, youthful recklessness and the desire for freedom.

“With this project I aim to capture the vulnerability and intensity of life lived at the fringes with sensitivity and empathy,” she adds.

(L-R): President of the Australian Directors’ Guild, Samantha Lang, Lexus Fellowship recipients Jamieson Pearce, Melissa Anastasi, Sunday Emerson Gullifer and Nathan Mewett, Sydney Film Festival Director Nashen Moodley and Jury Chair Marta Dusseldorp. Photo: sff.org.au

As part of the annual Sydney Film Festival, the Lexus Australia Short Film Fellowship involves a highly competitive process, with fellows selected by a jury of industry heavyweights.

Shortlisted candidates are asked to submit a detailed proposal for their project, as well as a selection from their previous work.

According to actress Marta Dusseldorp, who presided over this year’s selection process, all four finalists showed “a holistic understanding of their craft and vision.”

When asked about the elements that made her work stand out, Anastasi recalls her discussion with Dusseldorf at the announcement event, where the jury chair praised her project for possessing clarity of vision and purpose.

“She could see the precise choices being made for the work and believed in the strength of that vision. She also commented on the high standard of my previous work.”

Indeed, Anastasi is not a newcomer to the industry and has already received a series of accolades for her films.

During her studies at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS), she was awarded the EU Film Award and the Kenneth B Myer Scholarship for Exceptional Talent, while the two short films she produced there screened at over 20 international film festivals.

Anastasi credits this kind of exposure to a worldwide audience as a hallmark opportunity for her work to become known to funders and producers.

By this River had its Australian premiere at the Brisbane International Film Festival and in 2013 it won an Australian Directors Guild Award for Best Short Film.

In 2013, her film By this River, which won an Australian Directors’ Guild Award for Best Short Film, was screened at Cyprus Days International Film Festival in Cyprus and the following year at the Greek Australian Short Film Festival.

Her latest completed project Sleepwalking was produced with the support of an AFTRS fellowship, while most recently she has developed a number of feature film screenplays, among others Soft Rain and Bluebirds, with the latter having received support from both Screen Australia and Create NSW and shortlisted for the Sundance Film Lab.

Anastasi situates her interest as a filmmaker in the characters rather than an elaborate plot.

“I would describe my work as being driven by character and the power of cinematic language to enable audiences to get as close to a fictional character as possible.

“I often base my characters on different people I know – or a combination of different people, so that even in stories set in different social spheres, I find my way in by drawing on my observations of the people I have come across in my own life.”

Her style of work, she says, is personal, focusing on telling stories of “intimate relationships and the legacy family histories have on us as individuals”.

The impact of this legacy has also left its mark on her own professional path, she confesses.

“I believe that everything we do is connected to our family histories and where we have come from.”

Anastasi’s recently completed short film Sleepwalking was shot in the Snowy Mountain region of NSW. The drama tells the story of a young boy growing up in an isolated religious family, with his stepfather and sleepwalking mother.

Both Anastasi’s parents hail from Cyprus, her mother from Kyrenia (Agios Amvrosios), and her father from Famagusta (Kondea).

Over the last five years, she has been travelling to their homeland, conducting research for a film about the long lasting effects of the Turkish occupation and the fate of the missing.

“My mother has shared many stories with me over the years about our family history in both Cyprus and Smyrna (where her mother was from), and these often tragic stories have really shaped the way I approach storytelling, and the types of stories that I am drawn to.”

She describes her mother as a “visual storyteller” citing as an example the story she would tell of her father, Anastasi’s grandfather, being killed when she was still a child.

“Despite the number of times she has told this story, I am drawn back into it every time, I can almost feel it through the evocative details of image and sound,” she muses.

“This, as well as many other stories are things I carry with me as a storyteller myself.”

To keep updated with Melissa Anastasi’s ongoing projects visit her website melissaanastasi.com