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Down the Rabbit Hole: An Interview with Alena Lodkina

Down the Rabbit Hole: An Interview with Alena Lodkina

Critics Campus 2022 participant Andrew Fraser speaks to Petrol writer/director Alena Lodkina about creative synergies, cultural cringe and challenging audiences to watch films as co-creators.

“It’s very hard to say things clearly,” says Eva (Nathalie Morris, Bump), the aspiring filmmaker at the centre of writer/director Alena Lodkina’s Petrol. Eva stutters and struggles to describe to her tutor the concept for her student film – there’s no shape, only a feeling. She spends nights looking at her computer screen, focused on the individual pixels that make up an image. Entranced by the galaxy of colours they create, she is emboldened with creative possibility. It’s an image that others might only see as a jagged mess.

Petrol is formed by a fascination with detail. The film’s narrative is composed of many disparate threads, woven together by Lodkina into a dreamlike tableaux. “The film is about the process of making something,” she says, “and figuring out what art is, and what relationships are.”

The film is also about a young woman’s search for her identity. It’s about a friendship that becomes an obsession. It’s about the desire to see and be seen. It’s a contemporary riff on Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating. It’s about Melbourne’s social ecosystem, populated by the kind of people you’d inevitably run into on Smith Street, Freitag bag in hand.

While the film is not autobiographical, Lodkina does share many traits with Petrol’s protagonist. Both are Russian-born, Melbourne-based filmmakers, quietly observant and inquisitive about the communities they occupy. “I believe in remaining porous and open to the world,” Lodkina says. “You can’t be certain of what you see. You’re always looking for different perspectives.” She describes the character of Eva in a similar way: “She keeps trying to know something that she can’t.”

That something, or someone, is Mia (Hannah Lynch), an elusive performance artist with whom Eva becomes entranced, so much so that she decides to base her next film around Mia’s persona. The two women find a mutual benefit in one another: Eva has her muse, and Mia is seen by someone, validating what some may deem as narcissism.

Being a muse can be an overwhelming responsibility, and it is this tenuous dynamic that fascinates Lodkina. “The power is always shifting between Eva and Mia. If Eva is chasing her, Mia is always escaping her grasp and resisting her gaze.” The enigma of Mia may lead audiences to question whether she is even real or simply a creation of Eva’s to fulfil her desires, both on and off camera.


Lodkina found her own muses in Morris and Lynch. “[Morris] actually went for the role of Mia,” the director tells me, fully aware of the ironic parallels between the casting process and the film’s malleable sense of identity. “When I saw her, I just had a really good feeling about her right away.” After winning the role of Eva, it was Morris who suggested that Lynch play Mia, the pair having attended drama school together. “They already had a close friendship,” Lodkina says. “I loved that it became part of the film in an unspoken way.”

To help the actors prepare for their roles, Lodkina shared some of her own influences. “It’s not going to help my image of being pretentious,” she says through laughter, “but I asked Nathalie to read [Andrei] Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time,” the famed Russian director being an early influence on Lodkina herself. “I wanted her to get into the mind of a young student grappling with the greats and trying to find her own way.” Similarly, she instructed Lynch to read Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, a seminal 17th century religious text. “I wanted [Mia] to be a little bit out of this world.”

The out-of-this-world quality that Lodkina describes permeates the world of Petrol, and is an aesthetic and conceptual interest shared with all her collaborators, many of whom worked on her previous film Strange Colours (MIFF 2018). “Independent filmmaking has always been about breaking rules and boundaries,” Lodkina says of her creative team. “We all have a shared excitement to build something that is our own.” This esoteric style is intended to challenge viewers. “I really tried to build a narrative in an unusual way,” she explains. “I wanted to make a work where the audience can be co-creators.”

The audience in question has had a polarised response to Petrol, particularly in Melbourne. The film’s oblique style is atypical of mainstream Australian cinema and the film’s preoccupation with artists and their creative pursuits can leave some viewers cold. “It was really exciting to see the film evoke strong reactions,” says the director. “I know people have a barrier with films about filmmakers. And I knew that at the start of writing because people kind of warned me.”

Lodkina embraces the divided response. “I didn’t quite understand what it would mean to make a film like this in Australia today and what it meant for audiences,” she says. “But my hope is that the film will linger in people’s heads.” The filmmaker is well-acquainted with an audience’s desire to have films that accurately reflect their specific cultural milieu. She acknowledges that this is often outweighed by a national ‘cultural cringe’ that leads audiences to reject their own. It’s an enormous external pressure placed on the shoulders of young talents wanting to make work in Australia, and much of Petrol feels like Lodkina grappling with these conflicting feelings. There is an undeniable love for the Melbourne film community present in the film, particularly in its sumptuous visual grandeur. This might be the best the city has ever looked onscreen.

Petrol is an exciting indication of Lodkina’s continued willingness to go “down the rabbit hole”, as she describes it. “It’s easy to make up your mind and close yourself off,” she says, brimming with the passion you’d expect from one of Australia’s most exciting young filmmakers. “It’s tempting but I think that we have to work against that in life, as hard as that is.”

Petrol screened as part of the MIFF 70 program.
MIFF Critics Campus is presented by VicScreen and supported by the University of Melbourne. The Bright Horizons film competition is presented by VicScreen.

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