Whitby-based filmmaker Sam Kelly may not be familiar to many film-goers, but with his latest short film he seems set to make a name for himself as one of the very best of New Zealand filmmakers. Lambs follows the tribulations of a young boy named Jimmy, and tackles weighty concerns of poverty, abuse and gang culture. Its realistic and gritty take on these issues has been met with international critical acclaim, and a place in the International Film Festival’s inaugural Short Film Competition.
One of the main reasons that Kelly wanted to make Lambs was that he saw a range of programmes for young offenders being run by “incredible people who sacrifice years of their lives… and yet the Government is doing very little to support them.” Despite growing up in Porirua as a child, Kelly admits he had little understanding of the “underclass” that exists within New Zealand society as “it wasn’t a world that I had much contact with.” In researching material for the film he attended a number of rehabilitative courses for youth in the wider Porirua area.
In particular he singles out a programme run by Paul Fong, where young offenders are taken into the bush and given skills that help highlight alternatives to their current pathway. Kelly described it as “an incredible experience. Going into the bush with these kids and hearing their stories of abuse was startling. It got me interested in telling a story about someone from that world.”
This focus on realism is characteristic of Kelly’s approach to filmmaking. He believes that a film should tell a story that is “emotionally satisfying and intellectually stimulating.” With Lambs he wanted to provoke his audience to consider how issues such as poverty and abuse could be so prevalent in a developed country such as New Zealand. He hopes that the film will create a “public mandate for these programmes”, and put pressure on governments to take action, rather than standing on the side-lines.
In casting the film Kelly decided to avoid using professional actors for a majority of the roles. Instead he cast ordinary children who were living within the communities he was depicting. He felt that the stars had to display a hard exterior but also be able to be emotionally open; dual qualities which are “not usually found in actors.” As a result Kelly found it exceedingly difficult to cast his lead, Jimmy.
“Many boys that we found were tough, but lacked the ability to be emotionally available”, Kelly explained. In the end it took four months to cast the film, with the only professional actor being used for the role of the teacher. “In many cases”, Kelly said “the best actors turned out to be people who had no interest in being in the film, simply because their characters wouldn’t want to either.”
After Lambs received a place in the prestigious Clermont Ferrand short film festival, Kelly is now looking to build on his success by developing a feature-length film in the same vein. Work on the script is already well underway, and he is beginning to assemble his crew. In fact he has been accepted into the Binger Film Lab in Amsterdam, after beating around 120 other filmmakers for a place in a four month writing course. “It’s an exciting opportunity and I can’t wait to get started.”
Lambs is showing as part of the International Film Festival’s inaugural Short Film competition. Screenings are on Wednesday 1 August and Thursday 2 August.