Finding the comedy in grief: Aussie Rules film The Merger tackles rural racism

Based on his one-man show, Melbourne comic Damian Callinan's movie about a footy team in a rural backwater that drafts in some local asylum seekers isn't just about playing for laughs

Stage to screen: 'The Merger' started life as Callinan's award-winning one-man stage show

Hilary A White

You're comedian Damian Callinan. Your wry, character-driven riffs have gone down a storm in the immediacy of comedy clubs and festivals from Adelaide to Edinburgh. The Merger, your award-nominated one-man play about a small-town footy team that changes local attitudes to refugees, must crossover to the hush of the big screen with both dry Aussie wit and important message intact. Tough ask, right?

"Well, yeah," says Callinan, but he really means "well, no". "Jokes are very different on stage to on a film set. I'm a stand-up, but I'm a character comedian as well. It's very much a theatrical narrative, but it has a strong interactive element, in that I bring the audience into the world, they become players getting addressed by the coach at half-time. Everyone kept saying the show had a cinematic quality so we knew the structure could work."

Like previous works that the Melbourne man had performed, the stage version of The Merger was not just about playing for laughs. It was as much to do with how Callinan's writing could, as one Australian newspaper put it, turn the mood of the room on a dime. An easy trick to pull-off in the instant push and pull of a live audience. Less straightforward to measure surrounded by dozens of film crew and surly on-set catering.

But standing up and holding the attention of unruly types was not only something Callinan had years of practice at, it was in his very blood. Hailing from a big family of teachers, he was unsurprised to find himself choosing that career path before amateur drama, theatre and eventually stand-up led him astray.

His father, who passed away just before shooting commenced on The Merger and to whom the film is dedicated, was a school principal but also had a love of drama that was picked up on by his youngest son.

He attended an "artistically arid" Christian Brothers school where drama basically meant being flung a play and being told to learn it. Having become a teacher, he longed for a way to draw his burgeoning interest in am-dram into the fold. Callinan undertook a diploma in performing arts, and after a few years of "this and that", got sucked into Brazilian Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed. A sojourn into stand-up in 1997 revealed a particular knack for the medium, however.

Now bound for a Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival screening and a six-date whistle-stop tour of the land, The Merger not only deals with themes of racism, conservative white Australia and what author Tim Winton called the continent's "masculinity crisis", it depicts a rural community (the fictional Bodgy Creek) facing economic decline.

In this case, it is the recent closure of its local wood mill, the direct result of an environmental protest by the story's lead protagonist, Troy Carrington (played by Callinan). Carrington, a former Aussie Rules star now ostracised by the community, is prodded into coaching the local Bodgy Creek Roosters. Grumbles of contempt greet his plan to draft in a selection of local refugees from a range of nightmarish backgrounds to halt the team's last gasps. Thorny issues get smuggled in under chirpy antipodean joshing and a feel-good sports underdog yarn.

"The film bodies loved the heart and narrative," Callinan says, "but didn't always understand how comedy existed in a world of grief, but that's very much my style of writing. Not all stories are funny. Not all are dramatic. Even in the most profound moments of pathos in your life, comedy exists. Some didn't get it - why are you finishing that sad scene with a joke? Because I know it works. In a live show, you can go from sheer comedy to tragedy in a heartbeat but sometimes you have to tiptoe back more slowly. I found film to be similar, and I'm really glad I held my gaze with that."

It all began back in 2009. Regional Arts Victoria and Vic Health received funding to address the psychological and physiological impact of racism in regional areas, whether refugees or indigenous communities.

The arts seemed like the perfect medium to tackle the issue, and Callinan, whose previous play, Sportsman's Night, told of a footy club confronting "intractable cultures of violence in sporting clubs", seemed like the man to do it.

"I already had the characters," he explains, "so I went away and came up with projecting that footy club into the future. I also knew that if this show was going to be toured around the country into some harsh backwaters, it needed to be a Trojan Horse approach, that they had to identify with the footy club as being the main focus of the town."

The show hit the road to critical and audience acclaim in 2010 and Callinan was tinkering with a screen adaptation by 2013. That same year, director and close friends Mark Grentell jumped on board and things suddenly started happening at pace.

Lift the rug in rural Australia, Callinan confirms, and a level of casual racism looks back at you. It's not a knives-out resentment, more a playful, harrumphing, dismissive xenophobia (depicted here by Bull Barlow, the film's most interesting character and Bodgy Creek's growling silverback). But it is racism nonetheless, and Callinan had to find a way to hold a mirror up to this without overtly wagging a finger at it.

Ultimately, he concedes, rural audiences are taking what they like from the story, with some viewers praising the script's lack of political correctness just as others are cheering its "brilliant message".

"I guess that's where it works," he says. "People feel that they're getting a straight-up Australian comedy because they recognise themselves and the vernacular and the dryness. But at the same time, the character that a lot of those blokes identify with is Bull, who has the biggest journey in the film.

"The live shows are a harsher version of that - you can actually feel the audience not wanting to laugh at him because he's saying such horrendous things out loud. Often when I performed the play in the countryside, they were laughing at him too hard because he's saying the stuff they want to say.

"People don't come to comedy necessarily thinking they're going to get a message. I've always been cautious about what a piece of art can do to change thinking, but I'm at least happy that this film can work as well at a film festival next to a Polish drama as it can screened in a rural farming community."

'The Merger' will be screened at Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire (Feb 25); Droichead Arts Centre, Drogheda (26); Solstice Arts Centre, Navan (27), The Model, Sligo (28); Garter Lane Arts Centre, Waterford (Mar 1); Riverbank Arts Centre, Newbridge (Mar 2); VMDIFF screening, Omniplex Rathmines, Dublin (Mar 3). See