The Canberra International Film Festival has always provided an opportunity for film lovers to see films not usually available to watch on Canberra cinema screens. The Hungarian dark comedy Kills on Wheels was no exception – a foreign film that gels so superbly to our own Australian sensibilities and a most needed focus on ability that too often gets ignored or mishandled in modern cinema.
The programming of the night was pitched perfectly by festival organisers. Canberra produced short film With Little Hope was the pre-film entertainment and set the tone of the night.
With Little Hope was written by Australian Bronze Medal winning paralympian Louise Ellery and directed by multi-award winning filmmaker Hew Sandison, from a story that is inspired by Ellery’s own amazing life story that came from a car accident in 1998, that resulted in a traumatic brain injury. The film is set during the slightly fictionalised period of her life while she was recovering from the accident. Ellery writes herself into lead character Suzanne (played by Kat Bramston) who is being helped through recovery by the very positive-minded nurse Amanda (played by Nicole Powell). Amanda’s belief in Suzanne never wavers, even when Suzanne becomes angry and annoyed with the way others have come to treat her disability. However, the heart of the story is very much about ability and what one can achieve despite the odds.
As a precursor to the main feature, With Little Hope is a heart warming emotionally charged script that is benefited by an exceptional performance of lead Kat Bramston and gorgeous cinematography by DoP Adam Lynch.
While Kills on Wheels may at first glance feel like a shift from the heart warming overtures left by With Little Hope, the two films are a perfect match for each other. It is quite easy to dismiss Atilla Tills’ gangster film featuring hit men in wheelchairs as a gimmicked plot device. The opening scene feels almost surreal with a prison riot exclusively involving inmates in wheelchairs and hit man Rupaszov doing chin ups while tied to his heavy chair. Yet the real charm begins when we meet disabled best friends, Zolika and Barba, who are teenagers. Both strive for more in their life and feel trapped by their disabilities. They know they are worth more than people let them believe, particularly for the artwork they are working on for their own comic book, which they hope to get published. Zolika needs expensive, life saving surgery and refuses to let his father who abandoned him pay for it. Barba just wants a girl to notice him. When their lives cross paths with Rupaszov, they embark together on a mission to eliminate a ruthless gangster’s opposition.
The English title of the film doesn’t really capture what this film is about, with the translation of the Hungarian title drawing a stronger theme – Tiszta Szívvel meaning Pure Heart. Rupaszov may be a shady, murderous criminal, but the positive, almost fatherly impact he has on Zolika and Barba completely strengthens their confidence and self-worth in such a way that shows his pure heart. Both Zolika and Barba are played by actors who live with disabilities, as do many of the extras, allowing for a genuine story that evolves to a really satisfying twist ending. The comic book images that interlude throughout the film are no accident, as these anti-heroes work to eliminate violent gangsters.
While Director Atilla Tills threatens to bring a sense of cliché to the film’s second act with familiar and perhaps overdone crime plot points, the comedy doesn’t ever look to ridicule disability and resonates very much to the Australian sensibility of mateship and having a bit of a dig at each other. A notable comedic moment highlights how much longer it takes for those in a wheelchair to get in and out of a car during a post hit getaway, particularly with the distance sirens of the cops rushing to scene.
Kills on Wheels was an excellent programming choice by the CIFF and an enjoyable, emotional, funny, sometimes dark film about disability, shrouded by a violent hit man comic book style story.