Ivan Sen

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Ivan Sen
Born1972 (age 50–51)
Nambour, Queensland, Australia
Years active1995-present

Ivan Sen (born 1972) is an Indigenous Australian filmmaker. He is a director, screenwriter and cinematographer, as well as an editor, composer and sound designer. He is co-founder and director of Bunya Productions.

Early life[edit]

Ivan Sen was born in 1972[1] in Nambour, Queensland,[2] the second child of Donella and Duro Sen. His mother Donella belongs to the Gamilaroi nation of northern New South Wales, and Duro was born in Croatia to a German father and Hungarian mother.[1]

Before moving to Tamworth, New South Wales four years after Sen was born, in his mother's efforts to escape domestic violence, the family would regularly visit her birthplace, Toomelah. The Aboriginal community there was the last destination of three forced relocations of the Gamilaroi. Founded in 1937 by the New South Wales government, Toomelah turned from reserve into mission, but is also called a station, and has a history of precarious conditions and harming policies. Sen's mother herself was taken away at the age of fourteen to serve as cheap, forced labour at a remote farm.[1]

For eight years Sen lived in Tamworth with his mother and two siblings, in an area called Vegemite Village. The family still visited Toomelah occasionally, and Sen enjoyed popularity and friendship with all kinds of children, both black and white, rich and poor.[1] However, wanting to overcome the difficult reality of the neighbourhood, his mother moved the family to Inverell. There, Sen was intimidated by the conservative, more racially and socially segregated dynamic of the town. Sen remained a solitary and silent teenager.[2]

The change put Sen into contact with painting and photography.[2] His mother married a newspaper editor, who gave him an old camera and lessons on photography and film-processing. Soon Sen was working for a newspaper and later enrolled in a photography diploma course at Griffith University, Brisbane. He moved on to film school at the same university and, one year later, to the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney. There he developed views which were contrary to the classical model of filmmaking taught at the school.[1]


Sen went on to produce numerous short films throughout the late 1990s, including TV documentaries for SBS and the ABC.

During the 2000s he produced many documentaries, mostly for ABC Television. He worked with producer David Jowsey, who commissioned his first feature film, Beneath Clouds (released in 2002).[3][4] This semi-autobiographical[1] film was made with a mixed crew, including an Aboriginal director of photography, a white producer and several Indigenous secondary crew members. At the time, Sen and the white producer Teresa-Jane Hanson expressed their discontent with the limited availability of skilled Indigenous personnel.[5] The film, produced on a $2.5 million budget, won him global acclaim, screening at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and winning the Premiere First Movie Award at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival and the 2002 Best Director Award at the Australian Film Institute Awards.[6][7][8]

In 2005, his SBS documentary Yellow Fella was screened in the section Un Certain Regard at the Cannes International Film Festival.[9]

In 2009, the Message Sticks Indigenous Film Festival held at the Sydney Opera House saw the world premiere of Sen's Fire Talker, a documentary biopic about political activist, Aboriginal footballer, and statesman Charlie Perkins.[10]

In the same year, Sen and David Jowsey set up Bunya Productions, in order to produce their own films. They used the TV revenue from their earlier works to finance the production of his second feature-length film, Dreamland,[3][4][1] which screened at the 2010 Busan International Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival.[citation needed]

His third feature Toomelah (2011), received a prolonged standing ovation from the audience as it screened in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival. The actors were welcomed with celebrity status and Peter Robb described Daniel Connors, the leading 9-year-old non-professional actor as "[handling] the international media like a pro."[1]

Sen's fourth feature-length film Mystery Road premiered at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2013 and features many well-known Australian actors, including Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, and Jack Thompson. The film was shown at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.[11]

His fifth feature, Goldstone, a sequel to Mystery Road, opened the Sydney Film Festival in June 2016[12] and opened in cinemas on 7 July 2016.[13] It features actors Aaron Pedersen, Jacki Weaver, Alex Russell, David Gulpilil, David Wenham and Tom E. Lewis.[14]

In 2018, Sen acted as executive producer on the ABC TV production of Mystery Road, a six-part series based on characters featured in the movie of the same name and sequel.[citation needed]


Commentators often point to landscape, land and place as one of the most crucial groups of motif in Ivan Sen's films.[2] His distinctive portrayal of skies, roads and low horizons are Sen's way of addressing issues of location, dislocation and relocation in their relation to identity. According to Jane Mills, "as a descendant of the Gamilaroi people of northern New South Wales who were historically dislocated from their own land and forcibly relocated, Sen's films are undoubtedly intercultural, diasporic, and postcolonial and, as such, qualify as accented and intercultural cinema".[15]

The documentary Yellow Fella focuses on the Aboriginal actor and musician Tom E. Lewis, who starred in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Fred Schepisi, 1978). The character's "life was hauntedly close to [Lewis's] own: a young man of mixed heritage, struggling to find his place on the edge of two cultures".[16] Sen documents Lewis as he hits the road to search for his Welsh father's place of burial and, at the same time, a missing part of his own identity.[2]

Toomelah (2011), tells the story of Daniel, a 9-year-old Aboriginal boy living in the community where Sen's mother was born and grew up in. A hybrid of documentary and fiction follows Daniel as he roams around the "mish" trying to make sense of expectations of his family, his friends, and his own. Much of the script was based on notes Sen took of the inhabitants' own words, expressions, ideas and emotions, trying to translate the immobility from which Toomelah suffers—a place that has both lost touch with its roots and been forgotten by its founding state.[15]


In recognition to his contribution to the town of Winton in Central West Queensland where Mystery Road and Goldstone were filmed, Sen was honoured with a star on Winton's Walk of Fame during The Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival in 2016.[17]


Feature drama[edit]

Short drama[edit]

Short drama films include:[9]

  • 1999 – Dust – SBS Independent, NSW FTO.
  • 1998 – Wind – AFC, SBS Independent, ABC TV, NSW FTO.
  • 1997 – Journey – ABC, Festival of the Dreaming.
  • 1996 – Tears – AFC, SBS Independent, NSW FTO.
  • 1995 – Warm Strangers – AFTRS, ABC

TV documentaries[edit]

TV documentaries include:[9]

  • 2009 – Fire Talker, The life and times of Charles Perkins – ABC.
    A film about Aboriginal activist and statesman Charlie Perkins.
  • 2007 – Embassy Days – ABC
  • 2006 – A Sister's Love – ABC
    The documentary traces the disappearance of Lois Roberts, the family's uncertainty on her whereabouts, the finding of her body and details about the inquiry and police action.[18]
  • 2006 – Broken Borders – ABC
  • 2006 – Aunty Connie – ABC
  • 2005 – Shifting Shelter 3 – ABC
  • 2005 – Yellow Fella – SBS
  • 2003 – Who was Evelyn Orcher? – ABC
  • 2002 – The Dreamers – ABC
  • 2000 – Shifting Shelter 2 – ABC
  • 1998 – Vanish – ABC
  • 1995 – Shifting Shelter 1 – ABC


Year Award Category Film Result
1998 Cork International Film Festival Best International Short Film Tears Won
1999 Australian Film Institute Best Short Fiction Film Wind Nominated
2000 Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival International Competition Won
2002 Australian Film Institute Best Direction Beneath Clouds Won
Best Music Nominated
Best Screenplay Nominated
Berlin International Film Festival First Movie Award Won
Golden Berlin Bear Nominated
Film Critics Circle of Australia Awards Best Director Nominated
Best Music Nominated
IF Awards Best Direction Won
2005 Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard Yellow Fella Nominated
2011 Asia Pacific Screen Awards UNESCO Award Toomelah Won
Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard Nominated
Cinemanila International Film Festival International Competition Nominated
2012 AACTA Awards Byron Kennedy Award Won
2014 Best Direction Mystery Road Nominated
Best Original Screenplay Nominated
Best Editing Nominated
Australian Film Critics Association Awards Best Director Won
Best Screenplay Won
Best Cinematography Won
Film Critics Circle of Australia Awards Best Director Won
Best Script Nominated
Best Cinematographer Nominated
Best Editing Nominated
Best Music Nominated
2016 AACTA Awards Best Direction Goldstone Nominated
Best Original Screenplay Nominated
Best Editing Nominated
Australian Film Critics Association Awards Best Director Won
Best Screenplay Nominated
Best Cinematography Nominated
BFI London Film Festival Best Film Nominated
Film Critics Circle of Australia Awards Best Director Won
Best Script/Screenplay Won
Best Music Won
Best Cinematography Nominated
Best Editor Nominated
Sydney Film Festival Best Film Nominated
Toronto International Film Festival Platform Prize Nominated


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Robb, Peter (2011). "Dreamland: A journey through north-western NSW with Ivan Sen". The Monthly. Retrieved 26 September 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d e Verghis, Sharon (21 September 2013). "Outsider knowledge in Ivan Sen's Mystery Road". The Australian. Retrieved 3 April 2017.
  3. ^ a b Jowsey, David (22 October 2022). "The Year that Made Me: David Jowsey, 2011" (audio + text). ABC Radio National (Interview). Sunday Extra. Interviewed by Morrow, Julian. Retrieved 25 October 2022.
  4. ^ a b "Take Two: Ivan Sen and David Jowsey". IF Magazine. 20 June 2014. Retrieved 25 October 2022. This article first appeared in IF Magazine issue #156 (Dec-Jan).
  5. ^ Boland, Michaela (27 March 2001). "Australia: Black and White Issues has Gray Areas". Variety.
  6. ^ "Australasian Cinema: Beneath Clouds". Retrieved 25 August 2017.
  7. ^ "Creative Spirits – resources – Beneath Clouds". Retrieved 25 August 2017.
  8. ^ "National Museum of the American Indian: Beneath Clouds". Retrieved 25 August 2017.
  9. ^ a b c d e "Toomelah |". Toomelah. Archived from the original on 5 April 2017. Retrieved 4 April 2017.
  10. ^ "SBS Film—Spreading the message by Mary Colbert".
  11. ^ "Mystery Road". TIFF. Archived from the original on 20 August 2013. Retrieved 9 August 2013.
  12. ^ "Sydney Film Festival opens with world premiere 'Goldstone'". Retrieved 25 August 2017.
  13. ^ "Goldstone premieres in Queensland". AusFilm. 29 June 2016. Retrieved 18 November 2019.
  14. ^ "IMDB – Goldstone – cast and crew". IMDb. Retrieved 25 August 2017.
  15. ^ a b Mills, Jane (2011). "Bordering Activity in Ivan Sen's Film Toomelah (2011)". Screening the Past. 39.
  16. ^ "Yellow Fella (from the CAAMA Collection)". Ronin Films. Retrieved 2 August 2018.
  17. ^ "Winton walk of fame inductee". Queensland Country Life. Australian Community Media. 13 July 2016. Retrieved 2 July 2021.
  18. ^ "A Sister's Love (Film)". 21 December 2018.

Further reading[edit]

  • Lawson, Sylvia (2006). "Along the 'pot-holed track': meditations on mixed inheritance in recent work by Ivan Sen and Dennis Mcdermott". Aboriginal History. 30: 211–217.

External links[edit]