Note to self: don’t underestimate young filmmakers or the ability for Pandas to display humanity.
What began as a low-budget internet trailer produced by a collective of young and ambitious filmmakers from Adelaide (under the name Epic Films), has become something of a phenomenon, gathering a huge online audience not only eager to see more but also willing to put their money where there mouth is to see it happen.
Wastelander Panda is the story of a mutant giant panda, the last of his kind, in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Paired with a yong girl and a mission to find his brother, the pair confront the horrors of the wasteland - the prejudice, violence and redemption of humanity. The title of the project (aside from being great textual alliteration) is a definitive example of what film scholar Howard Suber calls a Bisociation - the slamming together of two things that don’t belong to generate immediate cinematic and narrative possibilities. The result is, in every way, extra-ordinary - a storyworld of the foreign and the familiar colliding in a hero’s journey across a battered wasteland.
There’s a lot to love and admire in this project. Fresh ideas, ambition, deftly executed style and tone. But with big ideas come big challenges and even larger pitfalls. How do you avoid the audience laughing at a guy in a Panda suit? How do you make the viewer believe in the high stakes drama of a Mad Max Panda without descending into parody? How do you remain consistent with tone in a storyworld full of contradictions? How do you deliver an episodic narrative that is sustainable and satisfying; something more than a one-trick pony? Can this show honour and satisfy the conventions of the speculative-fiction, post-apocalyptic genre rather than failing - as so many have done before - because it was too busy trying to subvert the genre?
When I first saw Wastelander Panda i certainly loved what it was trying to do. But i feared for its failure, feared it could never satisfy or deliver on its promise. Considering the creators (Writer/Director Victoria Cocks, Producers Kirsty Stark and Ella Macintyre and DoP Vivyan Madigan) are still in the early stages of their careers I feared they were perhaps naive as to what they had in their hands, that their abilities could not carry through on the promise of their ideas.
And then i met them…
At a recent event hosted by the Adelaide Media Resource Centre on webseries development, the Wastelander Panda team spoke about their adventures making the project, their crowd-sourcing campaign, their audiences, their intentions, their Storyworld… They spoke with such clarity, specificity and energy that no one watching could help but be impressed. Speaking to them further it was clear that, depsite my concerns, they really do know what they hold in their hands - both its potential and its challenges. Young they may be but naive they are not.
Moreover i have rarely heard anyone speak about crowd-sourcing and social-media campaigning with the degree of insight that this team hold. Frankly, most ‘social media’ gurus spout little more than vacuous, ambiguous, un-specific generalities peppered with enough weasel words and jargon so as to dazzle the ignorant and unwary. But not the Wastelander Panda crew, they detailed their approach with specific, active processes and actions they took to identify, target and engage in a meaningful way with their audience. They wholly committed to their audience in a way that modern TV broadcasters will never understand. No vague assertions just grounded practice. If you are looking for real insight on how to build a functional and effective social media crowd funding campaign you would do well to engage the services of Epic Films as consultants.
So after meeting the ‘Pandas’ i thought it worth taking another good look at the Wastelander Panda Prologue Trailer. And what was clear upon this revisiting was that within the imagery and ideas was something that spoke to a much more sophisticated understand of why we watch, why we care and why genre films of this kind matter, how - at their best - they stand on the shoulders of giants (or Giant Pandas in this case).
The trailer is full of compelling imagery and engagingly lyrical narration. Yet these are not the things to make me ‘care’; to genuinely and emotionally connect with the story im absorbing. That’s a much bigger challenge and one made all the more difficult when the concept calls for me to ‘care’ about a guy in a panda suit.
In the trailer there’s a moment, a brief moment, that delivers on the promise of what Wastelander Panda can be. Trapped in circle of a leering mob, the Panda is threatened, backed into a corner with no where to run. He will have to fight but somehow we know he does not want to fight. A thug from the crowd charges at the Panda. The desire to avoid the fight gives way to the size, weight and power of the creature and a massive forearm smashes the man to the ground in a clash of drumbeats and screams.
This is NOT an Action moment as it would be in the hands of lesser filmmakers. Even from a trailer, this is a CHARACTER moment. And the difference is that which separates banality from brilliance, the insipid from the profound.
Any ideas of the passive fluffy wandering panda are dispelled when the power size and potential of violence coiled and concealed inside him is pushed to explode. The act of aggression is enveloped in conflict - not external physical conflict, but internal conflict as the Panda unwillingly unleashes his more base nature. It’s a moment when we Care, not because he’s in physical danger of being hurt but because we fear he may be pushed to loose his humanity. The great irony, not lost, of a mutant Panda being the embodiment of humanity in the face of humans who have lost theirs.
It seems what we have in the creators of Wastelander Panda are creative minds who understand Metaphor and Allegory, Character and Catharsis - qualities all too often lacking in scifi, horror and fantasy narratives. It fills me with hope that Wastelander Panda is not a one-trick pony or a part of the milieu of glossy Vimeo showreels that are a celebration of glitz over guts. With an impressive crowd-funded war chest and the investment backing of the South Australian Film Commission, I cant wait to see the next step in Wastelander Panda - a 3-part webseries. Stay tuned…