The two-hander story of the last 24 hours in the break-down of a nine year old marriage. 

Renata (sic, according to David Stratton and others 'Renate') Simmons (Gosia Dobrowolska) suffers from agoraphobia, the irrational fear of open spaces, but is determined to leave her psychiatrist husband David Simmons (Sean Scully).

Renate begins packing her possessions, but as the day unfolds, it becomes clear that while she has initially presented as highly strung and inclined to neurosis, her husband is much more disturbed, and he begins to play mind games with her, playing tapes of her that he filmed during earlier, happier times in the marriage …

As Renate summons the strength to leave the family home and escape his controlling ways, David does everything he can to stop her, and the tension between the pair builds to a confronting physical and emotional climax …

(Note: the following synopsis contains spoilers):

Because it is extremely difficult to get hold of a copy of this film, whether on tape or as a digital release, this listing also turned to David Stratton’s synopsis of the two-hander drama in his 1990 survey of the 10BA years, The Avocado Plantation

It contains spoilers, but as the movie is for the moment very difficult to find, there’s not much to spoil:

Polish-born Renate (sic, elsewhere Renata) Simmons (Gosia Dobrowolska), who suffers from agoraphobia, lives in a waterside Sydney suburb with her psychiatric husband, David (Sean Scully), who drinks to excess.

The marriage is breaking up, and Renate plans to stay with a girlfriend, but David blackmails the friend (with whom he has had an affair) into refusing his wife accommodation.

Increasingly desperate, but unable to leave, Renate shuts herself in her bedroom while David obsessively watches old videos taken earlier in the marriage. He becomes violent, beats his wife and attacks her with a knife. Renate manages to escape to the garden (to find David has slaughtered her chickens) with her husband in pursuit. She attacks him with a pitchfork, and summons up the will to escape. David returns to the house and commits suicide.

The NFSA here offered this shorter version: 

Psychological thriller chronicling the final hours of a crumbling relationship. After nine years of marriage to her hard drinking psychiatrist husband David, Renata Simmons decides to leave him. Suffering from agoraphobia and with nowhere to go, Renata realises that David has psychologically manipulated her dependence, and gains strength to break free.


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Production Details

Production company: Jadee Productions presents; copyrighted to John Dingwall, though Jadee Productions is on the same final end title card, with full address.

Budget: $120,000, which is to say very low. (Dingwall’s friend Ken Newton put the budget at $110,000). According to David Stratton in The Avocado Plantation, after months of research and discussion, the screenplay was written in a week as a two hander, and writer/director John Dingwall mortgaged his home to raise the money (avoiding both 10BA and funding bodies).

Locations: Sydney. The principal location was the director’s north side Sydney home in Newport. If the film's tail credits are any guide, this was the home of Jadee Productions, 116 Crescent Road Newport NSW 2106.

Filmed: Principal photography began February 1988 (Cinema Papers, May 1989). It ran for three weeks. There was a week’s rehearsal and the small crew was relatively young and inexperienced.

Australian distributor: Jadee Productions/AFI

Theatrical release: The film began a brief run at the AFI’s Paddington cinema on Saturday, 6th October 1990

Video release: Murray’s Australian Film listed the film as not having been released on tape as of July 1993. It doesn’t seem to have been legally released on tape, or for digital home consumption at any time.

Rating: M

35mm      colour

Running time: 85 mins (Murray’s Australian Film, David Stratton’s The Avocado Plantation, NFSA); 87 mins (Screen Australia); 92 mins (Filmnews, October 1990)

Box office:

The film didn’t make it into the Film Victoria report on Australian domestic box office, but this is hardly surprising. It took years before the AFI summoned up the courage to give the film a very brief release in its Sydney cinema. While reviewers were inclined to be kind, the ‘last days’ sign went up almost immediately after the film’s premiere.

The film also didn’t travel internationally, and the result is, for all intents and purposes in relation to viewing, a lost film.

David Stratton noted its fate after a sympathetic retelling of the history of the production and a positive review in his 1990 survey of the 10BA years, The Avocado Plantation:

Given the disturbing qualities of the film, its almost total disappearance is cause for considerable regret. Amazingly, it received only one nomination at the AFI awards that year (Sean Scully for Best Actor, a category won by John Waters for Boulevard of Broken Dreams); Dobrowolska was completely overlooked, as were the script and direction of Dingwall. Some kind of award recognition might have helped the film to find distribution; it was clearly unsuited to a Hoyts-Village-GU style of release and, surprisingly, was rejected by Sydney’s usually progressive Dendy cinema. It screened at several overseas festivals, including London, where Sean Scully introduced the film; but on the whole it has sunk without trace.

Dingwall’s friend Ken Newton makes the bold claim that Phobia sold “for more than three times that amount (its budget of $110,000) in a single world market”, but if so, whoever bought it had the distinction of buying a show and then never releasing it.

That said, it did apparently turn up in much later times in the MGM library, and MGM has screened it a few times on its high def cable channel a few times, so somebody paid for it at some time. This doesn't prevent it from remaining an extremely rare and difficult movie to see. 

 

Opinion

Awards

John Dingwall received an award for best script at the 1991 Film Critics Circle of Australia awards.

Sean Scully shared the Best Actor award with Garry McDonald for Struck by Lightning at the same event. (Dingwall’s friend Ken Newton claims that the film was nominated in five categories while receiving these two wins).

Sean Scully was also nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a leading role in the 1988 AFI awards (John Waters won for Boulevard of Broken Dreams).

David Stratton was vociferous in his criticism of the AFI Awards for the failure to nominate Gosia Dobrowolska in the 'Best Actress' category.

Screen Australia provided this list of festival attendances for the film (here): 

But this list is immediately suspect.

The film might have visited the Cannes Film Festival in 1988, but it didn’t do so as part of the official competition. It didn’t even make it to the ‘out of competition’ or ‘special screenings’ section of the festival. 

It was part of the Cannes marketplace, where indies turn up to flog their product to the world. Draping a laurel wreath around this sort of participation is fraudulent.

Ditto the nonsense of laurel wreaths around the Australian Film Institute in 1989. This does a disservice to Sean Scully, who was nominated, but didn’t win Best Actor in 1988, not 1989. Ditto, the incorrectly dated Film Critics Circle, which wasn't a festival, but an awards event.

Check the AFI listings for its 1989 awards, here, and there’s no mention of Phobia, but why would there be? It had already been entered the previous year.

This immediately raises questions about other film festivals.

David Stratton in The Avocado Plantation does confirm that the film turned up at the London Film Festival in 1988, and Filmnews, September 1988 does record the film turning up at the Edinburgh Film Festival as part of a survey of Australian film which also included Haydn Keenan’s Pandemonium, Shame and the dramadoc Cane Toads (Trove here). 

But in the usual way of indie producers, it’s likely there’s a little gentle enhancement and polishing of the record going on. Whether government bodies should pander to this by publishing misleading information is another matter.


Availability

This is a film that not even the best and most dedicated collectors of Australian movie arcana have spotted in the wild.

It isn’t lost in the archival sense - the NFSA lists preservation materials here.  

And it has turned up in recent years - MGM screened it in certain territories on their HD channel, and Russian pirates obtained a copy.

The trouble with this version is that the Russians have dubbed the characters, in their usual way, with Russian voices speaking the parts. This is fine for Russian speakers, but as a result, an English-language version remains elusive and hard to access for anyone wanting to see it easily - and legally - in the comfort of their own home. 

What this says about the state of Australia's approach to its old films - where Russians are a more reliable source than local distributors - is a matter for discussion.

The initial availability problems arose because the film was never released on tape in the old VHS days, and so it has never been easily accessible.

It also hasn’t turned up on YouTube or on other sites, in the way that say other rare Australian films such as Prisoner of St Petersburg or Call Me Mr Brown have done. (YouTube here).

The best thing any devotee of Australian films could do is make the film available via the internet as a suitable object for studying anyone interested in writer John Dingwall’s fitful, sputtering career as a director (an email to this site would then be appreciated).

Dingwall was stubborn and wilful, and what he knew about production and distribution could be written on the head of a pin, and so Phobia was tossed in an agoraphobic cupboard, never to emerge and see light of day.

This writer dimly remembers it as overwrought and a little over-extended in the way of two handers, while showing the signs of a very modest budget.

But it attracted positive reviews on the time of its release, and it did try something different in terms of portraying male-female relationships in Australia movies, and it did boast a score by composer Ross Edwards, who became a major player on the classical music scene.

So it’s a shame that it seems to have disappeared so completely from sight after just a few decades. In the United States, it would at least have made it into the DVD two dollar bin ... but it’s clear that MGM really doesn’t give a toss about this bit of Australian film history, and the local industry has matched their disinterest. Will it turn up on OzFlix? Probably not anytime soon ...

 

1. David Stratton/SBS Movie Show interview:

David Stratton was enthusiastic about the show, and he contributed to the scant historical record about the film's production in a couple of ways.

Stratton did an interview with John Dingwall, Gosia Dobrowolska and Sean Scully for the SBS Movie Show (episode 29, aired 3rd October 199, available online here until 2030, may require registration).

In the interview, director John Dingwall confirmed he wrote the script very quickly, had only a week’s pre-production, three weeks to shoot it, and had four weeks in post-production, but adds he’d been thinking about the story for twenty years, “and it really concerned my observation of Australian relationships and marriages. Quite often it was the man who wanted to leave the relationship and the marriage … but it was him who fell apart when it happened.”

Gosia Dobrowolska adds she was involved from the very beginning of the treatment: “we sat down for six months, almost every Sunday, the group of people and talk about things what can happen …we pretend that we’re talking about the next door neighbours or the friends, that what happened to the married couple when they were splitting up ... and we were actually probably talking about our own lives …”

In the same interview, Dingwall notes there are only two people and the cat in the film, but the male lead had been difficult to cast.

Sean Scully was cast on the Thursday before the Monday start of the shoot - Dingwall knew him because he had played one of the shearers in Sunday Too Far Away, which Dingwall had scripted. He’d admired Scully's performance in that film, and says he had a lump in the throat watching Scully do his audition test for Phobia.

Dingwall told the actors that it was their house, so they should go out and pick out the furniture. Doborowlska, who is Polish, says she put a lot of little Polish references in the decor. The characters don’t talk about them, but they’re there to be seen.

Dingwall says it was very important to them that sympathy should flow from one to the other of the characters, “and I must say Gosia played a leading role in keeping an eye on this because she was concerned that Renata would look just selfish in wanting to leave, and we were concerned that he would just look you know a heavy husband, so right from the start a lot of our conversation was about this interplay of sympathy between the two characters and er we feel that we’ve pulled it off.” 

The interview ends with Doborowlska noting that the film, after all the talking, inevitably concludes with violence, and she and Scully joke about the difficulty of her wrestling with a tall, heavy man (Scully mutters about her being too light).

2. David Stratton/The Avocado Plantation:

David Stratton also contributed the historical record by writing up the film as part of his 1990 survey of the 10BA years, The Avocado Plantation.

John Dingwall was something of an eccentric outsider in the context of the mainstream Australian industry - some applied the word stubborn, others moved beyond ‘difficult’ - began scripting for TV cop show producer Crawfords, before establishing his name with the script for the classic Sunday Too Far Away, a movie which had resulted in many script-related and then post-production editing arguments (many arising from the SAFC’s CEO and produer Gil Brealey taking the film away from director Ken Hannam to arrive at the final cut).

Dingwall had difficulties with a subsequent foray into producing/writing, Buddies, and then had even less commercial success with his attempt at writing and directing, with the ultra-low budget Phobia. Dingwall also had difficulties with his later cop show, the 1993 FFC financed The Custodian, despite the presence of Anthony LaPaglia and Hugo Weaving.

No doubt partly due to Dingwall’s landmark work with Sunday, he attracted sympathy from critics, including David Stratton (Stratton also had a very soft spot for Gosia Dobrowolska), and so Stratton devoted a couple of pages to Phobia in his book:

… Phobia (1988) came about because, after the sometimes frustrating experiences of Sunday Too Far Away and Buddies … John Dingwall wanted to direct a film himself. He wanted to make it as simply as he could, and devised a treatment involving only two characters, a husband and wife, and one location, their house. He decided from the beginning that he wanted the wife to be played by Gosia Dobrowolska, having very much admired her work in Silver City.

‘I wasn’t troubled about her accent,’ he says. ‘We’re so bloody parochial here - we accept Michael Caine, with his cockney accent, playing an American in American films, but we’re so insular about casting actors with accents in our films. So I was happy to use Gosia, and I was able to use her Polish background as a further reason for her isolation in terms of the story.’

Dobrowolska was responsive to Dingwall’s plans for the film and, over the next three months, became involved in mapping out ides which would be eventually incorporated into the screenplay. Together with Paul Thompson (head of the writing workshop at the AFTRS), who was chosen to play the husband, Dingwall, Dobrowolska and producer John Mandelberg met over a series of Sunday afternoon script discussions. It was decided that the wife would suffer from agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) and the actress and writer visited psychiatrists to research the character. It was after one such visit, an unproductive and frustrating one, that Dobrowolska started to speculate what it would be like to be married to a psychiatrist: and suggested to Dingwall that this should be the husband’s profession.

After all this research and discussion, Dingwall wrote the basic screenplay in a week. Without attempting to raise money through 10BA, or the usual funding bodies, Dingwall mortgaged his Newport home (where the film was to be shot) to raise the tiny $120,000 budget for the film.

The crew were all fresh from the film school, and Mandelberg was to double as producer and editor. It was decided to have a three-week shoot, preceded by a week of rehearsals with the two actors and crew. But at the last moment Paul Thompson dropped out of the project, and Dingwall had to find a replacement actor.

With casting director Alison Barrett he started a frantic search; several possibilities were unavailable and on the Friday before rehearsals were due to start they still had not come up with an actor. At that point they decided to look through Showcast, the publication that lists all professional actors, and, under ’S’, saw Sean Scully. ‘We tested him, and he made us cry,’ says Dingwall. Scully was introduced to Dobrowolska next day, and rehearsals started two days later.

‘I had never directed anything before,’ says Dingwall, ‘and so the input of the actors was very important. I feel that a director is basically a mirror to the talent of the actors, but I wish I’d had more time and more money to use those actors even better.’ During February and early March 1988, the tiny cast and crew worked feverishly on what become a very emotional film.

‘It was very tough,’ says Dobrowolska. ‘But we were doing something we believed in. I was physically exhausted, but mentally invigorated.’ One of the problems was to balance audience sympathy between the two characters, and Scully’s emotional range was so great that Dobrowolska found herself having to fight for her character. ‘It was important that Renate didn’t seem to be too weak,’ she says.

The film was completed with incredible speed: two weeks after the final scenes were shot, a rough cut was screened for the cast and crew, and Phobia, complete with music score, was finished in time to screen in the market section of the Cannes festival six weeks later; the speed of production must, in itself, constitute something of a record …

Stratton then wrote a couple of positive pars as a review (see this site's 'opinion' section and recorded the film’s dismal distribution history - “… on the whole it has sunk without trace.” 

Dingwall had a deep suspicion of distributors but his reputation for being difficult didn’t help his cause, and even arthouse distributors steered away from picking the film up. It was left to the AFI to organise a short, token release in its Paddington cinema in Sydney, years after the film was finished.

Dingwall stayed loyal to Gosia Dobrowolska and cast her up against Anthony Lapaglia and Hugo Weaving in his tale of corrupt detectives, The Custodian. 

3. Paul LePetit/Sunday Telegraph:

A little oddly, after writing a very positive review, Paul LePetit in the Sunday Telegraph on 7th October 1990 interrupted the review to provide some insights into the production and to have a chat with Gosia Dobrowolska, the star of the show:

...Dingwall was totally committed to the project - he used his own house for the set, persuaded local furniture shop owner Robert Michael to be the film’s designer and thus provide the furniture needed for the interior shots and economised to frightening lengths to complete the movie.

Reaction

‘I slept in my own bed at night but had to be careful not to disturb anything because of the continuity,” he said.

And Dobrowolska enjoyed the experience - if not all the budgetary restrictions.

“We even had to borrow a bottle of French champagne for one scene,” she smiles. “I was tempted to ruin the scene by telling Sean that I would have a drink instead of refusing but …” The French champagne was returned intact.

Another dinner scene, crucial to the movie, was also crucial to Dingwall’s bankers whom he had persuaded to lend the production costs.

“We couldn’t redo the scene too often - we could only afford three legs of lamb,” he smiles.

And those automatic electronic gates which swing open at the touch of a button in the film - well, the button is still there but it never worked. Two small boys with ropes swung the gates open on cue for the camera.

For three weeks Dingwall, the actors and the crew worked intensive long hours, shooting the film in sequence to maintain the characters.

The post-production was also rapid. It took four weeks to cut, recut, dub, mix the music and effects. Dingwall fell asleep under the mixing desk and was woken just three hours before he had to fly to Cannes with the film. It was just completed.

It might have been one of the quickest and cheapest films shot in the past 40 years but it has already provoked a strong critical reaction.

A San Francisco critic listed it in his 10 best films ever. And the divine Dobrowolska’s performance is so strong as the emotionally abused wife that the film is being used in a women’s refuge in the United States.

For many television watches it will be a shock to see this powerful Polish-born actress in full flight: seen in two series of Fields Of Fire and more often as the girl in the Woman’s Day commercials (“I don’t read it myself,” she shrugs) Dobrowolska found the experience one of the most intense of her career.

It is perhaps one of the better examples of the new Australian filmmaking: directors and actors making films they want to do instead of wanting to make money.

Phobia is about first class acting - and a first class notion ...

4. John Dingwall tribute page:

Dingwall’s friend, Ken Newton, put up a tribute page to Dingwall, after having worked with him on the production Buddies (Newton wrote at a time when Buddies had yet to be released on DVD by Umbrella).

It remains worth a look because it provides a couple of samples of Dingwall’s writing, which can be found via the links on Newton's tribute page here.

Newton also sketched in Dingwall’s early career:

...John Dingwall was born in Rockhampton, Queensland. He began as a cadet journalist on "The Morning Bulletin" at a time when it ranked among the best provincial newspapers in the country.

After serving only half of a four year cadetship before receiving his grading, John moved to Tasmania as a parliamentary and general reporter in the Hobart office of "The Examiner", Launceston.

On "The Sydney Morning Herald", he was general reporter and police roundsman, covering stories interstate and overseas. It was his experience in police and court reporting that led him into drama, writing for Hector Crawford Productions (Homicide, Division 4, Matlock).

In television, he wrote for other commercial producers and the ABC, co-creating the ABC's first and multi-award winning mini series, Pig in a Poke.

In film, he has written four produced plays, including the story of his brother-in-law who was a gun shearer, under the title Sunday Too Far Away. This film is credited with launching the Australian film industry into the modern world market, being the first Australian film to compete in Directors Fortnight, Cannes.

For more, follow the link.

Variety published this more conventional short obituary on 28th May 2004, online here

Australian screenwriter, producer and director John Dingwall died of cancer in Murwillumbah, New South Wales on May 3. He was 63.

Born in Rockhampton, Queensland, Dingwall started as a newspaper writer. His experience in court and police reporting led to television drama writing, working extensively for prolific production house Crawford Prods.

Dingwall’s teleplay for the “Johnny Reb” episode of long-running police series “Homicide” won the 1970 Australian Writers’ Guild award.

His first feature screenplay, “Sunday Too Far Away,” based on his brother-in-law’s experiences as a sheep shearer, was produced in 1974. The Ken Hannam-directed feature was the first Australian film selected to compete in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes and one of the first Australian New Wave films to receive international distribution.

In 1977 Dingwall co-created and co-wrote the award-winning television series “Pig in a Poke,” and in 1983 he wrote the Australian Film Institute award-winning screenplay for the comic adventure “Buddies.”

Faced with distribution difficulties, Dingwall took a print and posters of “Buddies” on the road, touring it successfully around rural cinemas in Queensland. In 1988 he mortgaged his house and raised funds to make the psychodrama “Phobia,” which he wrote and directed.

In 1993 Dingwall was scribe and helmer of his final feature, “The Custodian,” a police corruption thriller.

Dingwall is survived by five children and his partner Dimitra Meleti.

5. Producer/editor John Mandelberg:

Producer John Mandelberg ended up a film academic in New Zealand, and had a public listing on LinkedIn here, which provided these career details:

Tutor in Moving Image, Wintec February 2003 – Present (14 years)


Teach film & Video technology: Editing, Camera, Lighting, Sound design & recording, directing drama and documentary, production planning.
History of Documentary film.

Programme Co-ordinator & Tutor, Moving Image Wintec, New Zealand 2003 – Present (14 years)


I teach Film making in the Undergraduate and Post Graduate programme in the School of Media Arts BMA at Waikato Institute of Technology, Hamilton, New Zealand

Editor/Director/Producer Sorena Productions 1992 – 2000 (8 years)
Produce and Direct "A Double Life" Documentary film about the celebrated Serbian born Australian writer B. Wongar.


Segment producer and director for TV travel series The Great Outdoors for Channel 7 and The Blue Planet for Channel 10.


Editor for The Great Outdoors and various other series.

Lecturer Editing Australian Film TV & Radio School 1983 – 1988 (5 years)

National Art School Graphic design Degree, Design and Applied Arts 1970 – 1973

St Ives High School, NSW, Australia School Certificate, High School/ Secondary Certificate Programs 1966 – 1969