Milena Bennett and Tiarnie Coupland on the set of Cactus

Milena Bennett and Cactus star Tiarnie Coupland. Photo: Supplied/Nixco

Director Milena Bennett on complicated friendships, women in film and...Barbenheimer

The Australian writer and director is on the rise with a new short film that beautifully captures friendship and connection.

In a world where there is so much happening around us, it’s easy to be misunderstood or to judge others too quickly. It’s these concepts that filmmaker Milena Bennett chooses to explore in her new short film, Cactus

Filmed in Sydney’s inner-west suburb of Marrickville, the movie follows the journey of twentysomething Grace (Tiarnie Coupland) and her elderly Portuguese neighbour, Mr Rodrigues (Antonio Goncalves), who instantly face friction and a mutual dislike for one another. Like many writers and directors, Bennett draws on her own lived experiences to develop much of her professional work, and Cactus is no different. 

Having previously lived in Marrickville for five years, Bennett recalls often seeing Mr Rodrigues out and about. While they clashed, perhaps due to age differences and varying outlooks on the world, it was one specific occasion that made her change how she viewed him. 

“I hadn't seen him for a few days,” Bennett tells Missing Perspectives. “He was very elderly and I was just wondering if he was alright, so I went to check on him. To my surprise, he was very shocked and very overjoyed that I had come see him – which was really nice.

“He invited me in for a drink and I kind of just reflected on how much I had judged him when I first met him.” 

Yes, first impressions can matter. But imagine how the world would be if no one embraced patience, compassion and second chances. 

Tiarnie Coupland and Antonio Goncalves in Cactus

Tiarnie Coupland and Antonio Goncalves in Cactus. Photo: Supplied/Nixco

Shot over four-and-a-half days, Cactus has made the film festival, Flickerfest’s screening list of ‘Best of Australian Shorts – 5’. It’s one of the pieces of work Bennett is most proud of, after eight years in the filmmaking biz that has seen some of her productions nominated at global film festivals. Telling stories through the female gaze is also always front of mind for Bennett. 

“I’m unsure as a woman how I would do anything else,” she explains. “I’m interested in the psychology of people and why they do the things they do and what is really going on underneath.

“In the history of cinema I find a lot of male-driven stories are often told through action and violence, and can portray women within a very one-sided and sexist point of view. If we have more stories from a female perspective as well as different cultural perspectives, we will be opened up to a wider range of experiences, and this will in turn only serve to open up our world view.” 

Speaking of storytelling that centres women’s voices and narratives, Bennett observes how the popularity of Barbie has been compared with Oppenheimer – both when they were released in cinemas on the same day, and now more recently during Hollywood awards season.  

“I think Hollywood and Australia are two very different film industries, but what they have in common is that women are still largely underrepresented. It’s wonderful that Barbie, a female-driven film, won awards, but alongside this was Oppenheimer, which won awards for telling a story about the invention of the atomic bomb?!” says Bennett. 

“I mean we are celebrating a story that is about dropping bombs on people. Not to mention we are celebrating a war film when currently thousands of people are dying in Palestine from carpet bombing. Has anything really changed? Just look at the ratio of male to female cast in that movie and so many others.” 

Bennett, who grew up in a family working in the film industry, has long witnessed the disparity between opportunities and recognition for commercial projects versus independent ones. It’s made her wonder how significant events like the Golden Globes, Emmys and Oscars really are, and who these events truly serve. 

“Barbie is a commercial enterprise, so of course the film will get noticed,” she says. “It would be wonderful to see more independent films by women being represented at the Golden Globes.  I do question how relevant award ceremonies like this still are.”  

As she continues forging her path in a highly competitive biz, one independent film at a time, Bennett is confident that viewers will appreciate how Cactus explores culture, community, belonging and of course, human connection. 

“I’d like the audience to take what they want from Cactus,” she says, "but I hope that the two central characters and their friendship resonates with people.” 

Cactus is screening at FlickerFest's ‘Best of Australian Shorts – 5’ on Monday, January 22 at 9pm.