Two Sands: A story of Perth and South Sudan

Winning four WA Screen Culture Awards, this beautiful short film about belonging has a big impact.
Kook Manuer and Poppy

[Edited 7 December]

Two Sands, which has just won four WA Screen Culture Awards, is an extraordinary short film made by a group of WA filmmakers from migrant and refugee backgrounds. A simple but powerful tale, it follows a shy teenager (played by Garang John Deng) starting at a new school in Perth, flashing back to astory from his boyhood in South Sudan. In just a few minutes, the film manages to convey the alien nature of the flat sandy plains of Perth’s outer suburbia, the nurturing bonds of family and culture, as well as some hopeful new beginnings that emerge with shared storytelling.

Having already screening at numerous festivals (including St Kilda, Cleveland International Film Festival and Port Shorts in Queensland, where it won best film), Two Sands will next week screen at the Perth Festival (6-12 December), while simultaneously showing in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, where its co-writer Kook Manuer spent several years in a refugee camp before coming to Australia.

Co-written by Manuer and Perth-based artist and filmmaker Poppy van Oorde-Grainger (who also directs), Two Sands is based on a true story from Manuer’s childhood, as well as both writers’ shared experiences of being new arrivals in Perth. Van Oorde-Grainger came to Perth from the UK as a teenager, and although she may have blended in better as a white girl, she never forgot how lost she felt at the time.

Years later, when she was working at an Intensive English Centre with sixty newly arrived young people, van Oorde-Grainger met Manuer, who was one of her students. Talking to Screenhub she says, ‘During that time he told me an incredible true story from his childhood about getting lost in the wilderness in South Sudan. We made a short animation of the story together and I always thought it would make a great live action short, if we could afford to film in South Sudan!’

Five years later van Oorde-Grainer was working in France with refugees who were sleeping in the streets. ‘Kook’s story of being lost in the wilderness kept playing on my mind as I saw how many of those people in the street felt lost too. This gave birth to the idea of weaving flashbacks of Kook’s story of being lost into a film about feeling lost in a new country. When I got back to Australia I asked Kook, now in his 20s, if he’d like to make that film together.’

Kook Manuer is a writer and actor based in Perth, whose most recent acting role was in Molly and Cara, a short drama broadcast on SBS.

Read: DoP Katie Milwright on grit, gratitude and getting to the Pilbara

While making the sandy plains of Perth stand in for South Sudan locations may not sound too tricky on the face of it, van Oorde-Grainer says it was challenging to find and secure a field with long grass, only to discover it had been mown the day before filming, leaving about 10 square meters that could be used, only from a certain angle.

Produced by David Kucha and Lauren Brunswick, Two Sands was funded by $30K funding from Screenwest and Lotterywest, ‘and lots of in-kind support from the writing, directing and producing team and our project partners Aranmore Catholic College, Dianella Secondary College, Western Empire and South Sudanese Australia Traditional Wrestling Association.’

Securing enough funding was the most challenging part of the production, and van Oorde-Grainger says ‘we all put in a lot of volunteer hours’ and the support of Perth’s South Sudanese community was essential.

When she asked Manuer about the community’s support, he told her: ‘The reason other South Sudanese community people want to be involved is they see this film as the beginning. This is the first time, it’s a footstep for us. There’re more stories than this and all the stories the community has, they want them to be heard.’

‘The Sudan story in Two Sands came from my childhood, my roots. I’m excited to have the vision of what I went through in front of me on screen, so it will make me and other people from Sudan feel truly welcome in Australia. It’s something I survived and learnt from and I want to share with people.’

Kook Manuer, writer and actor

Van Oorde-Grainger says the thing that drives her is ‘social and environmental justice and a passion for making art’. She’s been collaborating with communities on art and film projects for 20 years, and recently set up a not-for-profit production company called Same Drum. Projects have been broadcast on Nickelodeon, SBS and ABC and presented at international festivals and galleries, including Galup for Perth Festival, Trashcatchers for London International Festival of Theatre and Mamu for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.

As for what’s next, van Oorde-Grainger says she’s currently working on a virtual reality film based on the Galup performance that she produced, directed and co-wrote for Perth Festival. ‘Galup is created by Noongar artist Ian Wilkes and myself with an oral history from Elder Doolann Leisha Eatts. And as for Kook, he wants to pursue more acting and writing work and is very focused on supporting the South Sudanese youth soccer team that he coaches.’

Manuer says (as quoted in the media release), ‘The Sudan story in Two Sands came from my childhood, my roots. I’m excited to have the vision of what I went through in front of me on screen, so it will make me and other people from Sudan feel truly welcome in Australia. It’s something I survived and learnt from and I want to share with people.’

Two Sands has won four WA Screen Culture Awards, presented by Revelation International Film Festival, in collaboration with the WA Screen Industry. These were for: Short Film, Outstanding Achievement in Performance, Outstanding Achievement in Production Design and Outstanding Achievement in Sound. 

Two Sands screens before Lingui, The Sacred Bonds at UWA Somerville as part of Lotterywest Films from 6-12 December.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram