A toast to our coast
Director Shane McNeill and the Panics frontman Jae Laffer. Picture: Nic Ellis

It took some time to get Jae Laffer and Shane McNeil into the same room to make the ultimate Australian home movie.

Living in different States and confounded by busy schedules, The Panics singer-songwriter and the documentary filmmaker worked long distance for months on their musical and cinematic love letter to the Australian coast before finally getting together in a Perth editing suite last month.

Forging common connections to overcome the tyranny of geographic distance is one of the themes of Girt by Sea, the film based on archival clips and nostalgic amateur holiday Super 8 film footage submitted by the public.

The crowd-sourced coastal memories documentary will have its world premiere under the stars next month at the Perth International Arts Festival screening Coast, with the Panics playing their soundtrack live, before it is broadcast on the ABC.

Girt by Sea will feature about 100 clips spanning more than a century, some retrieved from the National Film and Sound Archive and the ABC, and others from boxes and bottom drawers in suburban spare rooms and back sheds around the country.

About 700 hours of raw footage have been cut to one hour and set to music by Laffer's ARIA Award-winning Perth band whose albums including Cruel Guards and Rain on the Humming Wire have been soundtracks to a decade of lost Australian summers and bittersweet antipodean road trips.

This spacious, open music speaks to a restless sense of location and makes the Panics perfectly matched to the mood of Girt by Sea, McNeil says.

"You listen to a Panics song and you feel you are actually somewhere and you feel a sense of travel through the music, not only lyrically but instrumentally, " he says. "I felt the music was very orchestral, very symphonic, which lends itself to scoring a film."

The project was inspired by a BBC program about the British coast, whose producer suggested the title for the Australian version.

"Girt by Sea has an ironic response which is familiar, Australian, " McNeil says. "Everyone knows it even if they don't know what 'girt' means. The title couldn't be used in connection with any other coast but in Australia."

The BBC film From the Sea to the Land Beyond followed a chronological development of the British coast from the invention of the camera in the 19th century. Girt by Sea follows the story of the Australian coast by bouncing around the country according to such themes as shipbuilding, industry, family, leisure, immigration and war.

The diversity of the island continent is reflected in scenes from the Great Australian Bight, the islands off the Northern Territory, Tasmania's coastal cliffs and the Great Barrier Reef.

"We were very conscious of representing all of Australia but we were very conscious of not doing it as a road trip around Australia because that would have been too predictable, " McNeil says.

"We have even got some early 1900s stuff from Perth, people with parasols at the beach at Cottesloe. We have got children in the 1920s. We have tried to sample archives from every State, " he says.

There is a recurring sense of buildings and fashion changing but the beach staying much the same. "The land is constant and we adapt to that rather than the other way around."

In many ways, beach culture has stayed consistent no matter what people are wearing. "Over 100 years men still show off to women, " McNeil laughs.

Laffer, whose recent solo album When the Iron Glows Red was inspired by a stint as a wharfie in Melbourne, appreciates the inclusion of footage of the industrial coastline in the film. Harbours, heavy industry and hard work help give shade and context to the leisurely lightness of surfing, beach cricket and picnics, Laffer says.

"It wouldn't work if you had just an hour of that, " he says. "There definitely is a sheen of hard work across the whole thing.

"There is a sense of building, whether it is building a population, building a culture or just building a place to live and exist. It's the juxtaposition between totally different scenes that seems to back the film.

"You get to compare over different decades the atmosphere at even the same beach - one from the turn of the century and then again half a century later. You see how much has changed over a relatively short time."

The Panics, who will ease their way into recording their fifth album this year, have had songs used on soundtracks to TV shows such as Ugly Betty and Underbelly but this is the first time they have created a fresh score for the screen.

Laffer says the music will be evocative and have a sense of wide open spaces without being overly dramatic.

"You just try to respect the people in the film and make sure you capture what you feel is beautiful to enhance the feeling for the viewer, without pushing them in any direction and without making it feel trivialised or dramatised, " he says.

"We are trying to bring out whatever magic as best we can."

Coast, featuring the film Girt by Sea with the score played live by the Panics, is at the Somerville Auditorium, UWA, on February 9 at 8pm. Girt by Sea screens on ABC1 on February 16 at 10.30pm. There is a free outdoor screening in Albany on March 1

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

Compare & Save

More from The West