The Merger

‘The Merger’ is a funny, heart-warming movie about the Bodgy Creek ‘Roosters,’ a failing footy club who decide to team up with some local Refugees and end up winning more than just a game.

The township of Bodgy Creek has seen better days: the population is dwindling, jobs are scarce & the litter has built up around the fading Tidy Town sign. The next victim of the town’s decline is the cash strapped Aussie Rules footy club.

Barely able to field a team, the club is reeling from the news that their clubrooms have been condemned due to asbestos contamination. A left field solution to their woes comes in the form of former football star Troy Carrington [Damian Callinan] Having fallen out with the community over leading protests that led to the closure of the local timber mill, Troy is living a hermit like existence on the towns fringe. However, he is coaxed into coaching after striking up an unlikely friendship with young Neil [Rafferty Grierson] who is struggling with the recent loss of his father. Teaming up with Neil’s mum Angie [Kate Mulvany], who is running a nearby refugee support centre, they conspire to recruit the new arrivals to save the team. However, the plan is not well received by Neil’s Grandad & Club President Bull Barlow [John Howard], who leads a concerted protest to undermine the refugee’s settlement.

For all Troy’s good intentions, his initial efforts to turn this rabble into a team seems to be faltering. Aside from the brilliant Sayyid, [Fayssal Bazzi] the team are going backwards & some of the players resent the newcomers. Slowly, the team begins to gel & the refugees assimilate into the community. Bull, having formed a friendship with his new neighbour Sayyid through shared grief, jumps on board the bandwagon as the Roosters head towards the finals. However, as a Grand Final win emerges as a possibility, Troy’s becomes myopic in his quest for redemption & loses sight of what has already been achieved It takes Angie to reveal that ‘The Merger’ has already worked.

Why do we need a film like ‘The Merger?’

With the world facing the worst humanitarian, refugee crisis since World War II, this film is timely. With its simple messages of empathy, respect and spirit of a fair-go, it places the larger global tragedy into the smaller context of the changing face of Australian rural life. The struggling footy team – who resound with the Aussie battler war-cry “keep doing it until you’re not sh*t” – is but a canvas upon which a new, more accepting culturally diverse Australia can be painted.

“When you bother to listen and learn from what our refugees have actually been through, wanting to turn them away isn’t an option,” said Damian Callinan.

The message of inclusivity in ‘The Merger’ isn’t just limited to the story on screen. The supporting cast includes many settled refugees; director of photography Tony Luu was born on the boat as his family fled Vietnam, and David Bridie’s film score includes many refugee musicians, including Farhad Bandesh, a Burundi ex-child soldier who has been a detainee on Manus Island for six years. Many refugees in Wagga became extras in the film, including Yazidi refugee Khato Izzeldin, who went above and beyond his role and was on set almost every day to help out where he could. He became one of the featured players in the Bodgy Creek Roosters, and even got a character name of his own choosing – Iraqi Kev.

Following the ongoing success of Callinan’s multi award nominated one man show of the same name, momentum built for it to be adapted into a screenplay. That dream became a reality after 5 years of hard toil when ‘The merger’ was invited to be the Gala Centrepiece at the 2018 Melbourne International Film Festival ahead of its Australian theatrical release in September.

Produced in union with Mark Grentell [Director] & Anne Robinson [producer] with whom Callinan worked on Marks debut feature ‘Backyard Ashes, the team received development and production funding from Create NSW & Screen Australia to bring the world of Bodgy Creek to the big screen.

Callinan co-produced wrote the cinema adaptation & plays the lead role of Troy Carrington, the coach of the regional Aussie Rules team, the Bodgy Creek Roosters. The film also stars John Howard, Kate Mulvany, Fayssal Bazzi, Nick Cody, Josh McConville, Aaron Gocs, Ben Knight, Penny Cook, Rafferty Grierson, Angus McLaren, Stephen Hunter, Sahil Saluja, Harry Tseng, Zenia Starr and Michelle Brasier

The film was shot on location in late 2017 in the Riverina in NSW in the townships of Wagga Wagga, Ganmain, Downside, Uranquinty & Yerong Creek. The film received additional funding from the City of Wagga as well as in kind support from the Lockhart & Coolomon Shires.

From the film’s initial selection as the Gala Centrepiece at the Melbourne International Film Festival, the movie has continued to be invited to Film festivals around the world. The high point undoubtedly was being selected by Dublin & Glasgow Film Festivals to not only be a featured film in the 2019 program, but to also be chosen as the Festivals touring film. The film production team were brought over to tour with the film in Ireland & Scotland with the assistance of the Australian Embassy in Ireland. Thus then led to Damian Callinan doing and Australian Embassy Tour of Europe travelling with the film.

2018 – Melbourne International Film Festival – Gala Centrepiece
2018 – Melbourne International Film Festival – Q&A Session
2018 – Melbourne International Film Festival – Travelling Showcase [Bright, Mansfield VIC]
2018 – Cinefest Oz [Busselton WA]
2018 – Cinema Showcase [Gold Coast, QLD]
2018 – Byron Bay Film Festival [NSW]
2018 – London Migration Film Festival [UK]
2018 – World Migration Film Festival [UK, Egypt, Canada, Cyprus, Nigeria, Indonesia, Romania, Thailand
2019 – Dublin International Film Festival
2019 – Dublin International Film Festival Tour – Navan [Co Meath] Drogheda [Co Louth] Newbridge [Co Kildare] Dun Laoughaire [Co Dublin] Sligo [Co Sligo] Waterford [Co Waterford]
2019 – Glasgow International Film Festival
2019 – Glasgow International Film Festival Tour – Edinburgh, Sterling, Inverness
2019 – Shetland Islands Film Festival [Scotland]
2019 – Socially Relevant Film Festival [New York, USA]

Even before its release, the film garnered attention after being shortlisted for the prestigious Cinefest Oz Prize, one the richest film awards in the world. The film has gone on to receive a swag of nominations and gongs in Australia and abroad at the AACTAS, Ozflix Independent Film Awards, Cinema Australia Awards, Socially Relevant Film Festival [USA], Screen Music Awards Australia and the Film Critics Circle Awards.

Best Film $2-$5m
Best Screenplay – Damian Callinan
Best Emerging Talent – Rafferty Grierson

Best Director – Mark Grentell
Best Production Design – Nicola Stillone
Best Editing – Christopher Mill
Best Actress – Kate Mulvany
Best Supporting Actor – Fayssal Bazzi
Best Costume Design – Andrew Infanti

Best Ensemble
Indie Flix Vision Award [including US distribution]

Audience Award

Cinefest Oz Prize Shortlist

Best Actress – Kate Mulvany
Best Supporting Actor – Fayssal Bazzi

Best Actress – Kate Mulvany

Best Soundtrack Album – David Bridie

Michael Gleeson – The Age 

With a weekend off from AFL football, appetites need to be satisfied. To the cinema we went. Football we watched.

Melbourne comedian Damian Callinan’s new film The Merger has been released and it is a beautiful story of football, community, politics and love.

These pages don’t normally stray into matters cinematic save for the deeds of Cyril, Buddy or Peter Daicos, but this film demands an exception.

The premise of the film is simple (and sadly familiar) – a small town’s footy club is dying and facing a merger.

The solution to not ending up with a slightly less crap team by merging two crap teams was to recruit migrants from the refugee support centre. Suffice to say in a small country town the plan didn’t meet with universal appeal. The ‘refos’ were less popular than umpires.

The process of converting the refugees to the game was slightly less difficult than converting the town to the refugees.

Callinan’s understated humour is as dry as a Salada, and he nails not only his lead role but his task of delivering a film that could have easily slipped into being mawkish.

After this year in politics, more so than the year in footy, it is essential viewing. It’s on limited release only so act sharpish.

Luke Buckmaster – The Guardian

In underdog sports movies the stakes are usually small. Pre-pubescent pipsqueaks and/or scruffy nogoodniks from the wrong side of the tracks might, for example, face off against bullies in the grand finale and prove their naysayers wrong – including the obligatory wicked coach on the opposing team.

From a certain point of view the stakes are also small in The Merger, director Mark Grentell’s modest but entertaining adaptation of comedian, playwright and actor Damian Callinan’s stage production of the same name. The team in focus, after all, is the local footy club in the tiny township of Bodgy Creek, where the biggest cultural event of the year is presumably the meat raffle.

But from another perspective the stakes are huge and politically symbolic. Reflecting the feeling that politics is everywhere these days, Grentell and Callinan transform the humble football club into a sort of ideological battleground. In one camp, compassionate progressives embrace a team with refugees in it; in the other, crusty xenophobics pine for the less inclusive “good old days”.

Callinan leads the cast as protagonist Troy Carrington, a former football star-cum-coach who revives the fortunes of the ailing local club by filling the team with recently resettled people, recruited through a nearby refugee support centre.

Despite his revered and (in this genre) cliched former life as a once-promising player, Troy’s name has become mud. The local mill has recently closed down, as in Simon Stone’s excellent 2015 drama The Daughter. The community sledge him for being a “town killer” after he spearheaded protests that led to its closure.

With the Bodgy Creek footy club devastated by an asbestos outbreak in the clubrooms, Troy pursues the aforementioned plan to put it back on track. This causes much indignation and a fist-shaking response from inveterate old crabs such as club president Bull Barlow (John Howard, who famously played the star recruit in Bruce Beresford’s 1980 classic The Club.

While the new team – including the talented Sayyid (Fayssal Bazzi) – bumbles and stumbles, Bull recruits other old fogies to picket their games and rally against progress. The film’s narrative structure unfolds, like Stephan Elliott’s rambunctious Swinging Safari, partly from the point of view of a wannabe child film-maker. This is Neil (Rafferty Grierson), whose mother, Angie (Kate Mulvany), and Troy strike up a romantic relationship.

The Merger is a step up from Grentell’s previous film, the 2013 suburban comedy Backyard Ashes, which also put sport (backyard cricket matches) in the foreground and grim corporate reality (downsizing at a local factory) in the background. Both films contain quintessentially Australian dialogue (“you’re a dead-set wanker!”) and view sport optimistically, as a platform for human connection that crosses class structures and cultures.

The performances in The Merger are typically sweet and headstrong, led by Callinan as the slightly bent straight man – an instigator who sits back and watches the carnage he created, rising to stoke the fire every now and again. In a more colourful role, a show-stealing John Howard, whose face has become increasingly animated and Grinch-like over time, delivers a funny and personable performance in the “bloke you love to hate” mould.

When the film switches gears from “fun” to “meaningful” (Grentell isn’t great at seamlessly combining both) it doesn’t so much move as lurch towards the serious stuff. As Paul Kelly’s Meet Me in the Middle of the Air plays over a montage of characters sitting by themselves looking glum, it is only one of a few tonally jarring shifts into bits of the script that appear to have had “drama” and “melancholia” marked on them in highlighter pen.

But for the most part The Merger is enjoyably quaint, with an easygoing vibe that might distract viewers from the considerable thoughtfulness in its writing and execution. In one key match sequence, instead of aspiring for anything remotely action-packed, Grentell amusingly goes the other way, having the Bodgy Creek players distract their opponents with friendly chit-chat – armed with research presented to them beforehand in the manner of a spy or heist film.

It’s not mountain-moving stuff, but nor is it devoid of care and consideration. The Merger is well made play-to-the-bleacher-seats entertainment.

Kendall Coombs – Film Blerg

There are a few Australian traditions which are at once unifying and divisive – small rituals which exclude some and divide us into “teams” and “others”. Sport is one such tradition which has immediately divisive signifiers. The word “footy” for instance can mean any one of three different codes in this country which instantly define which state or territory you come from, and depends on the colours of your scarf, which suburb or even socio-economic group you come from, and indeed your family background. But “footy”, whatever it means to you, can also bring people together and foster a sense of community. In these times of us vs. them with even the citizenships of our elected representatives up for debate, we need unity more than ever, and that’s where ‘The Merger’ comes in.

Based on comedian Damian Callinan’s successful one-man live show which told of his time playing regional football (in this context AFL), ‘The Merger’ tells the story of an outsider’s unusual plan to save his town’s failing football team by recruiting newly settled asylum seekers to fill the ranks. Covering topics such as bio-dynamic farming, regional refugee settlement, small town politics and xenophobia, ‘The Merger’ is not only a warm, funny, family friendly film about Australia’s favourite past time and it’s importance to life in a small town, but a timely tale of acceptance, sacrifice and unity.

Writer and star Damian Callinan plays ex-AFL great and town pariah Troy. He’s coaxed into helping the local footy team by rambunctious potty-mouthed Neil (Rafferty Grierson) a young boy in town whose gruff, racist grandfather Bull (a pitch-perfect performance from possibly typecast John Howard) is president of the club, and whose mother Angie (Kate Mulvany) is head of the refugee resettlement centre. A motley crew of small town types fill up the ranks of the team, but Sayyid (a standout performance from emerging star Fayssal Bazzi), recently released from detention after fleeing Syria, soon emerges as the team’s star.

Director Mark Grentell, whose previous film, ‘Backyard Ashes’ wove a similar story of personal issues playing out through sport, has directed an incredible cast of oddballs into a tight community. What ‘The Merger’ does particularly well is tackle heavy hitting issues such as the refugee crisis and Australia’s hard-line policies regarding asylum seekers, and deals with them with tenderness and understanding without being preachy. What the film ultimately shows us is how damn simple it is for us to accept one another, and what we stand to gain from understanding the experiences and struggles of others. Throughout the film Troy encourages his team to learn about one another, beyond the surface information and into the very essence of each individual, and as they start to embrace one another they become a team both on and off the field.

Most of the laughs in the film come from obvious sources, but it is the balance of substance and levity, which make the film an instant classic.

Glenn Dunks – Flicks

The Australian stage is so chock full of great stories that it is a constant oddity of the local film industry that so few of them are ever adapted into movies. I’m not exactly sure how comedian Damian Callinan’s one-man show could have possibly worked on stage considering the logistics of its sprawling character-focused story. It was, however, nominated for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s prestigious Barry Award and toured for six years, so far it be it for me to question that.

It has a natural home on the big screen in Mark Grentell’s (Backyard Ashes) feature. ‘The Merger’ received its world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival’s prestigious gala presentation and will be released across predominantly regional cinemas at the end of August.

Troy Carrington (Callinan) was a once promising Aussie Rules footballer who mangled his legs in a crepe paper banner and has lived his life as a pariah ever since. Living as a self-confessed hermit on the fringes of Bodgy Creek, where locals heckle him with “town killer” because of his part in the closing of the town’s mill, Troy is approached by a pre-teen wannabe documentary filmmaker, Neil (Rafferty Grierson), whose mother, Angie (Kate Mulvany), soon suggests that he takes over the reins of the community’s Bodgy Creek Roosters footy team.

On the verge of being merged due to a lack of money, talent, and venue, his promotion is met with resistance. But when his plan involves recruiting the local refugee and immigrant population, Troy faces an even harder battle.

Take just a cursory glance at that plot and you’re unlikely to be expecting grand twists and turns. But the appeal of ‘The Merger’s doesn’t lie there; rather in how it weaves topical themes throughout a thoroughly charming story of redemption for both Troy and the town. The stakes are moderate to say the least and the laughs are sweet, but it’s not often spoken about how refreshing it can be to watch something that places niceness and gentleness above all else.

Rooted in the sort of xenophobic rhetoric and lack of understanding that is pushing itself deeper and deeper into the Australian mainstream, ‘The Merger’ arrives at just the right time. As represented in the characters of one-time footy great Bull (John Howard) and the brutish trucker Carpet Burn (Angus McLaren), the changing face of Australian masculinity is portrayed as suitably out-dated and misguided.

Callinan’s screenplay matter-of-factly lays out his themes, having the immigrant and asylum seekers of Bodgy Creek educate the locals and humanise the struggles of living in war-torn regions of Syria and Burundi. The emotions unearthed by scenes highlighting the refugees’ similarities to their new neighbours are hardly subtle, but they are rooted in the lived in experiences of those it is representing and they work as an essential dramatic backbone to the comedy.

In many ways, ‘The Merger’ recalls Jeffrey Walker and Osamah Sami’s ‘muslim rom-com’ ‘Ali’s Wedding’. It’s a simple film, but blessedly free of many of the troubles that plague similar Australian comedies. The quirkiness has thankfully been dialled down (and at least isn’t as cringe-inducing as you may expect when it does appear), and it looks suitably sun-kissed from its Wagga Wagga filming locations. There is a charming natural quality to the fields of canola flowers, the wear-and-tear of the community footy oval, and especially in the performances of Callinan, Mulvany and Grierson.

Look, I’m not sure it knows the rules of AFL and it can’t entirely shake off the creakiness of its well-worn familiar plot that is as daggy as a sheep’s behind, but ‘The Merger’ offers exactly what it says on the tin, for feel-good entertainment with a message that speaks specifically to its Australian audience. And to top it all off, there’s even a solid Enya joke. You bloody ripper.