Lee (voiced by Alycia Debnam-Carey) plays with her food at dinner while a radio broadcaster (Barry Eaton) describes a scene at the airport where Mrs Petrov (voiced by Inge Romantsova) is attempting to board a plane back to the Soviet Union. The dinner scene is interrupted by black–and-white news footage of the event taking place. The next morning we return to the family listening to the radio around the breakfast table where they hear that Mrs Petrov has now sought, and been granted, asylum in Australia.
Notes by Stephanie A Nemazee
The break in the family scene to reveal news footage that is taking place at the airport, but cannot be seen by Lee or her family, is a beautiful way to elaborate on the creative imagination of a child.
In the summer of 1954, Lee Whitmore (voiced as a child by Alycia Debnam-Carey and as an adult by Noni Hazlehurst) and her friends pass the time playing in a make-shift children’s swimming pool in the backyard and gazing out over the fence. The news is splattered with images of Mrs Petrov, the wife of a Russian secretary seeking asylum in Australia. So when a stranger mysteriously moves in with Lee’s elderly neighbour, her child’s imagination runs amok as she and her friends try to make sense of it all.
The Safe House is a true story of one of animator Lee Whitmore’s childhood experiences. Set in 1954, a young Lee recalls the summer when a great many strange goings-on occurred in the house next door. Years later, she would realise that the secretive strangers who had moved in with her neighbour were real-life participants in what was known as the ’Petrov Affair’. In her animation, Lee remembers these events much as she did when she was seven – games and mischief with friends are interspersed with serious adult conversations, television and radio broadcasts.
Whitmore’s animation is beautifully textured by her use of oils and pastels, similar to the technique of Russian animator and oil painter Alexandr Petrov (who made animated shorts The Mermaid, 1997 and The Old Man and the Sea, 1999). The quality of colour and light she achieves in conjunction with the organic movement of the paint creates a dreamlike sense of nostalgia which is appropriately reminiscent of childhood memories.
Whitmore is careful to make sure that the film is not only told from a child’s point of view as far as images, but also in sound. She often interrupts the important conversations, television and radio broadcasts on the soundtrack with children’s laughter, whining, singing and innocent questions.
The Safe House premiered in 2006 at Cartoons on the Bay, where it was a finalist in the International Showcase category. It aired on SBS on 20 January 2009. The film won Best Animation at the Sydney Film Festival and Australian Teachers of Media ATOM Awards.
Notes by Stephanie A Nemazee