Francis Kamara and Damian Callinan in a scene from The Merger.
Francis Kamara and Damian Callinan in a scene from The Merger.

The Merger puts its best boot forward

The Merger may look like a footy film at first glance, but sport is simply the medium for this heart-warming tale of acceptance and redemption.

Damian Callinan is touching hearts and tickling funny bones in the 'dramedy', which is based on his stage comedy show about the fictional Bodgy Creek Football Club.

The film centres on former Aussie rules player Troy Carrington, who returns to his country town after an abrupt end to his sporting career and is persuaded to coach the hapless local footy team.

"Once I started doing the live show people said 'You should make a film out of that',” Callinan said.

"I started talking about the film at the end of 2012 and I knocked around a first draft for a while. I met Mark (Grentell, the director) after being in his debut film (Backyard Ashes) and he said 'I want to be involved too'. It was interesting going from a one-man show to literally hundreds of people involved. There was a sense of community, which is art imitating life.”

In The Merger, Bodgy Creek's footy club is in danger of being forced to merge with a nearby town when Troy suggests they reach out to the refugees settling in the area as part of a government resettlement program.

While the move is embraced by some, it's rejected by others including former footy coach Bull (John Howard).

"When I first wrote the play there was some stuff happening (with refugee resettlement in regional areas) in places like Biloela and Toowoomba, but now it's not just a fancy. The regions are ahead of the game in a lot of ways. These small communities are the ones making a difference,” he said.

"What we've tried to do with the film is allow the audience to be Bull and for those who don't agree with it to see that change as he gets to know them and their stories. I've always been very cautious that I'm not some crusader who's going to change the world's mind.

"John Howard said to me the other day that someone said to him 'Thank you, I actually considered how I think about it now'. I'm hoping we shift a few people to be more humane in their response.”

The film stars new and rising actors with immigrant and refugee backgrounds including Fayssal Bazzi, who plays star footy player Sayyid, Francis Kamara as Burundi chemist Didier and Sahil Saluja as construction manager Suresh. Other refugees also had non-speaking roles as extras and Manus Island detainee Farhad Rahmati contributed to the soundtrack.

"Fayssal is half Syrian. He arrived here as a small child and he speaks fluent Arabic. We're so lucky we got him,” Callinan said.

"This has been so life-changing for me, not just to be sitting in a room writing about it but meeting the people whose stories we're portraying. Francis, who's from Sierra Leone, is studying acting and this has changed his career. This film landed in his town and he's been travelling the country with us on the media junket. He's going to go places.

"Tony, our grip (technician), has worked on more than 50 films. He doesn't say much but when he does you listen and he said 'This is the happiest film I've ever been involved in'.”

The Merger is dedicated to Callinan's father Adrian, who passed away during pre-production.

"Dad was a school principal and he was an amateur actor, so he was my great inspiration really,” he said.

"He used to read literature to me at night as a kid. There's a lot of him in the film.”

The Merger is in cinemas now.

STARS: Damian Callinan, Kate Mulvany, John Howard, Fayssal Bazzi, Rafferty Grierson, Nick Cody.

DIRECTOR: Mark Grentell


REVIEWER'S LAST WORD: This feel-good film celebrates the uniting power of sport and benefits from the many years its star and writer spent honing the story on stages across the country.

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