AS Nick Cain was finishing co-writing the award-winning short film Before I Go, he became a father for the first time.
In the film, the 34-year-old Mayfield-based actor-producer stars as Luke, an outwardly happy young dad dealing with life pressures who has a stilted rapport with his father Frank, a farmer reeling from the layered effects of drought.
For Cain - who wrote Before I Go with fellow actor-producer Lauren Bailey, who stars in it as Luke's sister Megan - the film touched more than a few emotional nerves.
"When my daughter was born I came to ask myself, 'Right, what is the father I want to be to her? Do I want her to see me as an emotionally available father that shows that vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness?" he recalls. "Because for me vulnerability is like a superpower - you connect with people more, but that wasn't what I was told as a kid."
Before I Go is a fictional film that was inspired by events in Cain's childhood in Barham, population 1159, on the banks of the Murray River.
It was also inspired by his later life: when he found himself dealing with news of the loss of a mate to suicide, it came shortly after he had read the blog of a Barham primary school friend who was nine when her father took his own life.
"The blog wasn't a woe-is-me blog but a positive expression of what her father had taught her in the time had had been there and the positive role he played in her life," explains Cain.
"And it got me thinking about all the amazing times that didn't occur because of him committing suicide. I remember how it affected the community: he was the happy-go-lucky fella, always smiling, bringing people, and I call it the Robin Williams syndrome - smiling at the front but there's a lot going on behind."
Cain, whose acting credits include Home and Away and Neighbours, approached Bailey, with whom he runs the content production company The Act of Storytelling, and told her it was a topic they had to tackle.
It was early January, 2017, and the pair had just had their first short film, In Life Today, premier at Sydney's international film festival Flickerfest.
It took the next year for the duo to flesh out the characters and begin drafting a screenplay for Before I Go, a moving and often tense short film with an ultimately positive finale.
The film examines the relationship between veteran farmer Frank, his son Luke and daughter Megan, who is struggling to find the right way to keep the men talking, and her daughter Elsie.
The interlocking and conflicting messages of "boys don't cry" masculinity and the importance of family and community conversation set against a parched country town are powerful. Not to mention timely, after rural Australian communities were pushed to the brink by drought and bushfires over the recent festive period.
"Growing up in the country, I mean every footy, soccer or tennis club has that father-son relationship, and the film addresses generational change because [back then] it wasn't ok to show any emotion, and it is wonderful that is changing," Cain says.
"The different characters portray a different version of what not coping can look like. My character was the life of the party who could be aggressive and the more silent type was his father.
"The main thing was around the idea of starting a conversation and the fact that in rural communities the lack of communication is so big, and what permeates through is the idea that vulnerability is not ok ... people go into silos and aren't aware of what is going on with the other. The question is, how do we bring them together?"
Adds Bailey, who was raised in suburban Melbourne: "We worked together to flesh out the characters and continued to talk about the older generation and their stoicism and how that represents an element of depression in [grandfather] Frank, where the fieriness of Luke examines how anxiety affects us."
The decision to shoot Before I Go in Barham was not a difficult one to make.
"It was close to the bone, that's why we did it," Cain says. "It was very real to take it back to the community that inspired it and we were validated when we got back there - the groundswell of support was insane."
Online messages during a Pozible campaign that raised $16,000 towards the film's costs were raw, from the person who recalled her Pa's death to a GP who spoke of the impact of suicide in communities.
Travelling to Barham for pre-production, Cain and Bailey were struck by the impact of the loss of the father of Nick's childhood school friend.
"Everyone brought up references to him in their life ... everyone was very tied to that event, it was very present," says Lauren, adding that despite the film's rural setting, its themes of mental health can obviously be widely applied in a metropolitan setting.
Cain says that he and Bailey could identify traits of the film's characters in residents of Barham and Koondrook, the township across the bridge on the Murray River.
"It was amazing how you write things and go back to see this is real, raw and happening now," he says.
Shot in four days, Before I Go screened at Mexico's Oaxaca film festival before it won Best Actor and Best Screenplay at the Canberra Film Festival in September, 2019.
That month, Cain and Bailey scrambled to throw its premiere in Barham, an event that is seared into their memories.
"We started with low expectations, we thought we'd get a few there, then the local club decided to give us their venue and I'm glad they did because there were 400 people packed into the RSL hall," Cain says.
"I called it the Barham Logies - we gave them red carpet, a media wall, it was special, and the room was pretty electric."
Random footage of people speaking after the screening are telling - in one, a grandfather struggles for words, tears interrupting his thoughts on a film that touches on deep-seated attitudes and problems in rural Australia.
The Barham film event also served to inspire Cain and Bailey on another level.
As the two work around the clock to submit the film to international festivals so they can get their message out to global communities, they are also seeking sponsors to screen Before I Go across country Australia in conjunction with expert-led mental health workshops.
"Obviously it is a short film, it doesn't answer every question, but it starts conversation, and we want to use that as a way in to explore the way that communities and their people are talking about issues," Bailey says.
"We know if we can get funding and get it happening we want it screened in town halls and places that are more accessible for communities, and we can work with them to tailor it to each one."
With one sponsor on board and another in the wings, Cain says businesses and corporations who potentially come on board financially have a common interest in wellness of their staff and wider community.
The screening of the film also links to work being done by other organisations including Tomorrow Man and Got You For Life, not to mention veteran operators including Beyond Blue and RUOK.
"There's strength in us working together, coming at this with different angles - the film is focusing on mental health but it's fictional and it can affect you in other emotional ways," Bailey says.
"It's a focus on community and the impact of communities which is important."
Cain, who is soon to become a father for the second time, says he would love to see the film screened in Newcastle and is open to discussions with venue owners.
Having experienced periods of anxiety and depression in the past, Cain says revisiting the past has been cathartic.
"Things like this film start communities and individuals talking, it certainly makes me a bit more at peace with my experiences - and l hope it can do the same for others, which is one of the things great art is all about."
Bailey says the film "deepened and opened" her as a person.
"Everyone has experienced mental health, on their own or with someone who suffers, and in writing and shooting and post-production people were reaching out because of what we were talking about," she says.
"To speak about something you think is important to the world is a gift."
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