Still image from Australian film Just a Farmer.
Australian film Just a Farmer explores the challenges faced by a farming family after a tragedy. Image by HANDOUT/TEA VAN DE BURGT
  • agriculture

Farmer turns actor in film exploring bush mental health

Liv Casben February 3, 2024

Writing, producing and starring in a movie with no experience might sound like something out of a film script, but Leila McDougall is determined to raise awareness about farmer suicide after “losing too many people”.

The farmer, mother, teacher and event organiser can now add producer, writer and actor to her resume with the upcoming release of Just a Farmer.

McDougall plays Alison, who is left to manage an ailing farm and an alcoholic father-in-law after her husband’s death by his own hand.

Motivated by her parent’s own mental health battles and the struggles of friends, Victorian farmer McDougall wants to highlight the lack of support for those left behind after suicide.

“I really hope that this film makes a difference, I really hope that people will talk about suicide,” she said.

The 35-year-old began writing the feature film during the COVID-19 pandemic when lockdowns shut Mellow in the Yellow, an annual music event she organises to promote mental health.

“I thought, well, we can make a movie,” McDougall said.

“Once someone loses someone to suicide, there’s so much silence and there is little support.”

The McDougalls poured some $500,000 of their own money into the $1.7 million screen production.

Hurdles on the way included that she has dyslexia and had never acted or written a script.

“A lot of people will think, wow, you couldn’t even write a bloody paragraph at school, let alone write a whole film,” McDougall said.

From her seventh-generation farming husband Sean McDougall consulting on the set, to her six-year-old daughter Vivian playing the role of Alison’s daughter, Just a Farmer has been a passion project for the whole family.

The McDougall family during production of Just a Farmer.
 Novice actor and filmmaker Leila McDougall plays Alison in her own screen production Just a Farmer. Image by HANDOUT/TERRI-ANNE LEWIS 

The 90-minute movie was filmed on the family’s 1620-hectare sheep and cattle farm, and attracted established performers including actor and director Simon Lyndon.

“The making of the film is almost as interesting (as the movie), it was quite an adventure,” said Lyndon, who is known for acting roles in films such as Chopper and Blackrock.

“She hadn’t written a script before, sometimes I feel like Leila’s possessed by a hundred widows who has lost someone,” he said.

Hollywood superstar and Lyndon’s friend Hugh Jackman offered advice on the project and is thanked in the credits.

“He (Hugh) helped me with a couple of key choices which was so generous of him because his time is really tight,” Lyndon told AAP.

The film features first-time actors supported by more experienced and familiar faces.

Alison’s heavy drinking father-in-law is played by Robert Taylor, whose list of credits include the lead role in American TV crime drama Longmire.

Damian Walshe-Howling of Underbelly fame got involved when McDougall “blagged” her way into his advanced acting class.

“I just lied my way into his class,” she told AAP.

“Everyone asks, ‘How did you find these people?’ And I really do not know the answer.”

Authenticity was key for the novice filmmaker, with husband Sean wrangling the livestock while ensuring the farming storyline rang true.

Leila McDougall in a shearing shed for a scene of Just a Farmer.
 Leila McDougall wrote, produced and acted in the film Just a Farmer while living with dyslexia. Image by HANDOUT/TEA VAN DE BURGT 

With one Australian farmer taking their own life every ten days and people in rural populations twice as likely to die by their own hand, the film has been supported by farming groups.

“Anything that decreases the stigma and starts a conversation around mental health and personal wellbeing, can only be a good thing,” David Jochinke from National Farmers Federation said.

Just a Farmer premieres in Melbourne on March 14 and opens in cinemas the following week.

The filmmakers hope it will eventually get an international release, to help shine the light worldwide on mental health and the resilience of farming communities.