Ghosthunter is the must-see documentary at the Sydney Film Festival

Jason King is an imposing figure when we first lay eyes on him in the opening shots of Ben Lawrence's documentary Ghosthunter. A hulking man in security gear with a facial scar, he paces around a rain-lashed industrial stretch of Western Sydney eerily lit by the dancing glare of pokie machines.

The noir-ish setting, shot by cinematographer Hugh Miller and set to a creeping score by Rafael May, instils an air of menace amplified by King's more unusual occupation, a paranormal investigation outfit. And yet, from the outset, the documentary second-guesses our expectations.

Playing over this electrically charged opening, King's voicemail is disarmingly cheery as he asks spiritually troubled callers to leave their name and phone number after the beep. Always on the lookout for leads for his first feature documentary Lawrence, who also co-directed the ABC TV series Man Up about male mental health issues, was intrigued by King's story on reading about it in his local newspaper. "All I knew was that he was a 'ghosthunter', which in itself was interesting, but I also read that he had lost his brother some years before and had had a vision of his ghost," Lawrence says. "I'm not a believer, so I guess I was hoping to explain it away."

A forgotten childhood

A swirling ambiguity borne of King's inability to recall his childhood ensures Ghosthunter is haunted by several ghosts, not least of which is King's absentee father. When Lawrence first met King in September 2010, he was estranged from both his mother and his sister, who was removed from the family at an early stage.

With very little of his own memories to go on, King was convinced that finding his father would be the key to unlocking the bolted rooms in his mind. "My first impression was that he was very eager to tell his story, and I felt was that there was more to him, that he wasn't telling me everything," Lawrence says. "I don't want to give the impression that he was deceiving me, but there was certainly more to the story."

Early on, King showed Lawrence hospital records that revealed multiple incidences, including facial injuries when he was three, plus the unusual regularity of his family's relocations. "I was later to find out there was a lot of chronic neglect going on," Lawrence reveals.

Accompanying King and his ghost hunting team to supposedly haunted households, Lawrence witnessed the calming effect the big man had on distraught owners. "I was trying to dig deeper and find out what was going on for Jason's clients," Lawrence says. "Why were they scared in their own home? Why was Jason so determined to make them feel comfortable? When you start to see the childhood he had, and the number of homes in which he felt unsafe, there's an echo between those elements."

Ghosts of the past

Full of uncanny incidences, perhaps the most startling is the appearance of Cathy Quinlan, a former childhood friend of whom King has no memory, but who unlocks a dark secret about his father, projecting Ghosthunter into uncharted territory. "The duty of care became quite important to me as the stakes raised in terms of Jason's safety," Lawrence says of the film's shocking twists, but King was determined to know more. "In the best way I could, I went with him."

With Quinlan's contribution to King's unravelling history also fraught, Lawrence worked carefully with both of them to ensure they were comfortable with what the film reveals.

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By the time he made Man Up in 2016, Lawrence [whose father Ray Lawrence directed Aussie classics Lantana and Jindabyne] felt he had more tools to help King. He was better-equipped to unpack what they were discovering, "about how men communicate and the damaging effects of the mental health issues men face, but also how ideas of masculinity, and all those issues we explored in Man Up, tend to detract from our ability to cope."

Lawrence says he still talks to King on a weekly basis, and hopes that in some way, his strange and occasionally disturbing story will, much like Man Up, empower more men to face their ghosts. "There is a legacy of social impact around the film now that is going to be used in the child protection and policing sectors, and for me, and also for Cathy and Jason and the other survivors in the film, that's a really appealing aspect. It doesn't mean that those ghosts, or the trauma that they faced, cease now, but I hope that in telling their stories they can make some sense of the horrible things that happened to them."

Ghosthunter  is a centrepiece film at the Sydney Film Festival, June 6-17, Visit sff.org.au