A filmmaker's Brisbane: independence or not?

Danni Zuvela

Daniel Johns, The Greatest View, Silverchair video, Squareyed Film

Daniel Johns, The Greatest View, Silverchair video, Squareyed Film

“There’s a great sense of community in Brisbane, which is of course directly related to its size,” says Sarah-Jane Woulahan, one half of the successful production company Squareyed Films. Since scooping the pools at the all-important Queensland New Filmmaker Awards with Stanley Ovation PI, Woulahan and partner Sean Gilligan have embarked on innovative personal projects including activist documentaries and videoclips for the bands George and Silverchair. They’re passionate advocates of the positive aspects of Brisbane’s small-town mentality: “almost all the filmmakers here know each other and you can feel the community getting stronger and more independent and confident as the months go by.”

“Brisbane is a small place and it’s pretty easy to keep track of what everyone is up to, so there’s a sense of us all being in the same boat,” agrees Anthony Mullins, whose 6-part documentary series The Show recently screened on ABC TV and whose absurdist short STOP was the only Australian film at Cannes 2000. This sense of community, Mullins says, “might come from the fact that no one is opening Swiss bank accounts on the money they make in the independent drama/doco business here.”

Most emerging Brisbane film/video-makers cite the city’s low production and living costs as critical factors in their work. It’s hard to find a new filmmaker discussing the ‘paid professional’ side of the craft. On the contrary, many of Brisbane’s budding media makers are refugees from professional stints on the Gold Coast where ‘hired gun’ work is plentiful, if not always creatively or emotionally satisfying. Gilligan attributes the initial impetus to set up Squareyed to a stint on “US slave labour camps at the Movie World Studios, churning out mediocre fare…I just wasn’t satisfied with being a cog in the machine.”

Others share this ideology of choosing to remain on the margins of industrial production, in exchange for creative freedom and practice. “It’s really important for me to be doing what I love,” says Tina Blakeney, award-winning experimental filmmaker and multimedia artist, “and that means honouring my creativity, doing the projects that stimulate and challenge me artistically…If that means working 3 jobs, working nights to produce something the funding bodies don’t like or don’t think will sell, well, stiff shit—I’ll find a way.”

Historically, this romantic sense of antagonism toward institutional film bodies tends to characterise self-conscious independent production and it’s particularly pronounced in Brisbane where, despite a burgeoning state-funded sector, much innovative and diverse production emerges from outside institutional boundaries.

Squareyed warn against the ‘culture of dependence’ that inevitably results from “filmmakers who are taught to construct stories that suit defined funding guidelines”, rather than pursue unique personal visions. They’re critical of the creative vacuum that they see resulting from too many Queensland filmmakers going through the ‘sausage machine’: “the filmmaker constructs their personal tale in order to be successful and in the process creates something that is untrue and unrepresentative of them as an artist.” Squareyed particularly rail against the way that strings-attached funding often disempowers individual filmmakers.

They describe a disturbing picture of interference with funded productions, the installation of interstate and foreign ‘professional’ talent at the expense of local filmmakers learning their craft, interventions with stories including last-minute script changes and consequently, creatively bankrupt, hollow productions and makers. “What has been left by the wayside is creative collaboration and instinct, experimentation, initiative, learning through mistakes, trust, responsibility—everything that is important to the filmmaking process.”

That wayside detritus finds a natural home in the independent sector where the rejection of hegemonies is not only standard operational procedure but the motor for experimentation and innovation. Brisbane’s thriving independent media culture, facilitated by activist and grassroots organisations like indymedia, active.org and ecojammer, is witnessing an explosion of creative collaborations: happenings, installations, talks, screenings and events. The legacy of systemic repression, Brisbane media makers’ unapologetically anarchic, anti-institutional approach has led to powerful cross-fertilisations of talent and ideas; recent examples include the popular multimedia arts festival Straight out of Brisbane. Successful experimental screen nights featuring works such as Pixel Soup by Sean Healy and Jesse Sullivan and Brat Jam, a video zine by Jesse Sullivan and Thea Baumann, show that Brisbane audiences are hungry for original, challenging local fare.

Not all the up and coming Queensland film talent insists on self-marginalisation. Many new Queensland filmmakers have benefited from institutional support, including Anthony Mullins, who credits Pacific Film and Television Commission project support for his start in filmmaking, and teaching opportunities at Griffith University for enabling his continued development. The romantic image of the lone artist up against the establishment isn’t applicable to other emerging talents, like the Spierig brothers, whose career has benefited from institutional and industrial assistance; specifically, mentorship from commercial production elder Dick Marks. After many successful shorts and commercials, the brothers have embarked on their most ambitious venture: the self-funded zombie-genre feature Undead, for which they are currently in the process of securing international distribution.

Particularly in a town as interconnected as Brisbane, there are plenty of bruised ego stories. However, many argue that the operation, character and mood of film production here is what contributes to the success of Brisbane’s emerging filmmakers. Independent writer/director Stuart Mannion, another key figure in Brisbane music clip production, says “Brisbane sets are close-knit affairs—a lot of people are happy to work for free or in return for you helping them out, most people multiskill and there’s a real sense of the network, of working together, that isn’t as obvious in the bigger cities.” Squareyed have benefited from “extraordinary support” from industry partners who have “continually backed our projects, supporting high risk ventures” scorned by funding bodies, such as the successful The Irving Hand Prophecy.

Despite the opposition to “organisations whose priority is favourable press for politicians and giving grants to mediocre American producers who see our state like a Mexican backlot,” many new Queensland film/video makers are reaping benefits from relations with funding bodies. Others are carving out niches in the independent world, however all benefit from the tight, powerful networks of this small town. Woulahan and Gilligan are unrepentant about their decision to pursue personally challenging projects over profits: “Safety pays well but destroys the soul. We’d rather do what we do our way and be a part of strengthening and developing our community, to help Brisbane become known as Australia’s capital for independent filmmakers—filmmakers who are working for the love and progression of their art rather than searching for the next dollar.”

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 14

© Danni Zuvela; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2002
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