An Australian blindspot?

Solrun Hoaas

Does Australian documentary programming reflect the turning away from our region that characterizes the last 5-6 years?
A glance at the exceedingly amero- and euro-centric line-up of the last 2 Australian International Documentary Conferences in Adelaide in 1999 and Perth in 2001, as well as the recent touring Real: life on film documentary festival and the REVelation Festival in Perth would suggest this disturbing trend. It is as if our documentary programmers unwittingly have fallen in line with the direction followed by the Howard governemt.

Even more disturbingly, at a recent brainstorming session in Melbourne, there did not seem to be much recognition of the problem or interest on the part of the organizer of the next documentary conference in Byron Bay in 2003 to shift this exclusive focus on films made by North-American and European filmmakers. To invite people from other parts of the world is put in the too hard basket because they are seen to require special attention (They might need interpreters! ) or because most documentary makers in Australia have no interest in knowing how their numerous counterparts in Asia, Africa or Latin-America view their own societies and present their stories. Audiences for their films at the Melbourne and Sydney documentary conferences in l995 and l993, which made laudable efforts to include them, were embarrasingly low.

We seem to prefer and perpetuate the trend among many Western filmmakers to go in search of the extreme, the exotic and unusual, the ‘underbelly of Asia’, to satisfy a Western audience’s obsession with sex and gender issues. Asia is meant to remain ‘the other’ and satisfy our desires. These are the films that rate well in our festivals.

And what of SBS (which laudably screens more documentaries than any other channel) and its programming of works by documentary filmmakers from the Asia-Pacific region? They are virtually non-existent. The World Movie afficionados are catered to with feature films (dominated by Hong Kong movies and Japanese animation), but hardly ever a documentary from the point of view of people who live in the region. Surprisingly, SBS differs little from the commercial channels in assuming that we need to have the real world interpreted to us by Australian, North-American and European filmmakers.

Is it perhaps SBS’ eagerness in recent years to be recognized as a European arthouse channel that drives this programming policy? Or is a multicultural Australian audience assumed to be incapable of understanding other perspectives? For all the variety of faces on screen as presenters, newsreaders etc, the decisions on what we get to see have over the years rested largely with born-and-bred Aussies and people of predominantly Anglo background. One can’t help wondering if that is why they are so incapable of accepting documentary formats and aesthetics that have been influenced by non-Western cultures.

We’ve come a long way in recent years when it comes to recognizing an Aboriginal perspective through film. But documentaries on our own Asia-Pacific region are constantly filtered through the eyes and storytelling practices of Western filmmakers. (Migrant stories, too, are seldom told by people who have arrived here as adults and may have a different aesthetic and way of telling stories.)

A few years ago a series of half-hour films from the Asian region that allowed local filmmakers to tell their stories was hailed as a daring breakthrough. It was, however, produced, selected and packaged by Australian and British producers who were credited with the series. I asked the UK commissioning editor who attended the Adelaide AIDC conference if he would have programmed them had they come directly from filmmakers in Asia. His answer was, “Probably not.”

At the IDFA documentary conference in Amsterdam in l997, a forum was held to discuss a new fund to support Asian filmmakers, and some of the guests from the region had been invited. After listening to the patronizing attitudes of several European broadcasters, a well-known Indian filmmaker responded with disgust that rather than dispense charity, the best thing they could do would be to actually purchase and broadcast films that are already being made by Asian filmmakers.

Film festivals are concerned with bums on seats to survive. But we should expect that specialist events catering to a reasonably informed audience, such as the documentary conferences and Real: life on film, would see it as their responsibility to educate audiences and move us forward into an awareness of the world around us instead of falling into line with the deplorable trend set by the present government.

RealTime issue #50 Aug-Sept 2002 pg. 20

© Solrun Hoaas; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2002