Contentious content, curtailed form

Dan Edwards

Tahir Cambis and Helen Newman filming Anthem (2004) in Afghanistan

Tahir Cambis and Helen Newman filming Anthem (2004) in Afghanistan

In an era when our feature films are frequently ignored by audiences and slammed by critics, documentaries represent the most active, stimulating and innovative sector of the contemporary Australian industry. Furthermore, local interest in documentaries has been steadily rising in line with a global trend. So what does documentary innovation represent in an Australian context? Apart from the rapidly growing field of Indigenous filmmaking, which demands special attention and will be covered in a forthcoming edition, the most prominent trend in recent local production has been the preponderance of films focusing on refugee experience and the wider political context of the ‘war on terror.’ These films have played a key role in exposing stories and alternative views excluded from mainstream media, while also revealing some of the key strengths and weaknesses of our documentary sector.

Refugee stories

There is a venerable tradition of Australian political documentaries, of which refugee stories have long been a part. The early 1990s saw Tom Zubrycki’s Homelands (1993), centred on an El Salvadorian couple living in Melbourne, and many lesser-known television documentaries such as Jeffrey James’ The Embraced (1993), about Chinese students seeking asylum in Australia, and Sally Ingleton’s The Isabellas (1995), focusing on the detention of Chinese ‘boat people’ by the Keating government. The list of contemporary films focusing on refugees and the broader socio-political context is long and many have been covered in RealTime: Fahimeh’s Story, Letters to Ali, Molly and Mobarak, Anthem and The President Versus David Hicks to name just a few. In an era in which the mass media operates on an hourly turnaround and even the biggest stories can disappear within days, these works have provided a broader perspective on the rapidly shifting political sands, while also keeping contentious issues in the spotlight.

Keeping governments on edge

The Australian Government has shown nervous displeasure on several occasions at documentary makers’ implicit questioning of government policy. In RT60 (p15) Tom Zubrycki related the attempts of Joint House leader Bob Wedgwood to ban a screening of Molly and Mobarak at Canberra’s Parliament House because, to quote Wedgwood: “this film promotes the theme of widespread opposition to government policy.” Nevertheless, Australian documentaries seem to have had little influence on our voting patterns.

A panel discussing the Time to Go John project at the Australian International Documentary Conference in February addressed exactly this issue. US filmmaker Robert Greenwald (director of Outfoxed) convincingly defended the importance of films that present an alternative view of current affairs. He argued that while no film will change the mind of a die-hard ideologue, documentaries can influence those who oppose government policy on principle but who lack the knowledge to construct an informed critique to back up their views. Additionally, these films play a role in building communities of resistance and change across national borders. Melbourne filmmaker Pip Starr supported Greenwald’s point with a story about footage he shot of the mass breakout from the notorious Woomera Detention Centre in March 2002. As well as forming the basis of Starr’s powerful verité short Through the Wire (2004), the footage later turned up in a documentary screened during a protest at a detention centre on the Slovenia-Hungarian border.

Formal limits

For all their politically tendentious content, however, comparatively few Australian documentaries push the formal boundaries in the manner of recent overseas films like Brian Hill’s ‘musical documentaries’ such as Drinking for England (RT63, p22), or the German film Edifice–VW in Dresden (RT61, p17), which analyses the construction and perception of space in a world dominated by corporations. The recent Festival of German Films featured the similarly innovative I Love You All, constructed around the writings of a former Stasi agent (East Germany’s secret police), detailing the agent’s long career and devotion to the East German state. The visuals comprise largely de-classified Stasi surveillance footage. Over 90 minutes, the film provided a fascinating insight into the psychology of state security apparatus without utilising any classical techniques of emotional identification. In contrast, almost all Australian films about refugees rely on identification with an individual caught in a situation of conflict and seeking particular goals (will Mobarak be able to stay in Australia and will he get together with Molly?).

Dennis O’Rourke’s films, notably The Good Woman of Bangkok (1991), foreground the authorial voice of the filmmaker to a degree unusual in Australian documentaries, although this is less evident in his recent Landmines–A Love Story (2005, RT66, p25). On the television front, John Safran has forged a kind of gonzo documentary style, placing his performative subjectivity and interaction with his subjects centre stage in series such as John Safran Vs God. In a more serious vein, the only recent local documentary which comes close to the stylistic audaciousness of films like Drinking for England, Edifice and I Love You All has been The Ister, described by Hamish Ford in RT64 (p23) as “the ultimate philosophical road movie.” Tracing a journey up the Danube through a series of lectures by Heidegger about Holderlin’s poem Der Ister, this remarkable film is the most un-Australian of documentaries: deeply philosophical, meditative and analytical in nature, with no central protagonist or principle conflict. In what would be considered an heretical statement by most local commissioning editors, directors David Barison and Daniel Ross describe the filmic medium as an “incredible tool for framing concepts, for telling abstract stories.”

While the The Ister doesn’t necessarily represent a model appropriate for films on Australian refugee experience, I wonder whether our singular focus on individuals means we are missing out on an important broader analysis of our current situation. The aforementioned I Love You All is part of a long history of innovative and disturbing European documentaries examining the psychology of repression while eschewing strategies of individual emotional identification. Alain Resnais’ chilling Night and Fog (1955), for example, remains one of the only Holocaust films that maintains a distance from individualised stories to convey the truly impersonal, bureaucratised horror of the Nazi genocide.

The problem?

So why are we not making more films that push the formal and thematic envelope? Back in RT57 (p16), then Commissioning Editor for SBSi Marie Thomas said of the documentary sector: “the industry is loosening its stays.” Thomas’ comment is ironic considering that the overwhelming message emanating from filmmakers on the pages of OnScreen over the past 2 years has been that broadcasters are the key factor limiting the scope of Australian documentaries.

Scott Millwood’s experiences are emblematic in this regard. His 1999 film Proximity documented an epic solo journey he undertook through Asia and Asia minor. This essayistic work is part travelogue and part meditative reflection on love, life, politics and death, inspired by the work of French filmmaker Chris Marker. SBS offered to purchase the film if Millwood cut scenes of a dead animal floating in a river and of a leprosy sufferer considered too confrontational for Australian viewers. The fact that these scenes represent the film’s thematic climax made no difference. Millwood refused, with the result that only a few festival aficionados have seen one of the most unusual and engrossing Australian films of recent times. Millwood had several other innovative projects rejected by funding bodies and broadcasters before making the poetic but relatively conventional Wildness in 2003 (RT60, p17). Millwood’s producer Michael McMahon commented in a RealTime interview last year: “There is a core of wonderful people who constitute a very real and vibrant documentary sector but there is that fundamental problem of having so few opportunities outside the broadcasters to actually push the form, the way stories are told and the stories that actually get told” (RT61, p15).

One of the central problems seems to be the reluctance of broadcasters and government funding bodies alike to back projects with unpredictable outcomes. At Macquarie University’s Nonconformists symposium last year, Australian filmmaker Kriv Stenders detailed the exploratory process he employed making Motherland, his evocative 1994 documentary about his Latvian grandmothers. With only a rough idea for a film at the outset, Stenders’ work constantly changed direction in response to his grandmother’s stories and Latvia’s unexpected liberation from Soviet rule during production. While SBS supported him throughout the process, he felt that such an approach would simply not be permitted today. At the same symposium Brian Hill claimed that he secured backing in the UK for all of his ‘musical documentaries’ with only the most rudimentary of ideas.

Admittedly Brian Hill had a proven track record before making his more experimental films, but so few local filmmakers get the opportunity to make more than one documentary it is almost impossible to build up a body of work, let alone develop a distinctive stylistic voice. One of the most striking things about looking over back issues of OnScreen is the number of first time documentary makers we’ve covered who have yet to make another film. Even if a few realise more than one project, the length of time between films is hardly conducive to building the kind of confident authorial voice that characterises the most memorable documentaries. It has been argued that digital technologies will free filmmakers from reliance on funding bodies and broadcasters, and it is significant that both Proximity and The Ister were shot on video without financial support. But without the involvement of broadcasters, the distribution of these films will always be limited.

SBS and the ABC are to be applauded for creating more prime-time slots for documentaries. If they can truly free up what can be done with the form, instead of creating half-baked imitations of Reality TV such as The Colony, then documentaries might become our most formally innovative, as well as thematically challenging films.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 17

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2005