endangered species: the auteur documentarian

kath dooley: 2012 australian international documentary conference

Killing Anna, Paul Gallasch

Killing Anna, Paul Gallasch

“WHERE ARE THE BOB CONNOLLYS, THE TOM ZUBRYCKIS, THE DENIS O’ROURKES OF THIS GENERATION?” THIS WAS A QUESTION THAT EMERGING DIRECTOR/PRODUCER JENNIFER PEEDOM DEEMED “ALARMING,” WHEN SPEAKING ON THE “DEFINING DOCUMENTARY” PANEL AT THE 2012 AUSTRALIAN INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY CONFERENCE.

Minutes earlier, despairing veteran director Bob Connolly had taken aim at what he considered the elephant in the room: “that increasing non-person (at the conference), the auteur.” Asked to comment on a legal stoush between production company Essential Media and Screen Australia, one driven by questions concerning eligibility for producer offset funds for documentary, Connolly expressed his dismay that such discussions concerning documentary form were driven by financial rather than artistic imperatives. Peedom went on to describe her forced existence as ‘gun for hire,’ rather than independent filmmaker, evidence of what Connolly described as a shift away from independent voices in favour of agencies and broadcasters contracting with corporate entities.

“Defining Documentary” was one of several panel discussions running alongside keynote addresses in which a variety of national and international speakers discussed the current climate of documentary production and distribution. Connolly was not alone in foregrounding the challenges for independent and emerging filmmakers. Julia Overton (Jotz Productions), recipient of this year’s Stanley Hawes Award for outstanding contribution to the documentary sector in Australia, acknowledged a lack of mentoring and support for young locals, a situation she sees linked to the 2008 merging of the nation’s former ‘big three’ agencies into Screen Australia. Acknowledging the current difficulties associated with producing one-off documentaries, Overton stressed the need for producers to widen their search for funding, commenting that at the end of the day, “it’s all about storytelling.”

f4: first factual film festival

Now in its second year, the First Factual Film Festival (F4), a documentary screening program running in conjunction with AIDC, has expanded to include public screenings as part of the Adelaide Festival of the Arts. Billed as an “unrivalled professional development opportunity for Australia’s emerging documentary filmmaking talent,” the festival showcases first films from talented Australians alongside the work of more experienced international conference guests.

From four finalists (chosen from 70 entries), the F4 Award for Outstanding New Documentary Talent was this year awarded to 26-year-old South Australian filmmaker Paul Gallasch for Killing Anna. In this 29-minute film, Gallasch as protagonist tracks his heartbreak and despair following the break-up with his first long term girlfriend, Anna. Constructing a bizarre fantasy as a way to understand his loss, Gallasch decides to stage a funeral service for Anna, pretending that she has died in a tragic accident. The film covers the lead up to this event through interviews with friends, family and strangers, and then the aftermath. Ultimately disappointed with his funeral service undertakings, Gallasch questions the social acceptance of grief associated with relationship breakdowns, remarking that ultimately, the only people who care are the two parties involved in the split.

Seemingly living in a rundown Brooklyn NY neighbourhood at the time, Gallasch’s method involved carrying the camera with him for four months, during which time he was a student at the New York Film Academy. Drawing on the work of Werner Herzog, Killing Anna combines a range of storytelling devices including narration, direct address to camera, interviews and recreations, perhaps reflecting Gallasch’s progression as a filmmaker. The incorporation of footage of his editing processes means that as well as being about loss, the piece questions the process of film construction itself. In a search for authenticity Gallasch wrote more than 8,000 words of narration on the subject of grief: “I wrote the film trying to rationalise the loss and then realised I couldn’t.” What he has managed to do is articulate a grieving process that defies logical explanation in an exceptional and surprising manner. On behalf of the F4 jury, Claire Jager praised the film’s “original and bold premise” and “the playfulness of the filmmaker’s shifting relationship to the camera and the audience.”

David Tucker’s My Thai Bride, a 52-minute documentary that received a special commendation from the F4 jury, also tracks a relationship breakdown. The story centres on Ted, a 46-year old salesman from Wales, who when visiting Thailand on business, meets and falls in love with Tip, a bargirl. The two decide to marry and despite a happy beginning, things soon turn sour. As both Ted’s money and Tip’s affections dwindle, he realises that the marriage was a mistake, and eventually returns to the UK destitute. Tip remains in the village house they built together, having gained some financial security as a result of the experience. Although giving more screen time to Ted, Tucker presents both protagonists without taking sides, creating a sense that a cultural misunderstanding is at the heart of the problem. Although Ted has lost his fortune at the end of the story, one is left to ponder who is worse off in the long term considering the poverty in Tip’s village.

It is impossible to consider Tucker’s engaging work without making comparisons with Denis O’Rourke’s landmark 1991 film The Good Woman of Bangkok, which also interrogated the sex trade in Thailand. My Thai Bride differs, however, in its focus on the emotional journey of the male at the heart of the story, revealing that, in Tucker’s words, “sex tourists have feelings too.” In a Q&A session Tucker described Ted’s eagerness to set the record straight, commenting that there are a lot of western guys like Ted but there is no solidarity between them as their situation is humiliating. I was surprised to learn that much of the film was shot in retrospect, with Tucker, then living in Thailand, only meeting the couple as they were splitting up in 2006. The filmmaker recreates their initial meeting, drawing upon a collection of still photographs and narration. On the filmmaker’s return to Australia, Michael Cordell came on board as executive producer and a successful Screen Australia investment meant funds to undertake additional photography and finish the film. The result is a powerful work that sheds new light on a complex issue.

It is interesting to note that both Tucker’s and Gallasch’s outstanding films were conceived of, developed and largely undertaken without any government funding, a situation that is clearly not unusual for first time documentary makers; here it certainly does seem to be all about storytelling. Debates undertaken at AIDC 2012 raise some worrying questions as to just where these Australian filmmakers might go next.

AIDC, Australian International Documentary Conference, 2012, Stamford Grand Hotel, Glenelg, Feb 27-March 1; F4 2012, Mercury Cinema, Adelaide, March 2-4

RealTime issue #108 April-May 2012 pg. 21

© Kath Dooley; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

10 April 2012