James Middleton: island filmmaker

Susanne Kennedy

James Middleton has long been a resident of Tasmania’s more remote locations. The filmmaker initially moved to Tasmania’s Bruny Island after 1997 to write and research a screenplay on the Black War of the 1830s and has been coming and going ever since.

His short film Lunnawanna Kiss emerged from its primary setting of Bruny Island’s lighthouse, and a desire to make a light and joyful antidote to his initial research. The Black War project is still in the pipeline, as is a feature length screenplay of Lunnawanna Kiss called The Lightkeeper’s Wife.

In 2000, after Lunnawanna Kiss, Middleton researched his first documentary, Return to Port Davey, which he shot in 2001. The film premiered at Hobart’s State Cinema and Sydney’s Chauvel in February this year.

Middleton grew up in New Guinea and suggests his connection with Tasmania lies partly in the similarity between their mountains and cloud and weather patterns. Living on Bruny Island—a small island off a larger one—gives him a heightened sense of vulnerability to environmental factors. He also developed an acute awareness of water from catching ferries home, an experience that’s all the more potent for someone who did not see water until he was 7. Middleton’s first view of the ocean was a striking experience, which may explain the prevalence of water and nautical themes in his 2 Tasmanian films.

Set in 1931, the silent Lunnawanna Kiss is a story of a seemingly impossible affection between a local boy, Billy Shearwater, and the daughter of a lighthouse keeper, Elizabeth Cross. Working against them are their geographical isolation and her father’s distaste for Catholics. When a storm floods the roads, Billy must take the family to church by boat.

As Middleton intended, the film has a delicacy about it: the feathery, staccato violin and piano is in keeping with the silent film genre. There are the skimming glances; the couple’s wordless flight to kiss between gums and grasses; and perhaps even more delightfully intimate, the post-kiss smiles exchanged beneath hat-brims on their journey back to the lighthouse.

Lunnawanna Kiss, like Port Davey, is primarily concerned with the ways the environment effects our social worlds. In keeping with this, nature is often present as a still, enveloping protagonist effectively conveyed in the short’s main promotional shot: a dinghy with its prominent yet slight mast and the lighthouse keeper by its side on a small part of a water-mountain canvas. The vessel and its occupants cause only a ripple in the foreground of their immense setting.

The film evolved into its silent format through luck and instinct. Upon its ‘completion’, Middleton sensed there was something missing. The film had failed to attract support from the AFC or Arts Tasmania so he kept playing with it, finally doing an edit without dialogue. The important lesson he learned from this was to look for the essential truth in a project, even if dramatically different from your original intentions.

Introducing music in lieu of dialogue, Middleton was faced with several decisions about format and economics. He finally transferred the footage to Digital Beta, to do all the effects he wanted, then kine-ed it back to 35mm, with the generous help of SOS Digital. The kine was surprisingly good and most importantly allowed for a quality soundtrack. The resulting film has been shown at numerous festivals, received Exploding Cinema, Woodford and ASC awards and was Screen Tasmania’s first screened project.

The seed for Middleton’s most recent project, Return to Port Davey, came from organising the Lunnawanna Kiss shoot. He contacted Des Weyman about oysters for catering on set and they were still talking 2 hours later. Des’ ability to spin a good yarn and to evoke a fisherman’s life at Port Davey tweaked the filmmaker’s instinct for a good story.

Weyman had been a crayfisherman in the sheltered waters of Port Davey, on the southwest coast, and Middleton eventually persuaded him and 3 others—Mike, Monty and Clyde—to return to their old haunt and tell stories to the camera. The men recall a time when a haul of 2,000 cray was not unusual, and when regulations on sizing were introduced in the 1940s. The film is full of anecdotes shared between men (up to 50 years apart in age) who knew each other for decades in often harsh elements.

Mike recounts poking dreamily about a beach at the age of 14 and waking a Tasmanian devil. Fearing probable disembowelment, he made his terrified escape across soft sand that sucked his footsteps backwards. Mike’s account is deadpan and hilarious; as is his litany of bad smells in a time before iceboxes.

For many years Middleton considered documentary to be the poor cousin of drama, an opinion he has completely relinquished after experiencing the freedom of documentary making and discovering that people’s lives can be more fascinating than fiction. He believes that documentary is just another form of storytelling, with its own set of rules, constructing its own sort of truth.

Middleton incorporated into the documentary black and white stills from the 1920s and beautiful faded 8mm home-movie footage from the 50s. With ABC purchase of the Australian broadcasting rights came the condition of rigorous editing from 57 to 27 minutes. This was a difficult process, though he is happy with the result—a rich, authentic portrait of working lives in what he calls a “primal and epic” setting.

While James Middleton feels defined as an artist by the work he is making at the time, funding bodies often see things differently. Making work consistently about a place, and residing there for most of the year, does not guarantee support. He did not understand Screen Tasmania’s failure to fund the authentic Tasmanian stories conveyed in Port Davey and feels there should be more feedback to filmmakers about tenders, and the reasoning behind funding body decisions. When asked whether this essential aspect of filmmaking has become easier, Middleton marvels that it hasn’t. Despite ultimate support—by the ABC for Port Davey and Screen Tasmania for Lunnawanna Kiss—Middleton has never received production funding, only post-production; testimony to his tenacity.

Middleton has an ability to tell quiet, authentic stories; their power is perhaps hard to sell unseen. Hopefully this will change with a growing canon of recognised work. With The Lightkeeper’s Wife doing the rounds and another documentary idea at the ABC, he has a potentially busy and supported couple of years.

RealTime issue #54 April-May 2003 pg. 18

© Susanne Kennedy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2003