Of subjects and endings

Catherine Gough-Brady

Professor Anne Boyd at the University of Sydney, Facing the Music

Professor Anne Boyd at the University of Sydney, Facing the Music

Professor Anne Boyd at the University of Sydney, Facing the Music

This year baby-boomers battle it out with baby-documenters for Best Documentary and Best Documentary Director in the Emirates AFI Awards. 5 documentaries are nominated across several categories. I recommend that you go see them all. In this review I will nitpick and critique rather than praise the tireless and often largely underpaid work of the docomakers. The praise should be assumed by default.

When Professor Anne Boyd, the central character of Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly’s Facing the Music, walks off in the distance and says, “The university is dead”, it is a poignant moment. I took an academic friend to see the film and she cried, realising that she, like many of her colleagues, had to grieve the passing of tertiary education in Australia. Connolly/Anderson’s film is timely. The story of defunding universities and of academics suffering stress and heart attacks is increasingly common. Boyd’s university is more absorbed with budgets than with research and she can only find 10 days in a whole year to write music which, considering her importance to Australian music, is a great loss.

Anderson and Connolly, along with their editor Ray Thomas, are masters of the craft. The documentary sounds and looks gorgeous. My quibbles with the film are twofold. Firstly, it ends very suddenly. The final cadence of the film is almost non-existent and the final scene is played out in text superimposed over images of the characters. ‘Life goes on’ endings still need to leave me with a sense of finish before I find them successful. If only because, for me, life does not go on. It ends with the credits. My second quibble is just how well crafted it is. Anderson and Connolly have been making these observational films about chiefs for some time, whether professors of music or heads of Pacific tribes. I want them to break out and do something new. I want them to move onto their next series and see what interesting experimentations they come up with.

Vanessa Gorman’s Losing Layla is the story of that one percent we have nightmares about becoming. Gorman, a producer on Australian Story, documents her own feelings and those of her partner throughout her pregnancy, the birth and the death of their baby daughter. To be honest I purposely missed the TV screening because I just didn’t want to have to confront this kind of story. But I bite the bullet and see it in the screening room of the AFI, a small glassed-in and sealed-off podium. I feel strangely like a fish in a bowl (or a documentary subject) as people walk by embarrassed at seeing tears roll down my cheeks.

I find the interviews with Layla’s father beautiful and sensitive. The build up to the birth is done well but we spend too much time with the couple and Layla after her death and before her burial. Also, I would have liked to see Gorman make the final statement about her relationship to Layla’s father direct to camera. As in Facing the Music, closure occurs off camera.

Peter Du Cane and Matthew Kelly’s Playing the Game episode is a straight up and down documentary about the secret bombing of Cambodia. The woman next to me in the theatre keeps exclaiming loudly “oh!” as we find out more about the US involvement and bombing. I have no doubt she would have voted it best doco. I find the film’s portrayal of Prince Sihanouk as a political mastermind surprising.

Du Cane and Kelly’s documentary leaps effectively across time and national borders and I am never lost in the narrative or left dangling with questions unanswered. I gain some insight into Cambodian affairs but as a filmmaker I find the work too straight and authoritative in its manner. This is in contrast to another film nominated for a craft award, David Max Brown’s and Tom Zubrycki’s Secret Safari which uses all the traditional tricks, but with a playfulness and glint in the eye that pokes just a little bit of fun at the form.

When Dennis O’Rourke read a critique that a colleague once wrote about his work he told me that this person should sit down and watch and rewatch his films until he understood them. So I did that. I rewatched Cunnamulla, hoping that I would find it amazing and that I had just missed the point in my first viewing. The film follows a year in the life of various Cunnamulla locals. But O’Rourke’s subjects are not going through any particularly riveting crises—compared with Professor Anne Boyd or Layla’s mother or even Cambodia—and we only scrape the surface of who they are.

I think O’Rourke is one of the greats and his Good Woman of Bangkok is one of the most poetic and complex documentaries I have seen. His work is a mixed bag, but to his credit he keeps reinventing his style and challenging the form. And so it is inevitable that some works will be brilliant and some less so. I’m in a minority in being bored by this film; most everyone else thinks it’s fab.

In Wonderboy Andrew Wiseman revisits the subjects of a previous documentary, Driving with Richard. Footage from the first film shows the young and brain-damaged Richard in conflict with his parents, and is used as flashback material. The subjects reflect upon the previous portrayal and fill us in on the current situation.

The documentary is cut by the legendary Uri Mizrahi. The films he edits are leisurely in pace and he is not afraid of using images of people in everyday life. Sometimes the unique nature of everydayness is fascinating but at times I feel these images are disguising a story told in interviews or voiceover. Despite the on-camera breakdown of the mother, the film is too passive and gentle. But a third episode about the crisis when the father is too old and must hand Richard over to public care should be interesting viewing.

Out of all of this concentrated viewing I noticed that endings are an issue for Australian documentaries. The films with stronger endings seem overplayed and the ones with weaker endings leave me thinking ‘oh, it’s finished.’ Wiseman’s ending errs towards the overly dramatic. It holds on an image of Richard as his father’s voice says that the community (read audience) will have to look after Richard once his dad gets old. On the other hand Facing the Music and Losing Layla, my favourite films of the bunch, both finish frustratingly off camera.

RealTime issue #45 Oct-Nov 2001 pg. 18

© Catherine Gough-Brady; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2001