Re-animating Australian history

Keith Gallasch admires Lee Whitmore’s The Safe House

Lee Whitmore, The Safe House

Lee Whitmore, The Safe House

Lee Whitmore’s The Safe House deservedly won the 2006 Yoram Gross Animation Award in the Sydney Film Festival Dendy Awards. It’s a luminescent recreation of a pivotal moment in Australian history as experienced through a child’s eyes and ears. Whitmore, the animator, writer and director of the film has drawn on her recollection of the Petrov affair of 1954, specifically the Russian couple’s taking refuge in her neighbour’s home, the safe house of the title, after their defection.

The voice-over narration (Noni Hazlehurst) is of the adult Lee looking back to 1954, but the visual structure is focused very much on the child Lee’s world—the joys of play and eating threaten to drown out important news on the radio, and the holiday reunion with friends governs all. However, newspaper photos, more radio news, local gossip, the sound of Evdokia Petrov crying in the night and glimpses of the couple through a hole in the fence constellate to suck the children into the popular conception of the Petrovs as spies, which they act out as a grim little game.

What Whitmore has so ingeniously done is convey the child’s limited view of the world, either through not understanding or picking up prejudices or being deliberately locked out of adult conversation. However the story depicts the gradual erosion of those limits. As Whitmore says in a Film Australia press kit interview: “I think it aroused my curiosity about things outside our home and our street, and caused me to sense perhaps for the first time that all was not well in the world outside” (www.filmaust.com.au).

Above all, the power of The Safe House resides in Whitmore’s consumate talent as an artist. The images look like they come straight from a beautiful children’s picture book but moving with simple ease and constantly transforming—from bright sun into the dark blue of night, in brush stroke rain on the window or a gust of wind through a child’s hair. The children’s joy in water is vivid, in a backyard canvas pool, under a hose, in the bath or looking out over the glittering night time harbour. Scenes are animated with cinematographic verve, again often emphasising the child’s perspective, or taking us far above to an aerial view of the cozy island of suburbia where Whitmore lived and the Petrovs hid.

Whitmore also effectively deploys black and white imagery. The film begins with glimpses of the terrified Evdokia Petrov, focusing on an image of her lost shoe amidst the airport turmoil. Later in the film we see in full Whitmore’s versions, like stark animated woodblock prints, of press photographs of Evdokia Petrov agape at flashing cameras, struggling to board an aeroplane, held tightly by USSR officials, the camera focussing on the hands and that lone lost shoe. Then we see the image of the shocked face in the young Lee’s mind when she hears Evdokia crying. At the film’s end, when Lee recalls that nothing was ever quite the same and that the family soon left the suburb, she imagines the Petrovs living out their years of refuge walking their dog in darkened suburban streets—it’s a haunting scene.

The Safe House is full of wonderful details: glimpses of Whitmore’s father at work (he was a freelance illustrator and commercial artist); the family all ‘in class’ drawing neigbour Ted dressed like a Roman emperor; there’s a walk through lush greenery to a creepy harbour-side cave; and an awesome steam train filling the sky with billowing smoke. This is a world writ sensually large as seen by a child, if recalled by an adult. In her Film Australia interview, Whitmore says that she’s always preferred to draw from memory.

The period feel of The Safe House is central to the film’s success. I was about the same age at that time and can vouch for the accuracy of much of Whitmore’s detail as well as the impact of the Petrov affair. The radio news broadcasts, although freshly recorded (except for the actual report on the Sydney Airport drama) also sound just right. Whitmore says that she made a model of her street, drawings of her old home (“very big drawings in pencil based on old photographs, of every conceivable angle, rather like the sketch perspectives architects make”) and “a lot of research on period detail: the look of cars and trains, the details of newspaper headlines and postmen’s uniforms, the furniture and the phones and the clothes of the time” This came easily says Whitmore because she started out in film as a production designer on Stephen Wallace’s Stir (1979) and John Duigan’s Winter of Our Dreams (1980)

The self-trained Whitmore works traditionally, making her work on glass and filming it as she goes, “a process of animating the moving elements in a shot…rubbing out and painting in the new position and re-painting the background that had now been exposed.” However, for the first time she worked with digital technology, allowing her to immediately review what she’d done and “to do much more complex and detailed animation than would have been possible using film technology.” The Safe House preserves the best of traditional animation techniques not only aided but extended by digital technology. Even so, the film was 4 years in the making.

Lee Whitmore, the maker of other wonderful animations, Ada (2002) and On a Full Moon (1997), has created a gentle, acutely observant film with moments of tension and dark images that linger. It’s a film for children, and adults too, in which childhood, history and politics can come seamlessly together, a rarity in Australian film.

The other contenders

This year’s Dendy Award Animation Award nominees also included strong contenders, Carnivore Reflux (directors Eddie White, James Calvert, producers Huy Nguyen, Sam White,The People’s Republic of Animation, 7 mins) and Gustavo, director Jonathan Nix, producer Andrew Etheridge, Cartwheel Partners, 4 mins). The hilarious Carnivore Reflux is a richly coloured fantasy in which humans ingest every conceivable living edible and then, rapidly losing their gross fat, vomit it up into fantastic living creations. It’s largely a meat-eater’s nightmare, meticulously realised, funny at every step with some of the feel and look of the Terry Gilliam Monty Python animations. Gustavo is another fine work from Jonathon Nix in which he takes the vibrating line drawing common to one tradition of screen animation and turns it to surreal advantage as a lone man grapples with his rampant hairiness. Nix subjects his audience to some vertiginous point-of-view perspectives in this grim comedy of the personal. Had The Safe House not been in the running, Gustavo would have been my best bet for winner by a hair.

The Safe House, animator, writer, director Lee Whitmore, producer Denise Haslem, Film Australia National Interest Program produced in association with SBS Independent. 26 minutes.

RealTime issue #74 Aug-Sept 2006 pg. 21

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2006