This article was first published in the groundbreaking Don’t Shoot Darling! Women’s Independent Filmmaking in Australia (Greenhouse Publications, Richmond, 1987, pp. 204-6). It is reproduced here with the kind permission of that book’s co-editors: Annette Blonski, Barbara Creed and Freda Freiberg.
In my teens I swam long-distance – not too fast, but I could keep at it for a long time. I didn’t know it, but that was my first training as a filmmaker. When I started, I worked mainly with non-sync sound, filming alone, as Sync-or-Swim Documentaries.
In 1977 I bought a 16mm Canon Scoopic camera while in Japan and just went out filming. My real training-ground was in the years before, filming in Super 8 at rural ritual performances – often in crowds of people and under difficult conditions. I had earlier been active in student theatre in Oslo, where I did degrees in Arts and Social Anthropology, and at the end worked part-time in the News Department of Norwegian Television. While a graduate student in Japanese theatre at Kyoto University in 1970-72, I carved Noh masks. By 1977 I was particularly interested in experimental film, and in ethnographic film, and had an inspiring and supportive environment of documentary filmmakers in Canberra. The Ethnographic Film Conference there in 1978 made a great impact on me.
Most of my films so far have been related to Japan, where I grew up. I don’t see them as “films on Japan”, a category of its own, but rather as films on individual subjects that just happen to deal with Japan, as I believe in specific films on other cultures, not generalising ones. It is the only way to get a nuanced view.
Aside from a one-year graduate diploma course at Swinburne Institute in 1980, my work was, at first, very much in isolation – doing everything from camera to editing, perhaps not the best way to make films, certainly not the easiest. To do it you must be either a megalomaniac or too pigheaded to trust anyone else. The solitary approach began of economic necessity. But also, as an expatriate most of my life, I am at ease operating on the fringes.
I believe there are films that should be made that may not immediately have a wide audience here – and therefore do not appeal to funding bodies – but that will find a universal audience over time. Ethnographic films do not date quickly. I want to make films that take chances, are many-layered and do not shy away from ideas or the unfamiliar, yet are visually exciting.
I see no reason to make films that other people can do better, no matter how socially significant. Blessed and burdened by chance with a certain mishmash of cultural experience, this should be my starting point, however elitist it might appear.
I can only make films sifted through my own aesthetic consciousness, inevitably influenced by Japan, and by a fragmented experience of society. The very detachment this provides can be a valuable contribution. Perhaps for that reason, I am more interested in documentary that approaches poetry than narrative.
At first I was less conscious of, or concerned with, the audience than I am now. My first film, Effacement (1980), was made on my own money and a very low budget. I could afford to take chances and not worry about the impatience of a Western audience with the pace of Noh movement.
In Search of the Japanese (Swinburne Institute, 1980) was also made without much interference, despite the pressures towards accessibility and narrative within the institution. It had more technical and creative input from other people than my other films.
Waiting for Water (1981) was the first film for which I had any grant money (in the post-production stage, from the Australia-Japan Foundation; and, after two re-cuts, from the AFC, where I was under much pressure to do away with personal elements, such as the use of the diary-style narration).
A recent venture into feature film scriptwriting (The Okinawan Daughter) began through an interest in the mixed-blood kids of the Occupation in Japan and the Western male/Asian female syndrome, but also as a means of making a living on a Script Development Grant, while working on a long-term documentary project, the Hatoma films from Okinawa. It has been far easier to get a grant for feature scriptwriting than to complete the documentaries. It did, however, give me a taste for creating characters, dormant since theatre days.
In the early stages on Hatoma (1978-79) I was restrained with the camera, avoiding the use of the zoom lens and taking a lot of long shots and long takes. I was less concerned with individual personalities than with the texture of the society. I see the Hatoma films as a transition from the “naïve” outsider’s view of a society at an early stage of encounter towards a closer, more intimate look behind the surface with inevitable conflicts in Sacred Vandals (1983), the last film. It uses more close-ups. The change may suggest a more aggressive approach to documentary on my part and a greater awareness of the requirements of the television screen.
Sacred Vandals continues the exploration of the diary-style voiceover together with subtitled conversations sometimes used in disjunction with the picture. It deals with women who follow signs in dreams and illness to look for sacred places in nature. It has received quite polarised reactions, which pleases me; likewise, that I was able to complete it with a minimum of compromise.
My more recent work is moving in the direction of dramatic narrative as director of a short drama, Pre-Occupied (1985), for the Victorian Women’s Film Unit and the development of a feature-length script, Missionary Kid, that crosses over between documentary and drama, again using a personal diary and some autobiographical material. I am also continuing to develop a more commercial feature script, The Okinawan Daughter. This does not at all mean a total departure from documentary, but perhaps a greater awareness of the extent to which documentary inevitably fictionalises. It is also due to an increasing need to work with other people and with greater distance from myself and personal preoccupations for a while. I still believe very strongly in personal films, and think that films such as Corinne Cantrill’s In This Life’s Body (1985) take great courage to make.
I would trust my own idealism as a filmmaker much less now than before. This is a healthy thing, I think. To believe that one can ever become a part of another culture when filming it is supremely naive. Most of my films so far have focused mainly on women. Projects in the making do so as well.
As a filmmaker dependent on either grants or investment, I expect to have to work within greater constraints, such as television formats. I would see this as a challenge in itself. I have worked within a very traditional art form, carving Noh masks based on types. But the technique, like filmmaking, is so complex, no mask would come out the same.
I would be most afraid of stagnating and resisting change and hope to retain the restlessness that demands taking chances in every film. Often firing flaws make the best pots.