There are one million moments in your neighbourhood, but as the filmmakers discovered, each has a fragile presence which fades almost as it forms.
The title of Jane Campion’s 1984 short film Passionless Moments is at once a portent of the story to come and a lie. The film, which comprises ten vignettes, observes the awkward, mundane and embarrassing moments that often remain confined to our interior lives and private thoughts, and in doing so, turns them into a wry, but unashamedly joyful, celebration of our shared humanity.
Made during Campion’s studies at Sydney’s Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), the film is told in faux documentary style and shot in black and white on 16mm. Campion has said the intention of the film was “to show sweet, ordinary people you rarely see on screen and who have more charm than better known actors.”1 Before film, Campion studied anthropology, and details of human behaviour have long been a feature of her work. In Passionless Moments, the story is unfurled by a droll, authoritative voiceover that narrates each snapshot of Sydney suburbia, switching point of view between pure observation and intimate knowledge of each character’s innermost thoughts.
Each scene, or “playlet”2 as Campion has described them, trains the lens on small moments of extraordinary plainness or quirk; from a young boy who turns a trip to the milk bar into an action/adventure tale with him as the hero; to a woman who gorges on ham only to be reminded of her uncle’s beloved pet pig; and a stiff encounter between two neighbours who think the other may be waving at them. Breaking from its documentary leanings, the camera also plays with point of view, switching between observational shots, and shots that frame the perspective of each character – from the world underneath a little girl’s bed, to specks of dust floating in the air. Together the collection is both humble and relatable while still maintaining Campion’s strong leaning towards exploring the eccentricity, even strangeness, of real life.
The Passionless Moments shoot took five days with Campion and fellow AFTRS student Gerard Lee sharing directing (though Lee is officially credited as ‘Ex-Director’) and producing duties on top of their co-writing credit. The remaining AFTRS cohort included editor Veronica Haussler and Alex Proyas, who came on as “guest cinematographer” to support Campion who also took on duties behind the camera. These collaborations would ripple throughout Campion’s career. Lee would go on to co-write Campion’s debut feature Sweetie (1989) before teetering in and out of the industry for the next two decades until Campion called on him to co-write her television series Top of the Lake (2013). Veronica Haussler (later known as Veronika Jenet) would go on to edit several of Campion’s features and Proyas would continue working on Campion’s shorts as an adviser, even composer, before forging his own directing career. Both on screen and off, Passionless Moments was the start of a rising wave for Campion – and her collaborators – that would extend over the next thirty years, and beyond.
Passionless Moments was only Campion’s third short film and it nearly didn’t see the light of day. The film was made in secret by the AFTRS students, using AFTRS equipment, but without permission from the school. When the deed was discovered, the film was confiscated by staff and put under lock and key. Undeterred, Campion and Lee hatched a daring plan to recover the tape, recruiting a friend to masquerade as a European film festival programmer who would approach the school’s front desk and ask to see the film. Once the tape was in her hands, she made a run for it3 – and history was made with an act of defiance against the system that went on to define Campion’s career.
Not that the cunning student plot was entirely far fetched. Before long, the European programmers would indeed come calling and in 1986 Passionless Moments would screen at the Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section alongside Campion’s AFTRS final year film, A Girl’s Own Story (1983) and her ABC telemovie Two Friends (1986). The festival proved a watershed for Campion that year with a program that was a kind of retrospective for the fledgling director. Her first AFTRS short An Exercise in Discipline: Peel, shot some years before in 1982, also screened in competition and went on to take out the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film, and in the space of just one festival, Campion went from being a new graduate to a genuine filmmaking force.
Though at just the genesis of her career, Passionless Moments uses a simple story and minimal design to hint at the filmmaker to come. Looking back on her time at AFTRS, Campion has reflected “I remember that at film school my classmates wanted to make big movies or spectacular scenes with car crashes. That was the last thing I wanted to do.”4 In just 11 minutes Passionless Moments showcases Jane Campion as an anthropologist, rule breaker and filmmaker that steers clear of big set ups but still manages to deliver on an epic promise of making the personal, a universal experience.
Passionless Moments (1984, Australia, 11mins, 16mm)
Prod. Co.: AFTRS Prod: Jane Campion, Gerard Lee Dir: Jane Campion Scr: Gerard Lee and Jane Campion Phot: Jane Campion Ed: Veronica Haussler Art Dir: Kerith Holmes Sound: Tony Vaccher
Cast: Paul Chubb, David Benton, Ann Burriman, Alan Brown, Sean Callinan, Sue Collie, Elias Ibrahim, Paul Melchert, George Nezovic, Jamie Pride, Yves Stening, Rebecca Stewart
- Michel Ciment, “Two Interviews with Jane Campion”, Positif (1990). Rpt in Jane Campion: Interviews, Virginia Wright Wexman, ed. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999), p.33. ↩
- Michel Ciment, p.33. ↩
- Steve Dow, Dominic Rolfe, “2 create”, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 February 2013, http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/2-create-20130218-2emm7.html ↩
- Michel Ciment, p.34. ↩