Outside of small research studies and articles that have appeared in academic journals, there is an absence of in-depth contextual work around personal filmmaking in Australia. This roundtable, featuring six key figures working in this space from the 1970s until today, has been sparked by a recognition of this absence, and seeks to shed light on the subject of autofiction and the implications of personal filmmaking in Australian independent film practice.
The participants are Ben Hackworth, director of Corroboree (2007); prolific producer Bridget Ikin; Gillian Leahy, director of My Life Without Steve (1986); Margot Nash, the director of a number of radical works including We Aim to Please (Nash & Robin Laurie, 1976), Vacant Possession (1995) and The Silences (2015); Jeni Thornley, the co-filmmaker and co director of the feminist documentary For Love or Money (Megan McMurchy, Margot Nash, Margot Oliver, Jeni Thornley, 1983); and James Vaughan, whose debut feature Friends and Strangers (2021) premiered at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam.
Chris Luscri: Firstly, thank you very much to everyone for coming and agreeing to be a part of this. One of the things that I wanted to ask the Sydney filmmakers who have been around since the 1970s relates to the material conditions around filmmaking in Sydney in the 1970s, particularly around groups like the Sydney Filmmakers Co-Op and the Sydney Women’s Film Group. How did those circumstances begin fomenting interconnections, ideas and collaborations around your respective practices?
Jeni Thornley: I think what was really interesting about that period was that it wasn’t divided between political filmmakers, avant-garde filmmakers, experimental filmmakers [and] women filmmakers – we were all in that broad alliance together at the Sydney Filmmakers Co-Op. Yes, we had the Sydney Women’s Film Group within that, then Film Action.
What’s really interesting about what’s happened between the beginning – the origins in the Co-Op – to the present is that incredible divisions have happened. [Back then,] the art film wasn’t separate from the political film; now, I couldn’t, say, go to the Australia Council to get funding for a film, because you’ve become partitioned into a certain category of filmmaking; whereas, in the beginning, the corridors were open between all of the different groups. I think we all moved between them.
Gillian Leahy: Because of that early period [when] the Ubu filmmakers started the Co-Op, we came into that with people who were influenced by European experimental filmmaking. We all rubbed off on each other. Maidens (Thornley, 1978) had an enormous effect on me; We Aim to Please, as well. We all borrowed all sorts of weird and wonderful things.
Margot Oliver’s first film (The Moonage Daydreams of Charlene Stardust, 1974) was one of a series of films that was in a workshop; that was where I made my first film. She used quite experimental techniques for the time. And yet it was a sort of agitprop film about girls growing up. It was a political-feminist film, but that didn’t stop her from using enacted, dramatic, weird and wonderful imagery and so on. I think that was one of the interesting things about that time.
Margot Nash: I think that the origins of the Co-Op were in the avant-garde and experimental filmmakers – Ubu Films of course, but don’t forget that the Cantrills had been working for a long time too. While there hadn’t been a lot of film production during the 1950s and 1960s, it was still going on: there was the Carlton/Godard movement in Melbourne and the Ubu film group in Sydney. I think it was the avant-garde – what was outside of the margins of what was seen as commercial – where we positioned ourselves. The origins [of the Co-Op] were in a resistance to the Hollywood dumb-down, as we saw it. Of course, Hollywood had come in and destroyed our early feature film industry. It had taken over exhibition and distribution. But people were still there doing short films, documentaries and avant-garde films in the 50s and 60s. The common ground that we had in the 70s was politics. We were always talking about politics: feminism; Indigenous politics; workers rights, anti war films eg the films that Tom Zubrycki and David Bradbury were making – a whole range of very political documentary work. We were all involved in resistance in some way, in finding other ways of speaking.
GL: There was some critique and suspicion. While the male filmmakers were making traditionally political documentaries – this is a completely blanket statement, and of course it’s not completely true – the women were very interested in investigating if that was the only way that you [could] reach an audience. [As] those sorts of documentaries just end up being sermons to the converted, what are the ways to make an audience really shift or think differently? What could the avant-garde or experimental filmmaking teach us about that?
CL: One thing that I’ve heard in this discussion is this idea of hybridity: hybridity between both political and social concepts, as well as modalities of practice, and how that hybridity fed into a way of making work that was personal through exposure to all of these concepts and forms that were existing outside of you. Going to Jeni’s point, it’s this idea oscillating between the personal and the larger social fabric within which the work was created. Would you say that that’s a fair estimation of the atmosphere at the time?
JT: Yes, I do. It was incredibly important for me, the daughter of a film exhibitor, to have [a shared] cinema. I started to work in programming, exhibition and organising women’s screenings; other political filmmakers were organising their political film screenings, there were screenings in the streets.
Films were being banned – I think Martha [Ansara]’s film school film, Me and Daphne (1977), was banned, and we screened it in the street. It became a place of both resistance and collaboration of both the personal and the political. It was very intense. To me, [British feminist filmmaker Clare Johnston’s Notes Towards a Women’s Cinema] was kind of like a textbook for how to work towards the building of a women’s cinema. I was very strongly influenced by that essay and all of the work that was coming out of Europe, America, Britain and also India, [where] there was a very radical women’s movement that was screening in all sorts of alternative ways.
The point that Johnston [made] – that really affected me and affected a lot of my filmmaking at the time – was that a women’s cinema has to be linked between pre-production, production, distribution and exhibition. It has to stay in women’s hands. I think we’re seeing that borne out today in terms of what happens when women start to speak and act together. We’re watching that now in terms of the reaction to the sexual abuse issues that are going on and that grassroots movement. I think that the “women’s cinema” phase was very much affected by that.
MN: Of course, one of the great slogans was “the personal is political”, and that’s because women’s voices had been omitted. They were not in the mainstream cinema. The stories that had been omitted, they were the ones that we were interested in. I can’t say it any better than Michael Renov – [he] argues that the subjective was shunned in documentary cinema until the 1970s, when a “new subjectivity” emerged out of the social movements of the time, giving rise to “work by women and men of diverse cultural backgrounds in which the representation of the historical world is inextricably bound up with self-inscription”.1
I think that’s where we were: our works became very much involved in self-inscription, placing ourselves within the film. In We Aim to Please, Robin and I placed our bodies as text on the screen. In For Love or Money, there were two narrations, an objective narration and a subjective one, which Jeni wrote: “We were the ones who birthed, who had blood on our hands.” This “we” voice in For Love or Money; was a personal voice. A personal narration was woven through Gillian’s My Life Without Steve too. It was fiction, but it was presented with an “I” voice. Then, of course, later, when I made my film The Silences, I [narrated] the whole thing in a very personal way.
CL: Bridget, when you first encountered all of this activity going on in Sydney, how did that stimulate your own ideas in relation to the work that you wanted to do in Australia?
Bridget Ikin: I was unaware of the work that was happening in Sydney in the 1970s – I was more influenced by the work that was happening in the United Kingdom [then]. There were some texts that were being written at that time [when I was] living in London.
CL: Are you referring to people like Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, and so on?
BI: Yes. Then, when I was in New Zealand in the 1980s and finding my way in cinema, my friend Melanie Read (now Rodriga) and I started a Women in Film movement [there]. We kind of evolved our own cinémathèque. We didn’t have a cinema, we didn’t have any funding, but it was a growing collective of feminists who were interested in finding a creative path into film where there was no path.
That, actually, was very fruitful for me. It sowed the seeds of a way of thinking about cinema and where I could position myself within it: who I wanted to work with, nurture and be nurtured by; a sense of finding creative and political collaborators. Ten short films that I produced came out of that period.
Then I moved to Australia in 1989 after filming An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990), which was an absolutely enormous project for me – I got to know Jane during the 1980s, when she was in New Zealand. That film, I adore it, and it was a very, very personal film for me. It connected me back to my own Kiwi childhood, and it was really a breakthrough in New Zealand at that time. It was very, very hard-won for us to make that film; even in Australia, when I tried to get funding for it from the ABC, I was told that “Janet Frame is not deemed to be a suitable heroine for the 1990s”. That was how out of sync her story was seen to be.
CL: How did you get around that? Did you have a group of people, perhaps older mentors within the film community at the time, who were supporting you to come through and push forward on being really resilient in your choices?
BI: We fought back. We just fought back. I won’t name the person who said that, but [she was] an extremely influential woman in the film industry here for many years. Then I saw My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong, 1979). Gill didn’t come to New Zealand, but Margaret Fink did. In the absence of having any kind of role model – I can’t remember what year it was, but I didn’t feel like I had a role model as a producer at that time – I kind of attached myself to her and thought, “If she can do it, then I can too.” That sort of opened the way for me to realise that she had her own little community and that there were other women producing here. Even without knowing her or knowing the other women, like Pat Lovell and Joan Long, at all, I just attached myself to that which offered me a pathway when I came here.
There was no film school in New Zealand for all of those years. There still isn’t, really. There are small, private film schools, but there [has never been any] state-funded film school. Most of us who did start working in film sort of apprenticed ourselves. The early films that I worked on with Alison Maclean, for instance, she was at art school and they had a 16mm wind-up Bolex. We hung out together on the weekend, I held a wheelbarrow and she sat in the wheelbarrow. We did very ad-hoc, basic things together. That was how we learned.
JT: This early period of the Co-Op that we’re referring to was pre–film school. A lot of those activities took place and were so energetic because there was no film school. As Bridget is describing in her world, one had to create these activities by which you could learn. The first film school was in 1974; I applied three times and didn’t get in. In a way, [the 1975 International Women’s Film Festival] was my learning ground. It was through becoming one of the coordinators of this national festival and bringing all these films in. We ran it in the Capitol Theatre, and it was like a training ground for so many of us to be educated into the whole history of women’s filmmaking, avant-garde filmmaking and political filmmaking.
CL: Let’s talk about economics for a second, because this is something that’s often left outside of these discussions. How important was the Experimental Film Fund at the time? How did that evolve into the successive iterations of that as it went from the AFI (Australian Film Institute) to the AFC (Australian Film Commission)? And how did that affect the ability to make work at the time?
JT: To get funding from the Experimental Film Fund, which was the only fund in the beginning when I started – look, it wasn’t a lot of money, but it was incredibly affirming. I think it was more the psychological impact of support and recognition that grew out of the Women’s Film Workshop that we ran in 1974. Out of that workshop came about 12 filmmakers. From the Women’s Film Workshop, I got the Experimental Film Fund grant, which ended up becoming Maidens. I mean, you’d [still] have to do it on the smell of an oily rag. It wasn’t money to pay yourself; it wasn’t a professional film budget, by any means.
MN: We got $1300 from the Experimental Film Fund to make We Aim to Please. That was our big budget. [laughs]
JT: Yes, I think Maidens probably got around $5000. The budgets were always just a compromise; they never properly financed films that you could survive on. For instance, for something like For Love or Money, we all lived on the dole to make that film. In actual fact, I’m very grateful for the dole because we couldn’t have made that film [without it] – it took that amount of original research.
There have been tremendous shifts, if you think of something like the making of First Australians, which in a way is a similar undertaking to For Love or Money: it’s larger in scale, but these large, kaleidoscopic documentaries that use an enormous amount of archival footage require totally original research, which takes months. This is pre-digital, so it’s even longer. They’re never properly funded; whereas I’d say Blackfella Films, with First Australians, which was funded by SBS, was pretty well funded. You see this gradual shift happening, which I guess you’d call the professionalisation of the industry.
CL: Let’s talk about SBS for a second, because SBS Independent represents something of a golden period for independent, low-budget Australian films, especially films led by writer/directors with a personal vision. Bridget, did you enter that space with a vision to want to influence or shift things? Did you feel like you were addressing a gap?
BI: That’s a big question. I didn’t start SBS Independent; it was [funded through] Keating’s Creative Nation project. It had been sort of running, hobbling, trying to find its place for a couple of years before that. [In 1996] I stepped into something that existed and I suppose, because I was a filmmaker, I thought, “Where are the gaps here?” The ABC seems to connect with a certain gender and age bracket of filmmakers. There [were] filmmakers coming up all over the country; I could strengthen that and I could offer SBS a broader diversity of content – also, really create and foment a kind of activity throughout the country. I travelled very extensively; SBS still didn’t have very much money.
I thought, “Okay, well the way I’m going to do that is forge partnerships with [whomever] I can,” which at that time was the state agencies. Surprisingly, that hadn’t really been done before. I kind of stepped into lots of opportunities, was thinking laterally and taking my cues from what was actually happening in South Australia and the Northern Territory: where the gaps were, what could be strengthened, what the strengths of the filmmaking community were. There was always a talent pool in Sydney and Melbourne because of film schools; unless there were state-derived creative opportunities, those filmmakers would tend to stay in Melbourne or Sydney.
That was the ecology that I was working with. I worked as hard as I could to create opportunities for filmmakers, knowing that the stories that would come out of especially regional development – which was so underserviced at that time – would only create a better diversity of subjects, gender and cultural diversity for a broadcaster that claimed to be in that business.
CL: We can unpack the implications of that historically now because those issues are again at the forefront. They had their instigation throughout all of these movements and epochs that we’ve been talking about. We hadn’t really industrialised to the extent that we did until you and a few other people at SBS took it upon themselves to address that.
MN: There had been a little era [when] Peter Sainsbury was at the Australian Film Commission and he was like a new broom who came in. We called it The Scholarship – he was offering money to independent filmmakers to write a low budget film in a year and have it ready to go. I got it, [and] that’s when I bought my first computer and I ended up making Vacant Possession. I got fully funded by the Australian Film Commission. I had a $1.6 million budget – I was like, “Wow.” That’s when Tracey Moffatt made beDevil (1993) and Sarah Gibson and Susan Lambert made Landslides (1987). There were a whole lot of avant-garde, more unusual works that he encouraged during that time as low-budget features.
CL: Crucially, Peter came from the BFI and gave starts to people like Peter Greenaway and Terence Davies.
MN: That’s right.
CL: He supported an incredible movement of filmmakers in the UK before he came to Australia. I’m not sure if we’re all familiar with it, but he delivered a very critical white paper on the state of Australian film funding.
MN: Two of them; I used to give them to my students. For years, they were very good.
CL: I’ve heard from people in the industry that, as a result of that, he was made a persona non grata – is that true?
MN: In some circles yes, but not everyone agreed with this. I thought his critical voice was very insightful.
CL: Ben, I wanted to ask you a little bit about where you were positioned. You went through VCA in Victoria and made a number of short films, and then commenced your first feature, Corroboree. What was the climate like in Melbourne when you were getting that feature up?
Ben Hackworth: I came to Melbourne in 1998 and came to VCA after doing a Bachelor’s in America. It was an Arts degree in anthropology, history, literature and fine arts. I came to film to have a medium of expression for all of these ideas. After VCA, I thought that there wasn’t a place for me in the film industry. VCA really didn’t like my graduate film; it wasn’t until Laurent Jacob and Georges Goldenstern at Cannes got behind me [that] I just felt like, okay, someone is telling me that I have to keep going.
Corroboree sort of happened accidentally as a camera test. I’d been working with actresses Susan Lyons and Rebecca Frith on a couple of projects. [As] they’d worked with Richard Wherrett, we talked a lot about Richard, and it was kind of interesting that a lot of the stories were coinciding with, well – I was making them coincide. But they were coinciding with some of my own personal trajectories with my dad’s death. So Corroboree became a really personal film in the end, [even though] I didn’t intend for it to be a personal film.
CL: How did you finance the film?
BH: It was one of those fortuitous moments: I met a young producing student from VCA [who] was wanting to make a feature and wanting to invest in a feature. I mean, when does that happen? He’s now in restaurants and hospitality, from a cattle background. He’s a great guy. He just wanted to invest in me; he liked my short films and said, “Well, let’s just make this a feature.” I got all of the actresses [whom] I loved working with: Natasha Herbert, Margaret Mills, Susan and Rebecca. We did this kind of experiment.
It was interesting – in some ways I felt very in control. It was a little break from the development of a feature that I later made, Celeste (2018), but Corroboree was a complete [instance of] “this is how I want it”. It really does bring to mind that sometimes, [with] lower budget and independent filmmaking, you can have that control of the process. Certainly, having a producer [who] empowers you to stay in your power is really important as well, as a director.
CL: Was it a battle? Not so much in terms of the production, because obviously it’s very contained, but in terms of how you’ve tried to position the film within the larger film cultural discourse afterwards?
BH: Absolutely! That’s been my story – I just haven’t quite seen how I fit into Australian cinema. It’s interesting, because doing a residency over there in Europe, the Cannes residency and then another one in Normandy, I was seeing [how] the other foreigners – from the Philippines or Romania or [wherever] – slot into making independent personal stories within a global culture. It seems like it’s just so much easier for them than it is here. Or, for maybe English directors or Danish directors. I think it becomes harder … maybe it’s more about the economy of scale.
CL: Or the absence of cinephilia.
BH: Absolutely. I think, to be honest, without saying anything damning, the bodies and the politics governing the way we see culture in film have really changed quite substantially. Their view on what sort of stories should be told, or where the money for cultural filmmaking should be put and how it should be delegated, is quite different. I think there’s a scarcity now, which makes people think very much about the marketplace.
I’m hoping to make more films like Corroboree and [see] more independent films being made; I’m encouraged by people I know like Amiel [Courtin-Wilson who] keep going with it. It is hard, because you kind of get that fear after there’s this absence in terms of a film’s reception. You might get into the Berlinale or a major film festival, but there’s this absence in terms of how it’s received by the industry in your own country.
You’re like, “Well, where do I fit in? Do I just keep being this kind of ‘indulgent’ director? Or do I do something sensible with my life?” It’s such a different culture in Paris or New York, where people just adore cinema; here in Australia, there’s a little bit of it in Melbourne and a little bit of it in Sydney, but, for the most part, we have very fiscal determiners of what is worthwhile.
CL: James, you’ve mentioned that you reached a point where you didn’t feel like you could actively engage in film – that you couldn’t justify it because you felt like it was socially constricting or not engaged with politics. I’m interested in that because you’re amongst the most politically engaged young filmmakers I know. At what point did you feel like there was something there that you needed to address?
James Vaughan: What inspired me aside from my own education or upbringing to move into cinema were the kinds of films that very early on I gravitated towards, without taking anything away from personal filmmaking in terms of the normal way we think about it which is the content: the subject matter and stories. Even within the funding bodies today, that’s still the exclusive way that personal filmmaking is considered, through a diversity lens – it’s about authenticity in terms of people telling their own stories. I have no disagreement with that; the kind of thinking about films that always interested me more perhaps [though] was the “formal as personal”.
The filmmakers that interested me the most were the ones that expressed something about existence, something about being a person, not through the actual subject matter but through the formal decisions that they were making. With someone like [Abbas] Kiarostami, there are radical formal choices being made, but [he is] also complicating the idea of autofiction all the time by having actors play the film director that are clearly substitutes for himself. Or with [Chantal] Akerman, her first film was one that she appears in, Je, tu, il, elle (1974). Or someone like [Robert] Bresson, you can look at the subject and they’re kind of classical in a way. They’re films about a priest or about a pickpocket, not necessarily his own personal experiences – not necessarily autofiction in the way that we normally think about it.
There’s something intensely personal about those language choices. That – for me, coming out of university – was something that I didn’t see a lot of in Australia. That frustrated me; it baffled me. Looking back into Australian film history, a film like Two Laws (Carolyn Strachan & Alessandro Cavadini, 1982) was an amazing example of something that did find that overlap between radical formal choices and subject matter that was very personal as well. It’s sad, to me, that there just isn’t anywhere at the moment [for that kind of filmmaking]. We’ve touched on it with film funding organisations and the way that they’re structured – at the moment, you have the Australia Council for the Arts, and that’s for artistic projects in every sense except film.
Say, you go to Screen Australia and say that you’re interested in a more artistically orientated film, because you often don’t have easy ways to describe these sorts of films, they’re not quite experimental, they’re not quite “art”, but these films that aren’t interested in either genre conventions or audience expectations as their primary motivation. They say, “Well, that’s art and we don’t deal with art. We’re geared towards the industry, and the industry has said no to that kind of film.”
We’re in, in some ways, a dark place at the moment, where there aren’t a lot of funding opportunities, and I don’t know what the pathway forward is. For me, it was that kind of teenage defiance [of] “I’m going to do this, no matter what the opposition is”. If that [means] working for six years to fund my own film, then starting again from scratch, I’ll do that. Of course, I’d love to not have to do that and be able to make a film every two years, but I don’t see that changing anytime soon, unfortunately.
CL: Perhaps one of the larger points that constellates and brings together all your work is this notional idea of hybridity: hybridity between cultural ideas as well as modes of practices between documentary and fiction; also between different modes and different fictional addresses. Perhaps we can talk briefly about the idea of psychogeography and the connections to Indigenous landscape in Friends and Strangers, and how that has emerged?
JV: Yeah, because it is so complicated and hard to put into words is one of the reasons why I made the film: to explore that with images and sounds and impressions. One of the feelings that I had after finishing my documentary project2 was [that] an interest in a whole bunch of areas is one thing, [but] it’s very difficult to escape yourself as a conduit or a point of reference [or] contact between all of those things. Coming to terms with a realisation that they were also my favourite films and ways of making and approaches to making films.
That was a process that I wanted to take into Friends and Strangers: embracing my own background and my own experience of Sydney, which [is] not an Indigenous experience at all. It’s about as far as you can possibly get from that, growing up on the North Shore in Sydney essentially as a coloniser in Australia, going to a private school, going then to university and having a brilliant education, having the benefits of cultural connections and things.
That interested me, I suppose: rather than an approach of trying to scrub that off, interrogating that critically; putting a character at the centre of a landscape that has those very unresolved and conflicted feelings about where they [are] – their conscience or their heart is telling them that they should be doing or being something that they fundamentally aren’t, but [they’re] also stuck in something that they can’t escape. In one sense, that was the idea or starting point for Friends and Strangers, but it doesn’t offer any answers to those things. I felt like I hadn’t seen a film in recent Australian history that looks at privilege in inner Sydney straight in the eye.
CL: Bridget, as the lead of Felix Media with John Maynard, you’ve really spearheaded the movement of personal filmmaking into the gallery space. What was it like working with people like William Yang and Angelica Mesiti in that space as a way of trying to retain a personal voice, an autofictional voice, within that context?
BI: Personally, I have very much recharged myself and feel very stimulated by the experience. It’s not that I’ve abandoned traditional filmmaking, but I just felt that there was a sort of opening at galleries over the last ten years; there was a willingness to screen and devote more attention and space to artists’ projects [and] to collaborate with artists to do that. It just felt very exciting to me. I have to say, I’ve really intensely enjoyed the experience. There’s no template for it.
Again, the funding’s not huge; it wafts and weans around different grants, scholarships and initiatives that open up and close from time to time. There’s a genuine pleasure, for me, in working with artists to imagine how to [convey] – sometimes narrative, sometimes non-narrative – ideas in a multiscreen environment, given that you have to create meaning for every single work every single time. It’s very enriching, actually; I’ve really, really enjoyed the collaborations that I’ve done. In a way, that led me to proposing [the “FLUX: art + film” strand] to the Sydney Film Festival: I saw a gap in their programming and proposed to them that they might be interested in this overarching kind of work, hybrid/personal work which flows between different genres. Where I can, I’m trying to create that opportunity to bring audiences towards that work within the Sydney Film Festival context.
CL: Notably, you’ve been a big supporter of the work of Allison Chhorn, who I’ve been associated with and is a notable filmmaker in this space, making work between documentary and fiction that’s very, very personal. As a producer, the way that I’ve navigated around these problems around exhibition and distribution as well as larger cultural support is to find ways of iterating the same work across multiple spaces: positioning something as a film for a film festival, but as something else for the art context – but to do so in an engaged and rigorous way, not merely for the final exhibition opportunities.
I do find that that’s a space, certainly overseas; when you’re looking at some of the more progressive documentary festivals like FIDMarseille, Visions du Réel or CPH:DOX, you’ll often find programs that they’ve devoted to hybridity. The “FLUX art + film” program at Sydney Film Festival is the only one, as far as I know, currently in Australia that attempts to do something similar. It’s really great, forward thinking. It obviously shows that you’re engaged with larger cultural discourses internationally.
For those practitioners who are currently working or want to continue working, what do we have to look forward to? On the one hand, the situation with film financing is very difficult. But, on the other, there seem to be more global opportunities now when it comes to building community. Community building has never been more fecund than it is now, with the influence of Zoom-based collaborations and discussions. Where do you think the future lies for this? And how can we, as practitioners, navigate that?
MN: I don’t go near the film funding bodies anymore, because they’re not interested in what I’m interested in. The rejections are too tough. No one there knows who I am anyway, or the work that I’ve done. So I stay away. When I made The Silences (2015), which was an intensely personal memoir, I made it completely outside the funding bodies. I did not approach them. I didn’t ask for money and get knocked back. I was working at UTS, I was a senior lecturer, I had a big salary and I just paid the bills as they came in. I had my little hands and I edited it myself in my lounge room.
I had all my films, so I had Vacant Possession, [for] which I had actually drawn on my own personal story to create characters. I’d literally done things like recreate things from my childhood – Vacant Possession is fiction, but it contains parts of my personal story. So I knew that I could draw on that, and I had other films that I could draw on. It’s what Jeni was talking about before: working in compilation. When I realised that I had my film Shadow Panic (1989) and I had other films that I’d made – where I’d drawn on my personal story to create images to support other narratives, other stories – I could now repurpose them and I didn’t have to pay copyright. I could edit it myself. I think that’s created a space for someone like me. I’m old now; they’re not interested in me anymore. I had my go. The other thing about that was that I could take my time, I didn’t have people breathing down my neck telling me what to do.
When I was starting out, we were working on 16mm with great big cameras. Now we can film things on our phones; we can edit in our lounge rooms; we can go into the digital space. There comes a point when you have to pay money, of course, but I just gradually paid for it as things happened and I made it. It’s not as technically beautiful as I would like it to have been because I didn’t have a cameraperson to go [film] out on the water with me. I had to film it myself. I’m sure that James and Ben, who are young and have made great films, [are] in a much better position than me to go to the funding bodies and get some money, but I just stay away from them. I did approach Screen Australia to ask for $5000 to help with my marketing, but I couldn’t get to first base.
GL: I heard one woman from the Victorian Film Commission going, “Oh it’s all about story, story, story.” As if there’s no structure other than the narrative. I’m with Margot – I think my time is done, and I don’t expect to make another big film. At the moment, I’m just going to get myself a better iPhone and make a very little film about the insects in the forest across the way. I’ll put it on YouTube as slow TV. I really don’t care, but I do care for the younger generation and I do have those concerns about what has happened to funding bodies and their narrow view of the world and cinema.
CL: One final question: what are you hopeful for, Bridget?
BI: Hearing Margot talk about digital production, I think online exhibition is not necessarily something to be hopeful about, but it is definitely an avenue that enables this kind of cinema – artists’ cinema, personal cinema, hybrid cinema – to thrive in a new way, come what may. It’s already happening, and has been in a huge way during COVID-19. In a sense, the opportunity to view this kind of work separate from the production complications is actually more alive than ever. I suppose that’s what gives me hope.
CL: That’s directly relevant to you, James, because your film was just in a major film festival that was run online.
JV: Despite how gloomy it is looking up at the people in charge, I’m extremely optimistic, and do feel very good about the future for a few reasons. I think there’s so much talent, ability, intelligence and sincerity at a grassroots level around the country at the moment in so many different ways and different styles. Echoing Margot, I think the digital era does open doors for this generation in terms of being able to do things from start to finish yourself. It’s hugely exciting; it just requires a time commitment.
Like Margot said, editing yourself – I edited Friends and Strangers in [my] room for 18 months – before digital non-linear editing systems, you just couldn’t do that. That’s hugely exciting, and it means that I know for myself that I will always be able to make films now. We bought an Arri Alexa 2010 for Friends and Strangers. That would have probably cost $80–100,000 when they first came out in 2010. Now, because they’re all mini, they still cost that much; but the original, massive, power-hungry, hot, noisy [Alexa] which [has] the same sensor as the new ones, we got that for less than $10,000. That was a part of the budget.
The other thing that I would add about the internet is that, premiering Friends and Strangers overseas, because it was online it meant that more critics who perhaps normally would be at Sundance and couldn’t attend Rotterdam could do both, [and also] having on Twitter this sort of live discourse, which was really surreal after having something in [my] head and working with a small team for so long [and] then, suddenly, having it out there. I’ve been put in touch with so many programmers and so many critics responding and talking about the film. I never knew if it would really be something that would be felt in a visceral way for people who weren’t Australian or didn’t know the Australian context. All of those things [make me] really hopeful and excited about the next ten to 20 years.
Thanks to David Heslin for his invaluable work in editing this roundtable discussion.
- Michael Renov, “New Subjectivities: Documentary and Self-Representation in the Post-Verite Age” in Feminism and Documentary, Diane Waldman & Janet Walker, eds. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), p. 88. ↩
- Vaughan previously worked on a documentary about the 2013 West Papuan Freedom Flotilla that was never released. ↩