In 2022 the National Film and Sound Archive acquired the hand-made filmmaking material Paul Winkler constructed to make his innovative films from the the 1960’s to the present. Winkler is packing up his practice bags. His successful graphic cinema originated on his 1959 arrival in Australia. A basic 8mm film documenting his journey from Germany to Australia by motorbike was an early foray into cinema. Winkler later participated in Sydney’s Yellow House Art events with Albie Thoms and David Perry. The minimalist 16mm work Brickwall (1975), rendering the act of bricklaying, is considered a classic Australian experimental film. 

Winkler’s extensive presence in New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s Circulating Film Library Catalog (Sturkin 1984: 195-211) registers his sustained international standing, built up through awards, and highlighted festival screenings. Compared to any other film artist, an astounding 15 of his 16mm films made between 1970 and 1980 are available there. Twenty-four 16mm films from 1967 to 2011 are also available from the NFSA Non-theatrical Lending Collection in Canberra for borrowing. 

Sydney Harbour Bridge

An acute technical intelligence lies at the foundation of these idiosyncratic moving image architectures. In Sydney Harbour Bridge (1977), for example, numerous layered pans are all executed in precision. These are all in-camera effects, constructed on site, requiring numerous re-windings through his Bolex Camera. Winkler constructed his own unique travelling matte devices. His developed techniques predict numerous digital effects. Winkler’s practice has itself migrated into the digital, re-animating artifacts collected from op shops on I-Movie using rudimentary digital cameras and a green screen in his backyard studio. Digital constructions like Angel (2015), Bean; Queen (2017), Morbid Sheep (2017) and Barbie and Friends (2018) have surfaced in international experimental showcases like Ann Arbor. 

The following interview took place in Paul Winkler’s Camperdown studio in 2019 as Paul turned 80. 

– DdB

DdB: Congratulations on your new digital work, but I want to start by going back to the beginning. 

PW: I emigrated to this country in 1959 by boat with other migrants. We decided that we needed some kind of record of what we think of our new environment. Most of us bought a 35mm still camera. I decided I should use a movie camera. So I went to a photo-shop and asked about a trade-in. And that’s how I got my first movie camera, as a trade-in with a bit of extra cash. I never went back.

Bean; Queen

DdB: In Melbourne?

PW: Yes, we came to Melbourne, then Bonegilla, 300kms north-east of Melbourne. There we were supposed to be allocated some work. Because I spoke some English I was told, “you’ll probably be ok on a train, you can click the tickets and stuff like that.” I said: “no way”. That sounds interesting, but anyway.

DdB: You were a bricklayer?

PW: I said “I’ve got a trade?” I was told I was too young. What are you talking about, my trade is finished? In this country you need to have five-years of laying bricks. At that time I’d probably had about three and a half years.

DdB: How old were you when you arrived?

PW: 19. We then decided with a couple of other friends who were also tradesmen that this is not much good so we left the camp at Bonegilla and hitch-hiked to Melbourne. It was quite a job getting there. The place recommended to us was quite good. We stayed some time there. That’s when the whole thing started to click: everybody must send pictures home, parents wanted to know. I remember one guy there, his trade was photography, he said take pictures of us. We needed to buy a bloody picture camera, 8 or 10 pounds or so.

DdB: That was a lot of money though. That’s a week’s wage wasn’t it?

PW: Funnily enough my first weekly wage was about 14 pounds in a shoe factory. I couldn’t find work as a bricklayer, they all said I was too young.

DdB: Bricklaying pays quite well. My father was a bricklayer, earning around 50 pounds.

PW: I wasn’t very long in that shoe factory, I worked my way back into the building trade, and picked it up very quickly. Different tools here. In Melbourne we already had the idea that we wanted to go to Germany as we thought that things had gotten pretty bad here in Australia.

DdB: Economically?

PW: We couldn’t get a job. But we had saved some money with the little jobs we had.

DdB: You said we, with a friend of yours?

PW: Yes. We became pretty good friends. We became friends on the boat. 

DdB: That boat trip is about six weeks?

PW: Yes. I’m very sorry to say we lost him last year. We had stayed friends all our lives. Anyhow, the movie-camera, when we saw the pictures were moving, etc, in a way I was hooked. Pure amateur stuff of course.

DdB: The stuff that hooked you was going to the normal cinema.

PW: There really was not that much else to do at that time in Melbourne except go to the cinema. And then on TV of course, we got hooked on television, Six O’Clock Rock with Johnny O’Keefe. And that was a good show, all these early Western shows were American.

DbB: It wasn’t the graphics that captured you?

PW: No, it was the story and the way these guys behave on the screen. Cowboy stuff. The actors, etc. Anyway with the movie-camera, remember in Melbourne they have certain processions and festivities that move through the city.

DbB: Moomba?

Morbid Sheep

PW: I took some shots of that. We went to Melbourne and Sydney and then in Sydney, when I saw the Sydney Harbour Bridge I said “geez that looks great.” In Sydney I met some friends also interested in movies, they had movies by Bergman and Truffaut, etc. They were Germans too. Through them I met the Sydney University Film Group, all Australians. They always looked at us, and finally one day they came over and said: “we’ve seen you here quite a lot, you’re obviously keen.” So we said, we do really like this movie stuff. And there were people there like John Flaus and Ken Quinnell who at the time we didn’t know. But they saw me there as a youngster who was very interested in these films Bande à part by Godard [1964]. So that was really something.

DdB: But you went back, you also did the tour trip from Germany. Was that after this story, was it? 

PW: That was after. In Sydney, my friend was earning a lot of money as a bricklayer. We went back to Germany via South Africa. We didn’t stay there, we just had a look at Cape Town. In Germany we stayed another seven months, and in that time we heard Australia was getting better again.

DdB: In Germany did you go back to where you used to live? 

PW: My parents place in Hamburg. I said to my mother “oh I won’t stay long, we want to go on another trip. On a motorbike.” They went absolutely berserk. “What for?” “No, no,” I said, “it will be a great trip.” That’s how the one-hour film came about, that was on the motorbike too. Mainly to India, from India we flew to Ceylon. From Ceylon to Singapore, and from Singapore we flew to Darwin. From Darwin on to Sydney. But the main part was the footage we took in Asia.

DdB: How long did that take?

PW: That trip was about five months. Eventually we got rid of the motorbike, it was getting a bit wonky and there was trouble with getting over the border, between Pakistan and India. We sold the motorbike eventually and used the money to live on. Eventually we flew to Singapore, we stayed there for a while.

DdB: You were in your early 20s?

PW: Yeah. From Singapore we came back to Melbourne again. Sydney was a much more interesting city to me. We had King’s Cross here, and to me that was pretty good. Most of the migrants my age went there. So it was good company there.

DdB: You’d already made contact with people in the film scene through the screenings.

PW: They were a viewing audience. But we discussed films afterwards. Or rather, I was listening to them, but I couldn’t partake because my English wasn’t that good. And I didn’t know all the nuances in the film language. 

DbB: What did you do with the film that you shot? Did you show that around?

PW: Yeah I only showed them to our friends. Some of the people who are on these 8mm films, they aren’t here anymore.

DdB: That was a very different kind of filmmaking to what you developed.

PW: When I first made these films, I shot them shot by shot. As we talked, at those film circles like the Workers Education Association where we saw the films. I bought a lot of books about film language and I was shooting in the documentary style. Bit by bit I got away from that. The innerworkings of film are not just reality as you see it in the street, but also something that you always see in a film which I felt was about putting what I see into the filmic context. That got me further and further into some kind of abstraction.

DdB: Do you think the fact that you were a bricklayer made you think about film differently?

PW: Well, I don’t think so. In my school years my teacher always said “you fantasise too much.” I was always up there in the clouds with storytelling. Becoming a bricklayer was a necessity. My father was a pen-pusher and I couldn’t stand the idea of doing that. We thought, maybe we can become gardeners. To become, later on, a garden architect, laying out gardens, sculpted gardens. I didn’t think too much of that, and then we thought bricklaying because of architecture. As a kid I was always building sandcastles and people said: “You should become an architect.” I always liked all these fancy castles. This was already inside of me, a fantasy of building things with my hands.

DdB: You had this documentary style, but slowly you moved into something more technical.

PW: Not so much technical, but more abstraction. Obviously, you can show a house, but a house is a solid block of bricks. But I was thinking the very moment you start moving the camera very fast, or very slowly, it becomes an image that only stays on film. A house doesn’t look like that, it’s solid. And so that made me think about using the camera on my shoulder or in my hand, not on a tripod.

DdB: Moving around with it.

PW: While that became the new thing which I knew from our circle, cinema verité, where you have the big camera on your shoulder and you follow the actors or people there, observing through the cities. That interested me then.

DdB: Well I think sitting on a motorbike and filming is about movement?

PW: That was the start. The camera was not on a tripod anymore it was actually travelling with the motorbike.

DdB: There’s a lot of still shots too in that.

PW: Well I had the tripod. I learned very quickly that nothing is worse than if you have shaky images because you haven’t got the image under control. I only make shaky images if that’s what I wanted them to be. 

DdB: When you’re on the bike there’s a blur to the image. I was wondering if that experience impacts your later work? 


PW: That was the images going by you see, landscapes. Later on I was thinking when I made films like Mood (8mm 1964), Scars (1971), and Dark (1974), here I was using the camera and thinking: “what was the tree feeling when it gets cut by a chainsaw. And in Dark I was thinking “what do the Aboriginals think?” If I was in their position, and they are always downtrodden and so-on, and somehow or other, inside your head you start to brawl and you want to get out. Those images, that was to me. When I found out how to make them, it was be a big success for me because so many people didn’t realise that you can do that. When that film won prizes, they all said that, in Spain and in places that I’d never heard of, and Chicago.

DdB: That was your breakthrough film? 

PW: Yeah it was because the international film festival in Brussels, I was invited there in ‘84/5. And he said to me, you really did something there. Well I remember that normally I travelled over there because they invited me. But then I managed to get some money together.

DdB: No funding.

PW: Not funding, no. I had to have my own money. That’s where I also had the situation where people came and saw that film and said: “Who’s this filmmaker? Who is this person?” And so when they found out who I was, that’s when I met Ingo Petzke. He said: “Oh I want that film for distributing.” I’d never even heard of that, distributing. Ok well I was in the Co-op here in Sydney, but having someone from overseas wanting to distribute one of my films, well, to me that was something else.

DdB: Even though you talked about the technical things in Dark and the emotional release of a lot of indigenous pain. In the aura of that slide. It’s also politically a very important film. I read that the copies of that film in the Co-op wore out because they went out so much, for consciousness-raising.

PW: I think the Co-op was probably the first in Australia to put a program together to do with the Aboriginal question. My film was a part of that. And that took a while because my film was so different, because all of those films were really documentaries. My film was not really a documentary. That’s why there was some resentment for having the film in. But it was such an outstanding film, it had good credentials.

DdB: Do you mean because it had been screened internationally?

PW: You see Aboriginal people in the film marching, but I wanted to show the pain they felt. The passion they had to put up with this day by day. I said look, in a way you’ve got to realise when I first came to Australia as a migrant, the very first thing that was said to me was: “Where do you come from?” I don’t know, Timbuktu, but that was a question that stays with you all your life: “Where do you come from?” Ok? It is something where you feel you are an outsider still. No matter what they say to you. To say this to the Aboriginals, that to me was a laugh! And then I got really sorry for them. I thought: Jesus Christ these guys were here way before anybody else was here.

DdB: So you could identify with their pain?

PW: Well that to me was analysis, it’s bloody ridiculous, how it was impossible. The way those poor bastards were handled. They even fought in the wars, they were good mates in the wars. And then after the war they can’t even go to the pub here.

DdB: You must be pleased to be able to contribute to those insights coming out?

PW: At that time I really felt, wow, that this is really a bit much that these people have to put up with this. And the stress. Ok progress is very slow, but they’ve made some quite sizeable achievements, and make good films too. So I’m glad that in a way I was unconsciously a part of that.

DdB: What about some of the other techniques that you used? I think one of the techniques that you used was a tourist slide of an Aboriginal warrior that you had on the slide and you’d light that up from behind, and then you zoom in and out of it with a tooth comb in front of it. That created some of those images, didn’t it.

PW: When I studied this Aboriginal question, in those days you would buy those slides from souvenir shops. Aboriginals in different poses. Holding a spear, or doing a dance, or just looking at the camera. I bought those. I decided, looking at the photos, I asked myself if I was standing there how people would look at me, a white-fella, if the whole situation was reversed. It made me think: “What is this guy actually thinking when the photo was taken?” “Does he know what happens to his photo?” Later, when they were marching I realised, “Hey the guy from the slide now has actually turned into a warrior in the street.” “Yeah this is how I feel too, because of being a foreigner coming here.” Being asked “where do you come from?” and all that. I had quite a lot of sympathy. That’s why I brought in this very fast zoom.

DdB: You used this zoom in Scars too. 

PW: This was because I lost a little lever from the lens. And that lever made me realise that’s something. I had a very good camera repair guy and I told him about it and he gave me a tip for how to do a very fast zoom. 


DdB: I remember when I started making films seeing your zoom technique. 

PW: For that film it worked quite well. I haven’t used it much since then really. But I needed always all the technical bits I used and an excuse for why to use them.

DdB: Didn’t you have a library of frosted glass, materials to distort the images?

PW: Yeah. I went to a glazier shop and I looked at the glass they used. Nice images came out of that. I remember Phil Noyce came to my little studio at the time with his camera and we were just talking about them, and I showed him on the 16mm projector. He saw the first zoom shots actually. He was enamoured by them.

DdB: Phil Noyce was looking after the Filmmakers Society at the University, wasn’t he?

PW: That’s right but he was also a member of the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op. Remember that Co-op was really a bunch of people who did all kinds of different film work. Some experimental, I was one of them. Many of them into documentary, some animation like Bruce Petty. Some were of course into narrative films. It was a diverse bunch.

DdB: I like that story about how popular Dark was, given how experimental stuff is so often discounted.

PW: This happened a great deal. When I travelled overseas with my work and I spoke to the audience, the most praise I got – you know who praised me the most? The projectionists. They said to me: “Paul, we get these all the time, but you’re the only one whose films I like to show to the audience. Because you have got, hand and foot, to bring the stories out and you are a craftsman.” I was very happy with that, that they could see that. 

DdB: That’s why I made the comment before that being a bricklayer is a sort of craft. 

PW: Well, there was this dispute between Eisenstein and Pudovkin, where Pudovkin said: “What is a film? Is it frame by frame?” And then he says: “film is built brick by brick.” But it’s not really true. It’s true, it is each frame as we see it, but immediately as I read this, I said no it is what is in each frame. What each frame inside tells me. It just happens to be the mechanical part of it.

DdB: So you began thinking about what is in the single frame?

PW: Yeah, absolutely. When I came to Sydney I went to the Mitchell Library a lot to study film. I came across Eisenstein, Flaherty, Grierson and so on. I immersed myself in the literature of films. Then of course the German documentaries, French and so on.

DdB: That is also much more the documentary side of things. Who was important in the German and French scenes?

PW: I suppose in Germany it was Pabst, in a way. Because when he did films that were underground, which actually weren’t underground, they were done in a studio. Like the images of miners, he built all that stuff, his cameras were on rollers. I felt an affinity with that because in the mines they also need bricklayers to close the shafts. I nearly went into the mines to become a bricklayer. I looked at it, but somehow it wasn’t really me.

DdB: We could also mention Brickwall (1975) here. John Flaus thinks that’s a very important film. 


PW: Yes, well you know I sent it to Oberhausen by chance, and they selected that film. We were all surprised, at the Co-op, that they selected Brickwall. It is not a documentary, no-one lays bricks in the film.

DdB: Oberhausen is kind of renowned for selecting films like that, no?

PW: Yeah, but actually it was mainly a documentary film festival, at that time. Short narrative films, and animation of course. They also took in some experimental films. Brickwall was kind of an experimental film… That was the main festival in the world, in those days. But anyway so they took it, and I went over there you see.

DdB: Did you get funding for that?

PW: No, no. I saved money to do that. It turned out to be very successful because people all came around and said: “A bricklayer!?” The mind boggled for them that someone who was a bricklayer actually made a film. It was a conundrum. I’ve never heard of another person who was a bricklayer who made a film about bricks.

DdB: The sound was very important in that film too.

PW: The sound was really the sound you use to lay bricks. It was my trowel and the way you scrape it along and pick up the mud and use it again and so on. No music just what I heard every day.

DdB: Having worked with my father off and on a bit, I recognise that. The sound of it was, in a sense, the most important part for me. Evoking a process.

PW: That film, I made a film on 8mm ten years before Brickwall on a building site with some of my friends, like a little documentary. I knew when I looked at it at the time. I knew instinctively that is not the way to use film. My craft was getting better, and I could see how I can improve. 

DdB: So it was all still a documentary approach? You had some sort of experience or insight that you then wanted to translate into film.

PW: Yeah, because if I didn’t become a filmmaker I might have become a writer, perhaps, or an architect. If you look at Gropius or Gaudi, a sort of supreme example of idiosyncrasies. I saw that Eisenstein’s father was an architect and thought: “That’s frozen music.” That’s in the Baltic states. Riga, Tallin. Fantastic buildings. I stopped there and look I was gobsmacked when I saw the buildings there.

DdB: With Sydney Harbour Bridge (1977), you also go out with your equipment, and you go out into the landscape, or into the space, and you record the images there, don’t you.

PW: With Sydney Harbour Bridge – I told you I came from Melbourne to Sydney, we find ourselves beneath the bridge at night and we look up. I never forgot that impression. 

DdB: You did all of those pans of the bridge by hand yet in precise control.

PW: That was all done in camera. You couldn’t be out at all, you know. If you didn’t have the mattes completely lined up then it wouldn’t have looked very good.

DdB: Even the exposure had to be right too!

PW: Exactly right.

DdB: I remember seeing that you had a table with all the exposures calculated out, with the changes you had to make for every take.

PW: These images took sometimes two or three days to film. I took images until the light had changed too much. By that time I was two, or three, hours doing it. Then I went back to my house, but everything had to stay in that matte-box frame.

DdB: So how did you get the exact image back, do you have a sort of spot or something where you could the put the tripod back exactly where it was?

Film Cans

PW: Yes, more or less. I noted the time, because it was filmed in winter. In summer the sun is too high, and I needed that light reflected in the water too, you see. The approach to the bridge was different then to what it is now. So there’s an overhang there with a number of pillars, and I knew which pillar to go back to, to get the same location.

DdB: So how did you determine what kind of day to go? 

PW: It was because of the light, really. In the morning – 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, right up to about 1, which is when I’d finish. I had to wind back the film too. There were so many things I had to do. Today you think of the things you do on a computer and it just works. In those days you had to do everything by hand.

DdB: And memory!

PW: I made it easier because I had a little piece of paper with only what I wanted to film on there. And I struck out what I did. And the one that wasn’t struck out was what I needed to do. And all the mattes and so on, which I needed for the shots of course, they were cut out beforehand. So then I only had to hope that they all fit together when the film came back. Because it took me maybe eight or nine days to do one roll of film. Actually, some of them could have taken longer.

DdB: How many parts of the film were there?

PW: Oh well, probably hundreds.

DdB: It reminds me of the story of Zbigniew Rybcynski when he made that film Tango (1981), I don’t know if you’ve seen that? But he did that in an optical printer with painted mattes and he had to put the 35mm through the camera so many times that the sprockets wore out.

PW: Wow, yeah.

DdB: Now it’s very different isn’t it. You don’t have to plan like that anymore, It can be an afterthought.

PW: This goes to the question of the digital now. To start with I knew nothing of it, and I learned by trial and error. You don’t have to worry about spending money on film because if you don’t like it you can just wipe it, you see. So in fact, I don’t do things anymore because I can tell: “I know what that looks like, I know what that’s like.” The surprise element is not there anymore. So now I have to say: “ok, you’ve done that, and this looks good, and now you have to make it a lot better.” That has become my challenge now. I think the very last film I made, a film you haven’t seen yet, I think I did a great deal of work there which really pleases me. Because I didn’t have to shoot it. You know, it’s about challenging yourself. 

DdB: Now you can do it all in your studio.

PW: But I still have to go outside with my camera. To get images, which I then want to manipulate. 

DdB: Because you’re doing a lot of green-screen stuff now.

PW: Yeah a lot of green screen stuff.

DdB: So what sort of images are you going out to capture for manipulation?

PW: Well, actually I can go out with a green screen into the field. That’s what I’m working on now, and in fact I did five seconds and I thought “shit this is really something”. And now I’m trying to capture that. 

Morbid Sheep

DdB: Was it a mistake the first time? 

PW: No, it was a transfiguration really, where I thought “this might work, and then I’ll try this.” And of course the thing with the computer is you try to get it back and there are so many images. I have to make room on the computer for that; store them and make some more images. I have to track them all back into the computer. Everything is built on the green screen. I spoke to an art fellow up the road from here, he said “it becomes a mess!” He was talking about putting images on top of images like I told you. Now I know exactly what he meant. 

DdB: You must have learnt a lot in terms of manipulating images with 16mm. You could start to see things that were developed or the way of looking at things that were very useful in this situation you’re in now.

PW: Only in the sense that the films I’ve done so far – and I must have done about 40 films – I said: “yeah, my god, I did what I was thinking about with that film.” In the camera, you build up images. Red Church (1976) to me is a good example – you keep building up the same images, a hundred times or more. Until I got to complete whiteness, more or less the end of the film, you see. And that was done by constantly re-exposing the film. And that’s something that I’m working on now on the green screen, how I can achieve that.

DdB: You demonstrated that how for Bean; Queen (2017), you had that image of the Queen, the little doll in front of the green screen and you’d jiggle it with a stick, This hyper-movement. I thought, as a gesture, that’s a bit like the zooming rhythm in Scars and Dark, a pulse that comes out of your body.

PW: I’ve started to do a bit more of that. That’s to do with the screen itself. And the work I do with different kinds of puppets and images, and some are at the back and some are on very long sticks. It’s a constant challenge to work out things, and how you can help your film, how you can help your mind and bring into fruition which you then see on a computer screen. 

DdB: Especially with the 16mm films. You have a reputation for having very clean, very strong control over your images. When you see the artisanal nature of your studio, it’s interesting to me that it comes out of that environment. Not out of a supercomputer, or highly technologised environment.

PW: With the computer now I have quite a bit of control for manipulating images on the screen. In fact I mentioned the recent film, I looked at that film on the screen and I thought: “Christ, that to me is another 16mm film.” All these elements I put into it and it looks like another 16mm film. 

DdB: And the quality?

PW: Talking about quality, you know that old 16mm can’t come near the quality of a computer screen.

DbB: You know in a 16mm projector film moves around a little bit the digital is stable.

PW: Oh yes. I had my 16mm films shown in many theatres, and when they were projected really well they looked fantastic. But you can’t get that anymore, there is virtually no more 16mm projection around. Look at this guy from Spain who contacted me.

DdB: Felix Garcia?

PW: Yes. He said to me: “We don’t do 16mm anymore.” And I don’t have HD.

DdB: Those issues are changing all the time. At age 80 you’ve reinvented yourself, in a way.

PW: Out of necessity. My technique went away with all that. So as a filmmaker, if you wanted to stay in it, you simply had to adapt.

DdB: Vilém Flusser talks about the Freedom of the Migrant (Flusser, 2003), how the migrant has experienced displacement physically in their body, not just superficially by surfing the internet. That comes out in the way you talked about Dark, how your body felt indigenous pain.

PW: Well I could never have made it, you know, if I’d not migrated and known the pain associated with that. That’s actually the same with all the films I’ve made. Whether it’s Scars, or Dark, or Brickwall. They are something that I’ve experienced.

DdB: Over time your films became more technical, and the content wasn’t as clearly political as those earlier films.

Brick and Tile

PW: Well, yeah. That’s probably true. When I made Scars that was definitely a very strong film against the environment – the chopping down the trees and so on. But when I did Brick and Tile (1983), that to me was where I came from, bricks and tiles in Europe and people have the choice as to what bricks and tiles they want to use, all these variations you had to build your dream home. 

DdB: Sure. At one stage you were doing some kind of boutique bricklaying, to make a living, weren’t you?

PW: Fancy brickworks.

DdB: That impacted Brick and Tile?

PW: Absolutely. I was working in the glass factory for a while, we did fancy brick-work there. That was to do with the little arches we had to do there, all the different kinds of arches for the glass to come through. It got heated up to about 1500 degrees. You had to be very exact with this kind of brickwork and that kind of exactness is what I put into my films. It was in my nature, there was no sloppiness involved in that. I always made sure I got it right.

DdB: Those images that you put on those milk cartons, when they rotate on the turntable. When you see that as a finished film, it looks so clean. So technically perfect that you think there must have been some complex technology to produce that effect.

PW: That again was to do with the sharp delineation of the mattes too. The artwork and camera were a long distance away, from one end of the studio to the other. And then I had to regulate the motor as well and I couldn’t exactly focus on that part of the milk carton that to me was the objective. I wanted to see that in the viewfinder. I was pleased with the results.

DdB: You do that in the studio, but do you also go through a process like that when you’re out in the field? In Elevated Shores (1993) these mattes move around on the water. It is both physical and ephemeral. 

PW: I made this film in the Blue Mountains, from found footage, that someone had given me, of a soldier who came here on leave from New Guinea. I wanted to give him the feeling in the mountains of not just looking at the mountains. He came here and it was nice and quiet, a peaceful transition from where he came from and where he has to go back, all this crossed my mind. I remember when Albie Thoms saw the film he said: “Jesus, Paul. You’ve really made a bloody good film there.” It was all done with found footage. I had to go back to the Blue Mountains, the found footage was all black and white. I went and found the same spot where that person was and refilmed it with my camera. I put myself in his shoes virtually. I was more than pleased that I could somehow recreate those images that were not completely straight but were shimmering through the landscape.

DdB: It seems like it was very important for you to place your own body in these spaces. And whatever comes to you when you put your body there, and it’s not only thoughts but it’s moods and feelings.

PW: That’s a very good way of putting it because I remember when people saw Dark, I was filming when the police came, in a crouching position to feel that. So that was most of my films, I wanted to get as close to the action as possible. Even if the action appears to be static, like a landscape. And by doing that you’re filming just part of it again and again with another part and another part, and something else comes out of it. It is what I call a true filmic image. 

DdB: It’s about film itself and a sentiment from cinema verité as well.

PW: These guys got out to put the camera as close as possible to the action. Absolutely. You don’t put a camera deliberately in place anymore, the camera takes it for you. There are so many things happening around you.

DdB: Your abstraction is being processed through your body. Whereas some of these other situations, it is just the technology. 

PW: People are really not involved in that sense anymore. It’s a machine, with a camera, sitting on a car, so it takes over. You look at these drones, I’ll tell you a good example: I was in Cambodia with a fellow sitting at a temple right on the hill. He went up there and the drone was flying up and it was photographing the temple as it flew around the hill. And when I looked at the footage it looked fantastic. I’m seeing now in so many commercials and so many documentaries where people have these drones going up while they’re standing on the floor.

DdB: Every five or ten years a new bit of technology enters the advertising game. There was a whole lot of time-lapse technology there for a while and now its drones. 

PW: I think it is up to filmmakers to really make good use of it. Yesterday I saw a little snippet, whale watchers. Waiting for the stuff that comes out of his head there, you know the plumage where the water comes up. Anyway they wanted to capture that and they had a drone that had a little plastic dish and they captured a sample for the laboratory to determine what his blood is, what he ate, all of this information. That’s a good use of a drone. 

DdB: Another recent development is this idea of documentary animation. The argument is that they’re expressing something that they can’t get in any other way. You could argue that your work is like that, using graphic styles to get at something you can’t get at in any other way.

PW: I always said to them: “Do not put too much into it, just see these films and maybe you can enjoy them. Don’t get too heavy on the content and try to break in and see something remarkable in them, a hidden context or so on. Just make sure you get a nice feeling, a feeling which elates you in a way, or lifts you up.” I had people from America come forward and they wanted to shake my hand and they’d say, “Mr Winkler that was really good. I feel really good about it.”

DdB: It was a very ephemeral kind of feeling? 

PW: I spoke with Albie about that. How people react to our films once the performance is finished. Some might walk straight out. I had a three-day retrospective at Harvard. The guy who ran it was a bit annoyed because he said, now you’ve not made a bad film Paul, but when I look at the audience it’s the same people that keep coming back. Those people were so smitten with the films that they wanted to see the next performance, and the next. Remember, it was three days.

DdB: Maybe it’s a bit more like how music operates. Abstraction came out of painting, and it was always about real things. Which is very similar to the way you’re talking about it. How you moved from documentary to abstraction.

PW: I guess there was definitely a progression for me. There comes a point when you say: “If you’ve done that. That’s it.” Don’t go back there.

DdB: I remember I once showed you a time lapse that I shot out of a plane landing in Sydney and you said: “Oh, I’ve seen that before. So what’s all this?!”

PW: “The only thing is you can use that if you work more on it.

DdB: Absolutely. That reinforces your point about excavating something new inside images.

PW: Just before you came yesterday I shot some images here and I transferred them to the computer and I looked at them and I knew: “No, no, no. That’s not quite right, that’s not quite it.” They look alright maybe to someone who hasn’t seen my work before. But to me no.

DdB: That’s the thing about film reception. For Brickwall at the Melbourne Film Festival some audience members became annoyed, and they wanted to stop the film from being shown.

PW: I had this in Sydney too. I remember David Stratton was the director then. He said: “Paul, you’ve done it again, you really polarised the audience.” Some people wanted to see more and some people wanted it to stop.

DdB: That doesn’t happen very often in the cinema. 

PW: You’re not there to please them, but to entertain them and maybe make them think a little bit.

DdB: My reaction to your films is not about entertainment, more about being tested beyond normal perception. 

PW: It’s hard to say. A lot of the stuff you do in the camera. You only see it when the film comes back. 

DdB: But that’s not the way it is anymore. 

PW: No, you see it right away now. Every time that I used different subject matter and the different type of matting I used, that’s the really technical part. And later on when I used moving mattes and so on and I built that device there. All these things were done in anticipation, in a way. And so when the film came back, and it was good, or when you see that you’ve made mistakes and I was pissed off so I had to do it again. Look, sometimes when the film came back I thought: No, I’m not looking at it now, give me another two days. There was this kind of anticipation, but it felt good when you finally then saw it and it came out good. And even when only half of it was good, well that was still a feeling of wellbeing. With the computer now, I’m starting to progress from what you might call the “linear approach” and I’m now getting into this new kind of approach.

DdB: More rhizomatic?

PW: In fancy brickwork you have to build templates. These templates are there to hold the bricks up before they can set. That’s what I’m doing with the computer now, I’m building templates. And once these templates are taken away, then the images must look solid, they must stay there. This is just the beginning for me, these templates. You know when people came to some of the houses where I put these arches in. They asked me questions like: “How do you make them stand up!?” So it’s really funny. Like you just build them in space. They didn’t know you need templates.

DdB: Well that’s an interesting metaphor for your films.

PW: I’m making templates again. I’m using these timelines as short templates while I couldn’t even explain it to anybody! 

DdB: Earlier on you mentioned that you’ve invested your own money, but there was a period, once established, where every year there’d be a new film out and every year the filmmaking commission acquiesced and gave you some kind of support for that. How did that happen?

PW: Acquiesced, that’s nice. It was really all because of the prizes I’d won.

DdB: Because the films that you won the prizes for weren’t funded. The first ones.

PW: Yeah, I got all this tiny prize money and the fact that they were praised. As you mentioned every year, almost. And that meant then they all knew that – in fact they always said to me: “Paul, you always come up with new surprises.” And I said, “Well, surprises are always good because I don’t want to do the shit I did before.” You see. And so in my own mind I had to carry on and to come up with new things. As an architect, if you have the same clients, you might build the same house again and again and again. Because you’re fixed with these different clients and you have to give them what they want. But as a free-thinking person where you don’t have to rely on clients, you can do what you want. I remember Bruce Hodsdon, when he was working at the National Library he said: “Well you’re one of the only filmmakers who actually pays with their own money.” As a bricklayer, I mean. I earned that money. And so I put it into these films. 

DdB: And that’s not an issue anymore is it. And not because you’re more financially stable but because filming has become cheap. 

PW: That used to be the most expensive part for us. Here’s a hundred foot of film and then the work-print of that was really a lot of money. And then later on you’d get an answer print of that and that could really set you back. But nowadays? No, and that’s why they’re making more films now.

DdB: But that doesn’t mean they are any better.

PW: No, not at all. It doesn’t matter if people make things on their telephone. How does the film reflect back onto the audience. In our time it was only the middle-class who could afford that. Or people like myself who didn’t belong to the middle-class but had the means through my work.

DdB: Your origins and approaches seem more artisanal or working-class; I mean the methods of working as a kind of technician. This comes back to that point you made about the projectionists being really impressed with your film because they’re technically proficient.

PW: Right, and not only how a film is but because of their life experience. That’s something you get in time: how is this a really good film? You can’t really put your finger on why it is a good film but you know that it has reflected you, or done something that has made you feel good, or gave you a kick or something.

DdB: I have felt about some of your films – I would have been proud if I’d made that. When your colleagues also have respect for what you’ve done. 

PW: That’s right. Talking about middle-class, I remember when I first got into film, we had Albie and David Perry. They ran their little film group. They had an ad in the paper. I didn’t know who they were, and I came across this ad and it was about how they wanted like-minded people in Balmain house somewhere. I actually went past there and there was nothing to be seen. I actually expected there to be a cinema or something and anyway I looked around and then I pissed off again. Years later I asked them about it and they said: “Oh no we were out the back.”

DdB: Like in a shed or something? Like we are now!

PW: It was completely dark. So that was very strange. Anyway I said to them: “I never forgot that”! The people you mention about middle-class well, I needed some help with some of my films and some people steered me towards that person or that person – I was living in a room at the time, you know, I paid about $20 or $30 – and the first thing I noticed was I was coming into houses! They all had houses. It was a different world. I couldn’t believe it.

DdB: You also came here to build those houses for those people. I saw this quote by Arthur Caldwell who was the Labor Minister for Immigration in the 1950s – making a speech in front of all of these British migrant workers, saying: “You are the right type of people to come to this country, and we want you to build our houses for us. And then later on, you can build your own house.” But later on wasn’t very quick was it, it took a while.

PW: Yeah it took a while. We were the fodder, to build these houses. I remember when I fronted up in Hamburg for the immigration people and they asked me what I could do and I said bricklayer, they said: “Oh, we need that,” or a carpenter, or plumber. All this time I was living in boarding houses. When I made my first films that was it, the idea of having a house never even entered my head. This came much later. Probably ’68 or so, there were houses for sale for very little money. I was there with my friend and we decided to buy a house. That’s how we kicked off learning about the real estate business. I came and did all the plastering, the ceilings and brickwork and laying tiles. Now I’ve got a house here myself.

DdB: Something that we haven’t talked about yet, that is that you’re gay. I wouldn’t have known that from your earlier films, but after a certain kind of aesthetic came into your films, which had a much more of a gay flavour?

PW: You know it never really came up because for some reason we talked about films! Nowadays of course this has become a big thing! In the early years my gayness was illegal and nobody knew, or I didn’t tell anybody. I was a bricklayer and nobody expected a bricklayer to be gay.

DdB: Some gay sensibilities start to appear in your films digitally. I was looking at those with the loops of male bodies, the pop-kitsch kind of stuff.

PW: Actually yes, you’re right. That was the first digital film that I did. Angel (2015). That was all cut out of magazines I was following, they are all gone now. That was a short time but this was very much in the news. I thought I could do this on the new device I had, the rolling drum, and I made these loops. That’s right, I picked it up there. There’s a lot of gay models and lesbian models, and straight models.

DdB: That was really the first time you’d done that.

PW: Yeah, first time. An eight-minute film. It was shown at the Sydney Underground Film Festival. People came forward to me and said: “shit, there are quite a lot of sexual undertones to that film.” Maybe people who knew I was gay could put two and two together, but to me it was a matter of aesthetics, really. I have never seen my gayness as having anything to do with my films. If you look at gay filmmakers, they make gay films. 

DdB: The whole migrant thing, as well as being gay, there are probably some similarities in that you were considered an outsider. For being a migrant, and for being gay as well. But you never addressed it. 

PW: No, I never addressed it. All the friends I had, and even in those days they knew I was gay, that was never an issue. In fact it has come to what it is now because we were so well hidden, and so accepted as people. Never mind if you were gay, blue, or red or whatever. It suited us fine because we never did any harm to anybody, and nobody did any harm to us. Then, as I said, this is what you had with the footballer, when the footballer’s son came out now, right? A big sturdy fellow. That came as a surprise to many people. Because they see gayness as feminine, or as femininity or something. They don’t realise that is only part of being gay. That’s why I never willingly or unconsciously associated with that. It didn’t really interest me. My film-work basically decided what was around us. It was nothing to do with gayness at all, it was all these ways the models were used. The seamen and angelic types and the ways they did their cakewalks, with wings on. I’ve got some footage that I’m working on now too. They look really good, those images. I’ve pinched them, I went to the shop and photographed them, but I see them from an aesthetic point of view.

Special thanks to Giles Fielke for his transcription of the original interview.

A fuller filmography of 36 16mm films up to 2008, beyond MOMA’s catalogue is registered at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Winkler_(director) 

NFSA Non-theatrical Lending Collection has Winker’s films for rental:

Compilations of his work is available on DVD through Re:Voir:

Live Streaming of Winkler’s work is available through Bloomsbury Art Films (acquired from Artfilms) via most University libraries.


  • Flusser, Vilém & Kronenberg, Kenneth (trans.), & Finger, Anke K (ed.) (2003). The freedom of the migrant: objections to nationalism. University of Illinois Press.
  • Sturken, Marina (1984) Catalogue: Circulating Film Library Catalog. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

About The Author

Dirk de Bruyn has been practicing, writing and curating in the area of experimental film and animation for over 35 years. He is currently teaching Animation and Digital Culture at Deakin University in Melbourne, Victoria (Burwood Campus).

Related Posts