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The following interview with Marie Craven originated from an online interview after a film class viewing of a program of her films as we moved out of Covid. The Zoom transcriptions of that event were trawled and expanded upon by myself and Marie into a more succinct mapping of a journey through her creative work. What motivated me has been her processes of re-invention through the different cycles of media she has been enmeshed in and the creative communities she so productively engaged in, all shifts that reflect changes in the media landscape. Craven has re-invented herself into the present through these media shifts over the last 40 years through Super-8, 16mm, 35mm, music and the digital web. 

– D.D.B.

Welcome Marie. We looked at Pale Black (1992), Maidenhead (1995) and then three more recent videos in Rodeo Days (2011), Misery (2019) and A Glimpse from the Gutter (2020). You started your practice in the Super-8 group didn’t you?

In 1984, I made my first Super-8 film, as a student. I became instantly passionate about filmmaking from just that experience. I heard there was a Sydney Super-8 movement happening, and so I moved there for about a year with my partner at that time, John Campitelli, who was exploring photography. Then I came back to Melbourne and joined the newly-formed Melbourne group. 

So, who would have been some of the players in Sydney?

Andrew Frost, Virginia Hilyard, Catherine Lowing, Nick Myers, Rowan Woods, Mark Titmarsh, Michael Hutak, Gary Warner, were some of the main ones. I hope I haven’t forgotten too many.

Back down to Melbourne, what was it like in that group? There was a lot of disparate filmmaking happening in the Melbourne group.

We were an eclectic gang of misfits. Coming together was encouraging to all of us, for peer support and mutual interest. Even though we were all making very different kinds of films, it was the freedom of what we could do with Super-8 that united us all. At that time, I was known by my birth name Anne-Marie Crawford, which I later changed in 1990 for personal reasons. 

There was also a meeting/screening every month.

Anybody with a film could walk in off the street and show it on the night. There was a nice sense of camaraderie. 

How did that lead to Pale Black?

My early Super-8 films were about trying to find a voice as a filmmaker. The handful of Super-8 films I made back then led to Pale Black, a mix of Super-8 and 16mm film. It was a stronger, more innovative film that reflected my growing confidence as an artist. 

What was the culture surrounding that transition?

As a media student, my first project was a Super-8 called Journey (1984). Monique Schwartz, my teacher, encouraged me to consider going further with filmmaking. This inspired me to make more Super-8, to explore, and to seek out others who may be interested in the same kind of thing. 

I remember going to a screening at RMIT Glasshouse Theatre around that time, a program of short avant-garde films from overseas. Totally new to this kind of film, I found them mostly incomprehensible, but also intriguing. The film I most related to in that program was Sally Potter’s Thriller (1979).

That was about the time I met you, Dirk, and also Michael Lee, at an open screening you organised above a shop in Fitzroy. Both of you as well were encouraging of my filmmaking after screening Journey that night.

While living the year in Sydney, I went to the Chauvel Cinema in Paddington, where late night Super-8 screenings were happening, packed and lively events, mainly art students and Super-8 filmmakers like me. 

Back in Melbourne in 1986, I arrived just as the Super-8 group there was taking off, Bill Mousoulis being central to that happening. I also met Chris Windmill in that group, with whom I later had some collaborations, and is still a dear friend. Open screenings were key to developing our fringe film culture, especially in Melbourne.

After showing Journey at one of the earliest Melbourne Super-8 group screenings, a couple of people said it reminded them of Maya Deren. I’d never seen her films before, and when I watched her Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), I sensed a connection. This led to a growing interest in watching and learning about avant-garde film history.

Pale Black was where I most engaged with this history. Completed in 1992, it was minimal, and written from my dreams. Before editing, the film was blown up from Super-8 to 16mm in San Francisco, and then was completed in the larger format. I found this lab, one of only a few at the time that could transfer Super-8 to larger formats, through Sydney filmmaker Virginia Hilyard. She had blown up one of her Super-8 films to 35mm at that lab.

Elephant Girl.

Yes, it was a beautiful film. I later showed it in a touring program I took to Europe in the mid-1990s.

It was quite a coup for you to get to a positive connection with the Australian Film Commission.

It was lucky timing, to be around when the AFC was funding experimental films. Pale Black was given funding for a professional voice actor, the transfer of the Super-8 images to 16mm, and completion of the film in that format. Funding policies then were more inclined to see fringe filmmaking as a workshop for cinema in general. It seems a very different funding culture now.

So how long would it take to get a work funded then?

In the early 1990s, the time from applying for funding and possibly getting it, may have been only a few months. These were small grants. About 10 years later it took me four years of reapplying to secure funding for my narrative short, Blow (2002), but that needed a much bigger budget for professional cast and crew and larger format production expenses.

The reason I was asking those questions is because I think that students now are faced with challenges in moving from student work to actually getting out there and trying to make some impact, and I feel that your story is kind of an example of how. So few people moved out of Super-8 and managed to get a positive relationship with the AFC. 

I’m not sure how relevant my experience back then is to students now, with such different funding and cultural conditions. Perhaps timeless is that filmmaking is made up of creative vision and impulse, desire, reflection and storytelling, and other related aspects, but there are also very practical considerations. It helps to be open to windows of opportunity, with curiosity about possibilities not yet imagined, and a willingness to follow them when they appear.

They used to call the funding structure the Experimental Film and Video Fund. That shifted to the No Frills Fund for shorter work, but the possibility of making something big became harder and harder.

Yes, the No Frills Fund was the only one supporting Super-8 films. Its existence seemed mainly to encourage young filmmakers who were already doing interesting things on their own. I got a little $500 grant from that fund. 

Gary Warner set that up and he started in Super-8 in Sydney.

He was one of the main promoters of the Super-8 culture at that time, and a filmmaker as well. He had developed a good relationship with the AFC and had some employment there.

It’s interesting to compare Melbourne and Sydney. MIMA based in Melbourne serviced experimental film.

Over time the Sydney Super-8 group transformed into Dlux Media Arts, an organisation more akin to MIMA in Melbourne, which itself later renamed as Experimenta. Both had more of an art-world engagement than the earlier Super-8 groups, and both gained funding to exhibit and distribute this work more widely.

This whole area sat between the Australian Film Commission and the Australia Council for the Arts.

Yes, and it became about finding a bridge between film and arts funding.

The camera doesn’t move very much in Pale Black you know. There were pauses, those black sections in there.

It is very pared back, a personal film experiment influenced by the many experimental films I’d seen by that time. The central feature is the voice of the actor Louise Fox, who tells several small dream stories I wrote.

The images were a small collection of silent domestic moments I filmed on black-and-white Super-8. These were of objects, windows, domestic spaces, people mostly unseen. Though framed as still images, they were shot hand-held on film, and so there is slight visual movement even when little is happening within the frame.

The combination of everyday images with spoken dream stories suggests a twilight between waking and sleeping. I placed long black screen spaces between each image, where the voice could be heard solo for a time, a shifting perceptual experience.

There are elements of austerity in experimental and avant-garde film history in general, and this film was influenced by that sense of aesthetic purity.

I think you needed a track record too, and your relationship with Adrian Martin provided a good sounding board.

I first met Adrian when I was a student of media in 1984 and he was already a rising star in the wider Australian film culture. Some years later we became partners and collaborators, including in many ways that happened behind the scenes. He was greatly supportive of my film involvements for about 10 years from the late 1980s, while also building his own more illustrious international career as a film critic and theorist. Our daily life over that time was filled with conversations around cinema, which advanced and enrichened my perspectives on film across a wide spectrum of genres.

The interesting thing is that both you and Maya Deren were moving into these areas when they were very male dominated. How did you work through that male preponderance in the ‘80s?

I wasn’t personally much troubled by it in my own small context, though I held strong feminist views. When I was first trying to connect with fellow filmmakers, I found the men in these marginal groups to be welcoming, and it felt equal. It did seem a bit ‘boysy’ in flavour, with only a few other women around the Melbourne Super-8 group, such as Sarah Zadeh (then Johnson), Joanne Hampton and Vikki Riley. But in the wider culture there was some optimism about steps being taken to encourage more filmmaking by women, for example through the AFC Women’s Film Fund. There was still something of a glass ceiling when it came to women being funded to make feature films.

Alice Garner in Maidenhead

We should move on to Maidenhead which was the next step after Pale Black in your relationship with the AFC.

Pale Black won a Dendy Award for short film at the Sydney Film Festival in 1993. That inspired me to start submitting it to overseas film festivals, where it had some success. 

This gave me a basis to apply for an increased level of funding. As poor as a church mouse, I was also reaching for ways to afford life in the most basic ways. AFC funding seemed to offer a possible path out of poverty, and the chance to make films on a bigger canvas.

By the way, submitting to international film festivals was hugely more difficult in those days, being almost exclusively by snail mail, later faxes were involved. I was sending VHS videos by airmail to festivals, then heavy film prints if they were selected for screening. These days almost all short film distribution happens online, vastly faster and easier.

The word experimental doesn’t get used as much now.

That’s right, though I still use it for want of a better term. But back then, Dirk, you were a bridge between the true experimental filmmakers from the 1960s and ‘70s, and those of us who became Super-8 filmmakers in the 1980s. We were mostly younger and varied widely in philosophies, and in the film genres that influenced us.

We were an earlier generation who kind of dabbled with 16mm. A little group of us, and then Super-8 started to happen, so we kind of kind of wanted to see what was going on there.

It seems to me that Super-8 was the domestic medium closest to what we can do now, with digital video, home computers and phones. But making short films was so much rarer back then, far less accessible. These days filmmaking is everywhere.

So Maidenhead, that was kind of the next step, really.

Prior to filmmaking, I was a young actor, and loved theatre. Maidenhead connected my film experiments with my love of staged narrative, actors and performance. It follows a woman’s fictional journey through obliquely related dream episodes, mostly without spoken words. Instead, a highly textured musical soundscape by Philip Brophy.

John Cruthers produced, Nicolette Freeman was cinematographer, Georgina Campbell the production designer, and Ken Sallows the editor. The cast included Alice Garner, Adriano Cortese, Denise Scott, Nico Lathouris, among others. The film was AFC-funded and the script developed in association with acting workshops. It was completed as a 35mm film.

How did the actors’ workshops happen?

They happened over a couple of weeks. I employed directing techniques I learned from being an actor in earlier drama workshops and courses. Techniques like playing games, deconstructing text, improvising scenes in different ways. We all discussed aspects of the dream stories, which helped me find a narrative flow for the final script. 

You’ve been very good at networking and seeking out the people who you want to work with.

Because I’m interested in them as well. And yet I am very much a socially anxious person. The creative point of focus with others has helped with this, at least while being creative together. It’s a great thing to have talented people and a culture around you.

Rodeo Days

A lot of this work has a very deep subtle personal side through the images and material that come up in your work. There appear two strands to your skills: this evolving process of making the films themselves, and your public networking, political and administrative skills. Those two areas seem to be quite separate in a lot of ways.

I’m now almost completely absent from that public side of things. But I was very active in our sub-cultures back in the 1980s and ‘90s, and since, while also making my films.

Some of your works resolve such issues. They give an answer to the cultural struggles that we go through.

It is a huge struggle, all of the arts really, acting, music, film, it’s terribly difficult to make a living from our creative work. Those who do are at the very tip of the iceberg. 

We haven’t really talked too much about Maidenhead. I always remembered the scene with the toilet roll, a memory that stayed with me, like a strip of film. Also, the shot of walking past the bus full of applauding people. The psychology seemed to come out of a dream.

It was out of my dreams, all of it, but fictionalised and given cinematic form. In that sense it was similar to Pale Black, also made up of brief dream episodes. But Maidenhead took a starkly contrasting approach to expressing them in film.

It was a big leap from what had been essentially one-woman films, to directing a fully staged and funded narrative, with a substantial crew of professional technicians and artists, several known actors, locations, sets, costumes, catering. 

This larger kind of production happened on only one other funded narrative film that I directed. This was Blow, completed in 2002. All other of my films and videos have been at the personal end of the production scale.

Maidenhead was such a big thing at that time for you, it presented a new challenge to control the production process beyond Pale Black.

Its final form feels true to the essence of the film I wanted to make. I see it as possibly my most accomplished and substantial film. It was also the most successful in gathering awards and screenings at international festivals.

I can see that the structures are similar to Pale Black, but I feel there was more of a sense of humour in Maidenhead.

They’re far from identical, more like cousin films in a way. It was interesting to make such a minimal film with Pale Black, and then the highly colourful and theatrical film, Maidenhead, a much bigger and narrative-driven project.

What was the humour?

Humour is notoriously tricky to describe. In Maidenhead it is possibly a subtle sense of absurdity and oddness, seen in ways both light and dark. Funny things happen in dreams.

Certainly, I enjoy humour in films. Blow, the narrative film that followed Maidenhead, is a whimsical teen romance and was so enjoyable to make, in contrast with earlier austerity. There is humour in many of my digital poetry films since 2014.

This movement through fragmentation via dream and absurdity seems to be a deeper way of moving into narrative, it brings something generational with it that was previously invisible. 

At the time of Maidenhead, Jane Campion had been making experimental narrative shorts which had a big impact on Australian independent film culture. Along with the international shorts I had seen by Maya Deren, Sally Potter, Su Friedrich and by then many others, Campion’s innovative short films spurred ideas and confidence that there may be a place for my own experimental narratives.

Yes, this work can remind me of Jane Campion’s Peel (1982).

And there was Passionless Moments (1983), the short she made in collaboration with her partner Gerard Lee. 

Gerard Lee is Michael Lee’s younger brother.

I did not know that, how interesting. Passionless Moments is quite a unique short film for that time, made up of a lot of little episodes. I think both these films may have been made when she was studying at the Australian Film TV and Radio School in Sydney.

The next step for you after Maidenhead and Blow was developing a feature. That ended up going through multiple drafts and script funding, taking so much energy and time, but did not make it to the screen. You drifted out of that and eventually moved into making poetry films. When at overseas festivals, I heard a lot of positive commentary about Rowan Wood’s The Boys (1998), which I identify as having an aesthetic trajectory out of the Super-8 culture. Your move into a feature promised the same migration.

The Boys is a marvellous film and probably the best instance of an Australian Super-8 filmmaker graduating to feature film directing. My feature script was called Landless. I’m now grateful I didn’t get to make it, for reasons about the subject. It did take years of my life and the experience of writing it was gruelling. But I see it as an achievement in itself that it was completed as a feature script of some merit.

Then you moved into the poetry area.

After completing Blow in 2002, I left Melbourne for the Gold Coast, for a variety of personal reasons. Arriving in Queensland without film friends or network was a culture shock after being so much involved in the sub-cultures in Melbourne. I was also leaving behind my aspirations towards making feature films. At that point, I really just rejected the idea of being involved at all in film as an industry.

My life took some turns away from creativity. My health has been a struggle throughout my life and was then in especially poor form. Increasingly I was at home most of the time and unable to get myself out into any creative arena.

At that time the digital revolution had started really taking off, along with creative commons and public domain media licensing, and its availability for download on the net. This all became a lifeline for me and led first of all to online music collaborations as a vocalist. 

Place does end up having an impact on shaping what your options are.

Then about 2014, I encountered an international group of poets and filmmakers involved with an online project called The Poetry Storehouse. I quickly became involved as well. About 70 short poetry films from me followed over several years, most of them featuring other writers’ poetry.

The two most influential people I encountered online then, were Nic Sebastian, the creator of The Poetry Storehouse, and Dave Bonta, publisher of the website Moving Poems. Both of these people were unofficial mentors for me in poetry film, across the web from the USA, though neither would have been aware of me thinking of them that way. Dave has continued to be a key collaborator in various ways over the years since. 

I’d previously been a snob about films being best made on celluloid, but Web 2.0 and digital video has allowed a much more prolific and enjoyable creative life with filmmaking, open communication with a lot of other artists far and wide, and more flexibility in relation to being a filmmaker with chronic illnesses.

There’s a lot of networking involved in establishing that identity as well. It seems to me, too, that your struggle with illness has brought such a creative resoluteness out of you that I really admire. All your work cycles articulate such a commendable perseverance.

I appreciate that, Dirk. Regarding networking, the internet has made it almost second nature for most of us. It has also opened up possibilities for people with disabilities of all different kinds, especially those that keep people at home a lot. It has made it so easy to engage and collaborate with anybody anywhere in the world. With a couple of the music collaborations, we didn’t speak each other’s language, but got the gist with Google Translate.

That’s great.

I’ve mostly thought of it as community rather than networking.

You really started working with images again then.

Being of a generation before computers, and previously making films only on celluloid film, it took quite some time to get my head around digital technology. I first started making experimental kinds of music videos, incorporating historical found footage. 

Going back to Super-8 days, I had been drawn to this kind of media remixing, though I did none of it myself back then. I encountered it first in Sydney with Metaphysical TV, a small group of filmmakers who were using shots from old movies, that they had filmed with their Super-8 cameras from their TVs. Andrew Frost made intriguing, atmospheric shorts this way in the mid-1980s, with his own music.

Stumbling upon the online sub-culture of poetry film, I felt immediate affinity with the focus on combining poetic text and experimental film. This connected with my earlier filmmaking like Pale Black. These days, that film could be seen as a kind of poetry film, though I didn’t think of it that way when making it.

The great availability of online media resources, potential collaborators and community greatly inspired my creativity.

We had Mike Hoolboom talk here a couple of weeks ago.

I admire his filmmaking so much, going back to the 1990s. His films move and inspire me. I feel his work crosses into poetry film as well.

He also has a struggle with his body, you know.

Yes.

How do these online collaborations work, evolve?

During my several years of creating vocals for electronic music, I was involved with possibly 100 other musicians online. I did this under the name Pixieguts. These were mostly fast collaborations of various kinds, via email and file sharing. Most often I provided collections of improvised voice samples, the lyrics mostly being phrases and text I’d also improvised. Music-based social media at that time formed a loose community of us across different countries. 

Enduring online collaborations emerged, above all with Paul Foster in Cardiff, with whom I formed a long-lasting duo called Cwtch. I consider this project to be the height of my music involvements.

Cwtch album cover – Beyond Transgression

When my focus changed towards making poetry films, collaborative involvements developed even further, including many writers, visual artists, musicians, videographers, sound artists and others. My notion of collaboration in this online context includes anything along a spectrum from direct communications and co-creation to the simple incorporation of images or sounds with public domain or creative commons licences.

I started noticing creative commons in the mid-2000s, an online movement in which artists were saying, let’s just make it all free. Let’s just have a lot of fun with it, with a generous spirit of sharing and recreation. I loved it and still do. Even when artists do not know each other at all, it is a new kind of collaboration. 

Is there still an issue of level of control?

Online collaborations have been smooth and enjoyable in almost all cases. Over the net, they can be a lot more casual and fleeting, often far less intense and tending less to conflict. Each artist is more autonomous in their part of the process, including me at the end stage.

Misery

In Misery, there’s a lot of graphic stuff in there that I haven’t seen you do before.

One of my favourite collage artists is Sarah Sloat, an American living in Europe. Misery was the title of a series of her visual poems – collage art combined with erasure poetry. These pieces were transformations of pages from Stephen King’s novel, Misery. Sarah allowed me to animate this series for a film.

By the time this was made, I had already created quite a number of poetry films that involved animating existing still images. This included one before from her poetry, Dictionary Illustrations (2015). Animation was never a feature of my early filmmaking, but the ease of digital post-production in the 21st century opened up many more possibilities. I was able to explore far more eclectic styles. 

Dictionary Illustrations

You showed a program of film poetry works at Artist Film Workshop a year or two ago, time flies. You were touring some of these works and you also went overseas to poetry film festivals.

Seeing you take programs overseas back in the 1980s, Dirk, made me realise there were people and venues interested in our kind of filmmaking. I was inspired to get involved with curating and exhibiting internationally as well. 

After I made Pale Black, I went overseas a number of times throughout the 1990s, with my own work, and also with film programs I curated. The biggest of these was a 50-film retrospective of Australian shorts for an experimental film festival happening yearly in Madrid at that time. Subsidies I was able to secure from the festivals and the AFC made this all possible, though in every case I contributed my own funds as well.

The last time I did this was in 2019, a month of travel in Europe showing poetry films from around the world in venues in Ireland, Croatia and Greece. The program was called Poetry + Video and featured 25 works from different artists. As part of that tour, I also took a program of my own poetry films, and an audiovisual piece titled The Love of the Sun (2019). This included live performance by Claudia La Rose-Bell, who travelled with me, and five poems by Matt Hetherington, from his collection of the same name. I know both of these artists in Australia, as friends and collaborators.

Work you’re involved in now, it’s very different. It’s a new kind of space isn’t it, a whole new kind of activity.

With the web, as time went by I just naturally encountered more and more interesting artists to mix it up with. There’s a lot more crossover between sub-cultures now, there needs to be.

A Glimpse from the Gutter

It feels overwhelming, these possibilities. I took your Morena (1987) to Belgrade to show in an invited historic Australian program. The Director from Oberhausen picked that one out of the program as still enticing, decades after being made.

That’s really nice to hear.

I don’t know if it matters to you, but little moments like that can happen every day.

They do matter to me. These are some of the rewards of being a filmmaker at any level. I’m blessed that I’ve been able to pursue my own sense of vocation, particularly because I have really been disabled for other work throughout my life. I feel I would have been a lot worse off if I hadn’t found filmmaking and creativity.

Things would also have been a lot harder over the past 20 years if I hadn’t met Nigel Wells up here in Queensland. He makes music and films as well, under a large variety of ‘stage names’. We have been collaborators on the ground over all this time, mostly in ways that are behind the scenes.

There is this social flow to getting things done and moulded through the interactions.

As I see it, the creative process has three elements – the artist, the medium and the audience. Without any of these, the cycle is broken. For example, I find little motivation for making a film unless there’s a possibility of sharing it with an audience. It’s a dynamic relationship. As an artist I also like collaborating with the medium itself, making a film in the process of engaging with the actual materials, not planning out everything cognitively in advance. 

I really like that. That understanding comes through the creative media chapters you’ve been through.

I think this approach possibly makes for more unique work, a way of finding unusual creative inflections, and many more enjoyable surprises for me as an artist. My creative life has become a great deal more joyful as I’ve got older. 

I think the things that you’ve delivered to your audience are very much about the kind of spaces that you value yourself and transcend the rat race. I think you’ve delivered things to people on the level that you now feel that you’ve reached yourself.

I’m satisfied enough with what I’ve given in the way of filmmaking and other sub-cultural involvements over 40 years.

Well, I hope you are. I think you’ve still got another three cycles of creativity ahead.

For that to happen, I may need to live and make films until I’m 100!

***

Six of the films discussed are viewable here: https://vimeo.com/showcase/11063099

A VHS transfer of Pale Black is viewable here: https://vimeo.com/538270184/aacd199cdb

Music projects discussed:
https://cwtch.bandcamp.com
https://pixieguts.bandcamp.com

Marie Craven website: https://mariecraven.net

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).

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