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Joris Ivens: Indonesia Calling Joris Ivens: Indonesia Calling
Joris Ivens: Indonesia Calling Joris Ivens: Indonesia Calling
Joris Ivens: Indonesia Calling Joris Ivens: Indonesia Calling

Hughes is respected as Australia’s foremost exponent of the ‘essay’ style documentary. He has been experimenting with this style since the 1970s. In the brilliant All That is Solid (1988), he hands objects, eg a snow dome, to the interviewees, and the film is constructed from their responses. The ‘essay’ of the film is the fragmentation of meaning and the absence of any shared vision. Hughes modestly says of this film, “Yeah, that’s mad.”

These earlier films do not employ Hughes’ trademark layered screen design. This came later, as a response to problems presented by conveying complex ideas in a scene. “When Uri [Mizrahi] and I did One Way Street [1993], we had this fantastic little sequence to do about Freud’s idea of the slip of the tongue, the accidental moment that produces the flash of insight. If read critically, that idea has got a lot of content...but we had to do it [with separate] rolls of video. But it was possible for the first time, in 1992, because we had digital videotape, so you could have layers without losing generations. Now you can just simply do it on a screen.”

Hughes also talks about his layered screen design as a Dadaist technique. Once you know this you can see how the idea expressed itself in different ways in his earlier work and has shifted in response to the rapid changes in film technology. In his earlier films the Dadaist experience was created through the use of actors or objects, or both as in the snow dome in All That is Solid.

Hughes’ use of a complex screen design has not completely replaced his earlier fascination with objects as metaphors. In his latest film, Joris Ivens: Indonesia Calling, he filmed street mime artists performing with a glass ball. His focus on the ball can be read as symbolising the elusive relationship of filmmaker to light and image. As in his earlier works, the layers of meaning come from the various readings of the object within the film’s montage, rather than the layering of images on top of each other.

Hughes says, “It’s often about using found material and building collages with them so you have the capacity to engage a spectator in a temporal way. You build one idea and one image in relation to the next—illustrating or enhancing or playing with whatever material that you are delivering in an audio track. But you have also got the capacity to build those montages in the form of a collage. It gives it a denser complexity. And it theoretically [he laughs] generates a spectator experience which is more active.” When asked why he would want to create that sense of distance or alienation between the audience and the material, Hughes says, “Because you favour a critical mode of spectatorship over a consuming one.”

With his mix of the anti-logic of a Dada screen design and the logical formality inherent in an essay film, Hughes finds “the essay form often allows more creative originality and more editorial freedom. In some way the term ‘essay film’ is quite close to what IDFA [International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam] and Toronto’s Hot Docs like to call the ‘creative documentary’ as distinguished from ‘specialist factual’, for example, science programs, or history programs like the ABC has been doing with their ‘dramatic re-enactments’ and so on. [It has parallels with] the essay form in literature, as distinct from reportage, current affairs, or other modes of journalism. It can be more subjective, more speculative, more discursive, more ‘authored’, if you like...”

It may be more authored, but with Hughes’ films it will not be more personal. The two are not the same for Hughes. For instance, in his latest film Joris Ivens: Indonesia Calling, preference is given to understanding Ivens’ filmwork over understanding the man.

Hughes doesn’t use anecdotes or biography in the construction of his films. This creative decision influences not only the stories included in his films, but also the use of elements within the film, for instance, the narrator. He says, “In my work I like to recess the narrator as much as possible in favour of the material itself. That’s consistent with me not liking um… biography-based articles, or interviews in general!”

Joris Ivens: Indonesia Calling completes a trilogy of films concerning the interface of filmmaking and Communism in Australia during the mid-20th century. This has been a subject that spans Hughes’ working life. The first part of the trilogy is Film Work (1981), which rediscovers the work of the Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit. The second is The Archive Project (2006; RT72, p17), where Hughes rediscovers the work of the Melbourne Realist Film Unit. In a break with his usual style he cast himself in this film as the filmmaker narrator delving into suitcases full of old rolls and written records. The final part of the trilogy is his latest documentary, which looks at events surrounding the mysterious creation of the film Indonesia Calling.

At a surface level the last part of the trilogy can be seen as a semi-biographical work. There is something about the film that evokes the spirit of Hughes. Possibly this is because the theme has been one that he has returned to throughout his life, perhaps because at first glance there seem to be similarities between Hughes and activist filmmaker Ivens. In the Howardian late 90s Hughes’ film work moved away from his examination of meaning to look at issues of the day. “Richard Frankland rang me up and said I had to make a film about the amendments to the Native Title Act...After Mabo [1998]. And that took two years...Then, while I was doing that, someone said I had to do a film about the dam in Broome. They were trying to dam the Fitzroy River [River of Dreams, 1999]. So I had to do that.” In the 2000s Hughes also became part of the Time to Go John group of filmmakers.

But when you delve into the layers of John Hughes filmmaker and Joris Ivens: Indonesia Calling, it becomes clearer that the similarity between Ivens and Hughes is not an activist filmmaking style: Hughes is too contemplative for that. For instance, his film for Time to Go John took footage from one of his earlier ‘activist films’ and closely examined the meaning and consequences of Howard’s use of the word “blemish.” Activist filmmakers find the links between real world entities; Hughes finds the links between the real world and meaning.

On closer viewing it becomes apparent that the evocation of Hughes in this film is a complex one. Joris Ivens forms an avatar for the ideas behind Hughes’ trilogy on filmmaking and politics in the mid-20th century, embodying the themes in the films and the reason Hughes made them. Ivens was spurned and harassed throughout his life for ‘red’ ideas, his works marginalised and lost, but near the end he was ‘rediscovered’ and only then was it accepted that in amongst the art was insight, and amongst the insight, art.

Joris Ivens: Indonesia Calling, writer, director John Hughes,?editor, graphics, design Uri Mizrahi, music Brett Aplin, producers John Hughes, Andrea Foxworthy.
?editor, graphics, design Uri Mizrahi, music Brett Aplin, producers John Hughes, Andrea Foxworthy.

RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 25

© Catherine Gough-Brady; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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