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The documentary unleashed

Simon Enticknap

Looking around and not really knowing where to find new documentary filmmakers (even though, I realise now, they’re all around us, except I don’t always think of them in that way—new/old etc—I mean, does that really matter?) I’m introduced fortuitously to a new series of half-hour documentaries on SBS called Inside Australia. All new directors, several with little or no broadcast or filmmaking experience, and a determined push to put them up the front of the schedule—7pm on a Sunday. What could be better? Let’s see...

Meet George from Aurora Scheelings’ The Trouble with George (the first film on the schedule) except he’s not really trouble, he’s a delight, albeit maddening, infuriating, a handful, 2 handfuls even. George is 81 with the mental age of a small child. Brian finds him living in a bus shelter so he takes him home to his wife, Jennifer, and they look after him. Now, several years on, Brian and Jennifer have parted but Jennifer is still caring for George. “Why?” you might ask, as this film does. George is a character but you know he’s hard work-imagine an irascible old man with a toddler’s temperament-although you can also see why he’s still with Jennifer after all this time. It’s an unusual relationship, partly mother/child but also one of companionship and mutual need, an irresistible emotional call and response. The film’s strength is that it makes sense of it all without wrapping it up too neatly–in the end, we don’t really know what will happen to George and Jennifer but that’s okay.

In Me Me Me and ADHD, directed by Shelley Matulick, Ben is a 21-year old with, that’s right, ADHD—he’s practically bouncing off the insides of my TV, so much energy pouring down the tube. Not that Ben is going down the tube, he’s right there dead centre—I mean, of course, there’s a documentary being made about him-who else? His family are there too, although rather more battle weary and circumspect. They don’t really come alive to the same degree as Ben but that would be hard to do anyway (only the boy who lives down the road, also diagnosed with ADHD, comes close). The film works because it doesn’t try to airbrush ADHD but manages, mainly, to show what it’s like to live with it on both sides, inside and out.

Disturbing Dust (director Tosca Looby) is a very ordinary story in that it is about a woman, Robyn Unger, dying of cancer, an everyday occurrence for somebody, somewhere, and something that is oddly banal for all its awfulness. In this instance, Robyn has mesothelioma, which she contracted as a result of handling asbestos sheeting 25 years earlier. There’s understandable anger that an activity as innocent and matter-of-fact as building a house should lead to such painful consequences decades later, but it’s to the credit of everybody involved that this outrage doesn’t obscure the central, inevitable process of somebody dying with whatever dignity is allowed. In one scene, Robyn farewells her work colleagues who, watch wide-eyed and dumbfounded by what’s happening, even as Robyn chats matter-of-factly about her cancer. At times, Robyn and her husband, Peter, appear incongruously cheery as they prepare for death, in the manner of people trying to jolly themselves along in the midst of great pain because the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about.

There’s nothing lightweight about these topics and the rest of Inside Australia promises more of the same but on the evidence of the first 3 episodes, the effect is undeniably positive. It’s continually amazing–what people can do—and this is something the directors all seem to recognise and value. The episodes are pacey and taut as befits a half hour slot, no gradual unfurling or leisurely settling in-the subjects fill the space and the screen and the immediacy is an obvious counterpart to the intimacy between the directors and their protagonists. The filmmakers are savvy, as are the subjects.

Obviously, in half an hour, there are going to be elisions and lacunae–you sense there must be more to George and Ben and Robyn and their situations (there are hints of this in the films anyway)—but I guess we’re mature enough now in our viewing to understand that this is television and half an hour with these people is far, far better than nothing at all.

The 3 opening episodes, for all their differences, document the pressures of living together today, especially when those pressures are intensified by specific challenges; Inside Australia, in this instance, means indoors, in the family home, and the dramas played out in bedrooms and kitchens. Other episodes promise to take us outdoors, but the focus remains tight-individuals, families, small communities-as if these are the basic units with which to build an understanding.

‘New’ documentary, in this instance, means staying close to home and watching the daily dramas of people trying to get by in the extraordinary everyday. Perhaps these documentaries are a reaction to the seamless gloss of ‘lifestyle’ and faux reality where a simple makeover can seemingly make everything okay. Undoubtedly, too, it’s easier logistically to make these ‘home’ movies, especially for first-time directors. ‘New’ means something well-formed but fresh, a personal engagement that doesn’t necessarily equal ‘SBS documentary’ but ends up there anyway. It takes a fair bit of passion to make documentaries this way-why else would you do it?–but the results speak for themselves.

Inside Australia was commissioned at SBSi by Commissioning Editor Marie Thomas who is upbeat about the state of the documentary as exemplified by the directors in this series: “At the moment I think Australians have every reason to be positive about their industry. I think that it is on the move and we are on the crest of a new wave of creativity. Certainly at SBSi we feel that we have been allowed to renew our remit to invent and change. I sense that the industry is loosening its stays. There are a host of really bright, committed new filmmakers out there-under 35, full of fight, ideas and attitude. Just what an industry needs to thrive.”

Directors mentioned by Thomas as the ‘tip of the iceberg’ (not just new but emerging talent) include Aurora Schellings, Emma Crimmings, Melanie Byres, Zane Lovett, Kate Hampel, Shelley Matulick, Rebecca and Jonathon Heath, Sean Cousins, Tosca Looby, Faramarz K-Rahber and Anthony Mullins and producers Melanie Coombs, Anna Kaplin and Celia Tait.

The challenge now is to ensure that the ‘new wave’ translates into something sustained and sustainable for these directors, with enough impetus, perhaps, to push them toward more, bigger and better projects. Thomas believes that the local documentary scene has been playing it “a bit safe” lately, leaving it to overseas sources to develop new forms and reinvigorate old ones. “Worst of all, this conservatism isn’t bred by lack of funds. That’s fumbling with fig leaves. We’re the cause of it. Filmmakers and broadcasters alike,” she says.

“When I arrived in Australia, I was fresh from the frontline of the terrestrial UK market where a lot of the broadcasters’ time is spent considering who will watch and why, balancing ‘should-be-made’ with ‘it’s-what-they-want’ programming. On my arrival, I was shocked by the ‘bugger ‘em’ attitude towards the viewer that I found amongst filmmakers here. It seemed so counter productive.

“First and foremost, television is a medium that needs to be watched in order to be effective and second, we are dealing with viewers who have been watching television for half century and documentary for longer than that. To assume they can’t make informed choices seems to me to be arrogant. Good ratings don’t equal dumbing down-and yet that was the regular war cry I heard from all around.

“Recently SBSi and the independent sector have been given the thumbs up by the channel’s television management. Ned Lander, Senior Commissioning Editor, and I have been told to give our TV instincts and new ideas a go-ideas that perhaps a year or 2 ago may not have been seen to be fitting or ‘the thing’ for the channel to do. Personally I feel that we are being allowed to open the door to new players and fresh content and being given the opportunity to widen the vernacular of documentary output. From now on, programs can come in different shapes and sizes, as will budgets. We have been given the opportunity to play with light and shade in the schedule.”

Inside Australia isn’t going to change the scenery overnight but it is a good start. Stay tuned.

Inside Australia Sundays 7pm, SBS from October 12

RealTime issue #57 Oct-Nov 2003 pg. 16

© Simon Enticknap; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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