Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

1501 words

Blurred boundaries

13 June 2011

Sylvia Lawson reviews a new book about Australian documentaries, and two recent cinema releases


Bob Connolly filming Mrs Carey’s Concert.

Bob Connolly filming Mrs Carey’s Concert.

Australian Documentary: History, Practices and Genres
By Trish FitzSimons, Pat Laughren and Dugald Williamson | Cambridge University Press | $59.95

Mrs Carey’s Concert
Directed by Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond | On general release

Directed by Justin Kurzel | On general release

FOR the three scholars who share its authorship, ten years’ work went into this landmark book, Australian Documentary: History, Practices and Genres. They are thoroughgoing, tracking the history of documentary in this country back to 1896 and the filming of that year’s AJC Derby and then the Melbourne Cup; the Bulletin of the day commented that it was “something beautifully appropriate” that “the first Australian picture presented by the new machine” should involve a horse race.

From that point on the stories told, and there’s a great spread of them, are of films and film-makers, and not least the shifting, interlocking bureaucracies that have determined the fortunes, and misfortunes, of Australian film throughout. Necessarily therefore, history takes precedence over criticism; we are reading of production, distribution and reception, not of viewing experiences. But one book can’t do everything, and the trio get around this problem very cunningly; they quote from reviews and journalistic comment in ways which communicate the life of documentary films in the world. The professional lives and adventures of film makers are registered as well; thus the discussion of Pat Fiske’s marvellous film on the work of the late Fred Hollows, For All the World to See, catches up a sketch of her projects, in both direction and sound-recording roles through the 1970s and 1980s. Considering her work, and that of Megan McMurchy as a producer, we are looking at the profound influence of feminism on the film work of those decades, and at all kinds of grassroots activism within film and around it. As Tom Zubrycki remembers, “Those were the days before VHS. So we rigged up monitors in community halls, pubs – even shop-windows. It was enjoyable, stimulating, and, naturally, unpaid.” The book becomes social and cultural history together; political changes press heavily both on the conditions of production and on content.

The range is enormous, taking in works, makers and events too little known outside the specialist field: the landmark occasion of the UNESCO Round Table on Ethnographic Film held in Sydney in 1966; the oeuvre of David and Judith MacDougall, always transcending the ethnographic category; the long and honourable record in independent production and distribution of Ronin Films, working from Canberra; Sharon Connolly’s leadership at Film Australia (1997–2004), then Daryl Karp’s more conservative reign, one marked by well-researched historical documentaries, often with dramatised segments. The authors note gently that there wasn’t too much in that chapter to upset the Howard government. Under other headings, they offer rewarding production histories: John Hughes’s masterly analysis of the same government’s insidious racism in After Mabo (1997); Christopher Tuckfield’s film-essay on two elderly Chinese immigrants, A Breath: Surviving the 20th Century in China (1998); the work of Bob Connolly and the late Robin Anderson in Rats in the Ranks (1997); the development of Ian Dunlop’s classic series People of the Australian Western Desert (1964–67). There is attention to film-work not simply about, but more importantly by Aboriginal people: Rachel Perkins, Darlene Johnson, Donna Ives, Ivan Sen, and the increasing body of work enabled by the National Indigenous Documentary Fund.

One criticism: with many references to the long record of Tom Zubrycki, there’s no examination here of his substantial film work on social, political and intercultural stories. Zubrycki’s claims to a whole case study are surely greater than those of others who get more attention in the book. (His new film on climate change, The Hungry Tide, had its first screening on Sunday at the Sydney Film Festival.) But if the authors’ choices can sometimes be debated, they’ve still made a great gift to the general audience. “Documentary” emerges from the book as a category in flux, and in question; all the best films push and blur the boundaries. After Mabo, for example, is at once personal essay, political interrogation and history. Ian Dunlop has acknowledged the elements of re-enactment by the Aboriginal subjects in his Western Desert films. The Connolly–Anderson films elicit story and drama from factual description and real-life performance; that’s the cunning, and the great pleasure of Rats in the Ranks.

BOB CONNOLLY’s new film, co-directed with Sophie Raymond, is Mrs Carey’s Concert. Like Inside Job earlier in the year, this is a documentary drawing in mainstream audiences; as I write, it’s playing in six cities. Karen Carey is the principal teacher of music at a privileged Sydney private girls’ school, the Methodist Ladies’ College in Burwood (fine buildings of old-Sydney red brick, spreading green lawns). Obsessed with her job and with classical music, Mrs Carey wants the school’s 1200 pupils to share her passion and display their skill in the biennial concert at the Opera House. She puts special energy into building the confidence of gifted sixteen-year-old Emily Sun, whose immigrant Chinese family has its own difficult past; she finds it hard to deal with a stubborn, angry student like Iris, whose behaviour during rehearsals makes it clear that she’d rather be just about anywhere else. We share Mrs Carey’s tension as she waits for them all to take off with Brahms or Bruckner, beyond her tutelage or control; she’s a presence in the wings, in an eloquent use of dim, grainy available light.

The school’s busy milieu is brilliantly communicated; with the film-makers, we’re constantly among the girls and involved with them – I found myself hating the self-indulgent teacher who wouldn’t stop probing his pupil to get at her innermost thoughts, and jibbing at the whole notion that music teaching must necessarily engage a teenager’s striving, precarious sense of self. But I also found myself reacting in ways the film-makers might well have thought irritating and irrelevant: how about the struggling orchestras in public high schools, the talented students whose parents can’t afford special lessons or violins?

Those questions are for other film-makers, other films. Emily’s violin soars; the final credits roll to a resplendent passage from Aida.

THOSE I noticed walking out of Snowtown did so during the torture and murder sequence, which is indeed gory and shocking enough; people said, as they did after Silence of the Lambs: I don’t need this. In its totality, however, the film is much more than its obvious plot. One part of it is the way the teenager James (Lucas Pittaway) is seduced into criminal violence by the serial killer John Bunting (Daniel Henshall). Stunned, mesmerised, obedient, the boy moves toward the horror in the bathroom; what is that vacancy in his mind which the murderer sets out to fill?

Before and after that point, the film presents the elements of a provincial tragedy; they are offered in sound and image for the audience to piece together for themselves. Snowtown has divided both critics and publics; it won the audience award at the Adelaide Film Festival; it has been widely praised and just as widely condemned. Some commentators have found it incoherent, frustrating in its lack of continuous narrative, and in the way the director, Justin Kurzel, and writer Shaun Grant refuse to offer diagnosis. This is not an attempt to understand the atrocities which took place before all those human remains were found in acid in the barrels, but rather a work which situates them in a society and a place. Bunting first appears as benign; when he takes up with needy Elizabeth (Louise Harris) he’s prepared to cook and serve, and offer fatherly affection to her boys. But we have seen already how he dismembered a couple of kangaroos; dead though they were, we were still looking at untrammelled viciousness. The bloody animal remains are flung onto the doorstep of a schoolteacher, who might have been gay; the man leaves town, as anybody might.

A reviewer for the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting wrote that “It darkens the heart to know that this film depicts truth, not fiction.” What didn’t they know? A lot of the time, in fact, truth is approached rather than depicted; after the first murder, the others are suggested, never spelt out. There are images of geographic and social emptiness, lonely roads, huge fields without people; extreme cultural poverty and extreme moral hypocrisy; homophobia, paedophilic cruelty; evangelical religion in sententious action, ludicrously irrelevant to the needs of the congregation.

It’s tough viewing. It is also a very good film, communicating with the indirection and allusiveness possible to cinema; Justin Kurzel and his team are gifted professionals. But for the sake of the real people of the real Snowtown – as we hear, a community struggling back on to its feet – I did rather wish they’d called it something else. •

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Above: Volunteers perform for children at a monastery donation ceremony in Thanlyin, near Rangoon, during a visit organised by the Bayda Institute.
Photo: Christopher Davy

Above: Volunteers perform for children at a monastery donation ceremony in Thanlyin, near Rangoon, during a visit organised by the Bayda Institute.
Photo: Christopher Davy