5 September 2018, Glebe Town Hall
When we first discussed this talk over a coffee a while back, your event organiser, Fiona Campbell said nice things about the opening sequence of Mrs Carey’s Concert. ‘It gave me goose bumps’, she said. ‘Could you start your talk with it?’ ‘Why not?’, I said, and here it is.
The woman speaking in voiceover there is, of course, Mrs Carey. Sounds like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, doesn’t it? Let me tell you how we first met. In the late 90s my partner Robin Anderson and I went to an MLC open day with a view to enrolling our daughter Katherine there. At one point I wandered across to the Music Department, having heard good things about its director. The place seemed deserted, but drawn by a distant whirring sound I ventured in further and came across a large woman in black tights pounding away on an exercise bike. She’d been hoping for some Sunday privacy and had a very short fuse but I wasn’t to know that. ‘I’m looking for Karen Carey,’ I said. ‘Well, you’ve found her,’ the sweating woman shot back. ‘Who the fuck are you?’ ‘Now I know’, I said to Robin later, ‘why they call the place MLC School these days instead of Methodist Ladies College.’ Suffice to say we became good friends. When Robin died of cancer five years later in 2002 both our girls were at MLC — Katherine, 14, and Joanna, 10. The school community embraced us like family, especially Karen, whose young musicians played their hearts out at Robin’s funeral. Eternally grateful, I asked Karen if there was any music-related school task I could volunteer for. I knew, of course, that every two years the school put on a classical music concert at the Sydney Opera House, readily agreed when Karen asked if I could begin videoing them, and went on to produce in-house videos of the 2003, 2005 and 2007 concerts.
When I screened her the 2007 video featuring Doretta’s standout performance, Karen smiled ruefully. “That,” she said, “was the tip of the bloody iceberg!” and went on to relate her year long struggle to finally coax the gifted but reluctant 15 year old up onto the concert stage. Well that set me thinking. If a drama like that could happen once, it could happen again. The 2009 Opera House Concert was 18 months away. Why not go on the whole journey with the kids this time? Apart from anything else, the
musical standard was extraordinary; given MLC was not a conservatorium but a generalist high school.
I sent a proposal to the ABC. As usual I made no promises, gave no inﬂated predictions, invented no false jeopardies. Would another Doretta-type situation emerge? No idea. I simply told the ABC exactly what l’d told them when pitching all the other observational features I‘d made: my gut feeling was that something interesting would very likely happen, but I couldn’t guarantee it.
That’s a pretty shaky scenario on which to risk half a million dollars. You’ve no idea how much that level of uncertainty torments the bureaucrats, the ‘suits’, the ‘bean counters’ in this business. But the best of them know that’s the nature of the beast. The only certainty in observational narrative films is their uncertainty, not least because you cannot predict the future. All you can do is pick a potentially interesting situation with potentially interesting characters and then put in the hard yards, waiting, hoping, for that seam of narrative gold to emerge, play itself out over time, and end with some kind of dramatically satisfying denouement. The rest is pure serendipity. Well, not quite. There’s a methodology to it of course. And I had a long apprenticeship. After training as a journalist at the ABC followed by a stint as a foreign correspondent, I joined the newly, formed current affairs program This Day Tonight in 1968 as an on-camera reporter. I soon discovered l was far happier behind the camera than in front. And it showed: “Roberto,” sighed TDT producer Gerry Stone one day, after yet another botched studio interview, “you have all the on camera presence of a stunned mullet.”
| just wanted to make documentaries, and a certain type of documentary at that. Observational filmmaking is a genre devoted to observing action as opposed to directing it. Cinema verite, direct cinema – there are various labels – this revolutionary approach had only recently emerged back then, made possible by the advent of lightweight hand-held cameras and tape recorders, which finally freed filmmakers up to begin capturing unfolding real life as they saw it.
After three years on TDT, churning out same-day stories day after day under crushing deadlines, I transferred to a documentary unit and revelled in the luxury of ten day shoots and three week editing schedules. Forty documentaries later — a priceless apprenticeship but a relentless sausage factory at the end — l quit the ABC, teamed up with Robin Anderson and leapt into the precarious but exhilarating world of independent filmmaking.
In 1980 we locked on to an astonishing saga that would completely preoccupy us for the next decade, resulting in three films and two books. In the 1930s the Australian prospectors Mick and Dan Leahy first penetrated New Guinea’s unexplored central highlands. They were looking for gold, but stumbled instead upon a million people whose existence had not been suspected by the outside world. Mick carried a movie camera with him and documented on film the final significant confrontation in human history between one culture and the exploring representatives of another.
Fifty years later, in 1980, we located that priceless footage, tracked down surviving brother Dan Leahy, and discovered that hundreds of highlanders were still alive with vivid memories of first contact. “We not only have Cortez on the Aztecs” l boasted to friends, “We have the Aztecs on Cortez, and actual film of the encounter.” Here are some excerpts from First Contact.
Joe Leahy’s Neighbours
Dealing exclusively with past events, First Contact was an essay documentary made expressly for television. It sold everywhere, picked up a swag of awards and, crucially, enabled Robin Anderson and me to realise our long-held ambition, to make feature-length, observational narrative films. While shooting First Contact in Mount Hagen we’d come across Joe Leahy, one of Mick’s unrecognised offspring. Raised in his mother’s village, Joe had learnt the coffee business working on a colonial plantation, and when we met was running his own plantation on land acquired from the Ganiga tribe, who still lived all around him. Over the years Joe had grown increasingly rich and westernized, while the Ganiga had remained poor and tribal — a fraught relationship emblematic of the monumental clash still underway in the Highlands between capitalist modernity and tribalism. Here are two early scenes from Joe Leahy’s Neighbours.
Robin and I built a grass hut a discreet distance from Joe’s house and sat down to wait. Just the two of us. Me on camera, Robin on sound. I was finally doing exactly what I had always wanted to do. During the 18 months we spent there, coffee prices skyrocketed, Joe grew richer and the Ganiga increasingly restive. After successfully quashing a secret Ganiga conspiracy to force him off his plantation — all captured on film – Joe read the tea leaves and joined forces with Ganiga clan leader Popina Mai to develop a jointly owned plantation. The profits would be shared between Joe and the tribe. Joe Leahy’s Neighbours ends with Popina Mai eagerly contemplating a prosperous future.
The sequel to Joe Leahy’s Neighbours is Black Harvest. Coffee trees take several years to mature. Early 1990 saw us back at Kilima, curious to know what the Ganiga would do with their new-found wealth. In quick succession, two catastrophes shattered their dreams. World coffee prices collapsed, making the plantations uneconomic overnight, and, soon after, tribal warfare engulfed the valley. By year’s end, the plantations had been laid waste, Joe had fled in despair to Australia, the Ganiga were mourning their many dead. And Popina Mai? Well, watch these final scenes from Black Harvest.
Popina recovered from his wound, only to die several years later, some said from a broken heart. A tragedy of Sophoclean scale had unfolded in front of our camera in 1990, and Black Harvest cemented our international reputations. Success in this genre of filmmaking, I wrote in my book Making Black Harvest, is often predicated upon the misfortune of others. “Discuss” as Bob Ellis used to say.
Rats in the Ranks
Back in Australia Robin and I made two more films together — Rats in the Ranks and Facing the Music. Rats had its genesis in 1993, when we and our Glebe neighbours were caught up in a year-long battle with an oversized youth hostel. Glebe was part of Leichhardt Council back then and Mayor Larry Hand was soon involved. Now, prior to this, I thought all councils did was clean streets and remove garbage bins. Of far more consequence, I realised, is how they deal with the endemic conflict that arises as cities evolve and grow. When people perceive their homes are under threat their passion knows no boundaries. That takes careful managing. For months His Worship chaired meeting after meeting of the warring parties in our dispute with grace and intelligence and the issue was eventually resolved.
Watching Larry at work set me to thinking. Why not embed ourselves at Leichhardt for a year? Cover another big dispute from inception to resolution? The ABC came on board again, and in early 1994, having negotiated total access with the Council — a sine qua non in this sort of filmmaking – we set up camp in Larry’s office.
I’d written a treatment for the funding people but as usual it bore no resemblance to the finished film. Lodged in the belly of the beast, we soon realised that the real story unfolding in front of us was not the Council’s relationship with the ratepayers, it was the Councillors’ relationships with each other.
Larry was popular with the public but they didn’t vote for mayor, the councillors did, every September. And some of them were after his job. He wanted to keep it. The mathematics were simple: to get re-elected Larry needed 7 of the 12 councillors to vote for him. Opening up for us was a priceless opportunity to forensically examine a universal preoccupation of politicians great and small — number crunching. Most years the mayoralty had been sewn up months in advance, but not this year. A political contest of Machiavellian complexity unfolded at Leichhardt Council in 1994 and it went right down to the wire. At the risk of an over-simplification, Mayor Hand’s survival depended on his ability to exploit a major split among the four warring ALP councillors over who should be their mayoral candidate. Here’s an edited segment of the opening several minutes of Rats in the Ranks:
We had already filmed half a dozen ALP caucus meetings that year and none of them were interesting enough to make the final film. And then came the one you’ve just seen. But there’s no way we could have captured that sequence had we not put in those early hard yards. By September we were part of the furniture. The councillors seemed almost oblivious to our presence. That caucus sequence, like 95% of the finished film, was shot in the tumultuous three weeks leading up to the mayoral election, fully nine months after we’d begun filming. Everyone was opening up to us by then, because we had applied the operating principles learned in the New Guinea Highlands: never judge, never take sides, never break confidences. Be patient, keep a low profile, don’t tell people what to do or say. No predetermined villains or victims, no ideological framework, no polemical intent.
In this next sequence, Larry’s on the phone the day before the election, pleading with one of his Community Independent group not to rat on him.
Helen Garner wrote of a scene in Rats in the Ranks: “A writer would give her right arm to have made it up, but it springs from a realm of reality beyond the power of ordinary invention.” That elegant version of the old aphorism that truth is stranger than fiction epitomizes to me the power and possibility of observational documentary to enthral, to enlighten, to hold audiences spellbound in darkness, as all films should, whatever the genre. Fiction narratives are works of the imagination. Anything goes. Observational filmmakers must quarry their raw material from real life, and then shape it in editing into narrative form, just as a sculptor shapes a statue from a block of marble.
Now, to be held “spellbound in darkness” is essentially a cinema experience, and my highest aspiration has always been a cinema release. It’s the ultimate test of your work. I happen to live a stone’s throw from the office block that used to be the Valhalla Cinema, a small independent outfit that, unfortunately, like so many community cinemas, went under in the early 2000s, ground into oblivion by the big cinema chains. The Valhalla was still going strong in the 80s and 90s, however. As I said, we lived close by and if a really popular film was showing Robin and I would be regularly woken well into the night by boisterous departing patrons – arguing about the film, slamming doors and driving off. We never officially complained – but came close on occasions.
But in 1996 the Valhalla screened Rats in the Ranks. It ran for 11 weeks. Near-sellout screenings night after night. And we were regularly woken by those boisterous film patrons, god bless their cotton socks. We used to sit in our backyard, enjoying a snifter of whatever, waiting for them. The raucous departures would start up. “Full house tonight, sweetheart”, Robin would crow. Sometimes we’d stroll up and sit among the audience to soak up the atmosphere. Rats and our next film, Facing the Music, were shot less than five kilometres from the cinema. They felt like home movies. Half the audience seemed to know someone in the films. There’d be shouts of recognition, roars of laughter. It was wonderful.
It was our own community cinema, screening work about us, made by us. There was something almost pre-industrial about it, like the way our films were made. I remember a magical moment during the editing of Rats in late 1995. We worked in our attic back then. Robin and l were sitting at the editing machine one golden afternoon. After months of hard grind the film was coming together beautifully. l looked down at our two young children, playing happily on the floor and was gripped by a sudden rush of deep contentment. “Savour this moment,” I said to Robin. “We’re like artisans before the industrial revolution. You, me, the girls, home, working together. Just pray it lasts.”
My last film with Robin Anderson was Facing the Music, featuring Professor Anne Boyd, a brilliant composer trying to cope with the competing demands of writing music, teaching, and administering cash-strapped Sydney University’s Department of Music. Cash strapped because of the draconian budget measures imposed back then by an economic rationalist federal government. Because of this, Sydney, like other universities was riven by industrial strife. At the beginning of the year we spent there the conservative Professor Boyd would have none of this grubby-industrial nonsense, but six months later, appalled by the slow degutting of her department it was a different story … Here’s a scene from Facing the Music.
Full of life and courage but human, flawed, frail. Anne’s political activism was frenetic but brief, bringing on the emotional crisis which forced her into making a choice: keep playing the bureaucratic game or try to rekindle the creative drive that had been suppressed for years, the composing that gave her life its real meaning and purpose. I think that’s wonderfully novelistic – a deeply satisfying process to document in a film where you have no control over events. Equally satisfying was the opportunity to fully exploit the cinematic potential of the music-making, as illustrated by the sequence you’ve just seen. Beautiful, emotionally stirring, the music is almost a character in itself, not least because while the student musicians have very little to say, they are what Anne’s all about. To her they represent what’s at stake.
Facing the Music premiered at the 2001 Sydney Film Festival and was very well received. Robin and I stood on stage basking in the applause but dying inside, because several days earlier she’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She died six months later, leaving me, Katherine, 14, and Joanna, 10, bereft. Five years went by before I could even think about making films again. And then Karen Carey’s tale of Doretta Balkizas rekindled the old embers. And this time the students would be centre stage.
“I love working with classical musicians”, I wrote in the pitch document for Mrs Carey’s Concert. And meant it. Quote: “When they get up on the stage there’s no place to hide. I love capturing their high endeavour, fierce determination, emotional commitment, strength and fragility. The MLC kids are as yet unknown quantities – I’ve no idea at this stage who we’ll concentrate on — that will hopefully emerge.” Unquote. And emerge she duly did. Here to finish up is Mrs Carey, starting all over again with the next lot — a wayward 15 year old violinist named Emily Sun.
Fifteen months documented Emily’s problematic journey to the Opera House Concert, where she matched if not exceeded Doretta’s solo concerto performance. Emily’s based in London nowadays and on the threshold of a glittering international career. The film featured plenty of other interesting characters – l’d love to show you something of lris Shi, Emily’s disinterested counterpoint and Mrs Carey’s bolshie nemesis – but I think we’ve run out of time. If your appetite’s been whetted, however, bear in mind that Mrs Carey’s Concert, along with the New Guinea Trilogy, is downloadable at our website (https://mrscareysconcert.com/papua-new-guinea-trilogy/). For Rats in the Ranks and Facing the Music, go to the National Film and Sound Archive at https://www.nfsa.gov.au/.
Thanks for your attention.