Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Changing Landscape of Australian Documentary

The Changing Landscape of Australian Documentary by Tom Zubrycki. Platform Papers No 58: Currency House, Sydney, February 2019.

Commentary by Frank McKone

If theatre, and therefore its modern offshoot film, is all illusion, then what exactly is ‘documentary’ film?  Should we regard, say, Shakespeare’s Richard III as documentary history, or as a biassed view of that king’s reign which we can regard as ‘art’ even though we know it was not all the truth?

In a theatre with a stage and live actors we are necessarily conscious of the artifice and look for the artistry.  But in a movie theatre, unless we can recognise the actions of the camera – its angles and length of shot, and use of filters – and understand what the director and editor may have done in the cutting room, we find it hard not to believe that what we see is what there really was.  This is true of watching fiction when we know it’s fiction, let alone if it’s apparently ‘faction’ or supposedly the historic truth.

How do we know, then, whether a documentary film is ‘the truth’ or a director’s interpretation of the truth?  Is it no more than a work of art?

Originally a maths and science teacher, Tom Zubrycki’s first film, after several years as ‘a leading participant in the video access movement’ – Waterloo (1981) – is described as “a historical account of a battle by residents against the redevelopment of their inner Sydney suburb”.  Later titles are Kemira, Diary of a Strike (1984); Friends and Enemies (1986); Billal (1995) tracing “the impact on the life of a Lebanese-Australian family disrupted by a racially motivated attack”; Homelands (1992) telling “the story of a refugee family torn apart by their conflicting desires for a new life or a return to their homeland”; and many others including “the highly regarded The Diplomat (2000), a profile of freedom fighter Jose Ramos Horta in the turbulent year of his campaign to secure independence for East Timor”.

Zubrycki has no doubt that, though documentary is “as much an art form, as about real life”, it has an especially important function:

Documentaries matter now more than ever.  Documentary storytelling is a vital way to explore, and make sense of, our world and of who we are as a nation: it is essential to a healthy and democratic society.  It allows us to walk in another’s shoes, to reflect the life, hopes, dreams of ordinary people, to build a sense of shared humanity, to give a voice to the marginalised, and to strive to hold those in power to account.  Documentary is about telling stories that matter.

More Shakespearan than Shakespeare himself!  But we have no doubt where Zubrycki is coming from, and we soon learn why he is so concerned about the nature of “The Changing Landscape”.

The landscape of still photography changed in 1896 with the first Australian documentary – “essentially nothing more than a silent recording of an event” – the Melbourne Cup.  By Federation in 1901 “every available camera in Australia was owned by the Limelight Department of the Salvation Army” who were well ahead in the proseletysing game, adding “small docudramas” to their lanternslides and gramophone records in their lecture presentations.  And so the fascinating history begins.

Where does it end?

Half a century later, still sounding a bit like the Salvation Army, “for many of us more ‘established’ filmmakers there is nothing new in the concept of working intensively to take films to the public….restricted by the publicity we could muster: pinning up posters on community notice boards, depositing flyers in cafes, chatting up friendly journalists to write a story, and hoping for ‘word of mouth.”  Then came the TV broadcast, the educational distributor, and now “with the help of the internet and social media platforms, filmmakers are able to carry their documentaries much further than they could ever have done before.  They don’t need a distributor.  They can self-distribute using cinema-on-demand platforms, YouTube, Facebook and many more new and yet to be invented.”

Why the concern?

It’s the change in the landscape.  “It is often the case that ‘factual’ is conflated with ‘documentary’.  Documentary is not television (i.e. factual); documentary has its own character and imperatives….A decade ago the opportunity existed to grow and develop a nation-wide cottage industry to make precisely these kinds of films…but [there has been ] the growth of large, vertically integrated companies, which now work across different genres: drama, format television, and documentary.  Most are now local branches of international companies, and are no longer Australian-owned….The auteur independents, and the small companies specialising in one-offs, struggle to survive.

It’s a valuable exercise to read the details of Zubrycki’s story.  When he writes “A decade ago” you soon realise the political import, especially of the effect of the infamous combination of Attorney General cum Arts Minister George Brandis (now representing us in London, no less).  In theatre we are now in the thick of sorting out the proper relationship for our culture between the ‘mainstage’, the small scale and the community arts.  In the face of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, Zubricki concludes, they “could potentially become key players in commissioning Australian documentaries, as has happened in the US…[while] the European Parliament [has] approved a set of guidelines by which a minimum of 30 per cent of all content on streaming services operating in the European Union will have to come from the region….This is why quotas are not just necessary, they are essential”.

The parallel with theatre’s concerns shows as Zubricki writes: “we should keep in mind the ubiquitous nature of documentary: that niche projects have equal intrinsic value to ‘blockbuster’ documentaries.  We owe it to our predecessors to preserve the rich diversity of the form that historically has given us so many memorable works.  Independent documentary filmmakers are the chroniclers of our age, the narrators of our nation.”