Director Bob Connolly was asked to give the keynote speech at the Audience with Harvey Weinstein in late 2013. Despite the event’s cancellation, here is Bob’s speech, which celebrates the spirit of independent filmmakers.
Independence can be a nebulous concept. It's a cold wet morning in New York, back in 1983. Robin Anderson and I are standing in a doorway on 70th St. Our First Contact has begun its run at the Film Forum Cinema. Leafing through the Village Voice, we find Jay Hoberman's review and read it avidly. Hoberman is notoriously hard to please and his criticisms generally outweigh his praise. We're new at this game and its our first big time review. Robin gets to Hoberman's nasty bits and does an extraordinary thing: she literally swoons - turns quite pale, and sinks slowly to the ground. It takes a strong coffee at Zebars to revive her, and then she makes a solemn vow: she will never allow herself to be brought low like that again. Ever. Criticism - and praise for that matter - were twin vipers, to be neither trusted nor heeded.
Robin kept that vow for the rest of her life, one of many expressions of her independent way of mind.
Me, I'm made of softer clay. I've never been indifferent to praise, and as Noel Coward once said, I like criticism too, so long as it's unqualified praise. That's why I was rather chuffed to find myself described in the flyer for this occasion as "one of Australia's finest cinematic storytellers." That's high praise indeed, given the bevy of talent this country's produced.
As a documentary maker, I'm also chuffed to kick off a celebration honouring a towering Hollywood icon - progenitor, incubator, receptor - of bushels of Oscar awards and nominations. Robin and I went to the Oscars in 1983 with First Contact. It was up for Best Documentary Feature. I'll take you back there. We're en route to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the ceremony.
But 500 metres from the Pavilion, traffic has come to a standstill. The road is gridlocked with hundreds of long white limos. There are clattering helicopters and honking and shouting and cops waving red torches. The delay's getting a bit critical. I can see Meryl in one limo looking at her watch, and Jack Nicholson gesticulating out the window of another, baring his teeth like he did in The Shining.
We're travelling with a bunch of other nominees and there's general agreement we wouldn't be stuck in a traffic jam if all these bleeding A listers had only adopted our means of getting there. My fellow travellers are the documentary nominees and, as was deemed perfectly appropriate back then, we're all traveling to the Oscars … in a bus. Soft leather seats and a well stocked bar, but a bus.
That was 30 years ago, when our art form was in the early stages of its artistic and popular rennaissance. Nowadays feature documentaries regularly hold cinema audiences spellbound in darkness - six are currently screening in Australian cinemas tonight. And the fiction mob freely borrow cinematic techniques pioneered by documentarists. I wish though - having spent 30 years perfecting a rock steady shooting style, I wish fiction directors would stop defaming us with those wobbly cam sequences that so enrage David if not Margaret.
Now if this speech were a fine cut screening I'd now be saying to the director in my typically gentle way - nice quirky Hoberman opening but hello? We're 3 minutes 30 in. Pull your pull your finger out and get to the meat. I do a fair bit of consulting these days. 35 years ago my first client was David Bradbury. It was also my first introduction to the concept of independence.
In the late 1970s I was an ABC producer and Bradbury a freelance journalist who'd never made a film. Ignorance being bliss, he decided to make one - about the legendary Australian war cameraman Neil Davis. Scrabbling some dollars together, he borrowed a 16 mm camera, flew to Bangkok and shot an interview with Davis, who then gave him access to his extraordinary body of combat footage, shot while covering the Vietnam War for 11 years.
Back then the ABC tended to belittle the work of struggling independents like Bradbury, dismissing them as “bedroom film makers." But fortunately the newly established Australian Film Commission was up and running and eager to support maverick beginners, even if the ABC remained aloof. Impressed with Bradbury’s Davis footage, the AFC offered him seed money and asked me - as it was his first film - to help out as a part time consultant. I’d then been at the ABC for more than a decade, happily pocketing my fortnightly pay cheque, thoroughly institutionalised, a little snooty myself about scruffy independents.
Working with Bradbury was a revelation. I made forty films for the ABC. Today I’ll own up to five. I didn’t know it then, but I was on a treadmill churning out telly fodder - ten days shooting, three weeks editing, next film. I thought that’s what everyone did. David didn't. Right from the start, he would not compromise, because he didn't have to - he was calling the shots. He refused to lock off his Davis film - it took an unheard of year to edit - until it was as good as he could make it. And that turned out to be very good indeed - the multi award winning, Oscar nominated Frontline, one of Australia's most acclaimed documentaries.
David's success was underwritten by his independence, but it came at a cost. Pouring every available cent into the project, he led a hand to mouth existence, cadging meals, sleeping on friends’ floors. He lost weight. He went for six months with 2 front teeth missing - too poor to pay for dentures.
Bradbury might have picked up a few tips from me but I learned far more from him - about courage and determination, and most of all, about the value, no, the necessity, of independence. Grinding anonymously away on my ABC production line I realised there was another world out there - cold and unforgiving to be sure - but one of fantastic opportunity, where you could work to your fullest potential, where your individual voice could be recognised ... and most of all ... where you could call the shots, exercise control - the one element I have come to value above all others.
But after a decade pocketting Auntie's paychecks I needed a final push and it came from my partner Robin Anderson - a sassy doctor's daughter from Peppermint Grove with an instinctive disdain for institutions. She went on and on at me and finally issued an ultimatum: either you leave the ABC or I'll leave you. So I held my nose, closed my eyes and took the plunge.
First Contact was our first independent film - financed under 10BA by Dick Smith. We certainly called the shots but habits die hard and I was still in my ABC headspace - professional film crew, tight shooting schedules, rigid made-for-tv format of interviews, narration and archival film. Hoberman was right - the film wasn't a masterpiece, but it did boast unique and extraordinary archival footage of the final significant confrontation in history between one culture and the exploring representatives of another, and it did well around the world.
Travelling the festival circuit for the first time opened our minds to what others were doing. We were blown away by in particular by the ability of feature length narrative observational films to enthrall and enlighten in real life scenes that really could be “beyond the power of ordinary invention" to quote Helen Garner's elegant definition.
But making these films, we realized, required an even greater level of independence. ABC trained, I'd always relied on crews to shoot my films. Doing it yourself was unheard of. "Well you have to now" said director cameraman Gary Kildea during a break at the London Film Festival. "Observational film makers are like novelists and novelists don't use typists when they write! You have to think of the camera as a typewriter."
My true understanding of real independence came a couple of years later in 1985. I remember the day - sitting in our newly built grass hut on the edge of Joe Leahy's coffee plantation in the Nebilyer Valley. We'd won an AFC fellowship, which stipulated we could make any film we liked so long as it was innovative. We owned and were trained in the use of state of the art 16mm camera and sound gear. We had complete editorial control and an open ended shooting schedule. We were as independent as it was possible to be. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.
We stayed on location for 18 months and shot Joe Leahy's Neighbours, developing the methodology we applied to all our films from then on: there were no shortcuts. You had to be prepared to film indefinitely, so maximizing the possibility of a narrative situation emerging that would play itself out over time, offering dramatically satisfying closure. Control was vital: enough time, enough footage, enough freedom from bureaucratic interference, as many skills as possible - because only that control could enable you to relinquish control, launch into the chaotic, unpredictable, arena of real life - observing, analyzing, documenting - all along doing nothing to influence unfolding events.
Decades later, in 2011, I launched a history of Australian documentary at Griffith University. 300 films were listed in the index, dating back a century. Preparing my speech I chose 30 favourites and noted their common characteristics. Turned out most had been made in the previous 30 years, all presented highly personal, challenging, sometimes enraging, always memorable insights into Australia and the world - and nearly all were one-off works by independents - the mavericks, lone rangers, single traders - the bedroom film makers as someone at the ABC contemptuously called them. Bradbury, O'Rourke, Kildea, Levy, Zubryckie, Fisk, Ansara, Graham, Hegedus, Bate.
What really counted, I told the Griffith audience - apart from the talent and determination of the film makers - was their independence. Here I could not help injecting my own view of what independence had come to mean to me:
'I'm talking' I said, 'about the freedom of the individual film maker to follow his or her own star and make the film he or she wants to make. I'm talking about the absence of those elements that typically impinge upon that freedom, whether editorial, creative, financial, bureaucratic, ideological or methodological. Independence can be as basic as the freedom to shoot and edit as long as necessary; freedom from oppressive editorial interference; from the conflicting demands from multiple broadcaster investors and state funding bodies … freedom, if you like, from the tyranny of the market place.
Independence is the ability to go your own way, to make the film you want to make, are driven to make, to the very best of your ability. Ultimately, to be able to say at the end of the whole tortuous, exhausting, exhilarating business: that is as good as I can do, I have no excuses. Because films cost so much money, it is the privelege more typically enjoyed by the novelist with a word processor, the painter with brush and palette, the composer with a piano.' Unquote.
That ideal state was my ideal state, and I meant every word. And in all the feature length films I made over 30 years with Robin Anderson and then Sophie Raymond, I came close in varying degrees to achieving that ideal. And if my films achieved modest success, I'm convinced it was my crazy brave demand for independence and the control it brought that underpinned that success.
There were various reasons why we were able to establish that independence. State funded subsidy was braver and less market driven in the early days, and less dominated by the broadcasters. The dollars came with fewer strings attached - witness the AFC's punt on the neophyte Bradbury, and our generously endowed fellowship. Our commercial and critical success did us no harm either, nor the ongoing support from overseas commissioning editors. We became ever more insistent on getting our own way, and somehow we got away with it.
"We make uncontrolled, observational narrative films" I remember saying to a funding bureaucrat in 1993: "Now you say you like them, so it's important you know how they're made: in our own way, in our own time.
"OK" said the bureaucrat, and of we went to make Rats in the Ranks. It took a year to shoot and 18 months to edit.
Now I'll let you in on a secret. One of several reasons we could demand that level of independence was that we could afford it. I said we made First Contact under the 10BA scheme, and that the investor was Dick Smith. What I haven't told you is that when the film's sales revenue delivered Dick his tax break and a reasonable profit, he signed over the entire copyright to us. First Contact went on to make a decent amount of money, and we invested it wisely. It is still making money.
I haven't much in common with James Murdoch, but in 2009 he told a film festival audience in Edinburgh: "The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence, is profit." He had a point. First Contact set us up financially, thereby underpinning our ongoing success. With a regular income stream we could afford to buy our own camera, sound and editing gear, and rent it profitably to the production; afford to accept reduced fees and so spend years shooting and editing one film. Afford the downtime between projects with no other income coming in; afford to self fund the development of the next project and negotiate strong points deals.
Most recently Sophie Raymond and I took three years to make Mrs Carey's Concert, again on minimal fees, and then we self distributed and cash flowed the theatrical release, cutting out the middle man, pocketing a modest return for our efforts, retaining a solid stake in the film's future returns through our distribution percentage. Thanks Screen Australia.
We parlayed our independence not to clean up financially - no film maker I know is primarily motivated by dreams of getting rich (which is just as well) - but to enable us to make the films we wanted to make, the way we wanted to make them. And because we could do that, the films were successful, and continue to enjoy a shelf life way beyond their release date.
Now all you independents out there, is that not nirvana ? Owning a big chunk of copyright over your work? Controlling through self distribution its dissemination to the public? Becoming, in other words both author and publisher? Connecting directly with your audience? Pocketting - as a direct consequence - a hefty chunk of the returns which typically go to the publisher - the principal beneficiary of copyright?
Well yes, it might be nirvana, but despite the tantalizing potential of the internet, it's still rare as hens' teeth.
Here my story turns sombre and don't blame me - the organizers chose a docco maker to kick off this celebratory weekend and must live with the consequences. "Documentary is the only art" says Victor Kossakovsky, "where every aesthetic element has ethical aspects." That's why we spend so much time at industry conferences arguing and agonizing over ethics and politics and methodology - as opposed to the fiction mob, who seem to spend most of their time patting each other on the back.
So sorry, I'm going to rain on this celebratory parade by taking another look at David Bradbury in particular and the current state of independent documentary making in general. After Frontline David went on to make two dozen independent documentaries, winning heaps of awards around the world, including a second Oscar nomination for Chile Hasta Cuando, shot with incredible bravery under the noses of Pinochet’s secret police. Bradbury's dodged Kmer Rouge rocket grenades in Cambodia, Contra assassins in Nicaragua, police truncheons everywhere. Crucially he's continued to evolve creatively over the years. His unblinking portrait of aboriginal killer Alwyn Peters is a masterpiece. His recent On Borrowed Time - about Paul Cox - is a beautiful elegy on mortality and the creative life, the work of a mature film maker at the height of his powers.
David by now should be basking in the glow of his "body of work" - professionally respected and financially secure. He's not. At 62, the two time Oscar nominee has hardly any money in the bank, worries about supporting his 5 kids, and is forced to borrow from family and friends to keep his latest project afloat. His problem? Well, a big part of it is that he's one of those unfortunate artists who actually has to make a living from his art.
It's a hard road. You can't eat Oscar nominations and there are precious few Dick Smiths around. The average Australian film producer earns 25 grand a year from film producing. That's below the poverty line. Ask Bradbury and he'd tell you he's independent in name only, and a more appropriate description would be mendicant. With no Dick Smith to gift him his copyright, David has never been able to accumulate what's crudely described as "get stuffed money." In order to make every film, in a ferociously competitive environment, he and his peers have to go cap in hand to the broadcasters and funding bodies. They hold all the cards, so David has to tread lightly, take what he's offered, and mind his ps and qs. Not much independence there. Mendicants can't be choosers.
"You have to put up with it," says British producer Tom Archer, and he should know, he's a former BBC commissioning editor. Quote: "Protest? You're difficult. Complain? Do you want another commission or don't you?" Unquote.
"That" declares film policy specialist and academic David Court, "is a description of dependency."
For all sorts of reasons, not least the historic failure of the copyright system to protect and reward authors as opposed to publishers, Australian film making is underpinned by subsidy. If you're forced down that path, and nearly everyone is, then says Court and I quote: "the subsidy bureaucrat's favour - given or withheld, determines your future. You're now vulnerable to the shifts and swings of institution policy, and even of personal politics within the institution … For most people, to be dependent on subsidy is a deeply unsatisfactory condition." Unquote.
Just how unsatisfactory is tellingly illustrated by Sophia Turkiewicz's experience with her film Once My Mother, which recently won the audience awards at both the Adelaide and Canberra film festivals. I first saw a rough cut in early 2011. It brought me to tears. I thought it one of the most powerful and moving films I'd seen in a long time, and was honoured when asked to come on board as associate producer. From that inside vantage, appalled, I watched Sophia and producer Rod grind heroically away on their film, with no budget and no official encouragement … for the next two years.
For reasons best known to them, the ABC and SBS commissioning editors had been repeatedly rejecting the film from the time Sophia first brought it to them in 2007. This presented Sophia and Rod with an almost insurmountable hurdle, because the way things currently work, no SBS or ABC presale in most cases means no funding body support, and no funding body support means no film. It's the Catch 22 of Australian documentary production right now, the consequence of these two broadcasters operating as virtually the sole gatekeepers to the subsidy funding mechanism.
Fortunately, after 6 debilitating years of beating on closed doors, they finally opened. A new commissioning editor took over at the ABC and a Screen Australia panel finally recognized the film's true potential. Once My Mother was funded and completed, and after 6 years of unpaid effort, Sophia and Rod finally got to finish their film and pocket their pitifully small fees. Did I say fees? "To this day" Sophia told me recently, "neither of us has received a cent of income - we had to re-invest our producer and director fees to be able to finish the film."
"I cannot express to you" Bruce Beresford told Sophia Turkiewicz after watching the film, "how much I admire the courage and tenacity with which you have pursued the realization of this wonderful documentary."
Well yes, but should artists like Sophia Turkiewicz, making films as good as Once My Mother, really have to rely quite so much on courage and tenacity? Does it have to be this tough? Yes it does I'm afraid, particularly if you're an independent film maker - fiction or non fiction
"The toughness," writes David Court eloquently, "is like a tax on creation, levied by some unknown despot … People who want to make films have to pay this tax. There is no choice, except not to make films. The tax falls most heavily on those who need to make money from the work they do ... Sheer bloody minded persistence begins to matter more than any other personal quality, while its absence becomes a marker for failure … and so we enter the realm of the obsessive, driven film maker." Unquote.
That description fits David Bradbury to a T. And Sophia Turkwiecz. And many other docco makers I know. And the way things are going, not even "sheer bloody minded persistence" may cut it much longer, let alone singular creative vision and mature artistry. Independent Australian documentary makers now face an unprecedented existential threat - pushed off the stage, says film maker and commentator John Hughes - by quote "the imperatives of the television schedule, in concert with the economic interests of a determined faction of the production industry and a policy formation process favouring notions of enterprise and economic viability over cultural criteria."
In recent years there's been a massive decline in the number of one-off documentaries made in Australia - in particular the individual, idiosyncratic work of independents. In 1998, 70% consisted of one offs as opposed to series. Ten years later in 2008 it had dropped to 30%. Helping to drive this continuing trend, says producer and ex BBC commissioning editor Steve Hewlett, is the increasing tendency of broadcast television to avoid risk and dumb down its programming because, says Hewlett, it is "less concerned … with creativity and public purposes, and more concerned with audience metrics and commercial survival."
The trend is world wide, but has been accelerated in Australia by the emergence and growth of TV enterprise companies, now busily churning out mass produced serial programming. Five years ago Screen Australia began heavily subsidizing these companies so they would grow in size and production capacity. The aim was to eventually transform Australian TV program making from a cottage industry into a viable, corporatised production sector. This makes entire sense. We need big players, and we need an industrial-scale underpinning our industry. But there's been an unforeseen consequence. The rise of the enterprise companies has been at the expense of the independents. They now risk being squeezed out by these companies.
Five years ago, series comprised 70% of documentary programming, one-offs 30%. Last year it was nearly 80% to 20%, and the trend shows no sign of slowing. One disturbing outcome, says Trevor Graham - who directed Mabo - Life of an Island Man - is a lack of diversity. Quote: "We now have fewer stories from fewer producers, so the breadth and depth of stories and storytelling has been vastly reduced. This leaves one questioning the current values of public broadcasting in Australia." Unquote.
Dr Graham is right. Screen Australia's remit is to utilize public funds to facilitate film making with a high level cultural and artistic content. While the enterprise companies are turning out some fine work, they are profit oriented outfits hogtied to ratings oriented broadcasters. I don't see them turning out anything close to the deeply personal, idiosyncratic, ground breaking, and yes sometimes disturbing, challenging, infuriating work of the independents - films like Frontline, On Borrowed Time, Mabo, Good Woman of Bangkok, Sons of Namitijira, Hepzibah, Cunnamulla, Molly and Mubarek, Stolen.
These are just some of the films I identified in my Griffith University speech. They were made by individual artists of singular vision - like Bradbury and Turkiewicz. The so called bedroom film makers, who tend to rent their formal wear for award ceremonies, who've typically never had, and do not have now, offices with harbour views, PAs, secretaries, business plans, flow charts and glossy series brochures. Or takeover exit strategies so they can retire rich.
But they are rare and national treasures nonetheless, and in this brave new commercialized, corporatised world a place must be kept for them at the table or we will all be the poorer for it. It's not that hard: policy tweaks such as decoupling more documentaries from the TV pre sale imperative, are relatively painless. But the clock is ticking. I'd hate to see people like Bradbury and Turkiewicz forced to choose between giving it all away because it's just too hard (as some are currently doing) - or taking a wage and being told what to make by Cordell Jigsaw Beyond Hilton Zapruder what have you.
Maverick independents want and need to make their own films in their own way and this is not some kind of self indulgence.
Why will Australia will be the poorer if the rug is pulled from under independents? Because it has always been the independents - in almost any field of endeavour you care to name - who take the risks, produce the best, light the way.
And guess what, the smart money knows it. Who are we honouring this weekend? Harvey Weinstein didn't bag that huge haul of Oscars by accident. He bagged them because he happens to be the world's pre eminent champion of maverick independents.