Rolf De Heer on Creative Collaboration
Ten Canoes  © 2006 Fandango Australia

Ten Canoes © 2006 Fandango Australia

At the recent Asia Pacific Screen Awards held in Brisbane in November, a delegation of Australian writers, directors and producers attended a series of talks, panel sessions and screenings with filmmakers from around the region. One of the sessions entitled “Telling Stories in the Asia Pacific Region” was aimed at discussing how filmmakers from the region could work together on telling screen stories. This may be in the form of co-productions or simply filmmakers travelling to other countries to tell stories that they believe are important. Before the session, Australian director ROLF DE HEER addressed the gathered filmmakers from around the region on how this might be achieved. This is his address.


Back in 1992, I was invited to attend, in South Korea, the Asia Pacific Film Festival, an event which eventually evolved into the one we're all now attending. There were delegations from a number of countries there, including Australia, Indonesia, and, of course, South Korea.

The Koreans and Indonesians attending, were particularly vocal about their desire to form creative collaborations with Australia...about their need to internationalise their respective film industries, by introducing western sensibilities and methodologies into their films and film making. With a degree of passion I can still remember, they would hand me their card and say words to the effect, they wanted to learn from us, by telling stories together with us.

Some days into the festival, and now armed with numbers of cards from numbers of people wanting to tell stories together with me, I began to understand, that what most of these potential partners really wanted, was for me to provide them with money, money for them to make what they wanted. Yes, a beneficial side-effect might be the exposure to western sensibilities and methodologies, but that was not the object. And the promise of creative collaboration, was simply an articulation of what they knew was required to properly dress up this, 'asking for money'. 

But, being a serious young film maker, I took seriously this notion of creative collaboration with, the South Koreans and/or Indonesians. Over time, none of the contacts with the card givers led to any further correspondence from them...I had no money to offer, to start the process off. But it still seemed to me, to be a good idea. I started to think about the form that such a thing might take...what could be a good project? How might a creative collaboration work?

I found myself at a dead end, when thinking about possibilities with the Koreans, whose cinema I in fact admired, even back then. I could think of nothing that would fit, nor any way to start, nor could I imagine on what basis to collaborate with them.

As a boy, though, I'd lived in Sumatra in Indonesia, for over a year, a chunk of my childhood filled with incident, action and adventure. I'd often enough thought of turning those adventures, which coincided with a civil war in Sumatra, into my own Empire of the Sun-type of film (more like the original J.G. Ballard novel than Steven Spielberg's version of it). But when I applied the notion of creative collaboration to this possible Australian Indonesian project, it failed the test. There certainly could be logistical, and methodological, and financial collaboration, but creatively I knew what I wanted, I knew what I needed, the film was based on my childhood and I was the filmmaker, so what more was there to say?

Then one day I visited the most foreign country in the Asia Pacific region, in the world even, I’d ever been to.
That country is Arnhem Land, and it is located right here in my own country, in the northern part of Australia.

My time in South Korea, however, and the questions generated by it, stayed with me over the years. In many places I went to for film festivals, such as Taipei, and Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur, I would get the same approaches, and have the same conversations, as those I'd had in Seoul. The results were always the same...the idea seemed good but things went nowhere. The idea of creative collaboration across national boundaries became, for me, a non-idea...I simply could not figure how it could work.

Then one day I visited the most foreign country in the Asia Pacific region, in the world even, I'd ever been to.

That country is Arnhem Land, and it is located right here in my own country, in the northern part of Australia. It's not actually another country, but it might as well be. Culturally, it is more different to my own culture, than the cultural differences of South Korea, Indonesia and Turkey, all combined. The way of life is completely different. The languages bear no resemblances to languages I've experienced anywhere. Even the laws that apply to Arnhem Land, are different than those that apply to the rest of Australia.

Ten Canoes  © 2006 Fandango Australia

Ten Canoes © 2006 Fandango Australia

About five years after having been introduced to the Yolngu people of Ramingining in Arnhem Land, I made a film with them, a proper movie, at their request. It was, I'm pleased to say, a successful creative collaboration, from the very beginning, and from the ground up. During the making of the film, I learnt a great deal about what a creative collaboration, across borders, or between different cultures, might take, how and where it might even make sense.

One of the factors that made it work, was that the people in Ramingining had no capacity to make a film by themselves, and I had no capacity to make a film there, or about there, without them. There was a sort of balance from the outset.

The key, however, was one of trust, and it lay in the area of creative control. I was from the dominant culture and very obviously in charge of the film making... I did the writing of the script, and raised the money, and brought in much of the crew. But from the beginning, I had ceded creative control to the Yolngu subordinate culture. Unless I could convince them otherwise, what they wanted in the film, they got, and what they didn't want, they didn't have to have. And so they genuinely, and correctly, felt that Ten Canoes, as it came to be known, was their film as much as it was anyone's.

Ten Canoes... was their film as much as it was anyone’s.

Questions of creative collaboration came to the fore again more recently on a trip to Turkey. I was on the jury at the Istanbul Film Festival when suddenly there was a political crisis pertaining to the festival, and we had to consider our response, whether we would continue our jury duties or not. We were a culturally and nationally very diverse group of five, but as we sat and deliberated on our possible course of action, it struck me to what degree this process resembled an almost perfect creative collaboration. There were difficult issues to face, and precise communication was not always easy, but we persisted in trying to get that right and we came out of it with a strongly unified position, about something that might have been expected to create, division. It felt to me there, that good communication, was the key, to that collaboration.

And there was, for me, an unexpected outcome, of that unexpected Turkish experience. Some months later I received an email from Turkey, that asked me to be part of the making of a film, about a deeply political subject. Ten directors or writer/directors from around the world, each making a contribution, to what could loosely be described as a Turkish film...a very complex creative collaboration.

My experience so far has been exceptionally good. Creative control as such has not been broached as a subject for discussion...certain parameters were laid out beforehand, but within those parameters, I was allowed tremendous freedom, to craft a script of my choice. Because it's really their film, I'm keen for it to work for them, and it makes me therefore very interested in having their input. Their response, to my script, was very respecting. There were some questions, but those mostly ended up having to do with translation, therefore, communication.

Shooting has yet to take place, but I can already tell, that that too, will be treated respectfully, and with trust. We trust each other, and figure that if there's anything wrong, it's not that the trust has been breached, but that the communication has, in some way, been inadequate, or incomplete, or simply misunderstood. 

Telling stories together across borders or cultures doesn't come easily, or often. That's mainly because there has to be an underlying reason, for a creative collaboration to take place, not just that it is a good idea to have one.

And there are some other factors to consider. 

There has to be a balance in the power structures, between the participants.

In creative collaborations such as those to be discussed at this summit, questions of creative control, usually need to be approached completely differently. Ceding creative control by a dominant party, is probably necessary.

And the whole notion of trust, and how to maintain that trust, is crucially important. From that, flows the strongest need, to be rigorous about communication.

So there you go, storytellers. I encourage you all to go out there and trust each other, though you'd better communicate well, sort your creative control, get your balance right, and have a bloody good reason to have a creative collaboration in the first place. 

Thank you.