"Gathering, manipulating and presenting archival material is an art form, one that is sometimes overlooked. Through archival film making, a seasoned story teller can tap into our nostalgic tendencies, our memories and collective subconscious with precision and eloquence". In this Ozdox Forum I presented along with Paul Clarke, Shane McNeil and Nicole O’Donohue. Curator was Brendan Palmer, with moderator Ruth Hessey.
The focus of my talk is ‘the archive of the self and deconstructing the national archive – what image do you choose to represent or communicate an idea, or a feeling; how do you work with your own subjective memory…and how might your own personal archive link to public history - the historical record of a nation; and where does your intention and ethics play out in all of this?
Also I want to note the difference between approaching the archive as a source of shots for a film, in contrast to thinking about the archive as metaphor: that is, reading the grain of the archive, AND reading against the grain of the archive – to hear the whispers in the archive, to see the problem of the archive and what’s not there; and to think about the nature of power in the production of the archive itself. For instance filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, with his 1985 10 hour documentary on the Holocaust, Shoah – refutes the archive.
Lanzmann reads the grain of the Holocaust archive (which is vast) and he rejects it. No archival footage of the camps. Nothing. For him it is an ethical decision. Lanzmann knew his intention so well ...he honed it over the 11 years of production – to create Shoah as its own unique archive, with a completely different way of representing and understanding history and what happened on the killing fields.
So back to intention – that is, trying to understand your intention with each film, sequence or image; I want to unpack my intention in several films I have made since the 1970s till now. Some colleagues who worked on these films are here tonight and I would like to acknowledge them - Megan McMurchy: co director and co producer For Love or Money, Karen Pearlman, editor Island Home Country, Erika Addis cinematographer on For Love or Money and To the Other Shore and Jane Castle additional camera on To the Other Shore; and in absentia Martha Ansara for Film For Discussion.
I want to start with Sophia Turkiewicz’s recent film Once My Mother –
surely a case study in the Art of the Archival Documentary. In it we see a lucid example of intention, and the relevance of duration to a filmmaker’s internal process and filmmaking method. I refer here to the b&w 16mm footage Sophia filmed of her mother while at film school in 1976 – the film she couldn’t make then – and the crucial, integrative moment of her return decades later for a 2nd look. Sophia says: “Looking back, I lacked the skill, the maturity and the perspective to do my mother’s story justice. The rushes lay in film cans in my hot attic cupboard for over thirty years… waiting until I was ready…”
I want to link Sophia’s ‘found footage’ to Film For Discussion, by the Sydney Women’s Film Group, a film we completed in 1974, with Ansara directing and me co-scripting and performing. It’s an improvisational drama documentary about a young woman in a crisis of identity around family, boyfriend and work – it shows the contradictions around the position of women at the time. I play the girl. Or am I playing myself? Martha composed several shots in mirrors. This clip is a 1 minute extract from the excruciatingly long 3minute mirror shot of the girl – just after a horrible family argument at dinner, with an aggressive drunken father and a submissive mother, and a boyfriend who just doesn't get it.
(BTW most of my clips tonight are from films made on 16mm 4;3 not HD – ripped from DVDs – and I am no maestro of ripping; and remember Film For Discussion was made over 43 years ago…almost half a century!)
CLIP 1 FILM FOR DISCUSSION: 0:58
Like Sophia's footage of her mother, this mirror shot was emotionally too much for me to deal with at the time, yet it became foundational in my subsequent turn to a kind of poetic, found-footage, autobiographical film-making style – developing an ‘archive of the self’; Sophia buries her footage in an attic, but my family crisis plays out on the massive screen in the State Theatre during the documentary finals at the 1974 Sydney Film Festival. This moment is a site of instability – where, as the film’s subject, my intention is not yet realized. This is what I mean by duration – how long it takes to gain insight into one’s intention with a piece of archival footage – as an internal process of the psyche.
My next project began after Film For Discussion in 1975 as a drama script on illegal abortion – about a confused pregnant girl, her broken love affair and the police raids on the abortion clinics of the late 60s; I got a grant from the Experimental Film Fund for this project but was unable to make that film as a drama – instead I worked instinctively gathering sequences from films I had acted in, or worked on, weaving them together with my home movies and photographs – into a story of four generations of an Australian family. This became my documentary film Maidens, completed in 1978. Little did I realise the repercussions of using women’s naked bodies to represent the emancipatory, utopian impulse-of women’s liberation.
CLIP 2 MAIDENS a: 1:14 (this is not the clip I screened...)
In fact, my intention was not at all clear to me at the time – apart from the filmmaking method being some attempt to mend or reflect on the broken parts of my life. It was a time of intense personal crisis and huge social change: ‘free love’, the Vietnam war, conscription and my brother’s death in a head on car crash. Maidens was explosive – bearing family secrets in public…partly triggered by the psycho-drama of Film For Discussion, and the impact of feminism’s notion that the personal is political.
Feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham writes of : “the contradiction …between private and public, personal and impersonal as the fissure in women’s consciousness through which revolt erupts”. My subsequent film-making method unfolded from inside the split-self of the Film For Discussion mirror shot – perhaps as a way of navigating self and society – unravelling hidden secrets and finding footage that viscerally expresses breakdown, revolt and transformation.
Also, being exposed to a range of international women’s films we screened at the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op Cinema and Women’s Film Festivals around the country…where we programmed the early films of great women filmmakers like Agnes Varda, Maya Deren, Su Freidrich, and Helma Sanders Brahms – many of them re-configuring their archives to make films with an intense female subjectivity.
Like Turkiewicz was drawn back to the footage she filmed of her mother, I was drawn back to that footage of the girl in Film For Discussion to take a 2nd look and re-use the footage in Maidens. From a film-making craft perspective I was developing a remix or inter-textual film practice – marking a dynamic shift from being passive subject to becoming the agent of transformation.
Here’s the mirror shot remix from Film For Discussion to Maidens offering what writer Frances Lionnet calls “a space of possibility”…where the filmmaker sees her own personal history implicated in larger social processes.
CLIP 3 MAIDENS b: 1.26
For Love or Money, our feature documentary about the history of women and work in Australia, begun in 1979 and completed in 1983 – reflects an organic shift to link the personal to larger social processes – by doing extensive oral histories and research combing archives across the nation. In all the archives we researched, as in society at large, women were stereotyped in fixed roles – in the family and in the workforce; but how to represent the known documented stories of revolt, like the struggle for the vote and equal pay, or the hidden work of women’s unpaid work in the home as wives and mothers – in images – when so few existed in the archive? In For love or money’s closing sequence you might get a sense of the visual, poetic metaphors we developed to read against the grain of the national archive. Here we re-pose the film’s main thesis – still relevant to now – 3 decades later:
CLIP 4 FOR LOVE OR MONEY: 2:49 (this is not the clip I screened; it's coming!)
My next documentary To the Other Shore began as a diary film about motherhood, filming on super 8 starting in 1986 – and taking 10 years – collecting images from a range of archives, local and international, and editing them with my home movies and dramatized sequences. The method and structure of the film was drawn from Freud’s ideas around the ‘work of mourning – remembering, repeating and working through’. I wanted to suggest the dark side of motherhood, with its irruptions from the unconscious and the way the external world of war and violence, could penetrate the fragile membrane of a mother’s mind – especially a breast-feeding mother.
|Anne Tenney in To The Other Shore 1996 (pic: Sandy Edwards)|
CLIP 5 TO THE OTHER SHORE: 2:33
A key question about intention when working with intimate family footage like this is ethics – who might this footage harm? When you film a baby, a toddler…they can’t give permission. But what about when they become adults…do they feel violated by the footage? How do they relate to their image being appropriated for the filmmaker’s tale? Consider the beautiful footage of my baby daughter, filmed in the golden light of afternoon while I prepare the evening meal…with its voice over about suicide and maternal ambivalence. How does this affect her, or others in the family – then, and now?
And finally to my film Island Home Country, completed in 2008, where the ethical question on the use of the archive and working with the Tasmanian Aboriginal community and their protocols becomes the very foundation of that film’s process. This film is about my memories, growing up in Tasmania, and knowing no Aboriginal history or culture. Here is an island where the violent race war, (some call it attempted genocide, others ethnic cleansing) has been so repressed that approaching this terrain is a mine-field – whichever way you turn; the existing archive of documents, photos and film has been produced by the victors of that war. The present day Tasmanian Aboriginal community do not welcome ‘outsiders’ using that material about them. How to proceed? The film takes 5 years of negotiation, of edits and re-filming. The Aboriginal community are crystal clear: don’t make a film about us, make a film about you, your mob. It’s here I became “the other” and experienced “instability’ around being white. For this internal feeling I created a visual metaphor – "the white ghost of Australian history" – with a remix sequence from another film I had acted in earlier.
CLIP 6 ISLAND HOME COUNTRY: 2:04
So gaining insight into intention, timing and the ethical frame is a process and I think it’s fundamental to the art of the archival documentary.
Finally a few closing words by Sophia Turkiewicz. She is truly a maestro of the ‘archive of the self’ and its intricate linkages to international archives of memory and history.
Thinking back, it was fortunate that “Once My Mother” took so long to make. If I’d told this story when I was younger, I wouldn’t have been able to do it justice…. As I say in the film, I had ‘plundered’ my mother’s life to make various fictional films in my career as a drama director. Now that I was making my first documentary about the ‘truth’ of my mother’s life, I realized I had to be as honest with myself…. through tracking my own journey towards ‘forgiveness’.