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A Film and Video Showcase: Shooting Gallery: A Group Show Featuring Film and Video Projects (1986)

10 Jul

Shooting Gallery: a group show featuring film and video projects, funded by the Australian Film Commission (AFC) and exhibited in association with the Australian Film Institute. It screened at the Chauvel Cinema Sydney and  the  Brisbane Centre Cinema. It also screened in Hobart, Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide. Review first Published in Tribune (Issue 2417), April 2 1986.

The late Lance Curtis in ‘The man You Know’ by Steven Jacobs. The film deals with a complex range of social and political questions and satirises the peculiar combination in Australian politics of “conservatism, apathy, the profit motive and rampant pragmatism.

The demise of the Sydney Filmmakers Co-operative has left a large gap in the distribution of independent films and video in Australia. But while, in the long term, there are still many obstacles to the establishment of an effective independent distribution service, for the present the Australian Film Institute (AFI) has come to the rescue with Shooting Gallery.

Shooting Gallery brings together a wide range of films and videos which have been produced with the assistance of the Creative Development, No Frills, and Women’s Film Funds of the AFC. The films are organised into nine programs which will be screened across Australia over the next few months. The films range from professional, mainstream oriented documentaries to open-ended dreamlike reminders of Super 8 film festivals.

Some, such as Red Matildas, Kemira — Diary of a Strike, Song of Ceylon and Munda Nyuringu. have been screened before. But, as independent films generally receive such brief commercial seasons, another opportunity to catch up on those you may have missed the first time round is always welcomed.

For other films, particularly those in the “Best of No-Frills Fund”, Shooting Gallery may provide the general public with one of the few opportunities to see what is happening at the grassroots level of Australian filmmaking.

Program 1 of Shooting Gallery opened with Flotsam Jetsam, an energetic and colorful song clip by Lucinda Clutterbuck. Based on dancers who had been animated to bounce and flow across the screen, the two-dimensional stick figures moved with such energy you could almost see the dancers fully formed beneath. Red Matildas, by Sharon Connolly and Trevor Graham, concluded the first program. Lots of historical footage cut with modern-day interviews created an enthusiastic and informative picture of three Australian women’s involvement with socialism and anti-fascism, beginning in the depression days of the early ’30s.

Punching Keys, by Sally Ingleton, is a highlight of Program 2. It is a dramatised documentary, questioning the application and side effects of modern office technologies on women VDU operators. The image was manipulated by the wonders of video technology to describe the depersonalisation and stresses of computer technology.

Among films to look forward to in later programs are Kay Self’s Portrait of Psyche, Steven Jacobs’  The Man You Know, Patricia L’Huede’s and Mark Mcleod’s Rapunzel in Suburbia, about the life and work of writer Dorothy Hewett.

At a period when the future of independent film-making is still under a cloud. Shooting Gallery is an opportunity not to be missed.

Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant misunderstood.

22 Apr

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Presented by the Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre (May 1986). Reviewed by Mark Roberts. Published in Tribune No 2423, May 1986.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Fassbinder’s prolific output during his brief career meant that sometimes his work was, of necessity, written rather quickly. This is particularly true of his plays and, while most of the rough edges can be ironed out during rehearsals, it helps if the director and cast are sympathetic to Fassbinder and understand the issues he returned to again and again in his work.

Sadly, this doesn’t appear to be the case with the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. The play revolves around notions of personal power based on class and economic distinctions. Essential to Fassbinder’s notion of power is love, which he once said is “the most effective form of social repression”.

Petra Von Kant is a successful, divorced fashion designer. She has an assistant Marlene (Marta Kiec-Gubala). who is silent throughout the entire play. Marlene is treated with incredible coldness by Petra but, nonetheless, is essential to her success.

Petra is introduced to, and initiates a relationship with Karin (Andrea Moor) a young model who has recently returned to Germany after traveling to Australia.

At the centre of the production’s failure is the character of Petra. Director and translator. Mark Gaal, seems to have attempted to make her a reflection of Fassbinder’s own life, so there is a concentration upon her self-indulgence and self-destructiveness.

The result is that Petra seems to be distanced from the principal concerns of the play. Karin is also far too obvious. The essential points are made, but they would have been far more effective if they had been a little more subtle.

In the final instance, the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is extremely frustrating. The heavy-handed nature of the direction and the over-acting of the major characters means that Fassbinder’s major concerns are pushed aside.

Funding Art in Australia – An interview with Donald Horne

29 Mar

First published in The Tribune Winter Reading Issue (No 2388)7 August 1985

Professor Donald Home has been chairperson of the Australia Council, the Commonwealth arts support body, for over six months. Recently, he talked to Mark Roberts about the way the arts are supported in Australia, as well as discussing some of the problems he has already encountered in the council, and his hopes for the future.

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In What Price Culture? David Throsby and Glenn Withers point out that, based on 1981 census figures, more people were employed by the arts than were employed by mining and agriculture — a point you also made in your inaugural address as chairperson. How important do you see economic considerations, such as potential for employment, tourism, and so on. being in determines the direction of the government’s arts policy in the future?

Whether people like it or not, I think it’s pretty obvious that manufacturing, as the principal dynamic in society, is no longer working. In purely economic terms, we have to look towards labor-intensive service industries, otherwise the economic plight will simply get worse.

Now, it happens that the arts are an extensive industry. Art and entertainment add up to a couple of billion dollars worth of activity each year, and if you add to that the information industries you can add a few more billion dollars. I can’t be exact, but I’m talking about industries which are worth several billion dollars.

When one adds to this the fact that the arts are not only an economic multiplier, but also a social and cultural multiplier in an economy in which jobs are becoming even less and less interesting, it can make more sense to implement arts support schemes than it does in periods when the work ethic seems to be operating at its full volume.

We should be looking at ways to provide unemployed people — and employed people — with other views of life rather than just the economic.

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Since you’ve become chairperson of the Australia Council, there seems to have been a greater level of debate within the arts community over the role the council plays in funding, and to an extent, determining what art is produced in Australia. Do you think this level of debate is a healthy sign?

Well, there has always been a number of debates, there’s nothing new about it, actually. Naturally, if the resources are scarce, and they’re allotted one way, the people who didn’t get what they wanted will have criticisms. That is a perfectly necessary and essential feature of any government arts support policy.

At the same time, it is essential that there should be diversity in any system of support for the arts. In other words, the Australia Council, the Australian Film Commission, and the state arts agencies and others are essential. You don’t want to have just one centralised, bureaucratic art support scheme.

Some of the particular debates that have have arisen have been, first of all, the fact that the Theatre Board recommended (and the council accepted its recommendation), that there should be a ceiling placed on the money given to the major theatre companies. The idea behind this was that some of the extra money could be diverted to minor theatre companies. This seems to me to be a perfectly defensible position.

I think it would be wrong if all the funds of the Australia Council went to just a few companies. That would really be setting up a kind of state monopoly.

It is important that minor companies should be encouraged — partly because they might be more innovative or they might introduce things that the major companies wouldn’t introduce: but also because, as major companies decline, minor companies come up. So. in this way. the council is maintaining the market a bit.

Then there is a second controversy; and that is the question of the Australian Opera. Here, the council’s policy is that the Australian Opera should be maintained as a national organisation fulltime. However, the Australian Opera had asked for an extra million dollars in subsidy, and the council simply couldn’t find an extra million dollars.

In this context, it is worth pointing out that, at present, a quarter of the council’s total grants go to two companies, the Australian Opera and the Australian Ballet. In fact, the Australian Opera, along with the accompanying orchestra, actually obtains more in grants than the Literature Board and the Visual Arts Board combined.

So the council felt that it couldn’t be expected to provide more money for the Australian Opera. However, it has put up a scheme where the council would provide the base support for the opera while the states would make contributions depending on the amount of time the opera spends performing in particular states.

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In your inaugural address, you talked about the Canadian and British models of government arts support bodies in relation to the development of the Australia Council. In the last Fringe Network Newsletter there is an article by Michael Volkerling, the head of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand, where he discusses the importance of regional groups to the overall decision making process of the New Zealand Council. Do you think that the Australia Council could learn from the New Zealand experience in helping to overcome claims of “state bias”?

We already have it in Australia; we have the state support agencies. We have a better model than New Zealand, we have federation — just as in the US there is a federal body and there are state branches. The diversity is built into our model already.

I certainly believe that there should be continual and growing co-operation in certain ways between the Australia Council and the states. But, overall. I think we already have that.

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On the figures for state government support for the arts — certain states contribute more to funding arts in their state than others. Do you feel that this is putting pressure on the Australia Council to subsidise those states where the state governments aren’t funding arts to the same degree as other states?

I don’t think the council is making up any lost funding. The council funds most where there are the most applications. So far as I’m aware, in the past it has not had a policy of trying to build up areas irrespective of where the applications come from.

If you are speaking specifically about NSW, it happens that NSW, for reasons that have nothing to do with the state government, generates a lot of funding applications. It would seem that a lot of artists and writers live in NSW.

The area the council is particularly concerned with is Queensland where the number of applications is disproportionately low. If you compare Queensland with South Australia there is a very big difference in the proportion of applications.

For the first time in the council’s history I think, they’re showing a concern about this unevenness and it’s having a special inquiry which will involve, among other things, an internal examination. We’ll be trying to work why it is that the proportion of Queensland applications is so low and what can be done about it.

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Ted Hopkins, in his paper Deconstruct the Australia Council, discusses what he sees as the limitation of the way the council is structured into various art form based boards. He suggests that these boards are symbols of idealised “pure” art forms. I am also personally aware of a number of cases where people have been told that their submissions don’t fall within the boundaries of one board, and to take it to another board, where the same thing happens again. (It seems that it happens most often between the Literature and Visual Arts Boards.) Do you think there are many problems in the current board set-up?

I think that there are problems in having a board structure, though I don’t agree that the Council is doing anything particularly odd in this. They are just the normal divisions, and all divisions are somewhat arbitrary.

What should offset that is co-operation between boards and a certain firmness in inter-arts considerations. I don’t think we could just abolish the boards and have everybody sitting around on some inter-arts committee looking at all the applications because arts are inter-related. It would be much worse than the present system.

The present system has limitations and I’m sure that members of the council are interested to hear criticisms of those limitations.

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At the recent Conference on Culture, the Arts, Media and Radical Politics, there was some discussion of the difficulty young artists and artists from minority groups have in getting to know about how the council works, and how to use the council. Do you think this is a major problem — that once someone knows how to “write” submissions, they have a definite advantage?

I think this is a major problem and we’re making Queensland a kind of paradigm case of that. Once we’ve investigated Queensland fully, I think we’ll have a lot more to say about it.

There’s another problem, of course, and that is that you could spend the whole budget on “missionary” activity. There is a limit — and whether the council is spending the right amount on this or not is a matter for debate.

Sidetrack Theatre presenting LOCO to workers at the Chullora railway workshop in Sydney during the mid 1980's. The project was funded jointly by the Theatre and Community Arts Boards.

Well, yes, that is always a difficulty in any period of reform. In some ways the Community Arts Board, or the Community Centres, when initiating programs, should be, as it were, a kind of vanguard.

I think there are times when what is described as interference is essential because people simply don’t know the alternatives. They don’t know what is available. Then comes the time when, if things are generated, you perhaps have to be more concerned with the community’s initiatives.

The big new development, I hope, would be in community groups — not only local government but also, for instance, in joint funding arrangements in, say. Aboriginal communities, or areas of great unemployment. ■

The Alphabet of Pain – Two books by Jenny Boult

18 Feb

“i” is a versatile character WAV Publications, 1986. Flight 39, Abalone Press. 1986.. Both by Jenny Boult. Reviewed by Mark Roberts. First published in Tribune  23 July 1986.

Jenny Boult’s sixth book.”I” is a versatile character, is also her first book of prose. It follows her play, Can’t Help Dreaming, which was performed by the All Out Ensemble in Adelaide, and four books of poetry. The stories in this collection vary greatly in form and content, but they share a particular “poetic” style of writing which is rare among contemporary Australian prose writers. Although Boult is by no means the first Australian poet to publish fiction, she has been more successful than most in bringing to her prose many of the skills she has developed writing poetry.

The narrative structure of the stories also relies on a poetic model. Boult builds her stories around a series of images which eventually build into an extensive over-view encapsulating the whole story. The most successful example of this can be found in the title piece ‘”i is a versatile character”, and the impressive longer piece, “no room at the top”.

After this sense of freedom it comes as something of a shock to realise that many of the stories are. structurally, fairly disciplined. In “no room at the top”, for example, it is not until the final section that we realise that the piece has been loosely structured around the alphabet, “this is the last letter in the alphabet of pain, the final broken rung on the ladder, the damaged knee and the whiplash of intention.” It is not an easy alphabet, nor is it a heavy handed one. But it firmly anchors the story and allows the 26 sections to fall into place.

In “TWENTY QUESTIONS”. Boult uses a similar device, only this time the anchor is the title. We expect twenty questions, and. in a way, that is what we get. The only direct question, however, comes in the final section. In the preceding 19, the questions rise from the images, the pieces of the collage which Boult presents us with. We try to piece them together, looking for the answer as we go. But. Eventually, like Estragon and Vladimir Waiting for Godot, we are returned to the beginning: “The audience asks, “who is she?” The woman invites them to look again.

In contrast to the fantasy and experimentation in “I” is a versatile character. Boult has returned to her ‘roots’ as a performance poet in Flight 39. Boult has performed many of the poems in this collection to audiences around Australia over the last few years. Most of the poems are clearly meant to be read aloud, indeed, many of them sit somewhat uncomfortably as words printed on a page.

The song-like quality of much of Flight 39 gives the collection an accessibility which is rare among contemporary poets. Boult’s accessibility, however, is never patronising. Her appeal comes from her lyric style, the experiences she writes about and her wonderful black sense of humor.

There are poems about love (of course), housework, shopping trolleys, poetry and the British miners’ strike. In a series of “3 poems for mary kathleen”,  Boult looks at nuclear war from a child’s point of view. One poem begins,

the cat’s going bald mum

the puppies are dead & dad’s called the vet for the old dog

there aren’t many birds.

This innocence disappears in the final poem when the child passes judgment on the post-holocaust society:

the grown ups are going to

patch things up &

pull the pieces together

but i don’t want to live

in a Frankenstein world.

But perhaps the strongest poems in this collection are the two poems grouped together under the title, “in solidarity with the british mine workers 1984-5”. In the first poem. “September 1984”  Boult, who grew up in a British mining town, describes how she felt as she watched the attacks on the picket lines on television in Adelaide.

The second poem. “4th march 1985” is written on the day that the strike collapsed. One can sense the fury which is only just below the surface, but there  is also the grief that this story will be repeated again and again:

I cried for the end of one struggle & the beginning

of the next.

You may have a little trouble getting these books from your local bookseller, but it is well worth the effort. You can also order the books directly from the publishers: WAV Publications. Box 545 Norwood South Australia 5067. and Abalone Press PO Box 2(12 Cheltenham Victoria 3192.

Mark Roberts

Confronting Racism on Film – Dennis O’Rourke’s ‘Couldn’t Be Fairer’ (1985)

6 Feb

Published in Tribune – Summer Reading Issue (no 2406), 11 December 1985.

Mick Miller (right) and Dennis O'Rourke during the filming of 'Couldn't be Fairer'.

The Northern Territory’s recent campaign against the return of Ayers Rock to its traditional owners underlined the racism inherent in large sections of the white community in Australia. The “Ayers Rock for all Australians” (sic) campaign was not an isolated incident. Attacks on the basic human rights which Aboriginal people have gained through years of struggle are under attack across Australia, from both governments and corporate interests. But nowhere is it as vicious, or as overtly racist, as it is in Queensland and the Northern Territory.

Couldn’t Be Fairer, a new film by Australian filmmaker Dennis O’Rourke confronts the racism of the Queensland government and the white community of Northern Queensland. What emerges is a powerful statement, graphically illustrating the hypocrisy which seems to be the cornerstone of race relations in Queensland. O’Rourke has been internation­ally recognised as one of the most perceptive filmmakers on tensions between western and traditional culture. His films include Yumi Yet (1976) and Ileksen (1978) about the granting of independence and the first election held in Papua New Guinea. Yap … How Did You Know We’d Like It (1980) examined the effect of American television on the small Micronesian island of Yap. His most recent film, Half Life, which will be commercially released early in 1986, is a devastating account of the US nuclear weapons test program on the Marshall Islands. It concentrates on the effects exposure to highly radioactive fallout from the tests has had upon the inhabitants of the island.

O’Rourke was originally commissioned to make Couldn’t Be Fairer for the BBC program Third Eye, which is a series of programs designed to allow people from the third world to describe their conflicts with western culture. As O’Rourke told Tribune, “North Queensland, for Aboriginal people, could be regarded as the third world. What exists there is basically a colonial situation, both on and off the reserves”.

A major strength of the film is the power and commitment of its narrator, Aboriginal activist and chairperson of the North Queensland Lands Council, Mick Miller. The film follows Mick through Northern Queensland as he talks to his own people and discusses the effect that commercial development, such as mining and tourism, has had upon Aboriginal communities. We see how white Queenslanders effectively marginalise Aboriginal people, pushing them to the outskirts of white society. The alcoholism, sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women, and the degradation which is the result of two centuries of white oppression is in sharp contrast to the glimpses we are allowed of white Queenslanders in the film.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and members of the Queensland government, feature prominently in the film. In fact, the title comes from a statement from the Queensland premier regarding his government’s treatment of Aboriginal people. “Treat them the same as everyone else — couldn’t be fairer.” Mick Miller, time and time again, emphasises the hypocrisy and racism which underlies such a statement. Unfortunately, Couldn’t Be Fairer shows that Bjelke-Petersen’s racism is shared by many whites in Northern Queensland. Hotel workers, white drinkers, police, mining companies, even workers in the tourist industry show, by their statements and actions, that Aborigines are not treated the same as everyone else in the Sunshine State.

As Mick Miller says in the film, “We are living on the fringes of a white affluent society, treated as fourth and fifth class citizens …. We are truly strangers in our own land.” For Mick, Couldn’t be Fairer is an important and timely film, Speaking recently to Tribune, he said, “A film had to be made to show that in the little outback towns, nothing has really changed. Blacks are still being bashed and arrested for minor offences and it’s very difficult to lay charges against those responsible. “We wanted to show that, in Queensland, Blacks are still being treated the way they were 30 years ago, and that in some of the pubs in the little towns there are still separate bars for Blacks and whites. We Blacks still aren’t allowed to drink with the local ringers and land owners.”

It was an important film for Dennis O’Rourke as well. Although he had built up a reputation as a leading documentary filmmaker, until Couldn’t be Fairer he hadn’t actually made a major film in Australia. He had, however, been interested in making a film about racism in Queensland for some time. As he told Tribune, “growing up in a number of Queensland country towns, I was exposed to various forms of racism from an early age. “I didn’t understand it then, but there was obviously something different about the relationship between the Aboriginal kids and the white kids at my school. I remember feeling that it didn’t seem quite right. “Later, I decided that I wanted to make a film that was not so much about the ‘Aboriginal situation’, but rather one which attempted to pin down the nature of this sort of racism.”

Couldn’t be Fairer was filmed over a period of three months in late 1984. Dennis travelled around northern Queensland with Mick and members of the North Queensland Land Council, filming and interviewing people both on reserves and in towns. Later, when the film was being edited, Mick was often in Canberra in his various official capacities, so he was able to take an active part in the cutting of the film.

Problems arose, however, when the final version of the film was delivered to the BBC. It was decided that sections of the film were “too shocking” for English TV audiences. As a result, scenes dealing with drunkenness, the sexual oppression of Aboriginal women, and the degradation which many Aborigines had been forced into, were cut from the version which went to air in England. In all about half the film was edited out without the permission of Dennis or Mick.

Although Dennis told Tribune that there wasn’t anything which he actually found objectionable in the BBC version, he believes that the film lost some of its impact and many of the major issues had been subtly avoided. Mick believes that the BBC decision to cut the film reflects the naivety of the British. ‘They simply couldn’t believe that a state in Australia could have laws, or could subject its Black people the way Queensland does.” Mick saw the BBC decision as symptomatic of the attitude of many whites when confronted with the facts about racism — they simply don’t believe it exists or that it is as bad is you make out. “They say ‘We’re not all racist’, but lots of them still scream and oppose the little bit of help the Aboriginal people do get.”

Couldn’t be Fairer illustrates powerfully that the gains made by Aboriginal people in Australia are the result of years of struggle against deeply ingrained racist attitudes. As Mick told Tribune, ‘The system is designed to pull us down and keep us in the muck, but we fought it. That’s how we got to where we are today. Nothing would have changed through the goodwill of the government.”