Filmmaking is an adventure any time. But for eight directors working rapidly during the pandemic to make five-minute documentaries on a $10,000 budget, it was especially so.
The aim was eight different perspectives on a hot issue: the state of the performing arts. Ian Darling, the director of acclaimed documentaries Paul Kelly: Stories of Me and the Adam Goodes film The Final Quarter, came up with the idea for Voxdocs to draw attention to the profound impact COVID-19 is having on artists.
Inspired by The New York Times’ Op-Docs short documentaries series, Darling commissioned a diverse group of directors from around the country for Voxdocs, which will screen exclusively on The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age websites for a month from today.
“We felt it was important to feature many voices, including young and old, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, Asian-Australians and African-Australians,” says the Sydney-based Darling. “We wanted to have a cultural mix but also a blend of experience.”
With the budget set by Darling’s Shark Island Institute, the filmmakers overcame COVID-19 restrictions to tell compelling stories. In one, a Vietnamese-Australian woman tells her daughter for the first time about her dangerous boat journey to Australia in the 1970s. Another has a well-known comedian reflecting on life without an audience. A third shows a young slam poet, who’d spent 11 months at the Christmas Island detention centre, lighting up the room. And that’s just for starters.
Santilla Chingaipe: lockdown gave her more time to develop film projects.Credit:
“We can still make beautiful things even working in the darkness.”
For journalist and filmmaker Santilla Chingaipe, who hosted the TV show Date My Race and directed the short video Black As Me, lockdown in Melbourne has had pluses and minuses. Not being able to travel has been difficult for someone used to working around the world and whose parents are in Zambia.
“This is the longest time I’ve ever stayed put in my life,” she says. But she also felt lucky that lockdown gave her more time to develop film projects. “You just have to count your blessings,” she says. “I’ve still got a roof over my head, I can feed myself and I get to make films, even in lockdown. That’s pretty all right.”
For her short film, Chingaipe focuses on African-Australian women carving out successful lives as artists in Australia, including the obstacles they face. “The conversation around racial injustice is a very important one,” Chingaipe says. Audio interviews about their motivations, dreams and experiences inspired a dance choreographed and performed by Zelia Rose, a Congolese-Australian burlesque dancer and performance artist.
Despite the challenges of lockdown filming – Chingaipe shot for a day at a Footscray performance space – she says: “Working on this and coming together with other collaborators reminded me of why I love working in the arts, how we can still make beautiful things even working in the darkness.”
Ian Darling: “Why is it always such a struggle to convince governments of the value of the arts?”Credit:
“Where’s the audience gone?”
As the pandemic struck, Ian Darling became aware of the plight of his friend since high school, well-known comedian Greg Fleet. “He’s someone in his late 50s suddenly having to go back on the dole,” Darling says. He wondered what that was doing to Fleet’s sense of dignity after so many years of hard work.
The answer, in Darling’s witty Voxdocs film, is not pretty. “Where’s the audience gone?” Fleet wonders. “What we do as a job doesn’t exist at the moment. If there’s no audience, that’s not comedy. That’s just a crazy man railing at a room.”
While big theatre and performing arts companies have been hit hard, Darling feels for the many individuals who have fallen through the cracks during the pandemic. And the many community groups that have lost their voice.
“Why is it always such a struggle in this country to convince state and federal governments of the value of the arts?” he says. “That’s something I don’t get.”
Tamara Whyte: "The arts are vitally important in places far from Sydney and Melbourne."Credit:
“The arts bring uncomfortable conversations.”
It has to be one of Australia’s most remote performing arts venues – the Gove Arts Theatre in Nhulunbuy, population just over 3000, on the beautiful Gove Peninsula in the Northern Territory. It’s a town that services a bauxite mine.
“There’s a heavy emphasis on fishing, camping and, well, let’s be honest, drinking,” filmmaker and photographer Tamara Whyte says. “In the midst of all that, there are people who do arts. We have no ongoing Territory government support, no federal government support. It’s just community members and volunteers.”
While no shows have been held in the theatre for two years, Whyte, a descendant of the Warrgamay people of far north Queensland and cane cutters from Vanuatu, decided to stage one and film it.
“We repainted the theatre, pulled down a stage, assembled some performers, ran rehearsals, did tech runs,” she says. “It was a mammoth effort.”
The arts are vitally important in places far from Sydney and Melbourne, Whyte says – especially for kids who don’t fit into the local football, camping or car scenes.
“The arts bring conversations that are too uncomfortable sometimes to have,” she says. “They open avenues for dialogue. They bring up things that in a town like this might never be raised.”
Maria Tran believes in the power of small stories.Credit:
“It always begins in the community.”
The pandemic has been a turning point for Maria Tran. The filmmaker, actor and martial artist had been researching a solo show for a Sydney youth theatre that was put on hold.
When her mother asked Tran why she was always looking for inspiration from men – her hero is Jackie Chan – it started an enlightening conversation. “She started to tell me about her growing up as a young woman and why she decided to leave Vietnam and what she was thinking,” Tran says. “I was thinking, ‘That’s exactly how I think now.’ She’d never told me this stuff. She was always so busy working.”
Tran learnt that her mother had fled on a small boat packed with 130 people below deck one night at the end of the Vietnam War. With performance spaces closed, Tran turned a room in her father’s house into a studio and choreographed movements to reflect her mother’s story for the film, with a soundtrack by local musicians.
“It was very different from what I am as a martial artist – most of the time, disciplined and controlled,” she says. “This was the opposite, letting a story unfold in your body. It was an unusual experience for me and I felt like I shifted as a performer.”
Tran believes in the power of small stories. “Sometimes we might think there’s only the mainstream stage where we aspire to be but it always begins in the community. Organisations help build our artists to one day get onto the bigger stages.”
Hollie Fifer hopes the film shows the value of creativity.Credit:
“It felt like a spy film.”
Hollie Fifer, best known for the controversial Papua New Guinea documentary The Opposition, believes creativity is essential in a crisis like the pandemic. Making her five-minute short during Victoria’s lockdown required great resourcefulness given she was in Brunswick, producer Andrea Distefano was in rural Newstead and their subjects, performance artists The Huxleys, were in Fitzroy.
The solution: Fifer used phone calls, emails and text messages to direct Will and Garrett Huxley as they filmed themselves putting on a show. “They’d be filming themselves at home, sending us footage, then Hollie would go back to them with further direction,” Distefano says. “It was a whole new way of working.”
“It felt like a spy film,” Fifer says. “We had a dead drop [safe swap-over location] for our hard drive, which was quite fun.”
The film shows the Huxleys preparing a photographic show that “visualised the chaos that we’re feeling internally”, with colourful costumes, masks and shoes they made themselves. “I just love the fact that they’re a couple and that they have become really one artist. To get a behind-the-scenes look at these quite private men, to see their work in progress, was too good an opportunity to pass up.”
She hopes the film shows the value of creativity. “You’re seeing them throughout the lockdown … being basically saved by their own art.”
Cornel Ozies wants his film to show the value of the not-for-profit organisation Word Travels.Credit:
“The paper and the pen are your weapon.”
Indigenous filmmaker Cornel Ozies makes videos for the University of Sydney as well as documentaries. His latest, Our Law, explores a new approach to policing in a remote Indigenous community in Western Australia.
But like his mother, Mitch Torres, and many friends who are filmmakers, Ozies was puzzled why so many were ineligible for the federal government’s JobKeeper scheme once COVID-19 struck. “When restrictions and lockdown happened, what did people turn to?” he says. “They turned to entertainment. They turned to the arts to deal with isolation and boredom.”
Ozies’ Voxdocs film focuses on charismatic young slam poet Hani Abdile, a Somalian refugee who discovered her talent at age 16 during 11 months in detention on Christmas Island. In Sydney, she was helped by the not-for-profit organisation Word Travels, which runs festivals and events for spoken-word and hip-hop artists, poets and other storytellers.
“Three days after she was released, she performed her poetry in Sydney in front of 200 people because of Word Travels,” Ozies says. Abdile is now a published poet and is studying journalism.
Ozies wants his film to show the value of Word Travels. “A lot of spoken-word poets are migrants, refugees and people of colour,” he says. “They gravitate to the spoken word because it’s a form of healing and dealing with a lot of pain and trauma. But what happens when you don’t support those grassroots organisations? You miss out on something special.”
“I’m writing about war, I’m writing about injustice,” Abdile says during a filmed performance. “The paper and the pen are your weapon. Use it.”
Alex Wu wants to show why the arts are important, for individuals. audiences and society as a whole.Credit:
“Art reminds us that we’re human.”
Alex Wu had a career boost during the pandemic when his Mandarin-language film Idol won best live-action short at the virtual Sydney Film Festival in June. The son of Chinese immigrants considers himself lucky when it comes to the impact of COVID-19. “I live with two housemates, some cats as well, so I’m not completely isolated,” he says.
But stage four lockdown in Melbourne made it challenging to shoot his short film. The solution: a thoughtful animation about an actor, Idol star Kyle Chen, reflecting on what drives him.
“He’s such an enigmatic, thoughtful person and it really shows in his performances,” Wu says. “We talk a lot about the characters they play but not a whole lot about the actors themselves, what they’re going through mentally and how they view their trajectory, especially someone like Kyle who isn’t a massive celebrity.”
Wu wants to show why the arts are so important, not just for individuals but for audiences and society as a whole. “It’s such an integral part of our
identity,” he says. Chen puts it this way: “Art reminds us that we’re human.”
Maya Newell: “The film is about the loss of one thing but how it’s brought unexpected gains in another.”Credit:
“They’re very much like Western Sydney’s Spice Girls.”
After success with the feature documentaries Gayby Baby and In My Blood It Runs, Japanese-Australian director Maya Newell is accustomed to having years to make a film. For Voxdocs, she had a month.
Wanting to make a film about “what’s happening in society in this time of pause and stillness”, she focused on five young women who performed in the hit theatre show, Playlist. Their show, about their shared sense of injustice and struggle for cultural identity, had gone all the way from youth theatre company PYT Fairfield to the Sydney Opera House.
“They’re very much like contemporary Western Sydney’s Spice Girls,” Newell says. But when COVID-19 forced the cancellation of a 23-venue national tour – “their big break as young creatives” – they were devastated.
Newell looks at the impact on one performer, Neda Taha (above), whose parents come from Tonga and Iraq. Proud to represent Tongan culture on stage, Taha decided to use the enforced break to learn more about her heritage.
“The film is about the loss of one thing but how it’s brought unexpected gains in another,” Newell says. “It’s quite a hopeful film about our times.”
Voxdocs is a collaboration between Shark Island Institute, Documentary Australia Foundation, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. To watch the eight films, visit smh.com.au/voxdocs
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