Born in Holland, an Australian from the age of eight, Rolf writes, produces and directs low budget features for the cinema. His mission this time was to discuss what makes a film cinematic. He chose to do this by showing us clips from films of his that had been selected for an International Festival – the assumption being that this wouldn’t have happened had the films not been cinematic.
Like many other feature filmmakers, Rolf swore that he would shoot on film only, for as long as possible. Again like many others, he favours the firm discipline that film imposes, only partly because of the cost of stock, processing, etc. When he was finally forced to start shooting in digital formats, he kept insisting on minimal numbers of takes: “No more – it will confuse me in the edit.”
His true and absolute conversion to digital came about as a result of a visit to Wellington. In the restored Embassy Theatre, he saw a number of screenings that were the most perfect technically that he had ever seen – and for him the experience was profoundly cinematic.
“Cinema with a big C”: the digital revolution has created endless opportunities to make films. Unfortunately, there are less than endless opportunities for them to be screened and be seen.
So, what is Cinema? What was it about these films of his that made them festival choices, that made them “cinematic”?
1993’s Bad Boy Bubby was the film that first brought Rolf de Heer to wide public attention. He had no money, so he worked a job weekdays, bought a roll of film with that week’s earnings and shot in the weekend. He repeated this cycle for months until the film was done – hence the 32 different cinematographers! The film was based on a very bold idea, strong and confronting. Keep hold of such ideas, he says.
The Quiet Room was a film that brought people back to their own childhoods. “It did what I love films to do – move me to tears.” This is something that cinema can do that many other media cannot.
Rolf had brought his clips with him – but one was unfortunately left behind: Dance Me To My Song. This film, in which the central character suffers from cerebral palsy, was remarkable for the lead role being played by the writer of the film, who has the condition. Once again, Rolf shows in his choice of subject matter his propensity for tackling tough subjects in an uncompromising way. He admits that some people simply can’t watch this film. (But it also comes highly recommended by critics.)
Before showing us his next clip, he made reference to a film that he claims almost left him dead. “I thought I would never make another film again – it would kill me.”
But then came The Tracker, one of many films Rolf has made with actor David Gulpilil. I can remember the impact of the sequence that Rolf showed us when I first saw this film in the cinema. A moment of horrible violence by white soldiers towards Aboriginal captives in chains: live action is suddenly replaced with almost cartoon-style paintings, over which is heard a powerfully emotional song, My People. It was certainly the style that was different, said Rolf – but style itself is not enough; however, it is an element that helps make a film cinematic.
Alexandra’s Project, which examines the breakdown of a middle class marriage, used original plot devices with an extraordinary psychological intensity.
His last example was the film Ten Canoes, in which Rolf and David Gulpilil explore a story set in David’s home territory in the Arnhem Land. It’s a classic theme of cinema through the ages – a journey into another world.
While comparing the situation in New Zealand with that of Australia, Rolf commented that almost no one in Australia makes a living in Australia making feature films. (He himself does, and Paul Cox used to…) People work overseas, they make ads, they work in television, etc. There is more money in Australia – but equally, there are more people wanting that money.
In conclusion: “I can’t tell you exactly what is and what isn’t cinema – but I do have some kind of grasp of what it is.”
However, ”In Greek tragedies, nobody ever knew what the gods had for breakfast. That’s cinema!”