It’s a perennial question for any filmmaker in New Zealand, especially for those who like to make documentaries. How can one – indeed, is it even possible to – sustain a career in this country?
Rick Esther Bienstock, a guest at the Documentary Edge Festival earlier this year with her extraordinary film Tales from the Organ Trade, had one answer – marry someone wealthy. Which she in fact did not do – she married another documentary filmmaker. But Annie Goldson has another, better solution – become a Professor in film at (Auckland) University, and over time win your employer’s support for your filmmaking as part of the research obligation component of your job. In this way, Annie has fashioned a quite remarkable career.
At her session in the Big Screen Symposium this year, Annie sought to delineate the trends and developments in doco-making over the time of her career, exploring her experiences over those 3 decades. She played a clip from one film per decade to illustrate.
To describe documentary as “the discourse of the real” is not new; to describe it as “the first recourse of the radical artist” perhaps is. Given that perspective, it’s not surprising that the young journalist with Radio New Zealand, fearing a future dominated by the tea trolley, took off to New York to become a “freelance producer”. It was the Thatcher/Reagan years. As well as completing an MA in Film Studies, in 1991 she became involved in a series of films about counter-terrorism – aimed at showing how “the discourse of terrorism” was used by the political establishment to criminalise political descent. The most successful of these, Framing the Panthers, shot in black and white, had some festival success as well as TV exposure.
Annie was aware, however, that even in New York the avant-garde really only shared their work with each other or in small groups. Also, over time the centre of the avant-garde shifts – New York has certainly changed since then, been “cleaned up”. New Zealanders now go to Berlin seeking what she sought in New York.
In 1993 Annie returned to New Zealand, to find here a small and conservative film culture – one that for survival was forced to engage with a wider audience. At that time there was a lot of documentary on television, and it rated well – much of it, of course, cheap and cheerful.
Punitive Damage was her first film here to make a strong impact. Its subject was a middle-aged New Zealand woman, Helen Todd, who had sued an Indonesian army general over the shooting of her photographer son by troops during the Dili massacre in East Timor. (How many of us are aware that fully one third of the population of East Timor was killed by the Indonesian regime during those years?)
When she made the film, the court case was already done and dusted. But any film requires drama, and since courtrooms provide the best kind, it was necessary to recreate the situation – unlike, for example, in her more recent Brother Number One, where she was able to film a trial in Cambodia as it happened. But for Punitive Damage, in order to prevent the audience from mistaking the recreation for the real event, but resulting in giving it an unusual authenticity, Annie created a novel situation where actual lawyers and witnesses from the real event read from transcripts of the case. Often a black backdrop was used to stop people thinking the situation was “live”.
The budget was on a bigger scale than her previous work (aided by Gaylene Preston coming on board as co-producer, thereby giving the project some extra credibility), enabling Annie to delegate some of the work to other people. But she still chose to do the bulk of the editing herself – and still does, believing that editing is an important part of the writing process in making a documentary film.
Annie’s third example was her latest film, He Toki Huna – NZ in Afghanistan, shown on Maori Television recently, then featured in an expanded version in the NZ International Film Festival. The film challenges the stage-managing of the dissemination of information about what our forces are doing in Afghanistan by the government and the Defence Force in tandem. Surely, if our troops are going overseas and are involved in the deaths of both Kiwis and non-New Zealanders, we are entitled to know what they are actually doing, and why? In particular, why are we being told that they are only being sent to help in civilian reconstruction, and yet we find that they are actively engaged in military conflict?
She described this one as her most overtly political film in a while – though it is notable for its relative balance in presenting various points of view. It focuses primarily (but not exclusively) on the adventures of journalist Jon Stevenson – who, she insisted, “might be difficult to work with, but he doesn’t make things up”. (Stevenson recently sued New Zealand Defence Force chief Rhys Jones for accusing him of lying about a certain episode in Afghanistan.) Annie took quiet delight in noting that at the time when government minister Jonathan Coleman attacked the film as “a slur on the SAS”, he could not possibly have seen the film “unless he had hacked into our email!”
She concluded this segment with the observation that it’s good to live in a country where one can critique the military. “In other countries I’ve worked in I’d be gone in two minutes!”
Reflecting on the present situation for doco-makers, Annie noted that it is increasingly difficult to get one-off documentaries funded today. Documentary on TVNZ has gone. However, TV3 and Maori Television are still trying. Filmmakers here are constantly encouraged to find private funding, especially from overseas – but overseas financiers want to know why they should help when one doesn’t have funding from one’s home country first. Trying to explain the absence of public service and non-commercial television in NZ, for example, meets with blank stares.
The documentary impulse exists in every culture; but Annie is concerned that works that should be in our lounges are ending up only on the big screen.
But in a more optimistic tone, Anna Jackson asserted “Documentary will out!”, and James Franklin suggested that there was possibly a golden future for documentary distribution, as many new paths are emerging, both online and off-line. In regard to self-distribution, Annie noted that while nowadays one can perhaps do it all oneself, it is still an immense amount of work.
Distribution in the modern world often requires multiple versions of different lengths. Having regularly made three versions of her films – for cinema, non-commercial then commercial television, Annie noted how broadcast versions must be more linear in structure. They need a set-up at the beginning, as opposed to the slow reveal possible in a cinema version. One cannot have cinematic “structural returns” in the narrative in the shorter versions. In Brother Number One for example, Annie was able to retain the feature length structure for her 56-minute version; but had to completely rebuild it for the 44-minute one. In contrast, expanding the television version into a cinema feature, as she did with He Toki Huna, she found much easier.