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SPADA 2011: low budget high quality

Aussie producer David Jowsey and Catherine Fitzgerald on creative and financial challenges
SPADA’s 2011 Independent Producer of the Year and first-time feature maker Catherine Fitzgerald discussed low-budget film-making philosophy in an indigenous context with Australian producer David Jowsey. Jowsey is co-owner with director Ivan Sen of BUNYA Productions, a boutique digital production house based in Sydney. The discussion focused on the relationship between Jowsey and Sen, and the methodology of their latest project to be completed.

Tusi Tamasese’s Fitzgerald-produced The Orator, which is about to be released theatrically in Australia, was shot on 35mm in a “classically composed visual style” with a small but traditional style of crew of about 20 Kiwis, supplemented by (untrained) locals. In contrast, Sen filmed his Toomelah on a P2 Varicam (4.4.4) working solo: he wrote, directed, shot, edited and composed the music for this, his third feature film – and was a one-man crew on set.

This methodology, where Sen did literally everything, from making the costumes to going to the local footy game on Saturday to try to collect people to act in his film that day, arose out of a belief that this was the only way he could get a truthful film out of a novice cast of locals. The idea grew from his experience making a feature-length road movie with no crew and just one untrained actor in the spaceship-spotting area of Nevada – an event which followed on from by another project he was hired for in the USA that fell over, leaving him rather badly burnt.

Sen’s first feature, Beneath Clouds, won multiple awards at the Berlin Film Festival, and now Toomelah, named for the border community in northern NSW where the film was set and shot and where Sen spent much of his childhood, was this year selected for Un Certain Regard, the division of the Cannes Festival devoted to innovative auteurs.

Jowsey, who met Sen when they worked together at the ABC, willingly embraces the philosophy of shooting digital features with minimal budget, “doing away with the armies of trucks” and attempting to achieve authenticity by focusing on the characters. He freely admits that “trying to bend the paradigm”, with the resulting chaos and stress on location, took its toll on Sen. His next features will be a big-budget martial arts romance in Hong Kong and a murder mystery with trained actors, Mystery Road.

Both the Nevada sci-fi film and Toomelah were fully-scripted, though Toomelah had only one draft – but it didn’t feel or look like a first draft because, as Jowsey explained, the script had been developing in Sen’s head from stories he’d been listening to for over 20 years.

The shoot took five weeks, with the rather unusual pattern of shooting for 2 hours each weekday after school, from 3 to 5pm, then all day on Saturdays. This was a necessity as a result of having a 10 year old boy as the central character and the extremely rigid child labour laws in NSW (apparently there are no such rules in West Australia).

The film was made on a budget of A$600,000, of which 90% came from the Indigenous Department of Screen Australia (Scroz to some), and the other 10% from state film funding agencies. The film was produced out of a room in Jowsey’s house. I cannot recall a producer ever before saying that “We struggled to spend that!”

(The Indigneous Department not only funds projects within the film, television and interactive media screen industry, but also attempts to shape and influence policy affecting indigenous screen content creators in Australia. Although we have the relatively new Te Paepae here, with similar goals, there are those in NZ who would wish for a grouping here with the profile and impact of Scroz’s Indigenous Department.)

Jowsey is full of praise for the Indigneous Department of Scroz, and also of the similar department at the ABC, where Sen and Jowsey met. In Jowsey’s words, they trust people, they back people, they don’t interfere, and they don’t let the white bureaucracy slow things down – they’re all about getting things done.

Questions from the audience initially focused on the impact of the film on the Toomelah community. Financially it was good – the cast were paid, and the shoot brought money into the community. The locals are keen to have other films made there.

Jowsey was also positive about the impact on their lead actor, the 10 year old Daniel. The boy, who was quite troubled, has grown up a lot through the experience, and the film-makers are hopeful that as a result he’ll get some good education and keep out of jail. Apparently every kid in the town ends up in jail at some point “simply because they’re black”. It might be as a consequence of drugs, or from something as simple as driving an unregistered car, being unable or unwilling to pay the fine and being jailed as a result.

From this emerged Sen’s (and Jowsey’s) reasons both for making such films, and their methodology. One could say there are some contradictory elements in this… Sen wants to show things as they are, not to tell you what to think or do. He wants to take us into his community and show us what it’s like – but not didactically, just through telling a story. He wants change, but he just wants to show you things, and then let you decide where to go from there…

When asked if they tried to develop a style that linked into aboriginal culture, Jowsey’s answer was “an intimacy that leads to authenticity”.

In contrast, Fitzgerald explained that Tusi Tamasese “hates close-ups”, because he cannot imagine people as separate from their environments. Similarly he would never look down on people, and characters are always introduced from behind. “It’s an emotional, not intellectual, way of selecting images,” said Fitzgerald.

Expanding on their relationship, Jowsey described Sen as a quiet, unassuming guy, hard to draw out of his shell – but also very self-assured, and therefore, unlike many newer directors who are insecure and therefore resistant to suggestion, very open and collaborative. Being utterly confident of where he’s going and what he wants, his willingness to discuss anything leads to a great clarity all round.

Intriguingly, Sen insists these films have to be dramas, not documentaries ”because one cannot tell the truth in a documentary”. If such a film was made as a doco, he would assert, one cannot tell the truth – if he were to show the teenage girl dealing drugs in DVD cases, she’d end up being arrested. This even though he will shoot in a doco style, including leaving out-of-focus shots in because they make it look more like a doco and therefore make an audience more likely to believe the story is true. So to protect the people, it’s necessary to work in fiction. (Ironically, Sen made many documentaries in his time with the ABC.)

Sen has a strong political agenda. He wants a conversation with White Australia – but when that conversation happens the results can be unexpected. White audiences are powerfully moved by the sadness in the characters’ situations, but when the film is shown to the community itself they don’t see the sadness; they laugh a lot. Jowsey asserts that Sen would say: “They don’t see the sadness. That’s what you see. That’s your perception.” Nevertheless, he still wants you to decide what to feel – and help to make change.

Fitzgerald: “We hold up a mirror to the community.”

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