Australian produced documentaries are gaining a growing reputation for their high calibre, attracting attention from film makers worldwide.
From the outback, to stunning marine life, to an array of human stories, Australia offers an exhaustive range of possible documentary material.
This potential is not going unnoticed. This year, Australian documentary festivals including, Melbourne Documentary Festival, Antenna Festival, and Transitional Film Festival, showcased awe inspiring work, addressing issues like social justice, geopolitics, health and animal rights.
Director of Canberra based film festival, Stronger Than Fiction, Deborah Kingsland, is excited about Australia’s current documentary scene.
“Australian documentary films are doing fantastically well at the moment,” she says.
“Stronger than Fiction has an Audience Award, in three of the five years we have been running, it has been Australian films that have won – Steve McGregors’s Big Name, No Blanket in 2014, Simon Cunich’s Maratus in 2015 and now Catherine Scott’s Backtrack Boys in 2018.”
Canon Australia, who have taken a lead role in championing outstanding work by Australian producers are excited about the trajectory film and television is taking here.
“Enabling projects such as Tales By Light and Backtrack Boys inspires others as storytellers,” said Andrew Giles from Canon.
“Canon Australia’s role is to help people achieve their creative ambitions, from everyday photographers and video makers right through to professionals at the highest level, providing support for logistics, equipment, marketing and promotion.”
We take a look at a selection of exciting recent documentary projects from Australian film makers. The individuals behind these projects discussed financial and logistical challenges, and how Australia’s film makers are accessing support.
Produced and directed by Catherine Scott, BackTrack Boys features the rough talking, free-wheeling jackaroo, Bernie Shakeshaft, and the youth program he runs from a shed on the outskirts of Armidale, NSW.
This inspiring story was filmed over two years and follows young men who have struggled with their behaviour and found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Pushed aside by society, the boys find a way to turn their lives around, canine show jumping.
“This is an important story which needs to be told,” says Catherine Scott.
“Across Australia, and indeed the globe, youngsters are ending up in situations which could have been avoided, there is a lot of desperation, particularly in rural areas, which needs to be addressed.”
The observational documentary follows Zac, Tyrson and Rusty as they hit the road with Bernie’s legendary dog jumping team and travel to rural shows across NSW. The dog shows started out as a way to teach kids self-discipline, calm their emotions, build trust, and boost their communication skills, now they have become the world record holders.
“I hope this film will foster a greater understanding of the issues these kids face and inspire communities to develop real alternatives that will help keep them out of jail”, she says.
Catherine Scott has 20 years’ experience in the film and television industry. Having been a director and producer on documentaries broadcast internationally including SBS TV, ABC TV and CBC Canada, she her career has spanned the field.
Backtrack Boys truly is Scott’s brainchild. As writer, producer and director, Scott worked largely solo to produce the film.
“The biggest challenge was access, you must negotiate access, it determines everything when creating a film; the camp was six hours from my house, so obviously this threw up several logistical problems,” She reflects.
“I was also borrowing cameras for a lot of the time, so had to continually get to grips with new technology.”
Scott secured funding through Documentary Australia Foundation and government film agencies Screen Australia and Create NSW.
“Financial support is increasingly difficult for documentary makers in Australia, there is not the same access to government funding as there once was,” she reflects.
Scott’s hard work has paid off. Backtrack Boys swooped the Audience Award at the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals.
Next year the film will tour around Australia as part of a community campaign to prevent juvenile detention.
Oyster is a feature length documentary capturing the daily routines, chaos and drama of a lively, hard-working second generation oyster farming family on Merimbula Lake on the south-east coast of Australia.
Observational in style, OYSTER stands back to watch and witness as main characters, Dom and Pip Boyton navigate the physically and mentally exhausting life of oyster farming.
Tales by Light
The three-part series, Tales by Light, created by Abraham Joffe of United Film in cooperation with Canon, and several international NGOs, following photographers and filmmakers as they investigate some of the most important humanitarian and environmental issues across the globe.
In episode one, UNICEF photographer Simon Lister goes to Dhaka, Bangladesh with UNICEF goodwill ambassador Orlando Bloom, capturing the lives of children residing in the railway slums.
Then, conservationist Shawn Henrichs travels to Isla Majeures in Mexico and Raja Ampat in Indonesia to share never-before-seen footage of human impact on marine life in our oceans.
Finally, indigenous filmmaker and photographer Dylan River visits the Australian central desert in Alice Springs, Victoria River on the northern edge of the Tanami Desert and the remote Yolngu community in Bawaka East Arnhem Land. Communities and landscape rich with stories, culture and traditions spanning tens of thousands of years.
“Selecting which photographers to follow is an incredibly important process,” Says, Louis Robinson, Co-Producer on Tales By Light.
“The photographers in this series have the ability to articulate their motivations on camera easily and hopefully allow viewers to connect on an emotional level to the subject at focus.”
The series captures some awe-inspiring footage. However, filming was not without its trials.
“Bangladesh was the most challenging location we film in during the production of series three,” reflects Louis Robinson.
“Dhaka is a city that really plays on all of your senses and is a real eye opener physically and emotionally.”
Indeed, the team visited the country during the height of the monsoon season; this extreme weather and densely populated locations created many logistical obstacles.
“It’s extremely important to work with local fixers and production companies in each area you are filming to give advice and provide support for locations which are often extremely remote and isolated and logistically challenging”, they said.
The Will to Fly
The Will To fly is a historic portrayal about the life and tumultuous sport career of Australian Aerial Skier, Lydia Lassila through the times of world dominance by the Australian aerial ski team.
Lassila began her athletic career as a gymnast, before injury dashed her hopes of pursuing the sport further. Instead, she turned to Aerial skiing, and became an Olympic champion.
The documentary follows Lassila’s roller-coaster career of guts and perseverance, as she pushes herself to the limit of this notoriously daring sport, attempting one of the most complex manoeuvres of all time. We watch her juggle injuries, motherhood, and fierce competition as she strives for Olympic gold.
At a time when gender parity in sport- and also across the professional world- is an increasingly focal topic, The Will To Fly provides a critical display of female achievement.
“There has been an obvious lack of focus on female sporting achievement,” says Director, Leo Baker.
“This is the first feature length film solely about a female sports star which has gone directly to cinema.”
Aerial skiing makes for stunning cinematography. Your heart lurches as Lassila and her competitors catapult high into the air, twisting and turning on their skis, failure to land the jump could prove fatal.
The film, created by Katie Bender- an ex-aerial skier herself- and Leo Baker, took three years to complete, with principal photography captured in Australia, Finland, China, USA and Russia.
“We followed Lydia around the world as she trained for the Sochi Olympics, from sub zero temperatures in Finland, to across the Atlantic in the US,” says Baker.
“This obviously threw up logistical challenges with equipment and permits.”
The film is also enriched with sport archives sourced from all over the world spanning over 20 years of history, including 4 Olympic games.
“This was our biggest cost, in order to tell Lydia’s whole story, we needed to document her journey to the Olympics, however securing the rights to archive footage came at a price,” Baker reflected.
Investment from a range of sources including KPMG Australia and Rebel sport supported the documentary throughout production. However, securing investment was not a straightforward process.
“Funding doesn’t always come in neat packages, raising money was a piecemeal process,” said Baker.
The film swept the board at the 2016 Whistler Film Festival, winning World Documentary and Mountain Culture Award.
Gayby Baby is intimate and sometimes humorous account of four children raised by same-sex couples, told from the perspective of the kids.
“We wanted to make a film that represented the voice of this new generation of kids – the newest members of the queer community,” says director Maya Newell.
“Gayby Baby is one of the first feature documentaries to tell the story of same-sex families, from the child’s perspective.”
The number of children being raised by gay and lesbian couples are growing in numbers worldwide. This film comes at a time critical time for marriage equality in Australia, and Gayby addresses some of the pertinent questions surrounding this issue.
For Director, Maya Newell, this is a deeply personal topic.
“I am one of these children, I was raised by two lesbian mothers, and I think that our voice is missing in the debate,” she says.
“In the 70s, Donna, one of my mothers, told her mother she was a lesbian, my grandmothers’ first thought was of despair. She was distraught because she so wanted to have a grandchild,” reflects Newell.
“Since that time, changes in technology, policy and public opinion have led to a worldwide “Gayby-boom” and for the first time in history, same-sex couples can expect to have a family.”
We watch as four children, Gus Ebony, Graham and Matt navigate adolescence, finding their voice and exploring their identity.
“I am particularly interested in exploring and revealing children’s perspectives as I believe the frank, moral lens of kids have a lot to teach adults about living with integrity, fairness and equality, “ saya Newell.
“The kids in Gayby Baby were brave enough to reveal their opinions and put their lives on display during a tumultuous battle being waged in Australia – and they spoke truth to power. Australia was listening,”
The team behind the film was relatively small. Maya Newell and Producer, Charlotte Mars wre responsible for a large proportion of the leg work
“We did pretty much everything together from fundraising to writing education resources to represent same-sex families,” reflects Newell.
Newell and Mars created a close relationship with the children which continued far beyond the film and impact end date.
“During the marriage equality plebiscite, Charlotte and I supported Ebony and Gus (now 17/19yrs) to co-direct their first short film for the Guardian Online,” says Newell.
The film has received a somewhat controversial reception.
One of Australia’s major newspapers, The Daily Telegraph, ran a cover story citing a ‘gay, class uproar’; commentators were outraged schools would show a film that ‘promoted a homosexual lifestyle’.
Government ministers responded by preventing screenings across the entire state during school hours.
As one can imagine, the media went into overdrive. A big protest was held and a state vs. state battle erupted, as another State Premier declared the film welcome in his state’s schools.
Despite this uproar, the film was very well supported by Australia.
“The response was incredible, and the support far outweighed the conservative clash,” says Newell.
Gayby Baby captures the phenomenal progress Australia has made towards marriage equality. Last year, Australia passed legislation in every State and Territory for same-sex couples to adopt where previously they were only able to foster children.
“This was a large part of Gayby Baby’s policy campaign in Australia and the shift in legislation made a significant difference for many LGBTIQ families and kids,” reflects Newell.
“I believe that while Government policy is crucial to lead behavioural change, it is still going to take a long time before Australia eradicates homophobia – or any country for that matter.”