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  • Director Gillian Armstrong: some notes on a brilliant career 

    Gillian Armstrong's debut My Brilliant Career was the first Australian feature to be directed by a woman in nearly half a century and set the path for an outstanding international career. As she looks forward to a festival screening not just of her own films but daughter Billie Pleffer's graduating film from the Victorian College of the Arts, she explains why she's become a vocal advocate for more women in the industry.

    By Sarah Hall 

    When director Gillian Armstrong was studying film in 1968 there was no Australian film industry. A series of smart moves, lucky turns and an abundance of creative talent landed her in the front seat of the industry just as it was taking off again.

    Her debut feature, My Brilliant Career (1979), was the first feature-length Australian drama to be directed by a woman in 46 years (the previous being Two Minute Silence by the McDonagh Sisters in 1933, before the local industry crashed).

    I was lucky enough to speak with her in the lead-up to the screening of two of her films – Starstruck (1982) and High Tide (1987) – in their original 35mm format at the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF).

    I began the interview feeling a little woozy from a late night re-watching of Armstrong's 1994 film Little Women, me and my sister's childhood favourite, and opened with a question relating to her documentary series Love, Lust and Lies, which began in 1976, following the lives of three lively Adelaide girls, who have been revisited on film four times since.

    If you were a star in your own documentary series, Love, Lust and Lies, what parts of your life would be shown on the trailer? 

    Well, we try to have very sensitive trailers, not sensational ones. So it depends if it's an ABC trailer or … 

    No, it’s a sensational Hollywood trailer that gives everything away. 

    Oh, right, well ... I don’t think I’ve actually had a sensational Hollywood life. If they wanted a sensational Hollywood thing, they’d probably make a trailer similar to the one that was made for me for the Cannes Lions Advertising Awards this year. They said to me, “We just put the bits of your films in that had famous actors because that makes you look more important”. So if they were cutting a trailer for my life it’d probably be me with handsome young Mel Gibson, Cate Blanchett, Diane Keaton and Ralph Fiennes. 

    And of course all the Little Women ...

    Oh yeah, and Winona and Susan Sarandon. They certainly wouldn’t be interested in the reality of a director’s life – in a parka, a baseball cap and gumboots trudging through mud at dawn shooting in a freezing English countryside … 

    Before deciding to study at Swinburne did you know that filmmaking was what you wanted to do?  

    Well, let me just give a little context. Before I studied at Swinburne, Australia had no film industry at all. I don’t think too many people ever thought about having a career in film. If you were interested in a career in drama there were two options: Crawfords for [the long-running police procedural TV show] Homicide, or the ABC for drama.  

    I had an interest in theatre, literature and art in in high school and it just so happened that my brother went to Swinburne to study business and accounting and he told me, 'There’s this amazing art school at Swinburne, you should come and have a look at it'. So I did. At that point, Swinburne had set up a filmmaking school as part of the art school and it was the first one in Australia. It had really only been going for three years. Both Ian Baker and Jill Bilcock were above me in the cohort, and so was Michael Leunig.  

    When I went there on Open Day and saw all of these amazing arty handheld student films with cute boys with long hair running around, I thought, 'I want to do that'. So I applied and got in to the full-time diploma.  

    Did you know much about film before that? 

    I think I wrote down at the start of my time in film school that my favourite film was The Graduate. The person next to me was writing down Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman. I really had no idea. I’d never seen a foreign film. I grew up in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, in Mitcham, and my family had nothing to do with film.  

    Gilliam Armstrong's 1971 graduating short film The Roof Needs Mowing, from the VCA Film and Television Film Archive. 

    Had you not become a filmmaker, what would you have done?   

    Pretty much all the girls in my year in high school became teachers, secretaries or nurses. Because I was quite academic, I probably would have gone to uni and done teaching.  

    How did it go from Australia not having any film industry to you making My Brilliant Career? 

    Well, timing was really key. Just as I was graduating, the government was setting up the Australian Film Commission [established in 1975] to restart the Australian film industry. Two years later people like Fred Schepisi, who was always an incredible role model for us at Swinburne, was directing his first feature film. So were people like Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford. Fred also gave big breaks to people like Ian Baker and Jill Bilcock. 

    After waitressing for about six months I managed to get a job in the commercial industry. Despite all of our teachers at Swinburne sending us the message that women could only get jobs in continuity, someone gave me the advice, 'Don’t get into continuity or you’ll never move anywhere. Get a job as an editor'.

    I moved to Sydney, despite having no contacts there and, after a year working as an editor in the commercial industry, I saw the ad for first year of the National Film School. I was really driven at that time, really motivated. It was there I realised I had wasted so many opportunities at Swinburne, just having a really great time. I was very lucky, timing-wise, to get into that pilot training scheme at the film school at the same time Australian directors and Australian films had really started taking off. 

    Then my ambition became getting a grant. Then, after making a number of short films, I realised you couldn't make a living from short films as the director’s entire wage goes into the film, so my ambition became making a feature film. I lived on the dole then … all of us did. We thank the Australian government for their support of the arts. You know I went on the dole for a year to make The Singer and Dancer (1977). But I think I’ve paid it back in tax by now.  

    And in your contribution to Australia culture … 

    Yes ... But I just grew up and learned things step by step. Now I say all I want is creative freedom! I don’t want pressure from investors or exhibitors or distributors. In the end I’m back to where I began at Swinburne; I’d rather do something small and creative and call myself a filmmaker. 

    Do you make films with a particular social impact in mind?  

    Not consciously. The stories I’ve chosen over the years have all been things I’ve had a gut reaction to, stories that reflect your beliefs and ethics, and mine are of a humanist, and yes, feminist, nature of course, as well as those with themes like justice and fairness. When I first started making films The Sydney Women’s Film Group was very active, and you know they looked down on my films – like my AFTRS graduation film, One Hundred a Day (1973). They said it wasn’t proper propaganda for women, because it showed women who weren’t being really nice to each other. I’ve never wanted to be a propaganda filmmaker. I’m a storyteller.  

    Will you be sitting through your own movies, Starstruck and High Tide, at MIFF this year?  

    I will sit through High Tide, because I haven’t seen it on the big screen for more than 30 years. It’s the 35mm print so I’m really interested to see it. I always watch the end of Starstruck because I love the final scene, and I've actually seen it a lot recently as I was involved in regrading the NFSA restoration with the producer David Elphick and cinematographer Russel Boyd. But generally I find it very hard to sit through my own films. I spend a lot of time thinking how I could have made it better. 

    Unfortunately High Tide clashes with my daughter Billie Pleffer’s VCA graduating film Fysh which is screening as part of Australian Shorts. 

    Did it come as a surprise that your daughter decided to study film? 

    A complete surprise! She actually secretly enrolled, having already done a double degree in fine art. We did everything possible to discourage her from going into this incredibly brutal film industry. 

    Is there a part of you that’s secretly happy that she's a part of it? 

    Well, I’m very proud she’s done this whole thing on her own. She’s a writer/director which is something I never was. She’s won numerous awards for her short film Bino (2011). She won a national award last year. I’m very proud and in a practical sense think it’s much better to be a writer/director because you can write your own material.  

    Bino (2011). Dir. Billie Pleffer. 

    Would you like to work with her? 

    Oh no! I don’t ever want another director on set! I mean, I do kind of envy all of those brother director pairs, like the Coens. It’s such a lonely thing being a director, it’s hard, you have to make a lot of decisions. You obviously do make all of these decisions with your team. But having someone on your side with whom you have a complete shared vision and taste and shorthand, and the ability to sort of protect each other … that could be good.  

    But no, Billie and I have kind of different tastes in filmmaking. Her style is not only different – it's unique and it's wonderful.

    When you made My Brilliant Career in 1978, you were the first woman to direct a feature length drama in Australia for 46 years. Now, has the situation changed much for women? Do you still feel like an outsider in the industry? Is this frustrating?

    When I made my first feature film, being a woman was all anyone ever asked me about. It really, really annoyed me and I found it quite sexist in the end. I thought, 'You know what – I’m just me and this is a Gillian Armstrong film'. Not all women are going to do the same films and the same stories, and I was really put in this box, because it was a feminist story in a lot of ways, they thought that’s all I ever wanted to talk about. So yes, initially it was frustrating to talk about.  

    But 40 years later, when the figures of women directors worldwide are still so appalling, I am speaking up a lot about the reality – that it’s not a level playing field and there is an unconscious bias, and this bias needs to be readdressed. We need diversity and it’s time for real action. 

    These talented young women are coming out of film school, where they’re represented 50/50, but they aren’t getting the breaks and the boys are. The reality is only 17% of feature films in Australia are directed by women and for commercials, only 9%.

    I went to the Australian Director’s Guild when I heard these figures and said, 'You know what, we should really do something about this'. The guild formed a working committee of which I’m just a very small part. The whole Gender Matters movement comes from this guild. 

    We’re thrilled that we really have had an effect and money has been put towards developing female writers as well as directors. There have always been women producers, but why aren’t there more women artists? There should have been a million more Jane Campions. 

    Is there much doubt involved in making a film, with what script you choose to work with and the process of the filmmaking? 

    The process of working on a script has many ups and downs. Sometimes the development of a screenplay takes so long you can start to look at it and think, 'I don’t know if I’ve really got the passion for this anymore', because actually making a film takes two years. 

    When it comes to making the film I always tell young filmmakers that there's never enough time and enough money for a director – whatever the budget is, your ambitions are bigger.  

    Of all of your films and documentaries, which one stays with you the most – which one makes you think – if I were to die tomorrow I’d be happy because I made that? 

    Probably my personal baby, my Adelaide series, Love, Lust and Lies. I’m stopping short of saying it’s over because maybe there’s a possibility it'll return in a few years. It’s really captured Australia and Australian lives. Just after we did the second meet, when they were 18 (in the first they were 14), I happened to be in Canberra. I ran into some politicians, Susan Ryan and Bill Hayden, who had seen it, and they said to me, 'Oh, what’s happened to the little blonde girl driving that car with the bumper bar nearly falling off?' They were talking about Josie. 

    I felt really proud to have made something that had reached the people who could make our country a better place. At least that’s how we used to feel about politicians. I was proud they had a chance to look into the life of someone as brave and wonderful as Josie, where otherwise she just would have been a figure and a number – 'unmarried teen mother'.  

    It’s an incredible document of 30 years of people's lives. In the first episode the girls all said, “The man’s the breadwinner and I’ll be looking after the babies'. Just to see how that changed over the installations was fascinating. 

    It’s not as if I went out with that intentional social consciousness, but I have felt very proud when my films have affected people in a good way.  

    What's your advice to budding filmmakers? 

    Just do it, don’t talk about it. Try to be different and original but not in a fake way. Push the boundaries, get out there and make it. The more you make the more you learn. Be free and be brave. 

    Gillian Armstrong's films are showing at the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival: Starstruck on 11 August and High Tide on 13 August. More details.

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  • Bec Goring: playing for inclusive cultures in football and music

    Graduating from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music to become captain of the Geelong Women's Football Team isn't an obvious career progression, but Bec Goring is kicking goals on several fronts. 

    By Sarah Hall

    Given the gender disparities in jazz and Australian Rules Football, to name just a couple of areas, women and gender-nonconforming people are used to playing with at least one hand tied behind their backs. Naturally, this can be frustrating.

    But according to Bec Goring, who graduated from the Melbourne Conservatorium last year, the situation can change – and she should know.

    She was one of only two woman guitar players in her year studying Jazz and Improvisation, and has since become skipper of Geelong in the Victorian Women's Football League.

    “We have the opportunity to change the culture for women in footy and music for the better,” she says.

    Goring plays regularly as a solo artist and in a number of groups, including Melanie Taylor and the SunchasersAlexander Biggs, and the Hollie Joyce band.

    I'm meeting her today at the student cafeteria at the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, after stumbling across an article about her in the Geelong Advertiser. I'm keen to find out more about her journey from graduating from the MCM to becoming captain of the Cats.

    When I walk in, I see her sitting on a couch. She springs up to greet me, and then insists on buying my coffee. She says hi to a few people she recognises in the cafe, talking briefly with them about upcoming gigs.

     

    We take a seat away from the speakers, and I ask her what the atmosphere is like in women’s footy since the introduction of the Professional Women’s AFL, earlier this year.

    “We have a really short window to sculpt football culture in a really interesting, inclusive and different way, free from all the baggage of the men’s league,” she says, clearly enthused.

    By baggage, I assume Goring's referring to the sexism, racism and macho-ism prevalent in the AFL Men’s culture, but the fact that she doesn't spell that out suggests she's more interested in focusing on the opportunities of the women’s league than the problems in the men’s.

    “The two cultures [women’s and men’s football] are very different,” she says.

    I assume Goring has encountered similar "baggage" in her career as a musician, and she admits to having been made to feel “good at playing guitar ... for a girl”.

    “The teachers try really hard to encourage more women to apply for the [Jazz and Improvisation] course,” she says, but whether for cultural factors or other reasons, it remains an uphill battle – and not just in the classroom.

    “There have definitely been occasions when I have questioned my involvement in certain musical projects," she says. “Have I just been included so there’s a woman on stage?”

    She thinks quotas may be a good way to begin achieving a more even balance of genders enrolling in music courses. “We may need to manufacture that sort of involvement for a while, in my opinion. That way we have role models for younger women, and gradually over time we’ll be able to solidify pathways for women into the music industry."

    For Goring, this is more than lip service. She's the director of a Geelong-based girls music group called the Sweethearts Junior Academy (sister band to the 30-piece all female soul music group The Sweethearts, with whom she used to play), in which she leads girls aged from nine to 15 in musical rehearsal and performance.

    “You know these kids are going to be shredding at gigs by the time they’re 18,” she says. “Usually it takes until you’re in your mid-twenties to get to that stage.”

    While life sees Goring juggling her time between the Geelong Cats and, em, jazz cats, there are some handy cross-overs.

    “Sometimes I’ll arrive at footy training after writing music at home, and I’ll spend the warm-up running in complete silence trying to think up some more lyrics," she says.

    And then there are those times when she trains in Geelong on the weekend and “fangs it down the highway to play a gig at the Old Bar or the Tote, to get on stage still smelling like grass and sweat.”

    "It's lucky those gigs are with a garage band and not an intimate jazz band – otherwise people might start to notice the smell."

    She joined the University of Melbourne Football team, without being too noisy about it, while she was studying at the MCM. “At the time I was pretty quiet about it because the music teachers pretty much all discourage contact sports, because of the risk of injury to your hands, which affects your playing," she says.

    “I did get a couple of jarred fingers but that was fine, I just pulled sickies after those and no-one noticed.”

    With Goring at its helm, the Geelong Women’s VFL has just finished its bid for an AFL team in 2019. The announcement will be made later this month, and Goring is confident about their prospects. She's excited by the prospect of a professional career in football and doesn't see it as an impediment to her career as a musician. As with much in her life, it’s all about balance.

    “I think part of the reason why I am captain is because I can see the bigger picture of football,” she said, “It’s not all about wins and losses, it’s about the community.”

    “Irrespective of your gender, sexuality or ethnicity, we want to send the message out there that you can play footy at any level,” she said, “and there’s no reason why someone who doesn’t fit the black and white of gender binary can’t play the game at the same level.”

    We begin packing up our things. "You know, I really didn’t expect we’d spend so much time talking about gender,” she says.

    Though the focus of her leadership of the Cats, as for the Sweethearts Junior Academy, may not and should not be gender, there does seem to be a certain inevitability to this being a part of the role, while music and sporting cultures, as with society at large, have not yet reached a point of gender, or genderless, equality.

    “I suppose I have started to think more broadly about what it means to be a female footballer,” she says.

    The importance of tearing down roadblocks for musicians and sportsplayers alike means that people like Bec Goring, who are talented, zealous and gender-conscious, are invaluable spokespeople.

    “I’ve got an awesome family and support network,” she says. “I’ve had a very privileged life so I may as well make the most of it.”

     

    You can listen to a small selection of Bec Goring's solo music here, and see her upcoming solo gig on 6 October at the Geelong Workers Club.

    Banner image: Bec Goring at the MCG. Image by Sav Schulman.

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    August 8, 2017 MCM, Alumni, Mu...
  • Alethea Jones talks Fun Mom Dinner and life as a Hollywood director

    Since graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts in 2007, Alethea Jones has won numerous festival awards for her short films. Ahead of the release of her debut Hollywood feature, Fun Mom Dinner, she explains where she’s at and what’s coming next.

    By Paul Dalgarno

    Hi Alethea, what’s your life like at the moment, ahead of the release of Fun Mom Dinner?

    This week especially has been pretty hectic because I’ve been directing an episode of a TV show called American Woman that stars Alicia Silverstone and Mena Suvari and some other really brilliant actors. And they just had me come back for reshoots on other episodes that needed a little bit of help. I’ve also just started on a new feature film and I’m in the office tomorrow on that, and doing press all week for Fun Mom Dinner. It’s been very exciting.

    What’s your elevator pitch for Fun Mom Dinner?

    It’s a broad R-rated ensemble comedy about four mothers who assume the only thing they have in common is the fact their children go to pre-school together. They embark on a night-out with varying expectations of the evening, from not wanting to be there to perhaps wanting to be there a little bit too much. They find out there’s a lot more to each other than the roles of motherhood, and they just cut loose.

    As an Australian filmmaker, did you notice the differences in sensibility working on an American script? Did you bring any Australian humour to it or did you just work off the script and shoot it as it was?

    The script always tells you what it wants to be and how it wants to be expressed, and I nearly passed on this one. I rang my manager and said, ‘I don’t think I should be considered for this film, it’s not me, I’m not a mother, and it’s very broad and I make very specific kooky comedies'. He explained they were looking for someone to bring something unique to the film and that they wanted a first-time female director. He said, ‘Alethea you can wait forever for your first feature to come along or you can rip off the Band-Aid and prove to people that you can do it. These are really special people to work with, and they’re probably going to get a great cast.’ And so I did it, and I had the time of my life.

    Where’s your heart – in TV or feature films?

    I’m more drawn to features. I haven’t consciously gone for television, because I was really nervous about it. I think my style of filmmaking is gentle, and I wasn’t sure I was robust enough for television. But I’ve done a few TV things here in America, it’s been the most delightful experience – the crews here are a joy. So I’m actually very open to doing more television as it comes up, but I also have a few features on the back-burner that seem to be stacking up quite nicely.

    And you’re Hollywood-based now?

    Yeah, I live in Los Angeles, even though I never meant to pursue a career here. I never thought I was good enough. My short-film Lemonade Stand won Tropfest in 2012 and part of the prize was a trip to LA, all-expenses-paid, and the opportunity to meet with industry people. I didn’t feel ready but I went, and from that point on I got an agent over here. I visited for two years, back and forth, while I was directing commercials in Australia and teaching film at Swinburne and the VCA. Eventually my agent said, ‘You’re making great progress here, but we lose it all every time you go home for three months.’ I made the move with my two dogs and, as soon as I did, booked my first episode of television with Amazon Studios. That’s when it all started happening.

    When you found out you’d won Tropfest did you have a sense of that being a real career-starter?

    I was incredibly naïve and overwhelmed. But I think I was most excited when my first short When the Wind Changes got into the Melbourne International Film Festival’s Accelerator Program in 2010. I cried because no-one had wanted to produce or even edit that short. We had to beg the crew to take part, and we'd entered the film in MIFF by writing on the DVD with a marker pen. And then I got a letter saying, “You’re in Accelerator,” and I lost my shit. That was the game-changer for me.

    What’s your next film?

    I don’t know if I can say, but I think I can say I’ve just signed a development deal with Sony Pictures Studios and am developing one of their projects with them. If it’s greenlit I will direct it.

    For Fun Mom Dinner, you mentioned they were looking for a woman director, the film stars four women, and the screenplay was written by a woman, Julie Rudd. Do you think there’s finally a sense of the tide turning, where we’re actually going to see more women’s stories told by women?

    Yep, the tide is absolutely turning. I could sense it starting to happen about two years ago, but in this industry, like others, it takes time. A couple of years ago, when lots of articles were coming out about this issue, people were saying it was all hot air and that nothing was actually happening to really change things. But it takes a long time to get films green-lit. I’m so glad that I moved here two years ago. Back in Australia, when my shorts were winning awards and I was like, ‘I wanna work in TV,’ someone literally said to me, ‘It’s not your turn, you have to get in line’. And I thought, ‘Well, if I have to get in line, I may as well do that in America.’ I’m glad about that, because I’ve taken hundreds of meetings and many of those are coming to fruition now that I’ve proven I can do it.

    I read somewhere that you’re interested in doing a musical at some point. Is that right?        

    Yeah, that’s right, and in fact this studio deal with Sony has bunch of musical numbers in it. My ultimate musical would be a sort of old-school film like the Pajama Game. And I’m actually doing one like that next year in America, which is really exciting – it’s technicolour with a really kooky bent to it. I’m also developing a musical with Aquarius Pictures, with Polly Staniford, who I went to VCA with, and Angie Fielder.

    As a director, is it the finished product that gets you noticed within the industry, or does that come from the process of actually making the film?

    It’s 100% process. People just want to know that you can do it, that you’ve made a profit for the financiers, that you can work with big stars and not be phased by them, and that you can get good performances out of your actors. Fun Mom Dinner was shot in 19 days and the budget was extremely low. You can’t tell an audience that, but the producers and studios here in LA know what the numbers are and they all talk to each other to vet you. I booked an episode of Santa Clarita Diet starring Drew Barrymore. When I went in for my interview the show-runner said, ‘Drew’s looking forward to working with you,” and I’m like, ‘What? How?’. He goes, ‘Oh, she rang Toni Collette. We wouldn’t even be talking to you if you didn’t check out with Toni’.  I was like, 'Wow, Jesus'.

    Even if technical directing skills can be learned on the job, I’m guessing a director’s interpersonal skills have to be there at the outset? 

    Yeah, that’s right, and I’m really conflicted about that in relation to film school because we weren’t taught that. You’re trying to learn every part of the craft but there’s no room given for leadership and interpersonal skills – even learning how to send a succinct email that just gets to the point to busy people who get hundreds of emails every day. I would love to go back to the VCA and talk with students about that some time. But then I think about how much I just needed to focus on the technical side of film-making and I understand why we didn’t get to that part of things. Like most industries, if you’re starting out and you’re a jerk, you probably won’t get recommended for your next job.

    Why did you choose to study at the VCA? 

    I went there for two reasons. I saw that Robert Luketic, who directed Legally Blonde, went there, and I loved that film. And I saw that Emma Freeman, who directed Lamb, went there too. Emma came in and spoke to us one time and she told us that she was the worst student in her class. I knew I was the worst person in my class, too, so that gave me hope that I would improve one day. The more mistakes you can make at film school, the better. I felt the same with Fun Mom Dinner. Watching it, I still cringe, from what we missed or shots that I wish were wider. It was an extraordinarily fast film to make and I had to compromise every step of the way. But now that I’m looking at doing a studio film I know exactly what mistakes I don’t want to make and how determined I am to avoid that nauseous feeling again. And that’s exactly how it was at the VCA – I made really bad shorts but was able to course-correct with the three short-films that I made out of film school.

    You’ve mentioned you’d like to direct science fiction movies in the future?

    Oh yes, I want to really muscle-up and direct tent-poles. I’d love to do science-fiction or a superhero movie. I saw Wonder Woman three times and bought the soundtrack – I loved it. And I loved Spider-Man: Homecoming – it was just so joy-filled and well-crafted. I love Guardians of the Galaxy, too. The people at Marvel are really special and I’d love to play in that universe. But, you know, one of my all-time favourite films is Contact. And I’d love to make something like that too – a grounded and human science-fiction with a big feel.

    Would you like to shoot films in Australia?

    Absolutely. I was poised to come back and do a film at the end of last year. We had the money but it just wasn’t the right cast. I’m dying to come back and make something really special and punchy. I’d like to bring a big film with American money to Australia. I know it might sound strange to Australians but I love making big commercial stuff because I like the entertainment factor – that’s what spoke to me as a little girl, that’s what made me happy. If I could bring one of those films back to Australia I’d be thrilled. Everyone would get paid well and I think it would be a treat to work with my Aussie friends again.

    Fun Mom Dinner is at the Melbourne International Film Festival on 11 and 13 August. Full details

    Banner image: Alethea Jones. By Alex Vaughan.

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    August 8, 2017 VCA, Alumni, Fi...
  • Meet CJ Welsh, Master of Producing

    In this new occasional series, we hear from VCA & MCM students on what makes them tick, where they've been and where they're going. First up it's CJ Welsh, who recently graduated from the VCA's Master of Producing program. 

    My pathway to studying at the VCA was somewhat serendipitous. I finished an undergraduate degree in New Media at the ANU in 2009 and somehow found myself working in a completely unrelated industry, travel and sales, for six years. I was lost and wondering why I never did anything with my film degree, when I quite literally stumbled across the University of Melbourne Open Day in 2015. [VCA Master of Producing lecturer] Gus Howard gave a talk about the course and a chat afterwards convinced me to apply for the course. The kind of filmmaker produced at the VCA is the kind I want to be.

    I’m inspired by the tenacity of my fellow creatives. Watching their hard work come to fruition, and watching them push themselves to succeed makes me push myself. I read a lot of science-fiction and that inspires me too – seeing the positivity, faith and creativity that goes into imagining a future for the human race. That kind of imagination makes me feel like anything is possible.

    Set-backs, workload, rejections, creative blocks, negativity from others – it all adds up. When I started studying at the VCA, the biggest challenge for me was my friends and family questioning why I would quit a "stable" career in the travel industry to go into an industry fuelled by uncertainty and risk. It can be hard to explain to people who don’t feel the creative urge, but being surrounded by like-minds make it easier.

    2016 was a huge year for me. As part of the Masters of Producing course, I produced three short films: The Last Man, Ruby Tuesday and Creating a Monster. The amount of effort required to pull this off was gargantuan; I had never pushed myself so hard before. It was exhilarating and terrifying, but in the end, absolutely worth it. I received the VCA's 2016 Producer of the Year award and all three films were selected for the St Kilda Film Festival in 2017.

    In the next few years, my major goal is to establish myself in the industry as reliable and hard-working. I have several projects I’m developing myself including two web series and a feature film, for which I hope to receive development funding.

    If you want to pursue a career in film producing, it’s good to keep things in perspective. The pressure to succeed can seem overwhelming at times, but the relationships you form with your fellow creatives will not only help but also make it a load of fun. Don’t be afraid to lean on your colleagues and remember to be there when they need to lean on you.

    As told to Sophie Duran.

    Image: Master of Producing student CJ Welsh at the Film and Television studios at the Victorian College of the Arts. By Sav Schulman.

    Find out more about the Master of Producing at the Victorian College of the Arts.
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    July 31, 2017 VCA, Alumni, St...
  • VCA and MCM success at the Helpmann Awards

    Faculty staff and alumni were well-represented among the winners at the 2017 Helpmann Awards.

    By Sarah Hall

    Seven staff and alumni from the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music won Helpmann Awards on Monday evening, in the fields of theatre, dance, music and production.

    The VCA’s recently-announced 2017 Keith & Elisabeth Murdoch Travelling Fellow Leticia Cáceres won the Helpmann for Best Direction of a Play for Belvoir Theatre’s The Drover's Wife, for which alumnus Mark Coles Smith also won in the category of Best Male Actor. The Drover’s Wife additionally took the awards for Best Play and Best New Work (Leah Purcell).

    “I’m really so happy this has happened, it’s amazing,” said Ms Cáceres on her win for The Drover's Wife, a reimagining of Henry Lawson's story of the same name. She described the Helpmanns, which recognise distinguished artistic achievement and excellence in the arts in the live performance sector, as Australia’s equivalent to the Tony or Olivier awards.

    “We never lost sight of why we wanted to tell this story the way we wanted to tell it,” she said. “To have had this recognition means not only that were we able to talk critically about the issues that were important to us, but that we did so in a way that was satisfying for audiences and critics alike. For me that is a massive achievement.”

    Alumnus Barrie Kosky's Opera Saul scooped several awards, one of which went to Kosky for Best Direction of an Opera, and another of which went to the MCM’s Senior Lecturer in Early Music Dr Erin Helyard for Best Music Direction. Saul was financed by the South Australian government as the centrepiece to this year’s Adelaide Festival, following rave reviews from the UK’s Glyndebourne festival.

    Alumna and Lecturer in Design at the VCA Anna Cordingley won Best Scenic Design for the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Jasper Jones; alumna Anna O’Byrne won Best Female Actor in a Musical for My Fair Lady, produced by Opera Australia and John Frost; and alumna Lilian Steiner took home the award for Best Female Dancer in a Ballet, Dance or Physical Theatre Production for the Lucy Guerin Inc and Arts House’s production Split.

    Head of VCA Theatre Associate Professor Matthew Delbridge said he was delighted with the continued success of staff and alumni from across the Faculty.

    “Having representation from alumni across all areas of the performing arts is further proof of the ongoing legacy of our programs, the sustained excellence of our graduates, and our rightful position as the pre-eminent training institution in the country," he said.

    Banner image: The Melbourne Theatre Company's production of Jasper Jones, for which VCA lecturer Anna Cordingley won a Helpmann Award for Best Scenic Design. Photo: Anisha Senaratne (LPA).

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    July 25, 2017 VCA, MCM, Alumn...
  • Dressing Macbeth

    Esther Marie Hayes sheds some light on the inspirations behind her costume design for Macbeth at Melbourne Theatre Company.

    Costume designer Esther Marie Hayes didn’t study Shakespeare at school. However, throughout her early years as a costume designer, she has undergone a thorough education of the world’s most famous playwright. Macbeth marks Esther’s third Shakespearean play for Melbourne Theatre Company, working alongside the same creative team under the direction of Simon Phillips for both Richard III in 2010 and Hamlet in 2011.

    Simon appointed Esther as a fresh-faced VCA graduate to design costumes for Joanna Murray-Smith’s 2009 play Rockabye. From there, the two developed a strong theatrical language and aesthetic that would inform their creative collaborations.

    Esther’s costume design concept for Macbeth began with an analysis of how they contemporised their last Shakespearean works together. ‘All three are modern adaptations. Richard III was political, Hamlet was political and militaristic, and Macbeth is militaristic,’ Esther says. All three shows involve a considerable amount of blood, which for a costume designer, is bound to present logistical problems.

    With a cast of 13 and numerous cast members playing multiple characters, Esther’s biggest concern was designing costumes that could accommodate all the necessary quick changes required to tell this multifaceted story.

    Having grown up between Spokane and Melbourne in a multi-generational ‘military family,’ Esther was told stories about her Grandfather serving for his country from a young age. She then watched two uncles and three cousins move around the world as members of the United States Navy and Army. This family history helped to inspire the design of various soldier’s costumes, many of which have been repurposed from the military uniforms used in Esther’s costume design for Hamlet. ‘The soldier costumes are special to me, they feel close to home.’

    Esther’s research started with her own family history, but delved into much deeper territory when she broke down the role of each character; modernising the narrative to bring it into the 21st century.

    ‘The set design was already completed, so I was responding to that initially, before looking at each individual character.’ She began researching the uniforms of various authorities in different parts of the world – the police force in Mexico and swat teams in France; army generals in the Middle East; humanitarian aid workers in war zones and first responders at terrorist attacks; as well as foot soldiers in small nations of Europe. She looked at the dress codes of French horse-riding teams, and the formal dinner garments of the King of Jordan and his wife. Regulation Army pyjamas in the United States and the balaclavas and bandanas on the heads of hate-crime groups and gangsters were also pinned to the inspiration costume board. Esther looked at crime dramas The Night Manager and Orphan Black for additional research.

    When it came to the witches, high-end fashion was the focus. ‘We wanted them to look similar, but with individuality as well. We were looking at blacks, and layering to create those silhouettes. And we looked at how fashion has been interpreted by military dress, as well as that kilt look with the heavy boots,’ which Esther says only ties the play back to its Scottish roots. ‘It’s hard when we’ve created a world that’s very modern, to then also create that unearthly, spiritual image, which the witches represent.’

    The inauguration clothes of American presidents and first ladies also made their way onto the board, along with Oscar worthy ball gowns. Alexander McQueen’s sheer, figure-hugging lines and surplus of sequins was the first port of call when it came to designing Lady Macbeth’s ceremonial gown.

    Next to North by Northwest, Macbeth is the most labour intensive job Esther has designed. Her favourite part of the whole process, she says, is the ‘breaking down’ of the soldiers’ costumes, where the garments are dyed, sanded and washed in various rinses to make them look worn. ‘My favourite part is seeing this transformation. It’s hard work but it looks like magic.’

    Other than watching unworn, hand-tailored uniforms turn into tattered ones, Esther loves collaborating with her peers in the creative process. ‘There are so many different people that you work with doing a production of this scale and every part counts.’

    Macbeth plays at Southbank Theatre from 5 June. Book now.

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    This article was originally published by MTC Backstage. View the original article.

    Banner image: Lady Macbeth costume designs by Esther Marie Hayes. Image courtesy of Melbourne Theatre Company.

    July 19, 2017 VCA, Alumni, Th...
  • Keith and Elisabeth Murdoch Travelling Fellowship winners announced

    The 2017 Keith and Elisabeth Murdoch Travelling Fellowships, worth $75,000, were awarded last night to four University of Melbourne graduates from the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (VCA & MCM).

    Awarded biennially to theatre, music and visual arts graduates, the Fellowships were established in 1994 by the late Dame Elisabeth Murdoch AC DBE to enable young artists to travel and study overseas in the early stages of their careers.

    Dame Murdoch’s granddaughter, Julie Kantor, presented the awards last night at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery on behalf of her grandmother, saying the Fellowships were created to help students become “artists of the world”.

    “It seems to me, and certainly to my grandmother, that an essential feature of the artist at any stage in their career, is to find compelling means of creating a bridge between the private world of feeling and insight, and a public world that has an enormous need for inspiration and understanding,”  Ms Kantor said.

    “To understand this need and to refine one’s feeling and insight, my grandmother and grandfather believed that young artists need to be able to experience the world beyond the place of their study and residence.”

    Dean of the VCA & MCM, Professor Barry Conyngham, said providing young artists with international travel opportunities was of benefit to Australian culture more broadly.

    “Travel can provide emerging artists, musicians and performers with inspiration and connections that last well beyond the initial moment, and indeed continue to inform their creative development throughout their careers.  As consumers of culture, we all stand to benefit from that,” he said.

    The main $25,000 Prize for Visual Art, judged on the day by a panel comprising Acting Head of VCA Art Dr Kate Daw, multidisciplinary artist Nicholas Mangan and Director of Gertrude Contemporary Mark Feary, went to Trent Crawford, who graduated from the VCA in 2016, for his video installation work Liquidity.

    Crawford’s work, along with the other shortlisted works for the visual art fellowship, will be on display at the 2017 Keith and Elisabeth Murdoch Travelling Fellowship Exhibition in the Margaret Lawrence Gallery (40 Dodds St, Southbank) until 5 August 2017.

    The 2017 Keith and Elisabeth Murdoch Travelling Fellowship recipients are:

    Visual Art

    Trent Crawford, B. Fine Arts (Visual Art). Born 1995, Crawford lives and works in Melbourne. Interested in dissecting images and technology to explore them in a passive state, Crawford’s work focuses on entering the in-between moments in time where the subject or material exists in a state of lapse; often with its function usurped or absent. By disassembling, restructuring and repurposing new media, he calls to question how the framing devices of screens and filters are active in the construction, fragmentation and degeneration of the image. Award of $25,000.

    Theatre (two recipients)

    Leticia Cáceres, M.Dramatic Art (Direction). Cáceres has been lauded as one of the most exciting directing talents in the country. She was Associate Director at MTC from 2013 to 2015. She has also directed for Belvoir, La Mama, Queensland Theatre Company, Sydney Opera House, La Boîte Theatre/Brisbane Festival, Melbourne Arts Centre, and Brisbane Powerhouse. She is the co-founder of nationally-acclaimed RealTV. Award of $15,000
    Eugyeene Teh, M. Production (Design). Teh has worked with mainstage companies, earning him Green Room Award nominations for both his debut works; Endgame at MTC and Meme Girls at Malthouse. Last year, he worked on Straight White Men (MTC), In Between Two (Sydney Festival with William Yang and Annette Shun Wah), Lady Eats Apple (Back to Back Theatre) and Blaque Showgirls (Malthouse). Award of $15,000.

    Music

    Troy Rogan, B. Fine Arts (Contemporary Music) (Hons). Rogan is a Melbourne-based composer, orchestrator and cellist, who brings his passion for making meaningful, engaging music to each project. He draws his inspiration from the art of storytelling, with a fascination of the parallel that various musical languages can impart. Award of $20,000.

    Banner image: Trent Crawford with his video installation work Liquidity. Photo: Sav Schulman.

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    July 14, 2017 VCA, MCM, Alumn...
  • Trapping Lady Macbeth in a corset and frame: cinematographer Ari Wegner

    Since graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts in 2006 Ari Wegner has worked on dozens of commercials, short films, TV series and feature-length films, before landing the gig as cinematographer for Lady Macbeth, which hits cinemas on 29 June.

    Interview by Sarah Hall.

    Ari, how did you get into cinematography?

    I’ve been interested in photography since high school, or even before, and I’ve always liked writing. I guess at film school (Bachelor of Film and Television, VCA, 2006), I realised that cinematography encapsulated both of those interests.

    How did you get from your Bachelor of Film and Television at the VCA to Lady Macbeth?

    After the VCA, I did really small stuff, then moved on to bigger projects – making commercials, TV shows, feature films and short films, including Night Shift (2012), which did really well. I also shot Ruin (2013) in Cambodia, which was received really well and won a prize at the 2013 Venice Film Festival (Special Orizzonti Jury Prize).

    On the back of Ruin I signed with an agent in the UK and we were both really excited about Lady Macbeth. The director [William Oldroyd] and I hit it off right away, and agreed on how it might look and how we wanted to work together.

    Florence Pugh as Katherine Macbeth in Lady Macbeth, 2017. Image supplied.

    How do cinematographers and directors tend to work together?

    Ideally, in collaboration. Some directors are really loose and free-form; some work best when everything is planned out meticulously. Some have a very clear idea of what they want, and others prefer to have a cinematographer lead the visuals a lot more. Every project and director is so different, which is a huge part of what I love about this job.

    Of course, there are so many other people involved too: the production designer, the editor, the cast, wardrobe people, location, sound – it’s such a team effort, and really needs to be for the whole thing to look great.

    What was it like to work on Lady Macbeth with star-in-the-making, Florence Pugh?

    Florence is fantastic. I don’t think we realised until much later how uncomfortable that shoot must have been for her – she was wearing very tight corsets the whole time and some of the dresses she had to be sewn into … Plus, the dresses were all period pieces, so she had to be super-careful not to damage them.

    Can you talk us through some of your cinematographic decisions for the film?

    Both myself and the director William Oldroyd wanted to establish quite formal cinematographic rules, not least because the lead character Katherine has very strict rules in her life. Our idea was to shoot Katherine in these locked frames in parts of the film where she doesn’t have any freedom or agency. At other times there’s a more freehand style of filming. We didn’t pan or tilt or move the camera at all until those moments.

    Ari Wegner with Lady Macbeth Director, Will Oldroyd. Image by Laurie Sparham.

    What attributes best serve you as a cinematographer?

    I guess I’m quite a calm person naturally, and I can see that kind of energy really trickle down. I sometimes feel a bit like the MC – trying to set the tone and make sure we’re moving at the right pace, listening to anyone who’s having a hard time or needs some extra attention.

    What other projects have you been working on?

    I shot a film called Stray last year with the first-time-feature director Dustin Feneley, who I met at the VCA. It’s in post-production now and, given we’ve been talking about making it for 10 years, it’s so great to have finally done it.

    What advice would you give emerging filmmakers?

    Trust your gut. Don’t be afraid to say no to projects that really aren’t for you. As much as that might feel weird it’s actually more respectful to everyone involved – and it frees the­­ job up for someone who really wants it.

    Lady Macbeth opens in Australia on Friday 29 June 2017.

    Banner Image: The filming of Lady Macbeth; Ari Wegner holding the camera. Image by Myron Jonson.

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    June 27, 2017 VCA, Alumni, Fi...
  • 9 X 5 NOW: radio interview with Elizabeth Gower and Tai Snaith

    On 15 June 2017, on the eve of the opening of the Victorian College of the Arts' landmark 9 X 5 NOW exhibition, Curator Dr Elizabeth Gower and participating 9 X 5 NOW artist Tai Snaith spoke with RRR Smartarts presenter Richard Watts about the show.

    Listen to the interview here.

    More than 300 visual artists have contributed original works for the exhibition, which runs from 16–25 June at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Southbank, Melbourne. Proceeds from the sale of the works, most of which will be sold for between $500 and $1,500, will go to establishing the new ART150 Fellowship to support emerging artists.

    Visit the ART150 website.
    See 9 X 5 NOW event details.
    View the 9 X 5 NOW online catalogue.

    Image: David Rosetsky's 9 X 5 NOW work. LYV (partial version). C-type photo collage.

    June 15, 2017 VCA, Alumni, Re...
  • FTV alumnus Qiu Yang wins short film Palme d’Or at Cannes

    Victorian College of the Arts Film and Television graduate Qiu Yang has won the prestigious Palme d'Or - Short Film award and a Jury Special Mention at the Cannes Film Festival 2017 for his short film A Gentle Night/ Xiao Cheng Er Yue (2017). The 15-minute film is set in a provincial Chinese town, following a woman’s desperate search for her missing daughter.

    Yang is a 2014 Master of Film and Television graduate, whose VCA graduation film Under the Sun has already received numerous awards, and screened at Cannes in 2015.

    Trailer for Under the Sun (2014) by Qiu Yang.

    Head of VCA Film and Television Nicolette Freeman said she was "thrilled" to hear of Qui’s success at Cannes, but not surprised. "It's so good to see Cannes recognise Qui Yang's talent. It's an extraordinary achievement for him to be screened, let alone awarded, at Cannes in such quick succession.”

    “Qiu is a very talented new director with a strong and unique artistic voice,” said Ms Freeman. "That was clear to us during his two years in our Masters program in 2013 and 2014. I can’t wait to see this new work.”

    Yang was joined at Cannes this year by another VCA Film and Television graduate, Ariel Kleiman, who, with co-director Jane Campion, presented Top of the Lake: China Girl.

    Trailer for A Gentle Night/ Xiao Cheng Er Yue (2017) by Qiu Yang.

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    Banner image: Screen capture from A Gentle Night/ Xiao Cheng Er Yue by Qiu Yang.

    May 30, 2017 VCA, Alumni, Fi...
  • Restless works by Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists

    Restless, at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne, exhibits recent works by Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists as a counterpoint to the "welt" paintings by Gordon Bennett (1955–2014). Bennett's chilling imagery can be understood as a declaration of new possibilities, responsibilities and sensitivities for Australian artists and curators. The following transcript is from an interview between Ashley Perry, Honours Fine Arts (Visual Arts) student at the Victorian College of the Arts and Dr David Sequeira, Curator, Restless.

    David Sequeira: I remember the opening of Gordon Bennett’s exhibition A Black History in 1993 as an intense and unsettling experience. That Saturday afternoon, on the way to the exhibition, I saw a man lying in the middle of one of the backstreets of Fitzroy. He looked drunk and barely conscious, and there was no-one else in the street. I stopped the car to help him – to at least get him onto the footpath.

    Gagging from the stench of alcohol, cigarettes, urine and body odour, I lifted him up and the blood from his head-wound smeared on my shirt and hands. He had just enough energy to call me a filthy black cunt before he passed out in my arms. I sat on the footpath with him, stressed and shaken by the fragility and ugliness that I had experienced.

    Finally, a police patrol van stopped and took him away. Restless, I bought a new shirt and went on to the opening. I had never seen works of art that challenged the privilege of white history so uncompromisingly. As I looked down at the room sheet, I noticed that some of the stranger’s blood remained on my hands.

    Ashley Perry: What interested you in Gordon Bennett’s exhibition A Black History at Sutton Gallery in 1993?

    Not only did A Black History highlight the cruelties of Australia’s colonial values – more importantly for me, the work pointed towards contemporary manifestations of these values. These manifestations seemed everywhere – in our schools, museums and galleries. Until this exhibition I had never seen contemporary art that had been so critical of dominant histories. Bennett’s work seemed to interrogate my understanding of art history and expose its weaknesses – that it was relatively unquestioned and that it had been constructed from "white" values.

    What was it about this show and these works that resonated in your mind until now?

    I was especially interested in a suite of small works on canvas, some of which are included in Restless. Uniform in size and painted mostly in black and blue, these works were hung in a small room separate from the larger paintings. Parts of each canvas were painted in relief, in which cuts reveal a red interior. Bennett referred to these works as "welt" paintings, and I was struck by his symbolic use of the canvas as a scarred and unhealed skin. Across the floor of this entire room, Bennett had written the words "a black history" repeatedly. I became aware of myself engaged in the process of erasing "a black history" as I walked across the room to look at each of these works.

    From that, why now? Why re-address or revisit this work today, almost 25 years on from the initial exhibition?

    In 2017 the welt paintings still articulate both personal and shared experiences, and shine a light on the processes of revealing and concealing the past. My assertion is that Bennett’s work (particularly from this period) made a profound contribution to museology and curatorship in Australia. Through these works I learnt to question the hierarchies within museums and examine their role in the construction of identity and history.

    I became aware of how the placement of art objects within museums impacted my understandings of them. In addition to Bennett’s unpacking of the complexities of history, his chilling imagery was a declaration of new possibilities and responsibilities for Australian artists and curators. Restless can be considered an exploration of those possibilities.

    You have drawn together a range of practices for this exhibition. Could you talk about the context in which the artists produced their works, compared to when Bennett made his show?

    None of the works by other artists in Restless reference Bennett – it is unlikely that these artists would be overly familiar with his work. This is not the focus of the exhibition. The main point of Restless is to highlight the types of art and curatorship that can emerge from the ideas that Bennett so powerfully articulated.

    In the early 1990s it was mostly Indigenous artists who claimed the issues that Bennett brought to light. Now, issues around race, history, representation and colonisation are central to a broad range of Australian artists. There seems to be a shared responsibility about being an Australian artist that I find deeply moving.
    Artist information for Restless
    Nick Devlin

    Implicit in Nick Devlin’s series of altered Australian flags is a critique of the fabric of Australian-ness. Exploiting the traditional emblematic use of the national flag, Devlin’s alterations question the type of Australia that the flag represents. These works suggest those Australian values recently identified by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull such as mutual-respect, democracy, freedom, rule of law and a-fair-go are not experienced by all Australians.

    Karla Dickens

    Karla Dickens assemblages refer to the rarely discussed sexual violence associated with colonisation. Her haunting imagery, which incorporates branding irons, stockman’s whips, bullock horns and Akubra hats, shatters the romance of the outback as a place of tranquility. Dickens’ work addresses the rape and massacre of Indigenous Australians that remains largely eclipsed by the mythology around the colonial pioneer.

    Megan Evans

    Megan Evans' work results from over 30 years of investigation into what displaces a sense of belonging in Australia. Although her Scottish family history in Australia can be traced back to the early 1800's, her late husband’s Aboriginal culture is far more ancient. Evans’ "bleeding" sculptures – original 19th-century heritage objects that she has beaded and embroidered – can be understood as articulations of acute awareness that the establishment of her family in Australia took place at the expense of his.

    Jordan Marani

    The dark humorous quality of Jordan Marani’s work points to the absurdity and offensiveness of Australia’s recent history. His White Horse Trailer Policy (a pun on White Australia Policy) mocks the arrogance of Australia’s first parliament who promoted a homogenous population of northern European descent. The 1901 policy that was not completely dismantled until 1973 was designed with the assumption that someone with white skin was superior to someone with dark skin.

    Restless runs until 10 June 2017 at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery. Event details.

    Find out more about the Margaret Lawrence Gallery at the Victorian College of the Arts. 

    Sign up for the Faculty of VCA & MCM’s free monthly enews.

    Visit the ART150 website.

    Banner image: Megan Evans, Fox, found taxidermy fox, glass beads, cotton, steel star pickets; and Hero, found antique ship in case, glass beads, cotton, steel star pickets. Photo: Vicki Jones.

    May 23, 2017 VCA, Alumni, Vi...
  • Art and science loom in the jellyfish bloom

    The work of VCA Art alumna Penelope Davis blends art and science to form a commentary on the impact of climate change.

    By Kate Stanton, University of Melbourne

    , and

    The collective noun for a group of jellyfish is a smack or a fluther. But when the creatures come together in large groups, often in small areas, it’s called a bloom.

    These blooms drift on the current, forming strange and ghostly clusters that can stretch kilometres through the ocean.

    Artist Penelope Davis spotted her first bloom several years ago, when she was walking along the beach near her bayside home in Melbourne. Hundreds of jellyfish spent the summer in Port Phillip Bay and, after investigating further, she discovered the creatures were uniquely suited to the warmer, oxygen-deprived waters caused by climate change.
    Sea-change (detail) by Penelope Davis made with silicon, nylon thread and plastic. Photo: Simon Strong/Artist supplied
    “It was quite terrifying”, says Ms Davis, who studied at the University of Melbourne.

    But she felt an aesthetic attraction to the other-wordly sea creatures.

    “They were intriguing. I like their semi-transparency and how they capture light.”

    A bloom of jellyfish is a natural occurrence, the result of changing ocean currents, seasons or the availability of prey. In recent years, however, some scientists have wondered whether jellyfish numbers are growing – and whether a warmer planet means more jellyfish.

    Scientists are still unsure, but Ms Davis was struck by the imagery of a bloom as an evocative illustration of what oceans could look like on a planet ravaged by climate change: bodies of water congested with ethereally beautiful but poisonous animals.

    That is the inspiration for Sea-change, Ms Davis’ latest work, which debuted last month at the MARS Gallery in Melbourne as part of the continuing festival Art+Climate=Change 2017. The festival was convened by the not-for-profit organisation CLIMARTE, which aims to use art to spark discussions about climate change, bringing together artistic and scientific communities for exhibitions, talks and other public programs.

    For Sea-change, Ms Davis collected discarded plastics and other ephemera, cast them in silicon moulds and hand-sewed the pieces together into 46 creations designed to resemble jellyfish. Suspended from the ceiling, they look just like a bloom, delicate and eerie, floating beneath the surface of the ocean.

    Look closer, however, and you will recognise the shapes of the components: tap heads, plastic tops off tomato sauce bottles, mobile phone chargers, camera lenses, fishing lines and other castoffs that recall consumption, consumerism and waste.

    Ms Davis says she did not set out to explore climate science in her work, but it was the natural by-product of her three-month artists’ residency last year at LAB-14, a hub of studios and working spaces for creatives, engineers, researchers and start-ups in the Carlton Connect innovation precinct which is anchored by the University of Melbourne.

    Ms Davis says LAB-14 had a buzzing, purposeful atmosphere that was an inspiring contrast to her artists collaborative in St Kilda.

    “I’m usually surrounded by a bunch of other artists and we talk a lot about the Melbourne art world. To go somewhere where that’s totally irrelevant and there’s all these enormous issues that people are working on, it really made me step up,” she says.
    Sea-change at the MARS Art Gallery in Melbourne. Photo: Simon Strong
    Ms Davis says she would meet with the building’s other residents to explain her jellyfish, and to engage with them on the issues underpinning the work. She even asked for some of them to contribute their scraps to her project.

    Carlton Connect was designed to produce such interactions, says Dr Renee Beale, the precinct’s Creative Community Animator.

    Dr Beale sees herself as the bridge between people of different and often segregated disciplines, such as art and science, in the hope of forcing new conversations about the world’s biggest problems. She connects scientists with artists who might need research to inform their art.

    The people behind the Carlton Connect project believe that real innovation and solutions come from these interactions. A new Science Gallery, set to open there in 2018, will regularly host exhibitions that use art to help visitors engage with science.

    Dr Beale also curates exhibitions, such as last year’s Absolutely Famished, which brought scientists, food experts and artists together to talk about future food trends, including robotic farming and 3D food printing.

    “We recognise the importance of the creative arts in opening up new ways of thinking,” she says.

    Dr Beale says many scientists are interested the emotional power of art to prompt action on research and data that isn’t always inspiring in its raw form.

    Dr Peter Christoff, a CLIMARTE board member, has spent much of his career communicating the intricacies of scientific data – to politicians when he worked on the Victorian Ministerial Reference Council on Climate Change Adaptation and to students as an Associate Professor of Climate Politics and Policy at the University of Melbourne.

    “The challenge has been trying to represent the information and also the arguments behind climate change in ways that are extremely accessible,” he says. “Not only accessible intellectually but also accessible emotionally.

    “I think a lot of people have realised there’s only so far you can go with facts.”

    Dr Christoff says the public is tiring of conversations about climate change if the same facts and images are repeated over and over. It’s important, he says, for artists such as Penelope Davis to think of new ways to connect people to the dangers of climate change.
    Penelope Davis’ work in progress at Carlton Connect, LAB-14. Photo: Artist supplied
    “She’s created this extraordinarily beautiful and menacing future world that is the product of all our misdemeanours,” he says of the artist’s jellyfish bloom.

    “That’s one of the ambiguities of this sort of art,” he says. “It can almost entice you with that future.”

    Ms Davis says she started to think about ways artists could work with scientists during her residency at LAB-14, noting that a lot of their research goes unnoticed by the public.

    “I think science has this problem, they’ve known all this calamitous information for an awfully long time. But it’s very hard for them to communicate it in a way that doesn’t overwhelm people and make them shut off,” she says.

    A good communications strategy is an imperative for climate scientists, who are alarmed by apathetic attitudes to a warming planet.

    “Climate change is not really a scientific issue any more, it’s a public issue,” says Professor Ary Hoffman, leader of the Hoffman Group at the University’s Bio21 Molecular Science and BioTechnology Institute. He studies the ways organisms adapt to environmental change.

    “How do we convince the public to take it seriously?” he says. “How do you make it meaningful for people so they take action, and at the moment, we are not seeing action being taken.

    “It’s clear that we are making very slow progress.”

    Professor Hoffman, who uses works of art to emphasise points in his lectures, does believe that good art has a place in the scientific community.

    Dr Beale, of Carlton Connect, believes art and science should inform one another, a connection she hopes to encourage at LAB-14. It is there that a sculpturist might work alongside a 3D printing company, or a virtual reality designer alongside a painter.

    “The idea of having artists juxtaposed with scientists means you have two very different ways of thinking coming together and when you have that, often new ideas spring from that,” she says.

    “In a sense they’re similar,” says Dr Beale. “Both artists and scientists are very experimental, they’re open to new ideas, they work on creating things.”

    Banner image: Sea-change. Photo: Simon Strong/Artist supplied

    This article was first published on Pursuit. Read the original article.

    May 9, 2017 VCA, Alumni, Re...
  • New ACMI X desks offered to University of Melbourne creatives

    The University of Melbourne is pleased to announce the second round of successful applicants to the pioneering ACMI X co-working space in Melbourne’s Arts Precinct.

    In 2016, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) established ACMI X, a state-of-the-art, 2,000-square-metre, 60-seat co-working space in Southbank which enables greater collaboration, innovation and industry connections for creative practitioners and researchers working with the moving image in fields such as filmmaking, digital production, web development, visual art and design.

    The University has committed to a significant industry partnership with ACMI X which includes the funding of six shared desks in the co-working space for current students and recent graduates, five for research students and recent graduates from the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, and one to research students and recent graduates from the Faculty of Arts.

    Emma Roberts, a Faculty of Arts graduate, and Ben Andrews, a PhD candidate at the Faculty of VCA & MCM and Faculty of Arts, have been working at ACMI X since 2016 on a number of virtual reality (VR) projects.

    Ms Roberts said her passion lay in supporting and enabling new creative work. “In a nascent medium such as VR, the residency at ACMI X is allowing us to explore and experiment in this exciting medium,” she said. “The space has allowed us to connect with a bunch of creators in similar fields.”

    Nicolette Freeman, Head of Film and Television at the VCA, said she was delighted with the partnership.
    “ACMI X is an ideal parallel workspace for our scholarly community to develop their creative practice and, in particular, to develop new creative partnerships within the broader ACMI X community. We look forward to the future realisation of the many great projects enabled by the partnership.”

    Bjorn Nansen, lecturer in Media and Communications in the School of Cultre and Communication, expressed similar enthusiasm, noting that: “ACMI X offers a space of potential in which networks of creative workers and social researchers could converge and mingle to produce new formations of productivity and insight.”

    The following creatives and researchers have been offered a 12-month residency at ACMI X:

    Malcolm Bloedel (Film and Television, Documentary)
    Marleena Forward (Film and Television, Documentary)
    Jack Keele Wedde (BFA Screenwriting)
    Jack Rule (BFA Screenwriting)
    Quinn Hogan (BFA Screenwriting)
    Brianna Nixon (BFA Screenwriting)
    Brodie Marchant (BFA Screenwriting)
    Meegan May (BFA Screenwriting)
    Charmaine Peters (BFA Screenwriting)
    Nikki Tran (BFA Screenwriting)
    Simon Trevorrow (BFA Screenwriting)
    Michael Bentham (PhD, Film and Television)
    Simon Bowland (Master of Production)
    Shontelle Fisher (BFA Honours, Film and Television, Screenwriting)
    Emilie Walsh (Visual Arts)
    Thomas Schmocker (Dance)
    Rohan Schwartz (Visual Arts)
    Sarah Pass (Master of Producing)
    Emma Roberts (B.Arts Film Production)
    Ben Andrews (PhD Film and Television)
    Donna Hensler (PhD Film and Television)
    Tara Lomax (Screen studies)
    Andrew O’Keefe (VCA and FoA)
    Alexa Scarlata (Screen studies)
    Natalia Grincheva (Transforming Technologies Research Unit)
    Stephanie Hannon (Media and Communications)
    Robbie Fordyce (Media and Communications)

    Further information can be found on the ACMI X website.

    May 8, 2017 VCA, Alumni, Fi...
  • In the Making – Su Baker

    Professor Su Baker is Director of the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), University of Melbourne with 25 years’ experience in teaching, research and senior management.

    Su is a leading arts academic and artist, who is called upon for expert advice and has written on the shifting needs of arts education and the role of the Art School in the 21st Century, including “Art School 2.0 : Art Schools in the Information Age or Reciprocal Relations and the Art of the Possible”.

    Su has exhibited nationally over the last 20 years in public and commercial galleries, including numerous solo and selected group exhibitions and national survey shows including in a number of curated exhibitions at state galleries and significant contemporary art venues.

    https://vimeo.com/102206168

    Visit the In The Making website for more alumni artist stories.

    This article was first published on VCA & MCM Channel in 2015.

    April 21, 2017 VCA, Alumni, Vi...
  • Generators video: Exploring Aboriginal identity in dance

    By Alix Bromley

    What does the word half-caste mean for people born of two cultures? What are its implications on individuals and communities?

    Mariaa Randall, a Bundjalung woman from the far north coast of NSW, decided at a young age that dance was the thing she was going to do. She recently finished her Master of Animateuring at the Victorian College of the Arts.

    Her dance work HA LF dares to take a closer look at the progression of Aboriginal identity and challenges the thinking that perpetuates racial segregation.

    “I need to have really strong intention as to why I’m dancing.”

    HA LF is Mariaa’s story, as told by Eddie Diamandi, a filmmaking graduate from the Victorian College of the Arts.

    https://vimeo.com/138712192#embed

    Generators is a mini-documentary series that has been created through a partnership between Creative Victoria and the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA).

    The project saw VCA film and television graduates team up with artists who have received support through the VicArts Grants program to make short documentaries that go behind the scenes with artists and give an insight into their creative process.

    Each week we’ll release a new film in the series in partnership with Lido Cinemas who will be showing the films on the big screen ahead of all evening screenings throughout November and into the summer period.

    Watch more in the Generator series: Video: A graphic way to tell the story of tsunami.

    This article was first published on Pursuit. Read the original article.

    April 21, 2017 VCA, Alumni, Re...
  • In The Making – Alice Darling

    Alice Darling – Master of Directing for Performance

    “At the end of the day I feel so excited to do the work that I do, and it’s a real privilege to get to be the person that watches the work and shapes it. And if I get to do that for my life, or just a little bit longer, that’s amazing.”

    Theatre director and alumna Alice Darling talks about her time as co-director of Kindness – the culmination of three years’ creative partnership with fellow theatre alumni Kate Shearman and Bridget Mackey.

    Kindness debuted at Theatre Works in 2015 as part of Flight: Festival of New Writing, a new initiative in partnership with the VCA and Footscray Community Arts Centre to showcase the work of VCA theatre graduates.

    https://vimeo.com/139162022

     

    Find out more about Graduate Study in Theatre at the VCA.

    Visit the In The Making website for more alumni artist stories.

    This article was first published on VCA & MCM Channel in 2015.

    April 20, 2017 VCA, Alumni, Th...
  • In The Making – Darren Vizer

    Darren Vizer – Master of Dance

    “For me, the decision to become a director and a choreographer… I had no choice. There was no choice. That was the reason I went back to the arts.”

    Master of Choreography (now the Master of Dance) alumnus Darren Vizer has his work brought to life by VCA students in the latest instalment of our In The Making alumni artist video series.

    The Devize Co artistic director, Artist in Residence at La Mama Theatre, and guest choreographer at VCA talks about his return to graduate study and how he applies his acting background to his dance and choreography practice.

    https://vimeo.com/139101322

     

    Visit the In The Making website for more alumni artist stories.

    This article was first published on VCA & MCM Channel in 2015.

    April 20, 2017 VCA, Alumni, Da...
  • Generators video: A graphic way to tell the story of tsunami

    By Alix Bromley

    Journalist and author John Bailey traveled with Melbourne-based children’s theatre company Polyglot to Minamisanriku in 2013, a small town in Japan’s Miyagi prefecture that was devastated by the 2011 tsunami.

    In his capacity as an arts journalist, John tried to document both the experiences of people and how they were dealing with the aftermath of the tsunami. He turned to the graphic novel, as his art form of choice, working with a large range of illustrators to tell this traumatic story.

    “I realised that what I can do, which is put words together, wasn’t enough to tell this story.”

    In the Wake of the Wave is John’s story, as told by Irene Metter, a filmmaking graduate from the Victorian College of the Arts.”

    https://vimeo.com/138713060#embed

    Generators is a mini-documentary series that has been created through a partnership between Creative Victoria and the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA).

    The project saw VCA film and television graduates team up with artists who have received support through the VicArts Grants program to make short documentaries that go behind the scenes with artists and give an insight into their creative process.

    Each week we’ll release a new film in the series in partnership with Lido Cinemas who will be showing the films on the big screen ahead of all evening screenings throughout November and into the summer period.

    This article was first published on Pursuit. Read the original article.

    April 5, 2017 VCA, Alumni, Re...
  • Stuart Greenbaum: Composed at 50

    The planets have aligned for one of Australia’s best-known composers, but time and tide stop for no-one.

    By Paul Dalgarno

    Stuart Greenbaum, one of Australia’s most widely-performed composers and Head of Composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, is 50. Or, he will be soon. He’s not there yet, despite the imminent Stuart Greenbaum at 50 concert at Melba Hall.

    “It was my colleague Dr Elliott Gyger’s idea,” he says. “I’ll be 49 when it happens, but I turn 50 on the 25th of December so, by dint of that technicality, yes, it’s my 50th-birthday year.”

    The MCM New Music Studio will present Professor Greenbaum’s Chamber Concerto (2008) and Chamber Concerto No.2 (2011).

    800 Million Heartbeats. Stuart Greenbaum.

    When we meet the rehearsals are yet to begin, and Professor Greenbaum is uncertain when, and to what degree, he’ll be involved. “Composers can be overbearingly present when people just need a bit of room,” he says. “Quite possibly I won’t turn up to the first rehearsal. Elliott knows my music and has a good handle on where it’s coming from.”

    He views his works, more than 190 for the concert stage, as “living, breathing objects” – which has its pros and cons.

    “Regrettably, I’m a revisionist, so every time I listen to my music I’m asking if it’s still what I want. That helps you grow as an artist, but it also means you’re far less likely to be a satisfied human being. Having so many works is like having a beautiful tree in your garden. It gets bigger and more beautiful every year, but sheds more and more leaves that have to be cleared up.”

    90 Minutes Circling the Earth. Stuart Greenbaum.

    His mother, Betty Scarlett, studied piano at the MCM in the 1950s. His father, Geoffrey, though not a musician, had an influence too. “I have a distinct memory as a seven-year-old of wandering into his study to play him a few bars on the guitar and saying it was my own piece,” he says. “He gave me five cents and said, ‘Can you come up with another one?’”

    Professor Greenbaum’s wife, Marianne Rothschild, is a violinist. Their children – Aksel, 12, and Hanna, eight – play the guitar, and cello and piano, respectively. “They’re a handful,” he says. “They’re amazing.”

    As a young man, Professor Greenbaum played electric guitars – and rock and pop still inform his compositions. Ross Baglin, his bandmate at 18, remains one of his closest collaborators. Together, with Baglin as librettist, they have created two successful operas (Nelson, 2005, and The Parrot Factory, 2010), 11 choral works, numerous art songs.

    “We don’t rubbish each other’s work but we also don’t tiptoe around issues,” says Professor Greenbaum. “There’s a lot of humour and goodwill between us.”

    Symphony No.2 “Double Planet”. Stuart Greenbaum.

    Following his Masters degree in the early 90s, he found work as a composer with Melbourne’s Playbox Theatre, writing music for scenes that may, or may not, make the cut. “It drove me to distraction,” he says. “But in retrospect I’m so immensely grateful to all those people because they radically influenced how I think about time and drama in music.”

    In the years since, his music has become more sophisticated and complex but its DNA remains the same. “I’ve always written music that’s harmonically and rhythmically overt and direct. My musical language now is not radically different from when I was 25, half a lifetime ago.”

    On the most basic level, it is steered by what sounds good. “But more deeply it’s actually about existentialism. You get to a point in your career where there’s no point in writing another piece unless there’s something new in it.”

    Fragments of Gratification. Stuart Greenbaum.

    Up to 90% of his composition process now takes place at a screen. “But if I sit down and try to write a melody straight into the computer, it’s doomed,” he says. “A certain amount of musical impetus needs to be coming from your inner ear or a real musical instrument.”

    It can come when he’s out walking, riding his bike, doing the groceries. “I could be lying in bed at four in the morning thinking I don’t want to get up, but if I don’t I might not remember what’s buzzing around in my head. Once something feels alive and is in the basket, I can do all manner of things with it.”
    deep space
    One need only look at titles such as 800 Million Heartbeat, Double Planet, and 90 Minutes Circling the Earth, for clues to Professor Greenbaum’s thematic concerns: the universe, and our place within it, looms large. “I love that metaphor for what it says about individuals, what our lives mean, our connectivity, our borders, our wars ...”

    In space, of course, no-one can hear you clap – and that’s fine. “I think most artists seek an audience,” he says. “But applause, I’m not so sure. Compositionally, what I secretly desire is lots of silence either side of my work. I’d feel guilty for the performers but if I had my way no-one would clap at the end – the audience would just walk out.”

    The Flinders Quartet play Stuart Greenbaum String Quartet No.6 The Lonely Planet.

    He is currently ten pieces into a suite of 20 for his Sonata Project, which will involve a major recital work for all the major orchestral instruments, and a couple of others besides. “Most of them are accompanied by piano, so they’re really duos,” he says. “It means they’re very achievable in performance terms.” The portability of that model, its replicability compared to an orchestra piece, appeals.

    “Contemporary music’s single biggest problem is too many one-night stands,” he says. “It’s like saying to a rock group, ‘Change your personnel every three weeks’ – you probably won’t end up sounding like the Rolling Stones that way.”
    controlling the roller-coaster
    Not surprisingly, combining a full-time senior academic position and two young children with writing music presents its challenges – a big one being time. “I’ve asked myself whether I’d be happier if I just stopped writing completely,” he says. “My music is one of the most exciting things in my life, but it’s also one of the most depressing, and I’m not in full control of that roller-coaster.

    “But I think I’m probably hard-wired to be wandering around wondering about this stuff. I just have to try and do as best I can and try not to torture the people around me.”
    Professor Stuart Greenbaum ... at 49. Photo: Sarah Fisher.
    Time is playing on his mind in other ways , as the big 5-0 approaches. “I’ve read articles that say 51, 52 and 53 can be fabulous,” he says. “But I’m an atheist. I think the time we have on the planet is all we get. The thought of mortality sits uncomfortably with me and I think a lot of my music ultimately is about that. Some of my pieces are melancholic and sad but I deeply hope they also have an element of consolation about them.”

    Isn’t that what music does, I wonder. Isn’t that the whole point?

    “There’s a quote by the late American author Kurt Vonnegut that says, ‘We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is’. I think that pretty much sums up how I feel.”

    New Music Studio: Stuart Greenbaum at 50, takes place on 12 December 2016, 6.00pm–7.00pm at Melba Hall, Parkville, Melbourne. Full details here.

    Banner image: Stuart Greenbaum. Photo: Sarah Fisher

    This article was first published on Pursuit. Read the original article.

    December 10, 2016 MCM, Alumni, Co...
  • Monique diMattina: ‘I wanted to be the best jazz piano player ever’

    The singer/songwriter, radio personality and University of Melbourne alumna talks music and life ahead of the Big Blowout Festival

    For the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music’s Big Blowout Festival, I’m going to play original music from my two solo piano albums, Senses and Sun Signs. Mostly when I play gigs these days I’m singing, but it’s a lovely situation, this new University of Melbourne festival, because there’s a very broad brief. Depending on the audience and what it feels like in the room, I might sing some songs, but I’m mostly planning to play because it’s going to be a lovely piano in a really sonic space.

    I always sang but I never sang on stages. As an introvert I felt more comfortable just playing piano, but I needed to sing my own songs after a while. When you write songs you hear exactly how you want them to go, and singing seemed to be the most efficient way to make that happen. I sort of came kicking and screaming to the role but now, after three albums of singing, I’ve created a beast.

    To me, playing jazz piano was always some kind of unshakeable ideal, but initially, as a classical pianist, it seemed completely unattainable. I would listen to jazz pianists and not believe what I was hearing, that it was possible to play like that. I held it as such an apex of artistic and life achievement. When I was studying law, which I was really interested in and enjoying, it bugged me that I couldn’t improvise on piano. So I thought, I’ll take a year off law and do one year at the Victorian College of the Arts if I can get in. When I auditioned there, in 1992, I couldn’t improvise my way out of a paper bag. I’m amazed they let me in.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dd0mPCF519s

    Dig a Hole (2013). Monique diMattina.

    Being awarded the Fulbright scholarship in 2000 allowed me to go to New York in support of my masters degree, which was on one of Miles Davis’s pianists, Wynton Kelly. I waited tables at the Village Vanguard and that was fantastic because I got to hear everybody I’d idolised for years, and figure out what direction I wanted to go in. I moved away from the more experimental contemporary jazz I’d been interested in and towards the more singer/songwriter-focused stuff.

    I did a project orchestrating Björk’s Dancer in the Dark. That was fantastic. I think she’s a brilliant artist and I was thrilled to be working with her team on that.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hxKCcDNFNzY

    Say My Name (2011). Monique diMattina. 

    When my first daughter was born in Harlem in 2008 I thought we’d stay in New York, but when she was still a baby I started to think I wanted to give her all the things I had growing up in Australia – a bit more peace and quiet in her days. I decided to move back, and I’ve never regretted it. Melbourne’s a fantastic place to bring up kids.

    I do a 3RRR segment on Saturdays called The Dao of Dylan. I play a Dylan song, or maybe an original that’s been inspired by Dylan, and have a chat about my observations, making some tenuous connection with Daoism or Buddhism or life … philosophy around the ideas the song throws up. I’m working up some of that material for a show called The Dao of Dylan at the Melbourne Recital Centre next year.

    I speak Italian at home with my two girls. I’m half Italian on my father’s side. I didn’t speak Italian in the home I grew up in but have enjoyed doing that with my girls – they speak it really well. It’s just a way of keeping my heritage alive and passing it on to them. It’s a lovely thing we can share.

    I ran the New York marathon in 2001. I was there during 9/11, which was obviously a pretty shocking event for the city. On the day it happened I went out to Central Park and spent the afternoon just running around the park and looking at the smoke – that was how I processed it, and I did a lot of running in the stressful weeks afterwards. I was amazed to complete the marathon because I’d never run that far before – I probably never will again.

    When I was starting out I practised demonically, usually for six hours a day. I wanted to be the best jazz piano player ever. And when I look now, 20 years later, that’s so far from what I’m about. Every day I play with my girls, I sing, I write … In my twenties, my music had a kind of worried, competitive feeling to it. These days, it’s something I enjoy and love to do – what a relief!

    – As told to Paul Dalgarno

    Banner image: Monique diMattina

    Visit Monique diMattina’s website and Facebook page for tour dates and other information.

    For information on studying Jazz & Improvisation, visit the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music discipline page.

    September 20, 2016 MCM, Alumni, Mu...
  • When Australia met Un-Australia – film in the 2000s

    Three films from the Film and Television archive show us what, and who, we were in the early years of this century

    By Alice Pung

    This article is the sixth in a series to mark the golden anniversary of Australia’s oldest film school, at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. The films embedded are among 50 by past students and today’s filmmakers, being made available to the public, for free, for the first time.

    You go to the movies. Once, your friend took you to see The Fighter (2010) at some arty cinema down Lygon Street, and you said to her, “Why did I pay 18 bucks to see ferals in Braybrook?”, even though you knew they were American – your point was, the entire thing was plotless and depressing: the boxer, played by Mark Wahlberg, his half-brother, played by Christian Bale, their seven sisters with bad hair and teeth.

    You go to the movies to get away from that sort of shit because you see it everyday: the triangles of factory roofs, the four gutted cars in every third house, the young mums doing their best with an $89 baby carrier strapped to their chests, a ciggie in one hand.

    But, back in 2010, the audience in the cinema were loving The Fighter. They lapped up the sordid scenes and their four-dollar salted caramel choc tops. “His finest role,” said one when the film ended, meaning Christian Bale. To be honest, you preferred him as an American Psycho (2000).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=437aT9EstgQ

    It’s a shame the tops of Australian society are filled with the sort of people who see a film and think it’s a reflection of the state of a nation, then they go home and drink some pinot noir, and the next day make a policy about it. Policies that affect you, the Ordinary Australian ...

    Or they get to talk on telly about their views on Australia and what makes it great, when half the time your normal person’s got no idea what those people are rabbiting on about. Where are the hardworking triumph stories they used to tell, like Spotswood (1992)?

    The friend who took you to see The Fighter makes you watch three short Australian films with her because she’s writing about them for this website, as part of a series to mark 50 years of filmmaking at what she tells you is Australia’s longest-continuing film school, at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
    The BBQ
    You’re no film critic but you know that The BBQ (2007), by Shpend Mula, is supposed to be about good old-fashioned Australian values. An old woman and a younger man must have their cook-off, even as suspicious coppers drag their cowering neighbour from his home.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjuhMt_TCEQ

    You think: How dare the forces of the government interrupt the Australian way of life, your inalienable right to roast lamb, your lawn-sets planted on neat green squares? This is your turf, you’ve gotta defend it! Why can’t politics and religion and those refugees keep out of our backyards? Farrrk. What a farce.
    296 Smith St
    Meanwhile, on the other side of town, which might as well be a different part of the country, or a different country, because there is no country for old men who don’t speak English here, except the independent republics of their small businesses, you see a pawnbroker, Ahmed – the protagonist of John Evagora’s 2007 short, 296 Smith Street (2007).

    At first, when you see Ahmed mark up his prices 300% you think: What a dodgy bastard. But then some deadbeat white guy who looks lazy-as keeps coming in and bugging him about a job, and some shonky Asian nicks off with a couple hundred bucks of Ahmed’s, the crook!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Sn64ig2tNc

    There’s a knife in Ahmed’s hand, not used for guaranteeing his place as “Man of Middle Eastern appearance” in the seven o’clock news but for peeling away stone to reveal comforting nubby shapes of small animals.

    Scrape, scrape, scrape goes the knife, and you think about the robbery, and you think about the fat kid who comes into the shop and how Ahmed smiles at him but the kid’s mum drags him out of there in a flash, and scrape, scrape, scrape goes the knife, and you realise the man is just scraping by with his own wit and tolerance.

    You look at your friend who is writing this article. Newspapers say she’s given them a glimpse into the window of multicultural Australia because she’s Southeast Asian and from a refugee background.

    But you’ve known her for 30 years – you grew up together in the factory suburbs and you can sometimes see through the bullshit.

    What a relief to suddenly be in the mainstream, to be a culture-maker, to be a “Brave new Australian Voice”, a label applied to her writing and no doubt to the work of these filmmakers.

    But the shades on the windows come down when she thinks they will come knocking on her door with their sniffer dogs and batons and sirens, because her parents escaped that horror back home. Those folks thought Australia was supposed to be the lucky country, the safe country.

    But what a sad relief for her that the reviled people have gone from being yellow to all shades of brown.
    This is How You'll Make Your Bed in Prison

    “This is how you’ll make your bed in prison,” Vickie Lee says the youth shelter staff told her, in the 2009 short film of the same name by Katie Mitchell.

    But Vickie is just a little girl at the time and not a crook. And you think: Some people are forgiven for small and large mistakes – private-school boys who knock letterboxes off their hinges or let air out of tyres. Even when they bash up homeless men, they still have lives left after jail time.

    Your friend’s telling you that The BBQ is about “Un-Australian happenings” from our own backyards, 296 Smith Street looks at the lives of everyday Un-Australians, and This is How You’ll Make your Bed in Prison gives a voice to Un-Australian non-citizens who don’t deserve the right to vote.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FkSvjZaq6g

    This Is How You’ll Make Your Bed In Prison (2009) by Katie Mitchell.

    There are too many “Un-Australians” in there, which you reckon makes for bad writing, but for ten years the government has given you this verbal pointed finger to direct at anyone you reckon fits the bill: “They’re hopeless, those Aborigines”. “They’re shifty, those ethnic pawnbrokers”. “They’re lazy welfare cheats, those bogans”. They’re all Un-Australian.

    At the start of the 2000s, you had green and gold stars in your eyes, the Olympics were on your turf; but then a year later the Twin Towers fell and suddenly there was an Axis of Evil. So you pointed that finger to keep evil out of your country, only to have those ethnic Others come to you.
    People You Know
    You like these three films, coz they show you people you know. Others might assume you aren’t cultured and only have dreams of making it big with your own McMansion, but they’re not the ones living next to and alongside the Ahmeds and Vickies. They’re safe in their inner-city suburbs while the “Un-Australians” get shoved with yous and you suppose that’s how 30-year old friendships are forged.

    The media warned that the 2000s would begin with a major technological breakdown, but instead all you’ve seen are massive technological breakthroughs. You, the Ordinary Australian, are now connected to every kind of person in the world; but at the end of the decade, you realise that the stories closest to you are still the ones closest to home.

    Banner image: Still from 296 Smith Street (2007) by John Evagora.

    Alice Pung is a writer, lawyer and teacher. She was born in Footscray and grew up in Braybrook, attending local primary and secondary schools in the Western suburbs. The author of Her Father’s Daughter (2011) and Unpolished Gem (2006), and the editor of Growing up Asian in Australia (2008), Alice has received enormous critical acclaim for her writing. She graduated from the University of Melbourne in Law, LLB (Hons), and Arts (BA), in 2004.

    This is the sixth article in a series to mark the Golden Anniversary of Film and Television at the Victorian College of the Arts. See Part One, Part TwoPart Three, Part Four and Part Five. Visit the Film and Television 50th Anniversary website and Digital Archive website for more information.

    June 7, 2016 VCA, Alumni, Fi...
  • Sex in the 90’s: Feminism on Film

    How did films in this decade rework, reject, radicalise or reinforce feminism and portrayals of women on screen?

    By Dr Meagan Tyler

    Feminism on film underwent a makeover in the 1990s. The decade started with a gritty aesthetic of boots and torn tights, influenced by riot grrrls rejecting patriarchy. It ended with the illusion of “glamancipation” and candy-coloured messages about individual empowerment being sold by the Spice Girls.

    This shift mirrors long-standing debates about the nature of sexual liberation and the fracturing of the women’s movement: can power be gained simply by smiling through the status quo, or does freedom require outright revolution?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=437aT9EstgQ

    There are different and competing narratives about women, femininity, sexuality, and feminism in 90s cinema. The late 1980s saw the beginning of the backlash against second-wave feminism. Deep cultural anxieties about the possibility of single, economically and sexually independent women – epitomised by the misogynist mess that is Fatal Attraction (1987) – came to the fore, as explored by the American journalist Susan Faludi in her 1991 book Backlash.

    Despite this, a feminism that recognises the suffocation of patriarchal control and the promise of female rebellion continued to be articulated in films such as Thelma and Louise (1991) and, in somewhat less bleak terms, Muriel’s Wedding (1994).

    The three short films embedded within this article – Virgin, Whore, Saint (1990); Sexy Girls, Sexy Appliances (1997); and Titsiana Booberini (1996) – were produced within this context at what is now Australia’s longest-running film school, which started life at the Swinburne Institute of Technology in 1966 before moving, in 1992, to its current home at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.

    As the official anniversary of the school on 19 June approaches, some 50 student films have been digitised and are being made available to the public for the first time. So what can be gleaned from the three in focus here?
    Virgin, Whore, Saint
    Niki Caro’s short film Virgin, Whore, Saint (1990) fits well within the “rejection-of-patriarchy” mould. Three versions of a woman – bride to be (virgin), dominatrix (whore), and actress playing Joan of Arc (saint) – are shown. Each is dissatisfied with her place in the world.

    The (brief) male characters – a father, a lover, a sex buyer who is also a paedophile, a husband to be, a boss, and a surreal stranger at a bar – represent misogyny and patriarchal control in different ways, but we understand that they are all connected. It’s a 90s version of #yesallwomen.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ud5Q-pO1w8s

    Virgin, Whore, Saint. 1990. Niki Caro.

    We are shown that it doesn’t matter which role you inhabit – you lose out, and the most effective way to fight back is to band together, say “fuck you”, and walk out on the game completely. A more optimistic view of the ability of women and girls to succeed within male-dominated norms can be found in Caro’s most famous directorial work, Whale Rider (2002).

    There are, of course, valid but less stark ways to criticise sexual inequality. Some even claim that 90s “girly films” such as Clueless (1995) or Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (1997) constitute, in the words of Hilary Radner, a kind of “neo-feminism”, in part through presenting a parody of hyper-femininity.

    Parody, though, is risky business, especially when the subject is gender stereotypes. Norms of gender are so entrenched that you can guarantee a good percentage of the audience is likely to miss the point. Ultimately, it feels as though “girly films” did more to sustain the tired narrative of women as vacuous, fashion-obsessed caricatures than undermine it.
    Sexy Girls, Sexy Appliances
    Parody is more successfully taken up in Sexy Girls, Sexy Appliances (1992), by Emma-Kate Croghan, who went on to direct the indie-cool Love and Other Catastrophes(1996).

    Here, her Sexy Girls short pairs a late 1950s/early 1960s aesthetic with over-the-top erotic representations of women in domestic contexts: from fellating a vacuum cleaner, and slapping a side of beef, to the more familiar cliché of a woman getting off while sitting on a washing machine.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GoZxvNdYQ3g

    Sexy Girls, Sexy Appliances. 1991. Emma-Kate Croghan. Warning: Sexual references, simulated sexual activity.

    The sexualised commodification of women’s bodies is intertwined with the commodity fetishism of the household to create an imaginary world where women are shown loving their daily chores so much that they are literally brought to orgasm by carrying them out.

    Sadly, this commentary feels almost radical in the current context of eroticised cooking shows on television and the cultural re-romanticising of the 1950s housewife, all cupcakes and sexualised subservience. The rise of “choice feminism” has moved the discussion away from structural-level, cultural critique and positioned even traditional gender roles, founded on women’s’ sexual inequality, as potentially liberating, individual choices.
    Titsiana Booberini
    Indeed, the ability to choose empowerment through conformity is the crucial message of Robert Luketic’s Titsiana Booberini (1996). This short film – to quote from Emily Rustin’s essay in Australian Cinema in the 1990s – slots quite neatly into the “glitter cycle” of Australian cinema from the 1980s-1990s, where “luminescent and colourful” flair is married with narratives of an individual’s ability to overcome circumstance.

    In some ways this short is also a very Aussie take on the “girly film”, a musical about love, set in a supermarket, complete with colourful backdrops of Cottee’s cordial and Samboy chips.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dnO3HbP6CQ

    Titsiana Booberini. 1996. Robert Luketic.

    Yes, there is a nod to issues of outsider status in a suburban landscape where beauty is constructed as whiteness/blondeness, but the gender narrative is completely reactionary. Our heroine is both overly visible, with prominent, dark facial hair, and yet she is invisible in terms of heteronormative, white beauty standards.

    That is, until Titsiana is transformed with the help of some eyebrow reduction, moustache bleaching, and make-up. Once she conforms correctly, she is confident and rewarded with male approval. It might be tempting to put Titsiana Booberini in the category of parody, but given that Luketic went on to direct Legally Blonde (2001) and The Ugly Truth (2009), the heavy gender stereotyping is clearly an ongoing theme.

    Looking back, the version of lipstick liberation offered on screen at the turn of the millennium – one that is occasionally still evident now – seems frivolous and flippant in contrast to the darker critiques of patriarchy and rebellion offered earlier in the 1990s.

    But such things are often cyclical and, as early-90s fashion is returning to trend, with any luck some of the early 90s “fuck you” feminism might find its way back into pop culture as well.

    Banner image: Still from Sexy Girls, Sexy Appliances. 1991. Emma-Kate Croghan.

    This is the fifth article in a series to mark the Golden Anniversary of Film and Television at the Victorian College of the Arts. See Part One, Part TwoPart Three and Part Four. Visit the Film and Television 50th Anniversary website and Digital Archive website for more information.

    Dr Meagan Tyler is a Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow, at RMIT University. In 2009 she completed a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Melbourne, where she completed a Graduate Diploma of Education in 2004 and a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in 2003.

    May 31, 2016 VCA, Alumni, Fi...
  • Animation in the 80s: The View From Melbourne

    Making an animated film has never been easy, but in the 1980s it seemed the artform’s future was bright

    By Robert Stephenson, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne

    In the era of Pixar and Aardman it would be easy to take animated films for granted. But it wasn’t always around, and its evolution in Australia has been complex.

    Two of the films embedded in this article – Pleasure Domes by Maggie Fooke (1987) and my own student film, Still Flying (1988) – were produced during the 1980s at what is now Australia’s longest-running film school; it started life at the Swinburne Institute of Technology in 1966 and in 1992 transferred to its current home at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.

    To mark the school’s golden anniversary, some 50 films are being made available to the public for the first time which, in my case, offers a chance to reflect more broadly on animation in the 1980s.
    Growing Up
    Growing up as a television addict during the 70s I saw most Australian animation in the form of television commercials such as Mr Sheen, Louie the Fly, Norm from Life Be In It and IC POTA.

    Although agnostic, I loved watching the animated Christian Television Association commercials with their cartoony blend of irony and virtue.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qa1RfGmQdDk

    Christian Television Association commercial, 1970s.

    In 1976 Bruce Petty’s animated film Leisure picked up an Academy Award, and in 1977 the Yoram Gross feature film Dot and the Kangaroo had a local cinema release. But there was little else out there in terms of original Australian animation visible to the broader public.

    Animation Studios in Sydney such as API, Hannah-Barbera Australia and Burbank were busy but most of the films by these studios were generic adaptations of classic stories such as Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island, paid for by entertainment companies in the USA to create budget-priced telemovies and direct-to-video material in the new home-video entertainment market.

    In 1981 Australian filmmakers Alex Stitt and Phillip Adams created the ambitious, animated feature Grendel Grendel Grendel. It didn’t look or sound like any Disney movie and the design was reminiscent of Alex Stitt’s television commercials, such as Life Be In It.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBV6Yal_rOc

    Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981). Part one.

    It was highly stylised and bold but what it did have in common with the previous decade was a fascination with classic stories, in this case Beowulf.

    I was exposed to short films made by independent filmmakers and students for the first time at the now-defunct Melbourne State College and later at the original Swinburne School of Film and Television.

    Most aimed at an adult audience. These were personal, insightful, bizarre, experimental, provocative, humorous and sometimes puzzling films that often ditched the so-called rules of filmmaking, design and storytelling, either out of a mistrust of filmic orthodoxy or simply not knowing. Teachers would show locally-made films sourced from the State Film Centre (now ACMI) and others from their extensive school archives.

    I was inspired by the humour and poetry of former Swinburne student animators including Dennis Tupicoff, John Skibinski, Sabrina Schmidt, Peter Viska, Maggie Fooke, Glen Melenhorst, Ann Shenfield, Steve French, Noel Richards and many others, all of whom progressed into continuing as professional independent filmmakers, set up their own animation companies or worked for emerging animation studios of the 80s such as Funny Farm and Video Paint Brush.

    The old Swinburne film school, together with the media courses at La Trobe University and teachers colleges such as Melbourne State and Rusden were an active intertwining culture of production activity where many things became possible. In the 80s, making animation on video, Super-8 or 16mm film was an expensive endeavour but tertiary institutions had equipment, instructors and technical support that no 18-year-old could normally get their hands on.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8CtzQ6Mqkw

    Five animated films by Dennis Tupicoff.

    Today, of course, it is not unusual for a student to have a computer better than the one supplied by the university. That, in addition to free open-source animation software, means getting an animated film made, at least technically, is easier than ever.

    Once graduated, animation students either went knocking on studio doors or headed to the Australian Film Commission (AFC) for a grant. These days Screen Australia regards short films as a “stepping-stone” to a feature film or TV series. But the in the 80s and 90s the AFC regarded the short as a form in its own right and actively supported short-filmmaking including animation and experimental.

    This fostered a great number of animations that made their way into film festivals in countries that had rarely if ever seen an Australian animated film before.

    In 1983 Dennis Tupicoff’s Dance of Death won the jury prize at Cracow Short Film Festival and also an AFI award back home.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmRckSjf2-4

    Pleasure Domes. 1987. Maggie Fooke.

    The Melbourne International Film Festival was one of the few places in the early 80s to get an animated film screened.

    In 1983, the St Kilda Film Festival defined itself as a festival that only screened short films and this triggered the emergence of more Australian short-film festivals into the early 90s, when Flickerfest and Tropfest kicked off.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82orXbNpbOw

    Still Flying. 1988. Robert Stephenson.
    Making Headway
    Towards the end of the 80s, it looked as if Australian animation production was making headway into television. In 1989, I was invited by the Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF) to attend a weekend creative conference of new and established writers, illustrators, musicians, puppeteers and animators.

    The foundation was looking to harvest ideas for a new a pre-school TV series that eventually became Lift Off. This summed up the decade – producers could see the varied and available wave of new artists and together with experienced practitioners embraced them to search for new ideas, characters and stories.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=437aT9EstgQ

    Film and Television Digital Archive trailer.

    They began to produce the animated series The Greatest Tune on Earth, and had engaged independent animators and studios to contribute to programs such as Kaboodle for ABC TV, a collection of animated short films for kids. Animated shorts for adults also found a home on Eat Carpet, the late night SBS anthology of independent short films, now sadly defunct.

    Making an animated film has always been a precarious business, but a lot looked possible during the 1980s.

    Banner image: Still from Pleasure Domes. 1987. Maggie Fooke.

    This is the fourth article in a series to mark the Golden Anniversary of Film and Television at the Victorian College of the Arts. See Part One, Part TwoPart Three and Part Five. Visit the Film and Television 50th Anniversary website and Digital Archive website for more information.

    A number of films by students at the VCA will be shown at the 2016 Melbourne International Animation Festival, 19-26 June. Details here.

    May 24, 2016 VCA, Alumni, Fi...
  • Film in 1970s Melbourne — The Enduring Human Drama

    Every human being has a story to tell, but these three student films from the 1970s offer lessons that go way beyond the individual

    By Arnold Zable, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne

    In grouping films by decades, it’s crucial to note the labels “quiet 50s”, “turbulent 60s”, “hangover 70s” and so on, are at best generalisations.

    This year marks the 50th anniversary of Australia’s longest-running film and television school. Starting life in Swinburne Institute of Technology, the school moved to its current home at the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts in 1992.

    As selected student films from the school’s archive are released, decade by decade, for an ongoing Digital Archive project, I was invited to look at some of the school’s films from the 1970s, among them my own, shot while I was completing a one-year diploma in film in 1979.

    To understand the 1970s it helps to reflect upon the two decades that came before. The 60s exploded out of the so called “quiet” 50s, when youth seemingly turned against suburbia, marched against the Vietnam war, and were imbued with visions of remaking the social order. The ideals of the 60s can be seen as culminating in the 1972 election of the Whitlam Government. Heady times.

    The big man set out to deliver. He succeeded in part, but crashed when the real 1970s caught up with him – a kind of collective hangover and reorientation from the turbulent times that preceded it.

    This context is critical to understanding the types of stories that began to emerge in the 1970s. The cultural shifts of the 60s set it up, triggering a desire among filmmakers, playwrights and writers to challenge the cultural cringe, and Australia’s over-reliance on stories produced elsewhere – in particular, the USA and Europe.

    We yearned to focus, instead, on Australian stories, told by uniquely Australian voices, and we were prepared to experiment in a search for new ways to tell the stories.

    The themes marked a return to that which had not changed, and were driven by an understanding that there were Australians who had missed out on the excitement, people still living lives of quiet desperation in suburbia.

    Artists were also in search of stories that documented the overlooked individuality and creativity being expressed in the suburbs. After all, that’s where most Australians lived. The artist’s eye was also drawn to those who struggled at the margins, the outsiders, the alienated, especially among the youth sub cultures – as storytellers we were in search of unique characters, and unsung lives.
    The Roof Needs Mowing
    Award-winning director Gillian Armstrong’s student short, The Roof Needs Mowing (1971), sits neatly between the two decades. It has something of the romance, energy and youthful optimism of the 60s: Armstrong was drawn towards recording, as one critic put it, “the magic in everyday life”. But there is also a darker subterranean current in her work, one that hints at suburban boredom, disorientation and regret, albeit expressed with whimsy and a light touch.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFAXUtn_4CY

    The Roof Needs Mowing. 1971. Gillian Armstrong.

    Mind you, Armstrong has a young couple bathing in a bathtub filled with the beans, and a middle-aged man stuck in a rowing boat within the pool.

    The Roof Needs Mowing heralds the distinctive, eccentric vision of a filmmaker who has sought to balance bold, edgy feature films with documentaries concerned with social issues – Armstrong’s stories are driven by a deep affection for her wide range of characters, both contemporary and historical, and a deep empathy for human fragility.
    George and Needles
    Greg Dee’s groundbreaking George and Needles (1972), bears some striking similarities with Armstrong’s short. It is also shot in black and white, and driven by an edgy, youthful energy. He too employs a restless roaming camera, which lights on telling details: a table littered with beer bottles, the worn furniture of a shared household, sturdy frayed work-boots tapping out the rhythms of the guitar player.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkiwkt1xYGA

    George and Needles. 1972. Greg Dee.

    But Dee’s film is more confronting, more frenetic in its pace, and more disturbing in its uncensored, gritty, realistic portrait of two directionless young men engaged in erratic, beer-fueled conversations over drink, under the bloody tattoo needle, and over music.

    When the two men sing the blues, it is an anguished howl. They speak the uninhibited language of alienation and disaffection. The 60s are well and truly gone, and in its place there is confusion and a simmering anger.
    Glenn's Story
    As already mentioned, I was privileged to do a one-year diploma in film at the tail end of the decade, when the film and television school was still located in Swinburne Institute of Technology. I was drawn to Glenn’s Story, based on a one-page piece, penned by a 15-year-old boy in a writing class.

    That class was run by my friend, Sue Dunstan, in Poplar House, the maximum security unit of the Turana Juvenile Detention Centre – an institution of the Victorian Welfare Department. When she showed me Glenn’s piece, I immediately saw that it could form the basis of a poignant documentary.

    I was struck by the simple eloquence of the piece, the scope it covered in so few words, and by one of the opening lines, “Life wasn’t meant to be easy”, quoting the words of the man who succeeded, indeed overthrew, big Gough – Malcolm Fraser.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJBr18_kaA4

    Glenn’s Story. 1979. Arnold Zable.

    The film was conceived and shot within days on a budget of less than $1,500. The course lecturer, accomplished filmmaker Nigel Buesst, acted as mentor and cameraman. We were permitted by the relevant authorities to have Glenn read the piece as the voiceover, and to film inside the centre, and to crouch in “the isolator”, the tiny solitary confinement cell while Glenn re-enacted the horror of pacing the cell like a caged animal, pounding the walls, high window, and finally sinking to the floor cursing, “I wish I was never born”.

    I recall vividly the intensity of Glenn’s re-enactment. This scene is followed by close-up shots of some of the incarcerated boys – staring straight at the camera, among them Indigenous kids. Those faces are as haunting and confronting today as they were then. Each one cries out for a story to be told.

    With hindsight we come to understand that the human drama is always complex and diverse. There are always so many tales to tell, and many ways to tell them. We see that social injustice persists, and that there are many unsung voices aching to be heard, and many sub-cultures, awaiting recognition and documentation.

    To reprise the Carl Jung quote I placed at the beginning of the film: “Every human being has a story to tell, and it is the denial of this story that leads to torment and discord.”

    Banner image: Kurt Bacuschardt/Flickr

    This is the third article in a series to mark the Golden Anniversary of Film and Television at the Victorian College of the Arts. See Part One, Part TwoPart Four and Part Five. Visit the Film and Television 50th Anniversary website and Digital Archive website for more information.

    May 17, 2016 VCA, Alumni, Fi...
  • Cool All at Onceness: Australian film in the 1960s

    Ian Baker’s film, shot while a student, reveals much about the era in which it was made

    By John Hughes, Honorary Fellow at the Victorian College of the Arts

    Roxanne, Japanese Story, Evan Almighty …

    If you watch film, chances are you’ll be familiar – even unwittingly – with the work of Melbourne’s Ian Baker. As one of Australia’s most highly-regarded and talented cinematographers, and a long-term collaborator with the director Fred Schepisi, he has shot a great many feature films and television series all over the world.

    But chances are even higher you’ve never seen the film Baker shot while a film student at Swinburne in the 1960s. That film school, which began life in 1966, relocated in 1992 to its current home at the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts, and is currently celebrating its golden anniversary.

    To mark that anniversary, Baker’s student film is one of 50 that will be made available for free for the first time in the coming weeks, as part of an ongoing Digital Archive project.

    And it’s certainly worth taking a look at.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxrKTBzcJNg
    A Context of Cool
    Cool All at Onceness was made in 1968, when Baker was 19.

    At that time, industry lobby groups were agitating for Commonwealth support for a local film industry. The production sector was grounded in industrial, public relations, training and commercials production, underpinned by regulations in 1960 mandating 100% television and cinema commercials screened in Australia were to be made by Australian companies and crews.

    The ambition for creative Australian content was informed by a tradition of cultural nationalism dating back to the 1890s, promoted by the Left, and a growing disdain for American commodity culture.

    Activist and experimental “underground movies” – as has been pointed out by authors such as Peter Mudie and Albie Thoms – articulated an even more radical resistance to the heavy-handed censorship and conformism of the period.

    By 1968, avant-garde creative practice in painting, theatre, music and film was well-established and was directed against, among other things, the American war in Vietnam.

    This “alternative” sensibility was far more ambivalent about commodity culture, and used it ironically in mash-ups and pastiche.
    Riffing on Marshall Mcluhan
    Cool All at Onceness is infused with this ambivalence. In 1964, under the National Service Act, compulsory National Service was introduced for 20-year-old males in Australia. Had Baker been called up in 1969 he would have been legally obliged to spend two years in the army, possibly in Vietnam – a prospect that no doubt focused the mind.

    Canadian media critic and “guru” Marshall McLuhan was among the thinkers in this era whose writing nourished hope, by promoting so-called alternative world-views and “radical” lifestyles.

    The ideas he’d expressed in his books The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964) were re-purposed and condensed for his 1967 bestseller The Medium is the Massage, in which he explores, among other ideas, the nature of media and the role of technology in our lives.

    Baker’s film, coming in at just under five minutes, is an audio-visual essay riffing on McLuhan.

    The opening scene exposes the industrial production of the television presenter (a move nowadays known as “self-reflexivity”) as the camera pulls back to reveal the studio in which a presenter (played by graphic arts student Andrew Clark) is established as a TV “talking head”, narrating texts from McLuhan.

    Baker’s allusion to war is oblique: the second sequence of the film uses graphics to illustrate McLuhan’s texts with images from the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry, often considered the earliest art depicting in detail the horrors of war.
    Not So Fallow
    Contrary to received wisdom, the “fallow” 1960s nurtured a creatively ambitious and internationally informed film culture in Melbourne, as can be seen in the 2003 documentary Carlton + Godard = Cinema by veteran Swinburne staff member Nigel Buesst; in films by Giorgio Mangiamele; in essays by Adrian Danks and Adrian Martin.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NnOdxsK0ZPA

    The city’s film societies and festivals were among the most active in the world, partly because UK and US commercial, distribution and exhibition made it difficult for audiences to access world cinema otherwise.

    It was a period in which – despite a functioning film production sector making sponsored “utility films” for industry, and factual film and documentary for government – very few independent features were made. Those that were found the road to cinematic release blocked by the UK and American distribution and exhibition duopoly.

    Cecil Holmes’ feature film Three in One (1957), for instance, was praised in Edinburgh, sold into the USA, China, Sweden and France, but was not released theatrically in Australia. Instead, Ken Hall bought the film for Channel 9.

    The ABC made Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1966-68), and Crawford Productions in Melbourne made the highly successful police drama Homicide(1964-75), then Hunter (1967-69), and later Division 4 (1969-1976). But 97% of drama on Australian television in the late 1960s was American.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3HkUKoGoc4
    Agitation
    The writer Sylvia Lawson was one of those agitating for an Australian feature industry. In the pages of Nation, she pointed out that “they make films in Nkrumah’s Ghana, Soekarno’s Indonesian and Castro’s Cuba. But not in Menzies Australia …”. It was a period in which filmmakers such as Cecil Holmes and Ken Coldicutt were secretly blacklisted from Commonwealth film units because they were “adversely known” in the eyes of ASIO.

    On the industrial front, independent producers, writers and directors organised with trade unions and Guilds representing actors and technicians in the TV Make it Australian campaign, seeking regulation to support Australian content on commercial TV. The success of that campaign has underpinned Australian drama production for decades.

    Film historian Ina Bertrand, in her 1989 book Cinema in Australia – A Documentary History, described the climate of the 1960s as one “in which the government of the day could expect to win some esteem by launching an arts assistance programme with provision for film”.

    And that view seemed to hold some sway.

    By May 1969 the Film and Television Committee of the Australian Council for the Arts, initiated by “Nugget” Coombs, had proposed concrete mechanisms for a Film Development Fund, a film school (later AFTRS), and an Experimental Film Fund.

    Those initiatives were loudly derided by the “trade” establishment and the conservative press, but an infrastructure had at last been established that enabled talented and determined filmmakers to build a life’s work around film and television in Australia.

    Cool All at Onceness nurtures the seeds of all this, and is infused, inevitably, with the rebellious spirit of ‘68.

    I would encourage you to watch it.

    Banner image: Still from Cool All At Onceness (1968). Ian Baker.

    This is the second article in a series to mark 50 years of filmmaking at Australia’s longest-running film school. See Part One, Part Three, Part Four and Part Five. Visit the Film and Television 50th Anniversary website and Digital Archive website for more information.

    May 13, 2016 VCA, Alumni, Fi...
  • Armchair Travel: 50 Years of Melbourne Films

    Never-before-seen films by some of Australia’s top filmmakers anyone? Sit back, relax, and take a trip through five glorious decades on screen

    By Nicolette Freeman, Head of Film and Television, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne

    Anyone who still frequents those picture palaces with comfortable seating will understand my association of movies with armchair travel. Indeed, magic-lantern shows with glass slides of far-off destinations, and accompanying travelogue narration, were the earliest precursors to cinema-going.

    Of course, jet technology has long since freed us from relying on the cinema for travel. These days we watch movies while we sit on those planes, or on our phones as we amble around.

    I have been on my own journey via film recently, meandering through a 50-year-old archive of little-known film treasures. I have the great fortune of heading Australia’s oldest film school, which is celebrating its golden anniversary this year; it started its life at the Swinburne Institute of Technology in 1966 and in 1992 transferred to its current home at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.

    In recognition of the school’s legacy and enviable contribution to the Australian screen industry, we are using this milestone to make freely available, for the first time, 50 student films from the past half century – four of which are embedded within this article.

    The Roof Needs Mowing (1971). Gillian Armstrong.

    Those 50 films will be released gradually over the coming weeks, in the run up to our anniversary on 19 June, accompanied by articles that contextualise the filmmakers and the eras in which they were working. It’s just the start of a larger Digital Archive project that will eventually see our entire back catalogue made available to the public, to researchers, to teachers, and to filmmakers.

    And there is much to be gained from watching them.

    While viewing these films, and considering our school’s and our nation’s history, I have been reminded of how remarkably we have changed our view of ourselves as a nation, in the context of the wider world of exotic destinations, and of filmmaking.
    Life is Elsewhere
    It’s worth remembering that the school started before the moon landing, in an era when most of us thought the “important stuff” only happened north of the equator – London, San Francisco and Paris had The Beatles, the Summer of Love and the French New Wave respectively.

    But in 1966, the year the school opened, the top box-office film at Australian cinemas was not a foreign story (as had been the norm since the demise of our local industry at the end of the 1920s); it was They’re a Weird Mob (1966), a film based on the novel of the same name by John O’Grady, about Australia’s bizarre and xenophobic culture, told through the eyes of a fictional Italian immigrant.

    Although, alas, it was realised not by “one of ours” but by the brilliant British director Michael Powell.

    Pleasure Domes (1987). Maggie Fooke.

    The establishment of our first Australian film school was part of a dream by visionaries including Philip Adams, Fred Schepisi, and the school’s first Head, Brian Robinson, to change that situation – to get Australian directors, producers, and crew telling their own stories in their own way.

    Australia, by the way, is credited with making the world’s first feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906). Yet even in 1970 Kelly was played by Mick Jagger in the UK director Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly. It wasn’t until 2003 that our own Heath Ledger played Kelly in the Australian director Gregor Jordan’s version.
    Choosing the Films
    So how did we choose the first 50 film?

    Of course, there are award-winners, and films made by students who went on to make titles we all recognise – films such as The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978), Mad Max (1979), My Brilliant Career (1979), Muriel’s Wedding (1988), Evil Angels (1988), Death in Brunswick (1990), Chopper (2000), The Proposition (2005), Animal Kingdom (2010), Mary and Max (2009), Snowtown (2011), Red Dog (2011), and The Dressmaker (2015).

    296 Smith Street (2007). John Evagora.

    But there are also films that shine with a different value: they give us insight into what Australia was like during those 50 years, into unique and memorable characters both real and fictional, and into the fears and dreams that characterise those times.

    As a filmmaker, I have spent considerable time in archives, in Canberra, Washington, and New York. When looking through archival footage, you recognise the inherent qualities of each individual fragment but, more interestingly, you discover metaphors for something that is connected to you personally.

    Bino (2011). Billie Pleffer.

    The process of re-looking, from a greater distance, at films that were devised for other audiences, in other contexts, gives us a unique opportunity to reflect, while also imagining what if.

    If you are curious to see the early work of some of our most influential filmmakers (Gillian Armstrong, Jill Bilcock, Ian Baker, Robert Luketic, John Hillcoat, Matt Saville, Nikki Caro, Tony Ayres, Glendyn Ivin and Emma Freeman) or to see both the real and fictional Australia of the last 50 years, then I urge you to visit the films we will be releasing, decade by decade, in the coming weeks.

    Spend a while travelling to other times and perspectives. In doing so, you’ll experience the social, political and cultural shifts that have influenced our sense of ourselves as Australians, and given us the drive and confidence to tell our own stories on our film and television screens.

    Of course, the story of the school and its emerging filmmaking talent is not over. We look forward to the next 50 years and the travel it continues to afford us from our comfy armchairs, or our screens on the go.

    Banner image: Still from Happy Country (2008). Corrie Chen.

    This is the first article in a series to mark the Golden Anniversary of Film and Television at the Victorian College of the Arts. See Part Two, Part Three, Part Four and Part Five. Visit the Film and Television 50th Anniversary website and Digital Archive website for more information.

    May 3, 2016 VCA, Alumni, Fi...
  • Stephanie Lake: How to Choreograph a Crush

    Her work as a dancer and choreographer is feted internationally, but that won’t stop Lake suffering opening night nerves

    By Paul Dalgarno

    Stephanie Lake has a problem. Me too. I’m meeting with the multi award-winning choreographer, dancer and director of Stephanie Lake Company to discuss her latest work, CRUSH.

    It will be presented by third-year dancers and undergraduate production students at the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, from May 4-7.

    The promotional material describes the show’s first half as having “the beauty of patterns, the hum of unison, the satisfaction of geometric clarity”; while the second half showcases “the collision of physical intentions, the crack and crumble of bodies under pressure”. It sounds exciting, but I don’t know what it means.

    Lake laughs. “It’s incredibly hard to articulate dance,” she says. “But that’s part of the beauty of the form – it expresses things that are beyond language.”

    Lake and the 21 student dancers who will perform CRUSH are coming to the end of rehearsals, and are now at “the pointy end” of turning those ideas into reality. At 60 minutes, it’s Lake’s first full-length work with the VCA, although she has been a regular choreographer at the institution since graduating in 2000.

    An accomplished dancer, Lake’s choreographed works, such as Double Blind (2016) and DUAL (2013), have been performed internationally to great acclaim.

    In 2011 she won the Green Room Award for her show Mix Tape (2010). In 2014, she won the Helpmann Award for A Small Prometheus (2013) and the Australian Dance Award for Outstanding Choreography for Aorta (2013).

    https://vimeo.com/86594286

    Lake won the 2014 Helpmann award for A Small Prometheus.

    I suggest the students she works with must be intimidated, but Lake laughs this off. “It’s an interesting dynamic,” she says. “My expectations are incredibly high for the performers because I work with the best dancers around. I don’t treat the VCA dancers like students. I treat them as if they are the cast for my new work, and hopefully that’s good for them.”

    Critics have described Lake’s choreographed works as “sharply honed and brilliantly polished”, as “intricate and endlessly fascinating”, with moments of “sheer heart-stopping beauty”. I’m curious to know what Lake thinks she brings as a choreographer.

    “One thing that comes up repeatedly about my work is that it operates on quite a visceral level,” she says. “I like to push the physicality of the dancers to a point where the speed and complexity is almost impossible, where it tips over into almost an emotional place.”

    Do audiences need to be fluent in contemporary dance to appreciate what she does? “Not at all,” she says. “The best feedback for me is when someone says ‘I’ve never seen any dance before but I loved that, it made sense to me’. I’m thrilled with that kind of response. It’s never my intention to be esoteric or inaccessible.”

    In the case of CRUSH, coming towards the end of students’ time at the VCA, she knows what’s at stake. She got her break after working with visiting choreographer Phillip Adams, who choreographed Lake in her second and third years at the VCA before hiring her, post-graduation, to dance in his work Amplification.

    Shortly afterwards, she started working with Gideon Obarzanek at Chunky Move and Lucy Guerin at Lucy Guerin Inc. Though talent was key, Lake is quick to describe herself as fortunate.
    Right Place at the Right Time
    “The reality is that there’s not a lot of work for dancers,” she says. “I was lucky enough to pretty much always have work, but that’s because I was in the right place at the right time and able to work across a number of companies. The landscape has really changed. I worry about those just starting out because it’s going to be tough. They’re going to have to be really motivated.”

    “Drive” is another word that crops up during our discussion and it clearly applies to Lake, who started choreographing in her early teens.

    Following CRUSH, she’ll be working on a commission from Dancenorth in Queensland, then with a group of Singaporean dancers from Frontier Danceland, then as a dancer in Lucy Guerin’s forthcoming work.

    “Pretty much every four to six weeks I’m working with different people and in different contexts,” she says. “That keeps it interesting but it has its downsides. There’s not a lot of stability. Sometimes I wish I had a core of dancers that I could work with consistently.”

    https://vimeo.com/121011343

    Stephanie Lake, the showreel

    There comes a moment in every work, Lake says, when she has to back off and let the dancers take ownership of what they’re doing. But that doesn’t make watching them any easier.

    “I get really nervous watching my own work,” she says. “Far more than I do as a performer. It’s kind of torturous because I get consumed by whatever I’m working on. If a show goes well and gets a reaction the reward is really big, it’s a great feeling. But yeah, I tend to be there in the audience watching on, biting my nails.”

    She knows from experience how much the VCA dancers are giving of themselves. They have technique classes in the mornings, followed by four/five-hour rehearsals for CRUSH in the afternoons, often followed by more rehearsals for other projects in the evenings.

    “I remember that bone-deep exhaustion,” she says. “The hardest I’ve ever worked was during second and third year at VCA.
    Working Hard
    “In some ways, going and working for companies was a snooze after that. It’s harder in other ways, obviously, but just physically, you never work harder than you do at VCA. It’s so intense, but it’s got to be, it’s boot camp.”

    It’s clear from Lake’s changing posture that she has to head back into the studio for the day’s rehearsal. In closing, I ask her what audiences can expect from CRUSH when it hits the stage.

    “For me it’s about the energy of youth, which is really infectious and beautiful,” she says. “The thing I love most about working with this group is the optimism that emanates. There are some exceptional dancers that are really worth checking out, and the set design is really striking.

    “I don’t think people will have seen the space we’re performing in this way before. It’s quite a radical show.”

    CRUSH, a new dance work by Stephanie Lake, will be performed at the University of Melbourne’s Southbank campus between 4-7 May. See details here.

    Banner image: Promotional shot for AORTA by Stephanie Lake. Picture: Jeff Busby

    April 29, 2016 VCA, Alumni, Pe...

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