A special, free October screening of animated works by the Victorian College of the Arts BFA Animation students? Yes please!
By Robert Stephenson, Lecturer in Film and Television (Animation)
This month, the Victorian College of the Arts will celebrate International Animation Day with a showcase of animated works from first and second year Bachelor of Fine Arts (Animation) students, together with a collection of animated short films from around the world.
The program features an entertaining array of subject matter and diversity of themes from the personal and observational to the wild and bizarre. There’s documentary, experimental, horror, sci-fi, comedy, and others not so easily categorised that open up the possibilities of contemporary animation.
ASIFA (Association International du Film d’Animation) created the first International Animation Day in 2002, honouring the first public performance of Emile Reynaud’s Theatre Optique in Paris in October in 1892. Through the Australian chapter of ASIFA, International Animation Day at the VCA brings together a tasting plate of animated shorts that have been exchanged across the world, as over 40 countries simultaneously celebrate a cultural connection through the art of animation.
Please join us for this special event screening on 26 October. You can get a flavour of what's to come in the short video below.
The VCA's International Animation Day Celebration Day Film Screening is at Federation Hall, Southbank, Melbourne, on 26 October, 6.30pm–9pm. More details.
Banner image: Screenshot/BFA Screening Trailer 2017.
With a strong background in fashion design, Alexandra McCloud-Gibson is now turning her artistic skills to designing costumes, props, and sets for film and television.
Before I came to the Victorian College of the Arts, I completed a Bachelor of Fashion Design at RMIT. I found that I was increasingly drawn to designing not only garments but also the environments in which they sat, and ended up working on both costume and production design for friends’ projects. My interest in world-building overtook costume design when I discovered that I could convey more through production design.
Inspiration comes in many different forms and sometimes arises from the most bizarre places, although it will always originate from the text and through copious amounts of research. My eye is always drawn to things of texture or things with a particularly stylised aesthetic – be it photography, art, history, or costume.
I find the challenge with production design is knowing when to stop researching. I could research forever but there does come a time when you have to turn all that theory into something three-dimensional.
After working on a few VCA short films I realised the role of the art department within the film and television industry. The VCA community seemed to me to have a strong sense of collaboration, with everyone crewing on everyone else’s films. This was quite different to what I had experienced while working in fashion, which I found to be quite solitary. I chose the VCA as I saw it an opportunity to learn not only from industry experts but from peers and colleagues.
This course has allowed me to experience a great deal of both the theoretical and practical sides of working in an art department, with a particular emphasis on gaining work experience outside of the VCA. What’s taught in classes is put into practice both on student films and through industry placements and I’ve enjoyed my time interning the most.
Something that stands out from this past year is the opportunity I was given to intern on an adaptation of Picnic At Hanging Rock. I’ve never learnt so much so quickly from one project. The experience was really rewarding, and it really confirmed for me that I had found the right industry. At the end of my internship I was offered paid work, which was great.
The internships I’ve undertaken have given me a taste for what it’s like to work full-time in production. Once I graduate I’m looking to get into the workplace as soon as I can and to can get as much experience across as many varied projects as possible.
To aspiring production designers, I’d say: if you can figure out initially what your strongest skillsets are and find a way to use them to create work within your aesthetic it will help to kickstart your initial projects. It’s also important to understand how significant the research stage of your practice is: any questions you have will always be answered through more research.
– As told to Sophie Duran
Banner image: Alexandra McCloud-Gibson. By Sav Schulman.
It is with great sadness and shock that we heard the news this week that VCA Film and Television graduate, Cris Jones, had passed away aged 37.
By Nicolette Freeman, Head of Film and Television, Victorian College of the Arts
Cris Jones graduated from the VCA in 2002. I was fortunate enough to teach Cris in his second year (Bachelor of Film and Television), in the skills of 16mm filmmaking. Cris was an inventive, talented, clever, witty and dedicated student, and a nice guy as well. He extended these qualities as much to his colleagues’ film projects as he did to his own – and consequently was a much loved and admired member of his class.
The short films Cris made as a film student were genuinely out of the box (one of them even featured a box in a key role) and they made staff, classmates and assessors sit up and smile at the freshness of his storytelling and cinematic approach. The films Excursion (2002) and The Heisenberg Principal (2000) were enthusiastically invited to screen at many film festivals, locally and abroad. At one point the school struggled to fund enough film prints to send Excursion to all the festivals eager to screen it at the same time.
In 2003, Cris was awarded the Emerging Talent Award by the Australian Film Critics Circle and the Emerging Australian Filmmaker award by the Melbourne International Film Festival – possibly a daunting spotlight for a newly-graduated filmmaker. However, Cris’ humility and genuine curiosity for a world wider than film alone led him on his own authentic path towards his subsequent projects.
It came as no surprise to hear that the Melbourne International Film Festival chose to support Cris’ first feature film, The Death and Life of Otto Bloom, through its competitive MIFF Premier Fund, and in 2016 the film screened at MIFF’s opening night. Although the film was not everyone’s cup of tea, it and Cris’ unique storytelling qualities were quite at home in the film festival context, where brave festival directors, who are absolutely on top of cinema’s current trends and new directions, identify and program films that will shake up local audiences and renew our sense of exhilaration and faith in the potential of new filmmakers.
I bumped into Cris a few times over the last few years whenever he dropped by the school. I will miss his stories, his smile and his warmth. We will all miss the films that he no doubt was dreaming up and planning to produce.
Banner image: Cris Jones with actor Matilda Brown on the set of The Death and Life of Otto Bloom. Photo: Suzy Wood.
What does it take to make a feature-length comedy about broken dreams, intense sibling rivalry and rethinking your place in the world? That's Not Me's Gregory Erdstein and Alice Foulcher have the answers.
By Paul Dalgarno
Gregory Erdstein and Alice Foulcher are adept at playing several roles concurrently. They’re married to each other. They make films together – most recently their debut feature That’s Not Me, showing in selected Australian cinemas from 7 September. They co-wrote the screenplay. With two other producers, they co-produced the film. Erdstein directed it. Foulcher, who plays identical twins Polly and Amy, stars in it ... twice. They've self-distributed it, designed the posters, and – as release-date approaches – are promoting it with everything they have.
“When you make a film at this level, you almost have to tour it like a musician tours an album,” says Erdstein. He’s lean, in a beanie, entirely focused on the job at hand. “We have to get ourselves out there as the faces of the film, and Alice in particular – she’s actually the two faces of the film.”
“Or three faces now,” says Foulcher, as double-star and promoter. She’s sitting next to Erdstein, all eyes – they smile at each other briefly, get back on point.
“Stopping now would negate everything,” says Erdstein. “Not just all the hard work that's been put in by us, but by everyone who’s put faith in the project at every stage of production.”
That’s Not Me follows the fortunes of Polly, an emerging Australian actor who wants to make it big in Los Angeles. She looks the part and, as she likes to remind her agent, her housemates and anyone else who will listen, can really, really act. But so can her identical twin, Amy, who lands a dream role in a new HBO show starring Jared Leto, with whom she falls into a tabloid-friendly celebrity romance.
Big-name directors duly begin falling over themselves to capitalise on Amy’s cachet and “unique look”, while Polly, with fading parental support and plummeting self-belief, has to choose between giving up entirely or imitating her sister for romantic and professional gain.
The film had its world premiere in February at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, its Australian premiere in June at the Sydney Film Festival, and recently played to sell-out audiences at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
Foulcher, rightly, has been highly praised for her performance(s). She appears in every scene, walking a tightrope between laugh-out-loud comedy and relatable tragedy. It’s a role rich in hubris, pride, vulnerability and empathy. That Foulcher can communicate all of those while remaining believable – and funny – is testament to her range and talent.
The only downside so far has involved those three hardest words: Australian, indie and comedy.
"People have such a cringe over Australian films," says Foulcher. "The fact that it's indie, they think it's going to be shit. The fact it's a comedy, they think it's going to be that big, broad style Australian comedy, when it's really not. It's a much gentler, quieter film.”
Erdstein nods. “A lot of the reviews have been really positive, but they've sometimes been couched in terms of, ‘It wasn't as shit as I thought’.”
Both laugh but I get the sense that neither is joking. Gallows humour runs as freely through their real-life dialogue as it does through the script of That’s Not Me, which Foulcher describes as a “feelgood film about disappointment”.
“The message of the film is that realigning your goals and dreams might not be such a bad thing,” she says. “I was talking to an actor friend recently who's going through a bit of a hard patch, and I realised I couldn’t just say, ‘Hang in there, you'll make it someday’, because it might not happen. But there's actually something really liberating about getting to that point of saying, ‘Well, if the industry is some kind of deaf machine and it owes you nothing, then there's no kind of expectation on yourself’.”
It’s hard to believe the film, shot in Melbourne and LA, was made on a budget of $60,000. And not because it looks a million dollars – I’d put it closer to six or seven. I'm guessing nobody got paid.
“Really?” says Foulcher, laughing. “You guessed that?”
“Everyone worked on deferred contracts,” says Erdstein, “which means they'll get paid if the film goes into profit. But obviously that doesn't help people who had to work for weeks at a time, like the production designer and the costume designer, so we paid their rent, just trying to make sure they wouldn't be out of pocket.”
Erdstein and Foulcher met while studying a Master of Film and TV (Narrative) in 2008 at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). Isabel Lucas, of Home and Away and Transformers fame, who brings understated comic talent to her supporting role in That’s Not Me, met Foulcher while studying in the VCA Drama short course program in 2007. Erdstein met the film’s cinematographer Shelley Farthing-Dawe during a VCA student shoot. The film's co-producers Anna Kojevnikov and Sally Storey are VCA graduates, as is the film’s costume designer Sophie Hayward and executive producer Robert K. Potter.
“In some ways, it’s a VCA feature film,” says Erdstein. “A lot of us had come through the VCA at the same time, which was great. It meant we were all on the same level, we were all hungry.”
Both refer to That’s Not Me as a “favour film”, made with the understanding that favours go both ways. “One of the keys after finishing film school is to keep on making,” says Erdstein. “And if you're not making your own work, you've got to help other people make theirs. I do a lot of work as an assistant director and give up my time to help other people, so when we call on those people for help they’re happy to do it.”
Being nice helps, says Foulcher. “I think you can't overstate the importance of just not being an arsehole,” she says. “Some people behave like their graduating film is some kind of defining expression of them as an artist, and that it gives them a free pass to behave badly. But we’re not saving lives, we're entertaining people. You shouldn't have to step on your mother's neck to get your film made.”
Beyond hard work, patience and, ideally, some luck, there are no silver bullets – a lesson Polly in That’s Not Me would do well to be mindful of.
“She talks the talk but doesn't walk the walk,” says Foulcher. “She’s blindly going through something that she's said she wants to do, become an actor, but she hasn't stopped to ask if she actually enjoys it. Instead of, say, putting on a show with friends and making something happen she’s waiting by the phone for work to come to her.”
Being plucked from obscurity and elevated to stardom, though an appealing idea, rarely happens.
“We wanted to provide a reality check on that whole dream,” says Erdstein. “At the beginning of the year, when we'd just finished That’s Not Me, we saw La La Land. When the lights went up I turned to Alice and said, ‘Oh, I think we've made the anti-La La Land’.” Maybe [La La Land screenwriter] Damien Chazelle, as an Oscar-nominated writer and director, was coming from the perspective of ‘Well of course, everyone makes it'. But for us, as bottom-feeders from Melbourne, we're looking at it differently.”
One message they’re wary of communicating is that films like That’s Not Me can, or should, be made on the smell of an oily rag.
“It’s not a good model,“ says Foulcher.
“Not paying people isn’t great,” says Erdstein.
“No, we can’t keep doing that,” says Foulcher.
The pair work well as a double-act. They co-wrote That’s Not Me in Paris, during an eight-month residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts, though not sitting side by side, says Foulcher. “One of us would write something, we'd talk, we'd go for walks, we'd talk about it a bit more, then pass a scene back and forth.” Which might make it difficult to know who wrote what – especially the really good bits.
Erdstein agrees. “Yesterday I was talking about the great job I did writing a joke, and Alice had to remind me that she'd written it.”
“It was one of the newspaper headlines in the film,” says Foulcher. “Oliver’s Twist of Fate. We were talking about how funny it was and he goes, ‘I know, thank you,’ and I was like, ‘No, actually, I thought of that’.”
“We share the same brain,” says Erdstein. But, as with all brains, there are opposing hemispheres. “You can see the clash of both of our dispositions in real life and our sensibilities as filmmakers in every scene of That’s Not Me,” he says. “Alice is very bright and sunny and optimistic, and I’m ... pragmatic. Alice would say ‘cynical’. There are lots of false starts for Polly in the film, where you see her optimism being cut off at the knees by cynicism and pragmatism and real life and ...”
I wonder what the ideal end-game is for them both, whether, like Polly, a Hollywood career is the ultimate benchmark of success.
“I think we'd actually prefer to keep living in Melbourne,” says Erdstein. “Although, I have a US passport, so there’s a very real possibility we could go over there.”
“I want to see more Australian comedies with female leads,” says Foulcher. “If you think about it, after Muriel's Wedding there's not a huge amount of them.”
As a writer and actor, she acknowledges she has the skills to make a difference and says that the paucity of female stories was a driving force behind the script for That’s Not Me.
“In 2014, when we were writing it, I went to see the Wes Anderson film Grand Budapest Hotel. I remember looking at the poster with all the characters – about 17 of them, I think, and like three chicks. That needs to change. As practitioners, we need to be able to put our money where our mouth is and help make it happen. I mean, our film passes the Bechdel Test three times in the first five minutes.”
The big fear is that people won’t get to see that philosophy in action. The marketing and distribution spend for even the lowliest of Hollywood arthouse films would outstrip the entire filming, production and marketing budget of That’s Not Me many times over. And getting people along to see it on its opening weekend, from 7 September, is critical to its cinematic fortunes.
“That’s what we're up against,” says Erdstein.
“Basically, going to see it on the Monday or Tuesday is leaving it too late,” says Foulcher. “Because they look at the box office figures on the Monday morning after the opening weekend.”
What about hitting up Jared Leto? I suggest. I mean, Amy is actually dating him in the film, is she not, and he has about four million Twitter followers?
“We continue to like his posts on Instagram,” says Foulcher.
“We retweet him every now and again,” says Erdstein. “It's a very flattering portrait of him in the film.”
“Maybe that’s it,” says Foulcher. “We need Jared Leto to help us.”
She taps the table, makes to stand. Erdstein follows suit. There’s a film to promote, more work to do.
For your chance to win a double pass to see That's Not Me, and/or signed promotional posters, email Precinct with your preference (tickets/poster), and the subject line: That's Not Me.
Main Image: Alice Foulcher in a film still from That's Not Me. Supplied.
In this, the first in a series of How To videos from the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, Senior Lecturer in Voice Leith McPherson explains the pitfalls of trying to imitate an Australian accent ... and how to avoid them. Know someone who would benefit from a bit of professional voice coaching? Pass it on!
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See also: How to program a Roland TB-303
Main image: Dan Zen/Flickr
Fifty years of La Mama theatre is documented in the University of Melbourne Archives, offering an insight into the emergence of Melbourne’s avant-garde theatre scene in the late 1960s.
By Jane Beattie, University of Melbourne Archives, University of Melbourne.
Inspired by New York’s La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, founder Betty Burstall was confident that Melbourne performers and audiences wanted and needed a place for progressive music, poetry and film too.
La Mama nurtured local talent and rode the international wave of social and cultural change in the late 1960s to provide a platform for alternative voices in the arts. In a company newsletter from October 1969 this vision was expanded: La Mama would be a theatre to make possible “a new audience-actor relationship. It was informal, direct, immediate. It was also a playwrights’ theatre…where you could hear what people now were thinking and feeling.”
Early archival material, such as correspondence and newsletters, reveals the co-operative nature that Burstall was committed to; her policy of developing solely Australian work was financially risky in an arts scene dominated by the mainstream canon of mainly American and English work.
Censorship and controversy
“Revolutionary things are happening in theatre today and I want them here.” Burstall’s ambitions for La Mama were grand, and the revolution began almost immediately, with plays pushing the legal boundaries of decency of the time.
The earliest offender was the 1968 production of Alex Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed. The final line of dialogue “fucking boongs” is delivered by Norm to Ahmed, a Pakistani student. Actor Lindsey Smith was arrested for using obscene language, and the play’s producer Graeme Blundell was charged with aiding and abetting Smith. In 1969, John Romeril’s Whatever Happened to Realism resulted in the arrest of nine actors for using obscene language in a public place.
Boxes of news-cuttings from this era tell the story of La Mama’s ongoing battle against censorship and the restrictions imposed by Australian social and cultural values of the time.
The archives also feature production posters, including lino-cuts crafted by Tim Burstall, Betty’s husband. The few styles repeated in different colours with handwritten production dates and times illustrate trends in grassroots art and design, as well as the collaborative nature of La Mama.
Other established artists such as photographer Peter Lyssiotis created production posters and art work – in Lyssiotis’ case posters and artwork for his playwright daughter Tes. A wild variety of style and quality is demonstrated in some of the earlier posters by anonymous artists whose work is marked with holes left by the staples used to distribute them on street corners.
Supporting other art forms
La Mama encompassed many more facets of the Melbourne avant-garde arts scene. Neo Kyma refers to a movement in Greek music that found popularity in the 1960s and 70s, extending well into the 1980s in Australian Greek communities. For around five years, Christos and Tasos Ioannidis played Greek and ployethnic music at La Mama.
“The 1970s and ‘80s were the golden era of Melbourne’s Greek community. Everything, including the arts, was blooming. Especially La Mama - it was not only for Greeks, it was a place of meeting, getting together, it became a culture” explains Christos. Burstall and Liz Jones, who followed her as artistic director in 1977, had created a space where artists from all backgrounds could practice, improvise and collaborate with their peers
Poetry and spoken word were also promoted from La Mama’s inception in 1967, led by Glen Tomesetti and Kris Hemmensley, and continues today as a regular in La Mama’s program. Each La Mama Poetica event featured multiple acts and showcased work from both emerging and established poets.
Mainstays included Jennifer Strauss, Wendy Poussard and Jennifer Harrison. University of Melbourne academic Kevin Brophy was a regular and a reading by Chris Wallace-Crabbe would have been rousing. Left field inclusions were the works of Indonesian poets performed by Geoff Fox, radical experimental poet and a founding member of Australia’s Poet’s Union. And there was Thalia, a night dedicated to the Perseverance Poets collective, featuring Louise Craig and Whitefeather Light.
Despite earlier confrontations with the law, La Mama continued supporting Australian writers, actors and directors, providing a place where collaboration and experimentation were centre-stage. Stalwarts of the Australian theatre scene like Jack Hibberd, David Williamson and Graeme Blundell were given the chance to practice and develop their craft, as were other performance artists, such as filmmakers Corinne and Arthur Cantrill.
In the decades following the ‘obscenity trials’, La Mama continued pushing audiences, exploring concepts of identity, and elevating voices of the silenced. Playwrights such as Mammad Aidani and Tes Lyssiotis used this platform to chronicle the variety of the migrant experience, whilst plays like Pundulumura: Two Trees Together (1990) by Aboriginal actor comedian Gnarnayarrahe Immurry Waitairie and prolific Melbourne writer and director Ray Mooney explored relationships between black and white Australian cultures.
From the first donation of records in 1977, the University of Melbourne Archive has seen its relationship with La Mama as a valuable one, not only for volunteer projects and exhibitions but in maintaining a comprehensive record of Melbourne’s theatre history. The La Mama Collection complements that of the Union Theatre Repertory Company which evolved into the Melbourne Theatre Company, as well as smaller collections of ephemera from the late 19th century to the 1960s.
The La Mama collection is open access to all researchers and its finding aids can be located on the UMA online catalogue by using the search term “La Mama”. A selection of records and production posters from the La Mama archive are on display in the Arts West building at the University of Melbourne.
Banner Image: Wikimedia
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It took Annie Murray 30 years to heed her calling as an animator. Now in the final months of her Bachelor of Fine Arts (Animation) degree, she talks about false starts, challenges, hard work, and her many inspirations.
My pathway to the VCA started when I was one year old. That’s when the asthma attacks started. From that time into my early twenties I spent many, many years in and out of hospital, on the benches during PE, and off school when my class went on camps. It was a blessing in disguise, really, as I spent that free time drawing and developing my love of storytelling and appreciation for cartoons from my bed (think Ren & Stimpy and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and exploring films. I developed a passion for watching animation and drawing my own panel-strip comics, which usually entailed some kind of warped humour. I think when you're faced with your own mortality from a young age you have no choice but to develop a dark sense of humour.
When I finished high school I was offered a place to study archaeology at university, which I promptly deferred. I would have adored to have applied for something in the arts but I was far too unsure of myself and family pressure to choose something that would ‘make money’ loomed large. I then took a gap year … which lasted ten years. So much for making money – sorry Nana!
I moved to Scotland in my mid-twenties and it was there that I bit the bullet and started illustrating comics for an online company called Popcorn Horror, a small film company that promotes grassroots horror filmmakers. It was the first time my work was shown to the general public and it taught me an invaluable lesson: don't let the fear of rejection hold you back. If you’ve made something, show it to the world and see what comes back.
In my late twenties I decided I couldn’t work another decade in jobs I hated. I desperately wanted to pursue a career in something I had always loved, and it seemed an obvious choice to me – a degree in animation at the VCA. I spent a year researching the establishment, contacting people and asking questions. I packed up my life and moved back to Australia to apply for the 2015 intake of students.
At 30, I threw everything I had into applying for animation courses. I covered all my bases by applying to RMIT and other universities, but for me, VCA was the golden goose and I wanted to study there more than I have ever wanted anything. I submitted my application and hoped for the best but expected the worst. It was an insane feeling being accepted and every day I walk into the Margaret Lawrence building I feel a rush of pride to be among so many talented, inspiring and encouraging contemporaries and advisors. Secretly, I’m waiting for a letter from student admin saying it was all a mistake and that I should please leave now without making a scene, ma’am.
Inspiration comes from everywhere. It could be the whispered words of a stranger on public transport, a voyeuristic experience, smelling something that reminds me of my childhood, the sound of cicadas, or the tiny patterns on the wings of lace-winged moths. I am inspired by so many things on a daily basis that it’s hard to keep up. I would advise anyone looking to build a career in the arts to carry a journal with them at all times. If you see something, hear something or feel something that could be the basis for a story or project, write it down! I have lost so many keepers because I have thought to myself, ‘I’ll remember that later’. I’m constantly inspired by my classmates, and by my advisors, Rob Stephenson and Paul Fletcher. They are amazingly encouraging, personable, charismatic and learned. I wouldn’t be here today without their support and kindness.
Animation is a lot of work. Luckily, I very much enjoy sitting in a darkened room, frowning for hours on end at a computer screen. It's an amalgamation of all things filmic. We need to know in depth how to take an idea from conception to final production and everything in between. When you apply at the VCA they want to see original stories and ideas – and they'll teach you the rest. We learn directing, producing and editing. We must be storyboarder and cameraperson. We are our own lighting and sound mixers, colour graders and composers. We are the marketing, budgeting and promotional department as well as the animator. You really have to love this work. If you don’t, you will find it difficult to stick with. Pacing yourself and getting comfortable with schedules that are reasonable and attainable are skills that take time to learn, but are invaluable. You need enthusiasm and an open mind.
What I love about my study at the VCA is the freedom it gives me to produce work to a level of which I'm proud. I've grown so much in my skill level as an animator and writer. I have been exposed to all manner of filmic techniques and animation styles which I probably wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. I also enjoy the networking opportunities.
Recently, one of my very shortest films was selected by New York Film Week and received an official selection Laurel. The piece was a 35-second, abstract, stop-motion exercise that I created in my first month at the VCA. I find this hilarious – it just goes to show how subjective art is. That short film is nothing special in my opinion, but someone, somewhere on a judging panel watched it and it meant something to them. It may have helped that I titled it with an emotive name – You Are at First, Frightening – and banged a Nietzsche quote on it: 'All great things must first wear terrifying and monstrous masks, in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity'.
Without the skills and networking opportunities I have been afforded at the VCA, I would never have even got my foot in the door of a studio. The VCA teaches us how to search for work in our fields, shows us avenues we can go down, and teaches us how to impress prospective employers with our work.
My life is better for having been able to develop myself as an artist, business woman and animator. I have made friends that will last a lifetime and think of my class as an extension of my own family.
I’m not sure what the next few years hold for me. I'm considering doing an Honours year. But whatever happens I want to continue developing my skills and hopefully, much like a leech, attach myself to something bigger than myself and work in the creative industry. I’m ready to make some money and look forward to taking my skills into the workforce.
OK, it’s advice time. Be inspired by others but never, ever try and be others. Be the best version of you that you can be. Go hard. Put yourself out there. Take risks – mistakes make great mates.
As told to Sophie Duran
Banner image: Annie Murray in the VCA Animation studios. Photograph by Sav Schulman, animation by Annie Murray.
The relationship between elective facial surgery and feminism in China is at the heart of Su Yang’s short film Beauty, which recently won the Melbourne International Film Festival’s inaugural Powershorts Short Film Competition. Here, she explains why she made it.
I was introduced to feminism for the first time in the US and became very interested in it, having not heard or learned about it properly in China. I was doing my MFA studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo at the time, having graduated from a Bachelor Degree in Design in at the Tsinghua University in China. When I went back to China from the US on vacation, I was confronted by the phenomenon of cosmetic surgery in China. Many people I knew, including a number of my relatives and friends, had undergone facial cosmetic surgery, and I saw advertisements for cosmetic surgeons everywhere: on TV, billboards and posters in our apartment elevators.
It struck me that people had started cloning each other, losing their personal characteristics. And the notion of beauty in China seemed very singular to me, and the procedures for changing your appearance very oppressive.
I decided to start my graduation thesis on notions of beauty and the phenomenon of cosmetic surgery among the female population in China. And after graduating I still wanted to continue my research because I wanted to know more, not only about feminism, but also feminist art and western feminist art theory. I read some Chinese feminist art criticism but it wasn’t progressive feminism – I wouldn’t even call it feminism – so I decided to move to Australia and continue my studies here.
I was accepted as a PhD candidate at the Victorian College of the Arts in 2015, and am continuing my studies along this theme. The current working title of my thesis is Feminist Aesthetics: The Representation of Women in Contemporary Chinese Art.
Recently I co-created a short film Beauty as part of my thesis research with my husband Zhang Xiaoan, who is also studying a Foundations Film course at the VCA. It won the Powershots Short Film Competition and will be shown at an exclusive Melbourne International Film Festival screening this month. It's about one girl’s experience with cosmetic surgery. She goes through the process of choosing a new face from a number of different options presented to her. All of thee faces are actually my face adjusted on a phone app that's very popular in China at the moment.
Beauty (2017). Su Yang and Zhang Xiaoan.
In the past, the trend in China was to look European but recently the aesthetic, I’d say, is not even human. The chin has become very sharp, and the eyes are very long and very round … the facial features don’t fit the face properly. So the character chooses this style of face at the start of the film. As the trends change, so too does her dissatisfaction with her now ‘outdated style’ of face.
There have been many different understandings of feminism for ordinary people in China since it was introduced from the West in the early 20th century. The initial translation of the word in mandarin was 女权主义, which is close to ‘women’s-power-ism’. But in the 1990s, that word was seen to be too ‘man-hating’ and not aligned with Chinese values, which are underpinned by Confucianism – quite a sexist belief system. The core philosophy of Confuscionism is ‘harmony’, and people in China people believed that 女权主义 or ‘women’s-power-ism’ was too oppositional for the men. So the new translation became much softer, and much less feminist, in my opinion: 女性主义, which translates roughly to ‘women’s-feminine-ism’. This translation was supposed to be more in line with Chinese beliefs.
When I go back to China I am still shocked about the state of feminism there. I went to an exhibition by a Chinese woman artist who painted three-inch shoes, from the times of foot-binding in the Tong Dynasty, in a romanticised way. I was so shocked to see these shoes, which are symbols of female oppression, celebrated in the painting. She painted the shoes like flowers, and talked about how Chinese foot-binding was a great part of Chinese culture. I believe this attitude is still able to exist because people haven’t had a chance to learn feminism. They should have access to this knowledge.
I have spoken to young women and girls in China who, because of overseas travel and education opportunities and the internet, are learning a more progressive feminism. But it is not common enough. My current project is to identify and name a lot of these problems in China. For future projects I hope to help educate people in China about Western feminism.
As told to Sarah Hall
Banner image: Screenshot from Beauty (2017). Su Yang and Zhang Xiaoan.
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