This weekend, Perth International Arts Festival will present a retrospective of the work of two of Australia’s most important filmmakers: Molly Reynolds and Rolf de Heer. Working together and independently, both artists have created a body of work vital to our country’s creative oeuvre, most notably working with the Yolngu people of Ramingining in Arnhem Land.
We discussed documentary filmmaking and the magic of Ramingining with Molly ahead of her visit to Perth.
Rolf de Heer & Molly Reynolds. Photo courtesy of PIAF.
What first sparked your interest in filmmaking?
I think in part because, as a child, my most favourite pasttime was to sit in a cinema in front of a screen and be immersed in audio-visual storytelling. When we are young we are simply and naively attracted to what we love.
Then when asked by a career counsellor while at school, I aspired to being a filmmaker or a psychologist. As it turns out these two aren’t that different – especially when it’s documentary filmmaking.
How did this develop into a career?
While I was at uni a friend of mine got into book publishing and told me that while she never contemplated that she would end up doing that, it turns out it was always what she wanted to do. I thought that was a terrific outlook.
I come at filmmaking partly through a love of the screen and partly through a love of design. I spent a lot of time working in digital media and that facilitates different ways of looking at things. Still our Country is an intresting work in that it uses storytelling devices that neither my colleagues nor I could have begun to think about using if we hadn’t expored digital media, including the internet and interactivity.
What do you love about the art form and how it tells stories?
What I like about documentary filmmaking is the crafting of it in real time: only so much can be predetermined. You step into the editing suite and don’t know what you actually have. Paying attention to the material and distilling from it what ends up forming your story. It is so unknown and unpredictable – I find that quite thrilling.
Documentary relies so much on the subject, what have you learnt in terms of working with different subjects?
I have learnt what ought to be universal qualities of engaging with your subject matter and human beings. Pay attention to them – as you should with everybody. You must listen, you must be generous. They are enabling me to do what I do, so in the end that’s the most important thing.
I was working on a documentary about visual artist Peter Churcher when I suggested that he stand there and paint while I ask him questions. He turned to me and said “Molly I’m a painter, when I paint that’s all I’m doing, that’s the most important thing. You are asking me to reduce my work by talking to you.” That was a really important moment.
Engagement with and respect towards your subject gives weight to the work later because it has authenticity, you are not cajoling people into doing things they’re uncomfortable with.
What struck you when you first went to Arnhem land and stays with you now?
I have travelled the world and it is still one of the most foreign places I’ve ever been to. It is different culturally and the paradigm and world order is so very different. Even if I lived there for the rest of my life I think I would feel this way.
What challenges do you face shooting in remote locations?
Actually it is not difficult. In terms of physical hardship, that tends to be the least of the challenges. With the miniturisation of technology it is easy now. But maybe it’s that Ramingining is not Antarctica, that might be a lot more challenging.
Film still from Ten Canoes.
How did you come to work with Rolf de Heer?
This came about because there was a documentary that Vertigo Productions was producing and it was in trouble. This was The Balanda and the Bark Canoes. The editor, Tania, suggested I be brought in to direct and complete it. That’s how it begun.
Is it difficult to come at a project like this that had already been started?
In this instance it wasn’t difficult. It was a project with a lot of footage to it but no directors at that stage. But in general it is hard to step into a project. I used to do some computer programming and I would always prefer to write a code from the bottom up.
American writer Lindy West mentions in her book Shrill that she aspired to be a computer programmer at one stage in her life, but that dream was destroyed when she experienced the gender bias at a short course she enrolled in as a teenager. Did you experience this in the programming industry?
The older I get, the more I realised that I did experience it but at the time i didn’t realise what it was. In my innocence I read it very simply when there is a lot of complexity. Even now, because I understand the back end, I have to begin a conversation by saying “I am a geek so let’s not start the conversation with plugging it in,” so that who I’m talking to will come in at a level that they would if I was a male. It is a complex, nuanced thing and the best way to tackle it is straight on.
How about as a filmmaker, has gender affected your career?
Necessarily yes. How to express that tangibly is a really hard thing. I think that it is not ever conscious, but there are certainly assumptions about being female.
Finally, we look forward to you coming to Perth…
It’s something I’m very excited about. I think it will be a terrific time and I am ready to give over to the whole experience. Molly
Tracking Country runs from 23-26 February at the State Library of WA, screening a retrospective of the films of Molly Reynolds and Rolf de Heer: Dingo, The Tracker, Ten Canoes, Another Country, Charlie’s Country and Still our Country: Reflections on a Culture. Each session will be introduced by the filmmaker/s. Head here for more information.