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Sydney Film Festival


Sen's shifting "I"

Simon Enticknap


Ivan Sen’s documentary Who was Evelyn Orcher? opens with a close-up of grief, a face caught in the remembrance of loss. He holds the shot longer than seems necessary or appropriate, not because he’s being unkind or vicarious (this is his own family he’s filming) but because he wants us to feel the full force of the pain.

As Sen stated in his introduction to the documentary at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, he is “sharing the grief of one Stolen Generation family.” It is an attempt to personalise the generalised term ‘Stolen Generation.’ He does this through the story of Evelyn Orcher, an older relative who was abducted from her family at 14 years of age and reunited with them 31 years later. In the aftermath of the reunion and Evelyn’s subsequent death, Sen listens to his family to find out who this person was and what it means to have something as precious as a life restored 3 decades after it was stolen.

The words of the remaining relatives, especially the women, make it clear that the grief doesn’t stop when the missing person is found. In fact it aggravates the pain and gives it fresh impetus.

Sen’s film is close-up and personal, the camera moving in and out of focus, shifting around to find new ways in. The shots taken while driving through the flat plains of western NSW—moving and yet immobile—recall his feature film Beneath Clouds (2001, RT48, p13). The vastness of the land provides a backdrop to the intricacies, interactions and ties of people’s lives in a place where they are lost and found. There’s no doubt Sen is there, intimately connected and involved, but he doesn’t personalise the story or make the film about his attempts to find out about Evelyn. Instead, he relies entirely on the spoken words of his family and Evelyn’s friends.

Likewise, he refuses to provide the type of narrative usually supplied from a privileged position by the documentary maker constructing a ‘complete’ picture strung together from people’s testimonies and carefully researched ‘facts.’ There is no official, authoritative version here of what happened to Evelyn or who she was. That’s not to say that such a narrative could not be constructed if necessary; there are glimpses of photographs and official-looking documents. But by denying an ‘authorised’ account, the film refuses to legitimise any narrative that purports to say what really happened. In the end, such a version of events cannot provide consolation for the pain of the Stolen Generations. Such trauma is not easily assuaged. The life in question can never be restored.

Instead of filling in blanks, the film leaves unanswered questions and loose ends. Why did Evelyn end up living the life she did? Who is responsible? That’s not really what this film is seeking to resolve: there is no satisfactory answer to the question “Who was Evelyn Orcher?”, just a few snaps, scraps, and raw memories. Evelyn’s painful, fragmented story remains where it should—in the minds and voices of those who cared for her most, not just her family but also the people who lived with her from day to day.

Personal documentary filmmaking was the topic of a forum held during the festival looking at why the ‘I’ of the beholder has become so prevalent in the form. Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock were cited as examples of filmmakers who, in expressing a viewpoint, become the subject of the film. Who was Evelyn Orcher? is different, an example of a personal film in which the ‘I’ is present but dispersed, manifesting itself through its relation to others.

Filmmakers Tahir Cambis and Helen Newman were part of the documentary forum, and their film Anthem screened at the festival as a work-in-progress. Both of them appear in front of the camera in the course of a film that is a personal odyssey through the events of the past few years, starting with the Kosovo refugees and continuing through 9/11, Tampa, Afghanistan, Iraq and the whole ‘War on Terror’ scenario. It is quite a jolt to revisit so many recent events and realise how far the social and political lexicon has shifted in a few short years.

Covering so much ground, Anthem is profligate in its use of material. Half a dozen potential storylines are opened up but never fully explored in the ceaseless movement from place to place. This is defiantly non-mainstream, eschewing any pretence of balance, impartiality or a ‘neutral’ territory from which to observe events.

The film’s best moments are the unexpected encounters—Ruddock being patronising at a public meeting, Howard looking shifty at a memorial service—that slip beneath the radar of daily media representations. The footage of protest actions at various detention centres is similarly revealing. Other parts of the film are less well integrated: for instance, the plight of an Iraqi family in detention who are subsequently returned to Iraq gets a bit lost in the mix. We’re not given much of a chance to become intimate with these people, which may be because Cambis and Newman are not solely focussed on making the type of documentary that attempts to humanise a subject, but the refugees are never really allowed to escape their status as victims of circumstance and politics.

Anthem is all about the buzz, the outrage, the exhilaration of events as they unfold. At one point, Cambis is filmed moodily standing on a pier, contemplating leaving for Afghanistan in the morning because “it might be interesting.” As a viewer, you wanted to scream “No! Don’t go!” Too late. Next moment we’re off on a race-around-the-world excursion, a backpackers-in-hell journey with bouncy taxi rides and late night drinking sessions. The “I wanted to find out what it was really like” motivation seems worthwhile but remains unresolved. Documentaries that try to get inside another culture from the outside require time, but Anthem doesn’t have that luxury.

For a personal record of contemporary events, Anthem comes across as strangely impersonal. We never really know these people, but then maybe circumstances don’t permit too much introspection. The filmmakers are drawn into events as they occur but reveal little about what the journey means to them as individuals. That’s not their project. Like Sen, Cambis and Newman realise the film is not about them or their story. But it is equally hard to determine the significance of parts of Anthem, apart from the fact that the filmmakers are there. Perhaps in a climate of such accelerated and radical change, simply bearing witness is one of the most important things a documentary maker can do.


Who Was Evelyn Orcher?, writer/director Ivan Sen, producers Ivan Sen, David Jowsey, 2004; Anthem, writers/directors Tahir Cambis, Helen Newman, producer Ross Hutchens, 2004; 51st Sydney Film Festival, State Theatre, June 11-26

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 18

© Simon Enticknap; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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