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Anatomy of a successful arts doco series

Dan Edwards, Issues in documentary filmmaking

Skin, Anatomy, Matchbox, Australia Skin, Anatomy, Matchbox, Australia
A sword swallower specialising in neon tubes. A pair of artists-cum-biochemists growing a leather jacket. A series of video portraits capturing faces at the moment of orgasm. Genuinely innovative documentary content has become a rare commodity on Australian TV, but Anatomy has been quietly livening up the ABC’s Tuesday night Artscape slot with stories like these for nearly five years.

“Tony identified 10pm Tuesday as virtually the only documentary timeslot left where it would be possible to push the boundaries,” says Michael McMahon of his fellow producer Tony Ayres’ original pitch for the series. “We wanted to develop a model that would give emerging directors the opportunity to work with a production company and a broadcaster to create half-hour documentaries which would be works of art in themselves.”

Four series and 12 episodes later, the best of Anatomy has certainly lived up to the producers’ initial vision. It’s also presented emerging directors, exploring some quite risqué content, with rare access to broadcast hours. “It’s a great model,” comments Rhys Graham, director of the first Anatomy episode, Skin, broadcast back in April 2009. “The nexus of sex, the body and the creative process is something I am fascinated by, so it was a huge pleasure to be able to delve into that. But it’s also a rare chance to have resources to make a film of your own and be given the creative freedom to do what the producers feel you’ll be able to do best. That’s a very unusual opportunity to come across these days.

Skin set something of a template for the series, tackling a confronting subject with seriousness and respect through an innovative documentary approach. Graham’s film features direct address to camera, self-conscious performative moments from the central character, and stylised intertitles. The story focuses on Geoff Ostling, who has had a tableau of Australian native fauna designed by Australian artist eX de Medici tattooed across his entire body over a 15-year period. Like other films in the series, Skin homes in on the space where art, the body and reflections on human mortality intersect, to create a discomforting work that celebrates life, even as it is haunted by the presence of creeping death and decay.

Since the initial three episodes broadcast in 2009, another three series of Anatomy have been commissioned by the ABC, with each film by a different director. Highlights have included Mind (director Emma Crimmings), a fantastical probing of identity through the life story of writer Tom Cho, Tissue (Alethea Jones), examining the bio-art of the SymbioticA group, and Soul (Larin Sullivan), a portrait of burial shroud designer Pia Interlandi.

Manx the sword swallower, Stomach, Anatomy, Matchbox, Australia Manx the sword swallower, Stomach, Anatomy, Matchbox, Australia
“Younger filmmakers are often asked to fit into a rigid structure, whereas a model like this is great for directors who shoot their own material and have a really unique eye, because it allows them to do really interesting and engaging work, but still get broadcast audiences,” says Rhys Graham of the Anatomy model. His experience on the first Anatomy series has certainly paid off in terms of his career, with his second feature-length documentary, Murundak—Songs of Freedom, doing the festival rounds last year. The film was co-directed with Graham’s fellow Anatomy alumnus Natasha Gadd.

For other directors, Anatomy was an educational introduction to the constraints of television even within an innovative series. Kim Munro’s Nerve in series three was the filmmaker’s first experience of making work for broadcast, and she found it more difficult than she expected. “I was probably naïve in what I thought I could do,” she says looking back on the experience. Nevertheless, she describes it as incredibly valuable. “You go to film school and have one experience, and then it’s so hard to even get any kind of mentorship or attachment. Tony and Michael’s company Matchbox is such a well-regarded production firm, they’re in a perfect position to be able to mentor people and get these interesting works done.”

Despite the success of the series with audiences, critics and filmmakers alike, the ABC has been criticised in recent years for perceived cuts to its arts programming, particularly following the axing of Art Nation in 2011. More generally, Australian television documentary has become increasingly generic over the past decade. Yet Anatomy demonstrates that when experienced producers are willing to target the right timeslot, films that break the mould are still possible.

So if the model works, why aren’t we seeing more series like Anatomy? The answer partly lies with the restricted nature of broadcast schedules. Anatomy was born of Tony Ayres’ smart pitching of content for a particular timeslot and meeting broadcaster needs. “You’ve got to have the ideas that are going to work in particular timeslots, and that the broadcaster feels their audiences are going to respond to,” explains McMahon. He describes the process of successfully gaining a commission as “hard,” despite having an impressive array of award-winning documentaries, feature films and TV series under his belt, including Wildness (Scott Millwood, 2003), The Home Song Stories (director Tony Ayres, 2007) and The Slap (various directors, 2011). “There’s a lot of competition and those timeslots are not given away,” he says ruefully.

Then there are the financial constraints faced by even well-established production houses like Matchbox. “We would love to continue to work with that model to give emerging directors the opportunity to work with broadcasters,” McMahon replies when asked if he envisions more Anatomy series. “It’s just difficult for us now to make an internal financial argument for the half-hour documentary format.” Unfortunately, half-hour documentaries rarely have a life beyond their initial broadcast, making it difficult to generate substantial income off each production. Anatomy is potentially breaking ground in this regard, with a boxed set containing all 12 episodes being released shortly by the ABC, and individual episodes now available on i-Tunes. Nevertheless, making half-hour films financially viable remains a challenge.

So although Anatomy has been a success by any measure, successfully duplicating the model is perhaps easier said than done. But emerging documentary filmmakers obviously need opportunities to develop their skills and distinctive voices, and Anatomy shows that these chances can provide an entertaining shot of innovation sorely needed on Australian screens. “When filmmakers are trusted to make the work and are not forced to mould themselves to another format, you’re more likely to get interesting films,” says director Rhys Graham. With Anatomy we have six hours of eye-catching television to back up his claim.

Anatomy, twelve episodes 2008-2013; various directors; producers Michael McMahon and Tony Ayres, Polly Staniford (series 2), Trevor Blainey (series 3), Matchbox, Australia

All 12 episodes of Anatomy are available on iTunes.

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. 32

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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