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Education feature: documentary filmmaking

Making a difference

Catherine Gough-Brady

Catherine Gough-Brady is a Melbourne based writer.

Melissa K Lee, A True Story About Love Melissa K Lee, A True Story About Love
“Documentary is a constant stylistic, conceptual and referencing point for me,” says Glendyn Ivin who won the 2003 Palme D’or for Cracker Bag. “Everything I have done has, at some point, been affected by my interest in documentary...Cracker Bag has been described as a ‘documentary after the fact’, which I quite like.” Ivin is a graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts documentary course, one of the many tertiary courses available in Australia since 1996. Where are these courses? What are they like? And what difference have they made?

The ‘elite’ schools

Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) in Melbourne and the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) in Sydney are Australia’s best known and well-funded film schools. The choice of school depends on the style of documentary a student wishes to make.

Set up by Peter Tammer (Journey to the End of the Night), the VCA course has a history of specialising in observational documentary. Graduate Carmela Baranowska (Scenes From an Occupation, 1999) says of studying there: “We were pushed all the time to think, feel and film our own documentaries. We were taught that observational documentaries were what we should all aspire to; and that they were the most difficult, complex and aesthetically amazing achievements in the documentary canon. When I arrived in East Timor in March 1999 I had received the best possible training to film the last 6 months of the Indonesian occupation.”

The AFTRS course, set up by Trevor Graham (Aeroplane Dance) has a history of specialising in more produced and scripted documentaries. AFTRS and UTS documentary graduate Melissa K Lee (A True Story About Love 2001) says of studying there, “I learnt a lot about myself as a filmmaker—what kinds of films I want to make and how I want to make them. I see AFTRS as a significant part of my film training journey, but not a beginning nor an end. I don’t ever want to stop ‘learning’ about filmmaking.”

There is a myth that obtaining a place in one of these schools is as hard as winning Tattslotto. For the documentary strand this is untrue. It’s no secret that both AFTRS and UTS (University of Technology Sydney) are actively seeking more applicants for their documentary courses. In the end not enough people apply. The crisis for Australia’s top documentary schools is that they can’t be as choosy and ‘elite’ as they would like.

Brisbane: the contender

There is a vibrant and active documentary community in Brisbane, financially maintained, in part, by the Gold Coast studios and the prevalence of reality television. State bodies fund both QPIX and the documentary group QDOX. Not even Melbourne and Sydney have a funded QDOX equivalent. But, as yet, there is no dedicated documentary film course with the reputation of VCA or AFTRS.

Brisbane needs to think seriously about establishing a well-funded top of the range documentary postgraduate course. The federal and state governments should both contribute funding. Top quality documentary schools burn a lot of cash to train a student. Producer Melissa Fox says of her undergraduate film course at Queensland University of Technology, “I would have liked the opportunity to specialise in documentary in a deeper way, a lot sooner. I knew right from the start that I wanted to study documentary, yet the structure of the course forced me to take a lot of general media subjects and drama production courses. When I got to the final year documentary production subject, I was really disappointed at the lack of commitment and enthusiasm from those students whose passion lay in drama.”

With the 2004 merger of Queensland College of the Arts and Griffith University film departments, perhaps this new documentary school will become a possibility. Both departments have a record of promoting documentary, for instance, Peter Hegedus produced his multi award winning film Grandfathers and Revolutions (2000) as an honours project at QCA, and Griffith has similar success stories.

The bad news

If you are a budding documentary maker in Adelaide, Hobart or Darwin, leave now. If you’re planning to attend a documentary course, go to Brisbane, or failing that, Perth. Despite organisations such as the excellent Media Resource Centre (Adelaide) and the fact that some documentarians of international repute live there, these cities continue to exist outside the current debates in documentary.

Flinders University is Adelaide’s main film school and it’s linked to a drama department. Alison Wotherspoon, a lecturer in the film school, says despite the fact that a student may specialise in documentary at honours level (it’s also taught in 3rd year at the undergraduate level) no one in recent memory has made a documentary film as their honours project. Because students receive funding to make their final film, she says, they make more expensive short dramas. Money isn’t the only issue; student choice reflects the environment created by their teachers and it appears to be more conducive to drama.

In the smaller cities there is less opportunity to discuss the documentary form. Flinder’s graduate Alex Frayne (The Longing, 2002) described the Adelaide film industry as “sole traders who all want to make Citizen Kane.” There is no documentary group in this city. And according to Philip Elms from MRC, current documentaries by emerging documentarians revolve around the refugee issue. These are made by self-taught documentarians who have emerged from the activist community, such as Anne Glamuzina.

Westward ho!

Producer Sanchia Robertson describes camaraderie in the Perth documentary community, partly generated by its isolation from the rest of Australia. Perth has also made a decision to focus on TV and this is good for documentaries, which are primarily shown on the small screen.

However, ScreenWest workers had trouble naming young people who specialised in making documentary. It’s evident that the local film schools at Edith Cowan, Curtin etc had not developed a strong relationship between their documentary students and the local industry funders. Funding industry people in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne are on the whole aware of who their graduates are and where they studied. Robertson said that a top documentary course would help to stop the flow of students “to the East” and therefore help keep filmmakers and create documentaries in WA. At present the WA industry talks about the success of a course in terms of its ability to be a feeder school to AFTRS, not necessarily a bad thing.


There are a few shorter courses and mentoring schemes around Australia aimed at specific groups in which documentary is a big part of the scheme, for example Warlpiri Media (Bush Mechanics CD-Rom) which works with Yuendumu Aboriginal community in Northern Territory, and the remarkable BIG hART (Hurt) which works with disadvantaged young people. These groups often employ documentary graduates as tutors or mentors.

Industry heavies such as Film Victoria’s Steve Warne and Open Channel’s Liz Burke are among many who are very interested in what Victoria’s secondary college, Footscray TAFE, is doing. Amiel Courtin-Wilson (Chasing Buddha, 1999) studied there and at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Courtin-Wilson’s comments on the growing number of documentary courses reflect a different problem facing the industry. “Documentary training at film school has led to an increase in documentary makers and that in itself isn’t a bad thing—the only problem is that there aren’t enough broadcasters to sustain a rapidly increasing community of documentarians.”

Broadcasters & commissioning editors

Marie Thomas, from the UK, is the Melbourne-based commissioning editor for SBS Independent. At a recent conference in Perth she said, “I have been here for a year and so far I have not received many pitches that are exciting.” Her comment raises 2 important issues. While most film schools invite industry people to guest lecture and for seminars, except at AFTRS the art of pitching is rarely an assessed part of the course. This important skill is underdeveloped in Australia. Lee’s A True Story About Love deals in part with the ability of US documentary makers to discuss their work in a gripping way that’s far more developed than that of their Australian equivalents.

The flipside is that the skills and brilliance of Australia’s commissioning editors on the whole leave a lot to be desired. In the publishing industry, commissioning editors are trained, they have studied at ‘elite’ editing courses at institutions such as RMIT. Australia needs more well trained career filmocrats who have a highly developed sense of where they are taking the industry and how to do this in conjunction with the filmmakers. Surely spending at least a year of intensive post-grad training in thinking, discussing and understanding what that job really means can only improve Australia’s documentary industry?


Amiel Courtin-Wilson says, “At best, documentaries can be complex, beautiful works of art that resonate with audiences far longer than many narrative films. Unfort-unately I don’t find many television documentaries that inspire me as a filmmaker—their subject matter may inspire me as a human being but the actual filmmaking is at times underwhelming.” It’s encouraging that graduates are tackling issues of how to make profound documentaries with difficult subject matter. Without a doubt, the documentary schools are responsible for the improved filmmaking skills and higher production values of graduates like Courtin-Wilson.

Catherine Gough-Brady is a Melbourne based writer.

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 15

© Catherine Gough-Brady; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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